On Confucius, Character and Carp

October 06, 2011

In early June of 2009 I had the good fortune of being asked to speak at the high school graduation ceremony of the senior class of Western Academy of Beijing, a large international school where I served as board chair.  For me this was a special opportunity for a number of reasons.  One reason was that the ceremony was held at the Confucius Temple in central Beijing.  It also happened to be the first day of the  gāo kǎo 高考 that year–the national university entrance exam.  As I formulated my remarks to the class of 2009, I thought that the venue and the timing could not have been more fortuitous.

Just inside the entrance to the Confucius temple in Beijing there are rows and rows of enormous stone tablets, dating back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).  The tablets are inscribed with the names and home towns of all the successful candidates on the kējǔ 科举—the highest level of exam in China’s imperial civil service examination system.  Those who succeeded on the kējǔ achieved the lifelong goal of all scholars in the Yuan, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties—service in the imperial court.  The hard work, focus, dedication and perseverance displayed by these scholar officials have not been lost on modern day students preparing for the university entrance exam in China.  Each year before the exam, countless families make the pilgrimage to Confucius temples all over China and pray for good luck on the exam.  As I prepared my remarks for the the class of 2009 at the Confucius Temple, I drew my inspiration from the imperial scholars whose names were inscribed on the stone tablets just inside the temple’s gates, as well as from the Chinese high school seniors whose years of hard work and dedication were to be put to the test that day on the national university entrance exam.
Recently much has been written in the popular press about the issue of character and American children.  Earlier in the school year I recommended two articles on the topic to the CAIS parent community that have received wide spread attention, Lori Gottleib’s “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” in The Atlantic Magazine, and Paul Tough’s “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” in The New York Times Magazine.  Both articles address the concern that US kids are less and less able to overcome life’s inevitable obstacles because the adults in their lives are sheltering them from challenges and fighting their battles for them.  In the process, the authors argue, children are losing out on opportunities to develop the necessary “grit” (Paul Tough’s term) to face challenges successfully on their own.  Interestingly, parents in China have been ringing their hands in angst about the same issue ever since the national birth planning policy resulted in a generation of only children, the so-called “little emperors.”  My own experience is that the “little emperor” is the exception and not the rule in China, and that the overwhelming majority of Chinese exhibit an admirable amount of “grit”; in fact, this is a major cultural factor in China’s mind-boggling rise from developing country to world leader in just three decades.  In other words, the spirit of hard work, focus, dedication and perseverance embodied by the scholar officials whose names and home towns are inscribed on the stone tablet at the Confucius Temple (and their modern day protégées preparing for university entrance) is very much alive in China today.  If I were asked to list what I thought were the core values in Chinese culture, I would include the belief that hard work pays off.  This was the core message in Amy Chua’s controversial book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which you’ll recall seemed to be the only topic CAIS parents discussed for several weeks last winter.  One of my issues with Ms Chua is her impossibly narrow definition of “pay off.”  Yet I think she definitely struck a chord with many people by emphasizing the value of Paul Tough’s “grit.”
There is a FABLE in Chinese culture that exemplifies the importance of “grit,” called “Lǐyú tiào lóngmén” 鲤鱼跳龙门 or “Carp Jump Over Dragon Gate.”  In the story, nine carp battle upstream against a strong current.  When they reach a waterfall called Dragon Gate, they leap from the water, turning magically into dragons as they clear Dragon Gate falls.  This, it is said, is the reason that dragons have scales.  The fable represents the belief in Chinese culture that hard work and perseverance—“grit”—lead to success, for the dragon represents power and success.  It was common to say, when a scholar passed the highest level of imperial exam—the kējǔ—that he had successfully “jumped over Dragon Gate.”  The image of carp jumping over an actual gate (as opposed to a waterfall) is now visible everywhere—in paintings, murals, sculptures—you can even buy one on Amazon.com!  Chinese parents, when speaking of their children, often use the well-known phrase “wàng zǐ chéng lóng” 望子成龙” which means “to wish your child becomes a dragon.”  It is understood that to become a dragon, “grit” is required.
As CAIS, it is important that we honor the idea hard work pays off.  This means that we need to be serious about allowing our kids to develop the toughness and resilience that is required.  As a school, CAIS also has its own gritty history of which we all should be extremely proud.  Thirty years ago, and against all odds, our founders created a school out of nothing.  Today, after thirty years of hard work, focus, dedication and perseverance we are standing strong and looking to become great, a “dragon” among independent schools.  In our anniversary year we can celebrate thirty years of “grit.”  As fate would have it, we will also celebrate the year of the dragon (which begins on January 23, 2012) this school year. It is important that we not lose sight of the importance of this cultural symbol and what it represents.  Our float in this year’s Chinese New Year parade will render the fable “Carp Jump Over Dragon Gate.” This will be an opportunity to display our school with pride while also affirming our commitment to the belief, represented in the fable, that hard work pays off.  Those of you who have had the opportunity to visit CAIS’s preK facility on Waller Street have seen the beautifully rendered four-claw dragon hopscotch mural on the ground of the corridor immediately inside the school gate.  As our youngest “scholars” pass through our own dragon gate—like the fabled carp—they encounter the dragon.  Hopping along it’s winding, scaly spine they learn to count, , èr,sān … perhaps persevering all the way to thirty, they exhibit the grit they will need to fulfill the wish of their parents that children become great, like the dragon—“wàng zǐ chéng lóng.