P(arts) of the Mission

June 02, 2017

Full disclosure: I am a musician (more the garage band variety), and my oldest child is a musician and a graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Music played a huge part of my education and my life and continues to do so. Any who have visited my office at 150 Oak know that I stream music from the time I arrive at school in the morning until I lock the door and leave in the evening. I have, over the years, run into CAIS community members at music venues around town ranging from small clubs in the Mission to the Nourse and Herbst theaters to the Oracle Arena, Levi’s Stadium and the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival. I simply cannot imagine life without music.

What role do the arts have at a school whose mission challenges kids to embrace Chinese, become their best selves and create their places in the world?  

Every culture has its traditional literary canon. In China, there are different permutations of the books constituting the Confucian canon. There are the Four Books (Sì shū 四书):The Confucian Analects (Lun yu 论语), Mencius (Meng zi 孟子), The Great Learning (Da xue 大学) and The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong 中庸). There are the Five Classics (Wu jing 五经): The Classic of Poetry (诗经 Shi jing), The Classic of Historical Documents (书经 Shu jing), The Record of Rites (礼记 Li ji), The Classic of Changes (易经 Yi jing) and The Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋 Chun qiu). Then there are the Nine Classics and Thirteen Classics which include different selections of all of the above plus some others.  

Interestingly, there is one Confucian classic that is almost never mentioned, and this is because there is no surviving copy. It’s called the Classic of Music (Yue jing 乐经), and scholars propose that it was lost by the time of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 23 CE), possibly during the famous “burning of the books” during the short, repressive reign of the First Emperor of the Qin whose tomb is guarded by the famous terracotta army in Xi’an. Han Dynasty historian Sima Qian 司马迁 called the the Classic of Music the “sixth Confucian classic” in his multivolume work Records of the Historian (Shi ji 史记).
Why, in early China, did music warrant its own canonical text? What role did music play in early Chinese society? In education? In cosmology? This is a somewhat difficult question to answer, since only fragments of the Classic of Music still exist; they have been gleaned from quotes in the exegesis of other early texts. We know that Confucius spoke about the importance of music and its role in bringing about peace and tranquility within the individual—“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without”—and ultimately in human society; world peace, basically—“If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.” I imagine Confucius, if he were alive in our era, swaying to the beat of Bob Marley’s “One Love” or humming “Imagine’ by John Lennon.
The link between music, individual tranquility and world peace is completely consistent with the core of Confucian teachings, which finds its most trenchant expression in the canonical Great Learning:

Only when things are investigated is knowledge extended;
Only when knowledge is extended are thoughts sincere;
Only when thoughts are sincere are minds rectified;
Only when minds are rectified are our persons cultivated;
Only when our persons are cultivated are our families regulated;
Only when our families are regulated are states well governed;
And only when states are well governed is there peace in the world.

The progression toward world peace begins with the individual and extends outward to the family, the state and the world in concentric circles of influence. Extending one’s knowledge, making one’s thoughts sincere, rectifying one’s mind and cultivating one’s person all describe the process of education, and we know that for Confucius, who was after all a teacher, music education was a critical element in producing the cultivated person. “Arouse yourself through poetry,” he said, “establish yourself through ritualized movement, and complete yourself with music.” Poetry, in ancient China, was always chanted or sung; the modern word for poetry, shi 诗, meant something more like “ode” or “song” in early China. “Ritualized movement” in the passage above is generally understood to include disciplined and precise dance. A Confucian education cultivated the “six arts” (liu yi 六艺) which were rites, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics. Calligraphy then, as now, was considered a form of visual art. So we see that the arts—music, dance, calligraphy—were an important part of a Confucian education, creating peace and tranquility within the cultivated person who, by virtue of influence (or perhaps influence of virtue) might play a positive role in creating a harmonious society and a peaceful world.

There are fundamentally different conceptions of art in China and America. In China, beauty, grace, technical precision and a reverence of tradition always have and continue to be central to artistic expression. I have been to many dozens of musical performances in China, and the expertly executed repertoire has consisted of the same eight or ten pieces from the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. Walk through any non contemporary (eg, pre 1985) visual art exposition in China, and paintings—usually watercolors or ink—will likely be categorized into one of four genres: mountains and water, flowers birds and insects, fish, and human figures. Learning these styles involves meticulous and systematic study of famous works by the masters. Calligraphy is similar—the serious student of calligraphy spends hours admiring and replicating the characters of great calligraphers in “copy books” (zitie 字帖). How different this is from the emphasis on individualism, self-expression, creativity, innovation, and sometimes iconoclasm that often characterizes the art in America.

CAIS works continuously to answer the question: How do we combine the best of both allowing our kids to embrace Chinese and also to become their best selves and create their places in the world?