【明報專訊】TODAY we begin with a story about Confucius reading "zhen", a Chinese character, as "zhi ba", two Chinese characters that could be mistaken for "zhen" when written vertically next to each other.
Legend has it that Confucius was then travelling through all the kingdoms. Trying to reach their destination in time, he and his disciples remained on the road at dusk. They were so hungry that their stomachs were all rumbling. Confucius ordered Yan Yuan to ask for some food from a shop that sold meals. Yan went there on his orders, stating their identities and intentions in front of the owner of the shop. The owner said, "I can give you all meals, but on one condition. I will write a Chinese character. If you can read it, I will give your teacher and all his disciples meals for free. Otherwise you will get a rain of baton blows and be kicked out of my shop."
How difficult would it be for Yan, a follower of Confucius for years, to read a Chinese character? He took up the challenge readily. The owner produced a bamboo slip with the character "zhen" written on it. Yan laughed, "You underestimate me. I thought it would be a difficult character. I knew this character at the age of five." The owner asked with a smile, "What is this character?" "'Zhen' as in 'ren zhen' (being serious)," Yan answered. The owner sneered, "An unlearned man passing himself off as a disciple of Confucius. Come here, my people. Rain baton blows on him and kick him out of my shop."
Stupefied, Yan returned to where Confucius had been resting and told him what had happened. Confucius smiled, "Looks like he wants me to go there myself". He showed up at the shop and told the owner his intentions. The owner, as before, showed him the slip of bamboo with "zhen" written on it. Confucius answered, "This character is pronounced as 'zhi ba'." On hearing this, the owner said, "The real Confucius has indeed graced us with his presence." He wined and dined Confucius and his disciples with great kindness, seeing them off merrily without charging them a penny for the meals.
Puzzled, Yan asked his teacher, "Teacher, was it not the character 'zhen'? How come it is pronounced as 'zhi ba'?" Confucius answered with a smile, "Sometimes you cannot be too 'ren zhen' (too serious)!"
This story is said to be an anecdote and has many different versions. But it is nowhere to be found in the Four Books and Five Classics, the writings of the "Hundred Schools of Thought" or history books written in a biographical style. It is believed that the story was fabricated by people who lived after Confucius, who used the story to talk about a lesson in life. Today, people interpreting this story tend to think that Confucius is wise in the story. He makes a decision decisively and achieves his aims with cleverness. Some storytellers even say that, although Confucius believed that being serious when dealing with every matter is a basic principle when one conducts oneself in society, if one sees the word "zhen" in every matter, one could lose the room for manoeuvre. In the story, Yan, sticking to reason, says the character is "zhen" as in "ren zhen". He is expelled by the owner, leaving Confucius with no choice but to demean himself and ask for a meal on the doorstep of the shop. If Confucius inflexibly and obstinately said that the character was "zhen" as in "ren zhen", he and his disciples would not get the meals and would continue to be tortured by hunger and cold.
Some people believe that, by reading "zhen" as "zhi ba" in order to get a meal, Confucius violates his principles, and this is not very edifying. However, even more people believe that Confucius is being flexible and seizes the opportunity to get himself and his disciples out of the predicament. That shows great wisdom. The most important thing is that Confucius is reacting to a situation flexibly. It is not a conspiracy to defraud.
Carrie Lam should try to learn from the wisdom of Confucius as depicted in the anecdote.
pass sth off : If you pass something off as another thing, you convince people that it is that other thing
stupefied : so surprised, tired, or bored that you cannot think clearly
edifying : likely to improve your mind or your character