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  • Confucius: The Man and the Way of Gongfu by Peimin Ni
  • Andrew Lambert Jr. (bio)
Confucius: The Man and the Way of Gongfu. By Peimin Ni. Lanham: Roman & Littlefield, 2016. Pp. xxii + 165. Paperback $29.00, isbn 978-1-4422-5742-9.

In Confucius: the Man and the Way of Gongfu, Peimin Ni offers an overview of the historical Confucius and his organic vision of how to live. Ni's motivation is that many comparable introductions are "simply repeating his life story and listing his main ideas" (p. xi). Ni insists that, "we have to get to the depth required by Confucius' thought" (p. x), which will then explain why Confucius' influence has endured. The book is structured as six chapters, each focusing on one aspect of Confucius: as historical figure, as spiritual leader, as philosopher, as political reformer, as educator and as a person. A full understanding of Confucius, Ni states, requires seeing how the different aspects inform each other, like a "crystal" (p. xi).

This carefully constructed portrait of Confucius is ordered around a guiding idea, captured by the Song-Ming Confucian term gongfu 功夫. This refers to skills and abilities cultivated over time, and which equip a person to excel at the art of life, broadly understood, in ways that evade abstractions or principles. This characterizes the teachings and "mission" of Confucius and the Analects. Through consistent application and training, a person's entire sensibility and thought patterns can be transformed, creating an exemplar for others and for posterity.

Instructions must be "lived" in order to be grasped, and often cannot be grasped through a simple act of cognition. "Lived" here means whole-hearted and embodied commitment to realize a teaching–such as a passage from the Analects–reflecting on it, practicing it, turning it into a practical habit or disposition. As Ni notes, "… to be ren [human-hearted] is not a matter of having an intellectual understanding of it" (p. 126).

A gongfu reading thus emphasizes what a passage can contribute to one's personal cultivation rather than its literal truth or falsity. Here, Ni draws heavily on Austin's theory of speech acts. Consider the infamous passage on unreliable "women and petty people" (17.25), often cited for sexism. Ni argues that this passage's significance lies beyond the surface meaning; it is not a criticism of any group but a lesson in responsibility and inclusion (p. 140). Exemplary persons must learn how to accommodate all manner of people. The reference to women and petty people helps to make this practical point–they are not important objects of doctrine.

A feature of this approach is Ni's intent to convey the humaneness of the historical Confucius. In the "Confucius as a Person" chapter, Ni notes two common and competing visions of Confucius (p. 131): a lofty paradigm of moral perfection who transcends mere humans, and a dogmatic conservative and mouthpiece of authoritarian social order. Ni shows how both of these miss the mark and that Confucius should instead be seen as a very human figure–a man of rich sentiments and humor who was also fallible.

This humanistic approach is also seen in Confucius' approach to education (chapter six). This meant accepting all who wanted to learn, and it stressed the teacher's ability to make tailored responses to students and to teach by example. The master sees that what a student must learn sometimes cannot be explained verbally, since the pupil is not sufficiently advanced to see the wisdom of what is said. Statements of fact or truth might be ineffective and other means of teaching are needed. One distinctive method is the use of ritualized behavior. Here, the burden of transforming the person is taken up by the repetition and habit formation of ritualized conduct. Notably, social engagement and embodied training not only produce better behavior, they also change thinking. They lead to greater empathy and understanding of what is required in various social situations. Thus, exemplary personhood emerges from embodied practice as much as from the actions of an inner mind.

Ni's work offers a nuanced and wide-ranging examination of the philosophical and practical suppositions that inform the Analects...


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