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Confucius 'Soundbites' Offer Wisdom, Laughter

Chinese restaurants across North America have a custom that does not yet exist in China: They give out free "fortune cookies" at the end of a meal. In each cookie is a hidden slip of paper containing a catch phrase that, more often than not, is credited to Confucius (551-479 BC).

They are often words of good luck, inspiration or humor, and most of them are not utterances by the Greatest Sage from the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC). Here's one: "Confucius says: You have one hour of free parking on 42nd Avenue."

One can rest assured that the First Teacher did not say that.

A grand ceremony was held yesterday in Qufu, East China's Shandong Province, the birthplace of Confucius, to mark the 2,556th anniversary of the great thinker's birth.

The ceremony is one of the activities for the 2005 China Qufu International Confucius Cultural Festival, which opened on Monday. It is jointly held by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), China National Administration of Tourism, and other groups.

Memorial activities were also held simultaneously in six other cities in the Republic of Korea, Japan, Singapore, the United States and Germany, as well as in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Confucius is considered by many to be the greatest thinker and educator that China has ever produced. His philosophy and teachings cover a wide spectrum of areas. Yet, apart from scholars who seriously study Confucianism, people mostly only absorb his wisdom through snippets of sayings from his book "Lun Yu" or "The Analects of Confucius."

Worldwide, Confucius probably ties with Shakespeare for the title of most quoted human ever. Such is his reputation that almost any nugget of wisdom may be attributed to this "Model Teacher of a Myriad Ages."

As a matter of fact, "Confucius says" is often intended to elicit good-natured laughter as something witty, outrageous and definitely not said by Confucius.

In China, students learn about Confucius from a few textbook selections. Everyone can quote his or her favorite sayings.

Confucius savoir-faire has seeped into our everyday language so that we often quote him without knowing it. "At 30 I had been well-established. At 40 I had no more perplexities. At 50 I knew the will of heaven. At 60 I was at ease with whatever I heard. At 70 I could follow my heart's desire without transgressing moral principles."

Li Kong, a high-scholar, said: "Everyone is saying this as his or her own life experience that I thought it's crystallized from thousands of years of sagacity - not knowing that Confucius started it all."

Most Confucius aphorisms can easily cross boundaries of age, culture and religion. Actually parallels exist: "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you."

This echoes the Golden Rule from Matthew 7:12: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

However, not every citation from the sage sounds palatable to the modern ear. Confucian overemphasis on filial piety and respect for authority was criticized during the May 4 Movement in 1919 as hampering social progress. In the early 1970s, Confucius became the target of character assassination as part of a weird political movement.

Ordinary people are taking liberty with Confucius truisms. A chess and mahjong maker uses this as its advertising tagline: "People who satiate themselves, without putting their hearts into anything all day, are difficult indeed. Are there not chess players more virtuous than they?" But this has made the orthodox uneasy.

(Xinhua News Agency September 29, 2005)

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