Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fish and Bear's Palm

Watch the two videos:

http://www.josephyu.com/Bear%20and%20Fish.html



They both show that the bear has powerful paws to help catching a fish with ease.

If you search for videos "bear catching fish", you will see a salmon swimming upstreams flying into the mouth of a bear waiting there. In comparison, you can see how important it is to do something at the right place and time.



Mecius could have meant that to have the instrument to catch fish is better than to be given the fish.



However, it is important to read the entire chapter before drawing our conclusion. Mencius continued to say, "To survive is what I want. To be righteous is also what I want. If I cannot have them both, I will give up survival and choose righteousness. 生我所欲也 義亦我所欲也 二者不可得兼 捨生而取義者也"



For survival, food is essential. It is to be righteous if food is the result of hardwork. If a bear is to choose between being fed with fish but sacrificing his paws, the bear would rather choose to die of starvation.



Giving up survival for righteousness 捨生取義 is what Mencius wanted to teach.

JY

16 comments:

Annie Pecheva said...

Hi Joseph,

Thanks for sharing this story of Mencius.

By the way, if Mencius was the author of I Ching, in this case he probably will write something like:

- A bear in the fish pond. It is a good time to cross the great river. One considers a matter in an obsessive way. It is difficult to please everybody. If you are sincere, great success will come.

:-)

Greetings,

Annie Pecheva

Antje said...

Looks as if Mencius had something against a life within a "Land of Cockaign". :-)

Wikipedia has some nice picture showing an imagination of the Land of Cockaign:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockaigne

http://www.thegoldendream.com/landofcokaygne.htm

According to the German Wikipedia the original idea of a Land of Cockaign was obviously meant as a persiflage/parody on what is called paradise/Utopia.

Maybe for Mencius the idea of a Land of Cockaign was against what´s considered or what he considered as human dignity.
Being able to earn the own food with working as some sense of life, respectively feeling useful, being worth the food?


Antje

Joseph Yu said...

Dear Antje,

What Mencius referred to were more serious situations. Imagine you were the governor of a castle besieged by the invader. You were persuaded to surrender and serve the enemy being awarded a high ranking post in the new government.

If you agreed and surrendered, then you are being fed by fish with your paws chopped. This is to have the fish in exchange for the bear's palms.

Fish = survival
Bear's palm = righteousness.

A lot of famous people who chose to fight till the end dying for the country while they could have lived "happily" with a high ranking post in the enemy's regime. They are described as giving up survival for righteousness.

You can extend the idea to say that to live in the "Land of Cocaign" without a goal of life is not my cup of tea.

JY

Fourpillars.net said...

Hi Joseph,


This righteousness explanation looks rather "fishy" to me.

First of all, a governor is usually not doing his own fishing, he already belongs to those who are given fish, both before and after the surrender in this story.

Also the idea that it is better to fight to death, is false if you ask me.
It is far better to surrender when a battle cannot be won, because survival means there is at least a chance to fight back on some other occasion in the future. It means there are people who can operate from underground resistance and wear down the occupiers, etcetera.

The governor himself being in the enemy government, offers possibilities to sabotage a few things from the inside out.

If the paws are chopped, one can still kick with the feet, or fight with the tongue....
The person who is in the grave with his so-called "righteousness", has become completely useless.


So I can't agree if that was Mencius teaching.


Danny

Antje said...

Dear Joseph, all,

I googled an found the following more extensive translation:
--------------------------
Mencius said,
"Fish is what I want; bear's palm is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take the bear's palm than fish. Life is what I want; dutifulness is also what I want. If I cannot have both, I would rather take dutifulness than life. On the one hand, though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all costs. On the other hand, though death is what I loathe, there is something I loathe more than death. That is why there are troubles I do not avoid. If there is nothing a man wants more than life, then why should he have scruples about any means, so long as it will serve to keep him alive? If there is nothing a man loathes more than death, then why should he have scruples about any means, so long as it helps him to avoid trouble? Yet there are ways of remaining alive and ways of avoiding death to which a man will not resort. In other words, there are things a man wants more than life and there are also things he loathes more than death. This is an attitude not confined to the moral man but common to all men. The moral man simply never loses it."
-------------------------------

He compares as you said:
• Fish ---- Bear´s palm
• Life ---- dutifulness/righteousness 義

I was lucky to find a broader translation of the Chinese term 義 into German.

When I try to translate it back into English I get some meaning ranging between *loyalty, fidelity, virtuousness, fairness, keeping promises* and so on.

According to both signs together it means “I´m a sheep”. Someone can sacrifice oneself for the sake of fairness/righteousness/loyalty, synonym for bringing lamb to the gods.

So the upper sign stands for a sheep (symbolically for being kindhearted and docile/pliable/compliant), representing happiness/good luck and wellbeing. Lamb has a good taste and is nutritious. It was used for saying thank you to earth, heaven and the gods.

