Method and Reading – Reflection on Confucius and Chinese Philosophy (II)


Editor’s Note: The first part of the article (published in our October issue) seeks out the Chinese perspective on the matters of death and what constitutes a life well lived. The second part, as seen below, continues on the path set out in the first one, and explores the hitherto hidden meanings behind the significance of repetitive physical actions and the link to spiritual satisfaction and joy, along with similar parallels found in European thought.




THE Analects of Confucius starts with a three-part saying that has long become a dictum. However, we will, for the moment, just take a closer look at the first part of it:


The Master said: “Is it not pleasant to learn with constant perseverance and application?”


In the original Chinese text, we find three verbs that are of great importance: to learn, to practice and to feel joy. The question here is what the inner linkage between these three verbs might be. Is their listing random or, as I am personally convinced, does a needful relation underlie them?


A grand ceremony to pay respects to Confucius is held in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, its highlight the 29 foreign student attendees from Soochow University.


In my opinion, they give us insight into the circumstances of human existence, no matter if we are talking about the past or the present.


In ancient Chinese “xue” originally meant “to imitate,” for example, to imitate the words of a teacher. This is why reading out aloud guided by a teacher is still a vivid and important practice in China, even today. Everywhere in China you will find groups of people who come together to memorize aloud. In this way, learning creates a fellowship with the teacher ensued by a fellowship among different learners.


At this point, we could easily fit in the theories of Martin Buber (1878-1965) or Hans Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), who say the process of personality development is closely connected to the existence of a counterpart. It is in the voice of this vis-à-vis other that every person will recognize itself.


This counterpart can be a deity, a teacher, a parent or a partner. One way or another, happiness can only be found in companionship with others. That is why, for Confucius, it was so important to be a human among humans.


This time, I want to talk about the relationship between exercise and joy, which we otherwise might not be able to understand in all its dimensions.


Exercise and Joy


Although exercise (Latin “exercitation,” French “exercice,” German “Uebung”) lost most of its advocates due to modernity’s triumphant conquering of the Western world, it still looks back on a long history, which connected ancient times, the Middle Ages, modern times, and the present with each other, just like in China.


As the usage of the word differs in languages like Latin, German, English and French, we should take a closer look at the philosophic and theological side here, rather than examine the etymological side.




In ancient Greece, exercise was seen as a way to acquire the talents of the Gods. Virtues originally weren’t seen as a human matter in Greek culture. Instead, only through the practice of certain skills could wisdom become second nature to humans.


This religious origin of the term “exercise” can also be noted in the Middle Ages as well as in modern times: In Greek, culture exercise is understood as asceticism, and in the context of “imitatio Christi” or “imitatio Dei” exercise offers the possibility, thanks to “ab exercitatio spiritualia,” to ascend to God (“in Deum adscendere”). Thus, exercise allows a higher and, therefore, in the theological sense, correct notion. This means that exercise is the precondition for a fulfilled life.


This is also the basic idea of Otto Friedrich Bollnow (1903-1991), who in his (hermeneutic) philosophy dedicated a whole book to the topic of exercise. The reason why he can be called on for the interpretation of Confucianism not only in formal but also in a content-related sense is his intellectual as well as physical encounters with Japan and Korea.


“Exercise as daily routine,” as he came to know on his journeys, is nothing different than the kind of exercise postulated by Confucianism as well as Taoism and Buddhism.


We need only to recall the famous parable of the Niushan Mountain of Mencius (372-289 BC). This intellectual disciple of Confucius speaks about the need for daily nourishment of the breath to preserve the vis vitalis as a precondition for human virtue. (Mencius VI. A8)


We could also recall the example of the cook named Ding, about whom the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi (c.369-286 BC) said that through the practice of his skills with the knife he managed to cut a cow into pieces in just one stroke. (Book of Master Zhuang III.2)


From Buddhism we know the famous story about sweeping the floor as a way to enlightenment, which in Korean Confucianism is passed on in theory and practice as the “small doctrine” for young adepts.


