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October 28, 2011

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Explaining Plato to Chinese youth

THIS is a Platonic love story. Author Alexandra Mangos is head-over-heels crazy about ancient Greek philosopher Plato, and she hopes her first novel will infect Chinese schoolchildren with a bit of her Platonic fever.

The Beijing-based teacher and writer recently released "I Am Plato," a Chinese-language adaptation of Plato's "Republic" for 11- to 16-year-olds. The illustrated paperback remains faithful to Plato's classic text, but Mangos has ramped up an existing but lesser-known adventure story to appeal to young readers.

She wrote it in English and it was translated into Chinese; it has not yet been published in English, but excerpts are planned.

"In the tradition of magical worlds that (characters in books) go into, I wanted to make Plato's world one of those," Mangos said. "I tried to make it as approachable as I could."

The story follows a 12-year-old Plato at the time of the Peloponnesian War, around 404 BC. Plato, with his eccentric tutor Socrates and a bunch of school friends, sets out to destroy the Ring of Gyges, a ring which can make the wearer invisible and which is possessed by one of the boys in Plato's class.

This might sound familiar to "Lord of the Rings" fans, but the Ring of Gyges is pure Plato. Like Tolkien's ring, Plato's can make its wearer powerful and wealthy, but to the detriment of society.

"The ring can get you anything you want, or (instead) you can get a magical world," Mangos said. "The concept is, 'Am I happy when I'm good or when I'm bad'?"

The group's mission involves creating an "ideal city" through which the troupe adventures, meeting odd characters and fake philosophers, and along the way improving themselves, gaining skills at sports and storytelling.

"The city is an analogy toward the human soul," Mangos said. Many people unfamiliar with Plato assume his "Republic" is a guide to creating the ideal society. Not so, Mangos says. "Happiness is more what it's about. 'How do I be happy,' everyone asks that, right?"

Mangos says publishing "I Am Plato" in China did not influence her decision to focus on the metaphysical, rather than the political, in Plato's writings.

The decision to publish the book in Chinese first came simply from the fact that Mangos lives in Beijing, and her desire to share her love of Plato. An American magazine is soon to publish an extract of the book in English, and she hopes publication in more languages will follow.

British-born Mangos spent her first nine years in Greece, "just growing up in that sunlight, and going swimming, and going to temples all the time." That early love of Greek culture later led to a classics degree at Oxford University. And it was at Oxford that her passion for Plato was born.

"I loved Plato at university, I did the course twice just because I really, really liked it. And I took it quite seriously, I tried to do what he said," Mangos said. "It's deep within the blood."

With such a passion for Greece, what made Mangos uproot to Shanghai, and later Beijing, five years ago.

"Literally love of China. I was reading a lot of Chinese literature in translation," she said. "I love the place."

It was while teaching English to Chinese teenagers that the idea for "I Am Plato" formed. When Mangos used ideas from Plato in her lessons, the students clamored for more information about his philosophies.

"I felt so much curiosity, so many questions and I felt I couldn't (answer them) without a story," she says. "I just wanted them to grasp the concepts of Plato a little bit and to enjoy them."

Getting her English manuscript translated into Chinese was far from a straightforward matter. Mangos had "amazingly long" discussions with her translators about such nebulous concepts as "ideal," "good" and "the soul," which highlighted the similarities and differences between the Platonic and the Confucian world view.

For example, goodness in China is seen practically, as doing good acts to benefit others, whereas Plato saw it as an epistemological concept, or something inherent in a person. "We literally talked about this for four months," Mangos said.

Similar debates sprang from the definition of "soul." Traditionally, the Chinese believed different body parts had their own souls - there was a soul of the liver, the bones, the heart.

"I believe most people in Greece or most people in Europe will know what you mean when you say 'the soul.' Here I hear very often 'what do you mean, teacher, what do you mean by soul?' The concept of soul is totally different in the East."

At a more basic level, Confucianism is more about individual behaving correctly, while Plato sees the happiness of society as paramount. However, Confucius taught that the body is intricately linked to society, and, say, that if the individual is well, then the city and country will by extension be well. "That's exactly the same as Plato," Mangos said.

Any worries about Chinese-educated children being unable to respond creatively to philosophical questions have been unfounded. Chinese education is introducing more of a Socratic or debate-style learning method, rather than just rote-learning, she said. "The Chinese education system is trying to instill value in kids in different ways."


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