The second sign means *I* or *me*.

Nowadays it sounds quite religious to sacrifice oneself, but when being dead instead surrender the “taking revenge” topic would disappear - which would probably still be more likely there when someone would choose to surrender and at the same time wants to keep the promise to be loyal & fair to his friends/country. Choosing to be fed with fish by the enemy would be a contradiction between being kind-hearted and being loyal at the same time imo.

According to the following link it´s said that Mencius was the first one who raised the 義 (Yi) to the highest level of moral :

www.cuhk.edu.hk/oal/courses/image/ias2550/PreChinConfucianism-Mencius.ppt

So maybe the moral of Yi can be seen as the main goal of life. When the righteousness is taken then the goal of life is taken and life/survival isn´t worth anything, it becomes senseless.

Not sure if I understood now more.

BTW I think when not being able to ask Mencius personally his quote will remain a matter of interpretation/”food for thought” only … :-)

Antje

Joseph Yu said...

Dear Danny,

Mencius directly relates fish and bear's palm to living and righteousness. This means we all want to live and to live with dignity. If we are to choose between to live without dignity or to die for righteousness, then we should choose the latter.

To serve in the government of the invader is to live without dignity because this means one gives up righteousness for survival.

The analogy is that a governor is given the power to take care of the citizens on behalf of the emperor. In return he lives comfortably with the salary given to him by the emperor. Now the invaders tells him either to betray his own country in exchange for a comfortable living serving the foreign regime or to die. He can keep his fishing instrument but there is no fish in the water. He will die. Or he gives up the fishing instrument but fed with fish. An honourable man will choose to die rather than to live in disgrace.

JY

Fourpillars.net said...

Dear Joseph,


I have no problem to see that's probably what Mencius meant with his saying.
Because that kind of thinking is still prevalent in certain parts of Asia.

But that doesn't mean we have to accept it as a good principle.
We don't need to reintroduce the middle ages.

The problem with this kind of thinking is : who decides on what is righteous/moral?
Who or what decides what is a disgrace and what is honorable?
As we know, there are as many sets of morals as there are cultures and religions in the world.

The suicide bomber who performs a terrorist attack is also convinced that he is doing something "righteous"
He chooses to do die rather than live in the disgrace of being under the command and influence of some foreign power.
These terrorists are students of Mencius.

Or the Japanese managers whose company is taken over by another one.
They can't stand the disgrace, and do harakiri rather than see their company go in other hands and serve in the new management.
Exactly what Mencius prescribed.
But it is cowardly.
They could be using their talents on the board of the new combined company.
What's the problem?

Chinese people are overly concerned with not losing face, avoiding disgrace...
And avoiding disgrace will not rarely create even bigger disgrace down the road.
This governor, if he had any courage, would take on the difficulty and take the forced job.
That's a smaller disgrace than not trying to turn around the situation at all.
To be given a comfortable salary is not a problem.
He can give it all away to the poor and just live on a small bowl of rice as long as the occupiers remain in power.

So, this Mencius' teaching is fundamentally flawed.



Danny

Joseph Yu said...

Dear Danny,

Today of course we can agree or disagree with whatever teaching but in the old days in China, to disagree with the teaching of Confucius and Mencius was considered a mortal sin. In the early 20th Century there was the movement of "down with Confucianism" led by a group of scholars and their students in university. The movement was called 打倒孔家店.

Yes, indeed, we can now interpret the teaching of Confucius and Mencius in a more down to earth way. The way is to bring it to the level of "preferring the fishing machine to the fish" without touching the forbidden topic of loyalty and patriotism.

JY

jerome said...

Hi Danny,

Just my two cents.
An honorable man is just someone who has the sense of thinking, talking and acting accordingly with the sense of his own intrinsic value and the respect of the others. By the first one I mean seeing that his humanity is found only where he is capable of not being played by his cravings and emotions. By the second one that the consequences of his thinking, talking and acting will not harm other's humanity. How can such attitude could be the one of terrorists? They are played by there delirium and act accordingly. Both terrorists and honorable mens are capable of dying for a cause, but I dare think that the first ones are not really living with themselves and with others, they are in an imaginary world. Morality is not idealism, it is not absolute purity.It is being firmly connected to reality in a larger scale than my own limited fanciful world. Just taking account of what I am as a human, what are the others, the world as it is, and from the understanding of this globality and interdependence, doing what has to be done. To be a patriot can be done in a honorable way. So it has nothing to do with the social parade of preserving or loosing face which is indeed a cultural feature.

Best regards,
Jerome

Fourpillars.net said...

