In recent months, I’ve been taking part in the World Religions Book Club at the church I attend in Tucson. We are studying major religions, using The World’s Religions written by Huston Smith. This is a well-written classic book that gives an informed and objective perspective on all practices concerned. I have definitely expanded my understanding of these religious studies encapsulated by Mr. Smith.
While reading the chapter on Confucianism, I learned about wen. Confucius sought to improve the Chinese social structure by providing an enhanced education with specific aspects of content. He broke those down into five categories, the last of which is wen, which refers to “the arts of peace.” These are music, art and poetry and probably others. Smith states, “Confucius valued the arts tremendously. A simple refrain once cast such a spell over him that for three months he became indifferent to what he ate. He considered people who are indifferent to art only half human. Still, it was not art for art’s sake that drew his regard. It was art’s power to transform human nature in the direction of virtue that impressed him–its power to make easy (by ennobling the heart) a regard for others that would otherwise be difficult.”
In Confucius’ words: “By poetry the mind is aroused; from music the finish is received. The odes stimulate the mind. They induce self-contemplation. They teach the art of sensibility. They help to restrain resentment. They bring home the duty of serving one’s parents and one’s prince.”
Confucius was strong on tradition, honoring the elders and the rulers, as long as they did their part in honoring the juniors and the subjects. His concept of wen extended into the political realm, pointing out that ultimately success of a regime is with that which develops the highest wen, or as Smith puts it, “the most exalted culture–the state that has the finest art, the noblest philosophy, the grandest poetry, and gives evidence of realizing that ‘it is the moral character of a neighborhood that constitutes its excellence.’ ” He goes on to say that Chinese culture was so impressive and all-encompassing that even when outside invaders conquered the country, the culture absorbed them rather than being ripped apart and changed. Kublai Khan was the prime example of this phenomena, conquering all of China with his Mongols while having only a superficial influence on the culture.
So, how does wen apply to our world today? Do the values of Confucius show up in the arts over 2500 years later? One example of this was found in a 2016 painting exhibition, titled Origins of Great Beauty. Per an article on China Daily by Lin Qi, it “shows how artists today infuse elements of Confucianism and Taoism into their ink works.
“The show, which is being held at Beijing’s Museum of the Confucius Temple and the Imperial Academy (Guozijian) through Dec 13, displays some 100 figure paintings, landscapes and flower-and-bird works of the three contemporary Chinese painters Yuan Wu, Cao Wu and Xia Tiaxing.
“Qin Dailun, the exhibition’s curator from the Chinese National Museum of Ethnology, says while Yuan has adopted a realistic approach to enrich the expressiveness of traditional figure painting, Cao’s flower-and-bird works show his concern for ecological changes, and Xia’s mountain-and-water paintings reflect the humanistic spirit of ancient painters.”
Confucius was a teacher and, of course, a philosopher. He lived during a time when Chinese rulers had resorted to force against their subjects and others who might resist them. He wanted to return society to a respect for tradition while incorporating it into a living part of culture. He introduced and promoted the concept of coming to understand one’s value through contribution to the society and the country in which one lives. He stressed harmony of society and designed a moral code to make this a reality. Note the contrast between that ideal and that of our western culture in which there is so much validation for individual success with secondary regard for altruistic goals. That isn’t to say that Confucian principles didn’t have any influence on our civilization, as this new form of thought and manual for living were carried westward from country to country for centuries.
To accomplish wen is to gain the ability to communicate fully and powerfully. Though no work of art may illustrate this perfectly, following is a poem I think was written by Ching An in the 20th century. Characteristically succinct, this verse puts its loving arms around what it intends to say.
The hermit doesn’t sleep at night:
in love with the blue of the vacant moon
The cool of the breeze
that rustles the trees
rustles him too.