30 Oct 2015: Lim Boon Keng on Confucianism

confucian-1If we can understand the Bible without using Hebrew, Buddhism without Sanskrit, and Koran without Arabic, it is because these world religions have transcended geographical boundaries and belonged to the whole of humanity. Whether or not Confucianism can likewise transcend its Chinese origin and be expounded in English is a challenge… and its ability to successfully do so would have profound signi  cance…Prof. Tu Weiming

Confucianism, a way of life and a system of philosophical teachings propagated by Confucius (551–479 BCE), has been observed by the Chinese people for over 2,000 years. Its tenets are filled with human feelings and perennial universal values, cultivating good moral character, filial piety, domestic peace and racial harmony. Even among the less ‘spiritually inclined’, Confucianism still serves as an ideological template for national education and patriotism—a fact attested to by the Chinese government, who are now actively promoting Confucianism as a cultural treasure.

ch-cp-icon1-dataOur featured book-of-the-week is a compilation of articles on Confucianism, published from 1904 to 1917 by Dr. Lim Boon Keng, a name held in high esteem in Singapore as an outstanding thinker and an authority on Confucian history. His approach towards Confucianism was as unique then as it is now, as it melded both Confucianism with Christianity. Written in a simple and accessible manner, this book, translated and edited by Yan Chunbao, is the first bilingual version (in English and Chinese) of Dr. Lim’s thoughts on Confucian philosophy.

Dr. Lim’s main purpose in writing these articles was to introduce and infuse Confucian culture into what he regarded as the ‘displaced’ Chinese—the Babas—who prided themselves on receiving English education in order to secure good jobs and acquire an air of professionalism.  The price they paid for the ‘privilege’ was the uprooting of their time-honoured traditional culture. It must be noted, however, that Dr. Lim himself did not directly bring out the situation of the Babas at that time—this anomaly was observed by the German Sinologist Wolfgang Franke. He noted that most Colonial-era Chinese were satisfied with their superficial English education—living in a materialistic world lacking a stable culture—even harbouring disdain towards those who were Chinese educated. Though they looked Chinese physically, he said, culturally and spiritually they were neither Chinese, Englishman, Indian nor Malays. Maybe they did not understand who they really were!

Even more surprising was the fact that many scholars did not realise the consequences of local Chinese people deprived of Chinese culture by receiving purely English education. The book’s translator hopes that Essays of Lim Boon Keng on Confucianism will reverse this trend—that more people, especially the younger generation who have strayed from traditional Chinese culture, will return to the fine traditions of Confucianism through this book.

About the author: Penang-born Dr. Lim Boon Keng (1868–1957) became the first Malayan to receive a Queen’s Scholarship, in 1887, to study at the University of Edinburgh. Upon returning to Singapore, he passionately promoted Confucianism among his peers and even elevated it to a religion. Lim was a Straits-born Baba, a product of a cultural heritage not entirely Chinese. He promoted Confucianism not because of ethnic nationalism or because he was discriminated against by the British; he did so because of a self-conscious journey—in search of his Chinese cultural roots.