Hi Joseph,


China has certainly not been the only country in history in which it became an unforgivable sin to disagree with the accepted teachings.
In Middle Ages Europe it became a great sin to disagree with any of the official christian teachings, and even used dead punishment for those who dared to disagree or question it.
In the Soviet Union it became a crime to disagree with the communist teachings, with equally hard punishments..
And that's only a few of the examples.

But the interesting thing is that in all these cases the country at best stagnated, and at worst fell into deep poverty in the longer run.
This can't be a surprise.
When new thinking is stopped the development and improvement of ideas is stopped, so stagnation is guaranteed.
And when development and improvement of ideas are stopped, then in the longer run also poverty is the inevitable result, because in other parts of the world development continues.

If we had learned anything from history it would be considered a sin not to question any established teachings or principles.

***

I don't think Mencius story is only about the down to earth meaning that it is better to be able to fish than to be given a fish.
There is also a deeper meaning.

A set of moral values is also a "given fish".
The child receives this "fish" with his education, well before he reaches the age when he would start doing his own thinking (= bear's palm, catch your own fish).
So fish means: moral values ; bear's palm means: relying on your own intelligence.

If the own thinking and the accepted morals agree, then there is no problem.
But if only one can be chosen (because morals and own intelligence differ), then Mencius says it is better to take the bear's palm.
So Mencius says it is better to follow your own understanding (bear's palm), rather than blindly accept the society's idea of what is moral (the given fish).

I agree with Mencius.

But of course this kind of thinking was not liked by the later emperors, who are more interested in having a blindly obedient population that doesn't question..
So they used some clever people to make a subtle change and turn around the meaning, and decree that as the one and only interpretation of Mencius story.


Danny

Joseph Yu said...

Dear Danny,

A teaching can be viewed from different angles and different heights and depths. When Mencius talked about fish and bear's palm, everyone interprets the relationship of the two being a comparison of two kinds of delicious food. The bear's palm was even included as one of the dishes in the famous "Manchurian and Han Full Banquet 滿漢全席". The fact that the bear's palm is not as tasty as it should be, the conventional interpretation is likely not correct.

Fish represents something we like. Bear's palm represents something that can produce the thing we like mentioned before. If we are to choose only one of the two, we would choose the latter.

Established knowledge is what we like. The ability to create new concepts is also what we like. If we are to choose only one of the two, we would choose the ability to create rather than established knowledge.

Such examples based on the new interpretation are numerous and they all make sense.

JY

Fourpillars.net said...

Dear Joseph,


Yesterday I checked out the wikipedia page about Mencius (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mencius), and it could be my latest interpretation of the story is not new at all.

Here are some relevant quotes:
"While Confucius himself did not explicitly focus on the subject of human nature, Mencius asserted the innate goodness of the individual, believing that it was society's influence – its lack of a positive cultivating influence – that caused bad moral character. "He who exerts his mind to the utmost knows his nature" and "the way of learning is none other than finding the lost mind"."

"Mencius emphasized the significance of the common citizens in the state. While Confucianism generally regards rulers highly, he argued that it is acceptable for the subjects to overthrow or even kill a ruler who ignores the people's needs and rules harshly. This is because a ruler who does not rule justly is no longer a true ruler."

"Xun Zi was a Confucian who believed that human nature is originally evil, and the purpose of moral cultivation is to develop our nature into goodness. Obviously, Mencius was at odds with him."

----

So basically, Mencius advocates using the own inner understanding/mind (bear's palm) over listening to outer morals and ideas imposed by emperor or society (given fish), which is what Xun Zi was teaching.
Even to the point where people should try to overthrow or kill the ruler if they feel his decrees are not right.
So interestingly the Tibetans are following Mencius' teaching when they protest or fight against an oppressive Chinese government.

***

To say that living by outer moral standards is like eating given fish, and using own inner understanding is having the bear's palm, that seems to be completely in line with what Mencius was teaching.

Danny

Mary Catherine Bax said...

Dear Joseph,

When the time comes and you are like the bear who only has to open his mouth, may I stand behind you?

Mary

Fourpillars.net said...

Hi Mary,


If I may ask: why behind the bear?
Isn't that the only place where you are guaranteed not to catch any fish yourself?

To stand next to the bear would be a better idea, because there is always much more fish than one bear can ever catch or eat...


Danny

Mary Catherine Bax said...

Hi Danny,

When the time comes, Joseph deserves to be out in front for all the hard work he has done gleaning this precious knowledge. It would be my privilege to have his back as we say on the south side of Chicago ;-)
I have no doubt there will still be plenty of fish to catch!

Mary

Fourpillars.net said...

Hi Mary,


I am not sure what you mean with "When the time comes.."
What time are you waiting for?

I have always heard that the happiest thing for a teacher is to see his students stand on their own legs and catch their own fish.

The saddest thing is when the students stay behind his back.
That's like young birds not moving out of the nest when they are grown up.


Danny