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I had an interesting chat with a professor yesterday at the university where I work. He has published a paper that looks into the true meaning of the word “guanxi” in Chinese society. “Guanxi” literally means interpersonal relationship. But instead of the Western interpretation of networking and friendship, the professor explained that the Chinese concept is based on a very ancient set of rules that guide human relationships.

Confucius often leaves me feeling confused.

These rules are rooted in Confucian philosophy and emphasize obligations we have for those who are closely related to us. Whether or not we fancy those people is not important. The important thing is that we have certain obligations toward them. If we do not fulfill those obligations, we would be condemned by society and considered immoral. So, for example, children have certain obligations toward their parents and these are called “filial piety.” It doesn’t matter if we actually like our parents or not. (My note: By extension, let’s say even if they treat us badly or abuse us, we still have the obligation to respect them and take care of them when they are old.)

Although this kind of “guanxi,” which stresses obligations, is restricted to an inner circle—a “circle of trust,” it can be transferred to someone who is not related by blood. So the good friends of your parents would become “aunties” and “uncles” automatically and they would have the obligation to look out for your interests whereas you would also have the obligation to respect and treat them “properly.” These obligations go without saying. They are unspoken rules in Chinese society. As I grew up in the traditional Chinese culture, I know these obligations instinctively.

According to the professor, it is very useful to have these rules as they make interpersonal relationships more stable and predictable. However, moral dilemmas would occur when a person holds obligations to two conflicting parties. For example, if I were the human resources manager of a company and a friend’s son applied for a job at the company, should I favor his application even if he is not as qualified as the others? This scenario illustrates a conflict of interest in modern terms, or a moral dilemma in philosophical terms. Who should I be loyal to? It is a tough call as the traditional Chinese value is clashing with the modern business organization.

In ancient times, there were no companies in the modern sense. The only authoritative organization that existed was the government. It was very clear to whom an official’s loyalty belonged. A very good example is the story of Da Yu (大禹), who lived 4,000 years ago. He passed by his mother’s doors three times without visiting her as he was obliged to tackle an urgent flooding problem. In this case, the good of the society obviously took precedent over private interests.

The story of Kong Rong picking the smallest pear puts the “self” into the trash bin.

While such behavior would still be considered ideal and moral nowadays, we lack stories that tell us the “self” is important too. In fact, when I review all the moral stories I was taught in school, the “I” was always relegated to the back of the queue. One story that really stands out and had governed how I behaved throughout my life until recently was the story of Kong Rong (孔融), who was the 20th generation grandson of Confucian (around 200 A.D.). When he was 4 years old, he and his brothers were offered a basket of pears by some guests. He happily let his older brothers and youngest brother pick the largest pears while he took the smallest one. Words spread quickly about this young child’s politeness and was touted as an ideal moral behavior for all tp emulate.

Personally, I believe the self-denigrating tendency or requirement in the Chinese culture as a result of Confucian teaching is responsible for a great deal of misery in people’s lives. Yes, on the surface, the society may very well be operating in an “orderly” manner. However, where does this leave “me”? I have suffered so much and even gone through major periods of depression because the “me” was not given a proper place. Yet its voice was not unheard. It was dying to cry out while social obligations kept on suppressing it. As a result, my life was steeped in a sea of guilt, angst and frustration. Only when I realized that the “self” deserves the top priority in my life that I have been able to leave this negative loop. This doesn’t mean I am selfish. But whatever I do for others, I would choose to do so out of sincerity—it would be something I like or love to do, out of the heart. This makes sure that the “self” is first satisfied and whatever action that is taken afterwards, there would be no grudge involved. Likewise, if no action is taken because the “self” sincerely does not want it, there would be no guilty feelings either. This is so important for the health of our soul. Who in society or in authority would care? They would rather that you follow what they dictate!

I know I am not alone in feeling trapped behind the bars of tradition. Millions or even billions of Chinese are still going through what I have gone through. And not just Chinese people. Confucianism is not the only philosophy that puts people into a guilt trip in the name of obligations and loyalty. Calvinism, puritanism and many other philosophies and religions around the world also have managed to do that. It’s time to transcend the social strictures that no longer serve us and stun our spiritual growth. Have you heard that inner voice crying to be let loose yet?