Meaning of Exercise


But let us get back to Confucius and his original saying. We still haven’t examined why “exercise” should be the same as joy. Nowadays, one might tend to even claim the opposite.


The etymology of the Chinese characters for exercise reveals something else: A character was found on oracle bones and bronze vessels, which happens to be closely related to the modern character 习 (exercise) or its equivalent long form 习, which was widely used until the 1950s.


At the top of the character (long form and short form) we see the pictogram of feathers and in the lower part (long form) a bird, who attempts to fly. During the time of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) “xi” adapted the meaning of xuexi “exercise trough imitation,” which it still carries today.



Kindergarteners in traditional costume chant The Analects of Confucius in Liaocheng, Shandong Province.


In modern times, exercise is often defamed as unproductive. However, a recently published work by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk stresses that exercise shouldn’t be put classified under the sphere of conservative “Orientals” or Western “esoterics.”


Sloterdijk repeats, without specifically quoting, Bollnow’s thesis of the human as a being of repetition. Repetition means repeating the same thing over and over again, to attain one’s own identity. Sloterdijk also sees everyday life as a routine of exercise or exercise as a means of everyday life.


What Bollnow has in common with the ideas of ancient times and the Middle Ages, as well as the modern and present times of the West and the traditions of East Asia, is his perception of exercise as a ritual act. Bollnow etymologically traces back the German word “ueben” and points out its origin in agriculture and religious ceremonies. He also states similar claims for Latin and Hindi.


Etymologic dictionaries support his proposition: Every form of exercise and practice has a religious nature and is accompanied by dance and rituals.


But can we say the same for Confucius’ statement quoted above?


Here we are confronted with a special difficulty, as the general opinion, whether academic or not, whether in China or not, is that Confucius rejects everything religious.


Against the mainstream opinion, I can only modestly point to my attempt to regard the religious in Confucius “Lunyu” as the core of an understanding of the Master. Thus, I have to put forward the thesis that the Chinese “exercise” also leads back to a sacral origin, although this thesis has yet to be substantiated.


Some preliminary assurance for my assumption can be found in the fact that exercise plays a central role in zen Buddhism and is therefore of a religious nature.


Maybe someday it will be proven that learning and exercising both have a common unspoken objective in Confucius’ works, namely the service respectively in the temple of ancestors and the rites originating from this religious service.


But what is it that helps us, thanks to Bollnow, to understand joy as a consequence of exercise in the above-mentioned quote? For the German philosopher Bollnow, exercise is part of human incarnation, from childhood until old age.


Only by exercising, a human being becomes a genuine human and is able to experience holistic meaning. Exercise forms the inner core of such a human being and brings within him utmost completion.


The evolution of human potential and metamorphosis into a cultural being naturally leads to a certain kind of inner freedom. Equanimity and relaxation, serenity and happiness are logical consequences. The third core part of Confucius’ above-mentioned saying then follows automatically:


“Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?”


Whoever studies and practices tradition, recommends himself to serve a sovereign. However, this sovereign might be blind and unwilling to hire a capable person. Confucius himself never held any office that truly fulfilled him.


But a human being who finds the way to itself through everyday exercise doesn’t need a sovereign to suffice it. This is exactly the reason why friends coming from distant places (the second core sentence of the saying) can deepen joy already experienced:


“Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters?”


Why, one might ask, do these friends come from a distant place? Well, they might have heard about the right way of exercise and might want to take part in it to re-establish their selves with the help and the role-model of the master.


Just like François Jullien pointed out at the beginning of his book In Praise of Blandness, Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aestheticism, characters that appear unimportant at first glance are in fact truly essential.


Through his “detour via China,” which strictly speaking was a detour over Greece; François Jullien has made Chinese philosophy an intellectual event. He has shown that the reading of Chinese philosophers constantly calls on us to complement and thus comprehend the unspoken. And we complement it through our perception. To manage a detour via Europe might also sometimes be quite helpful.


WOLFGANG KUBIN is a renowned Sinologist, poet and essayist.