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February 6, 2015

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Chance encounter prompts musings about conscientious ways to act for a better world

“ARE you a regular customer here?” A 30ish lady asked me with a broad smile as soon as I sat at a table next to hers in a small eatery in Yangzhou, my hometown, less than 300 kilometers from Shanghai, this past Saturday. “How do you know? Did you see me here before?” I asked her. She dressed simply, like a high school teacher — my favorite image.

“I saw you talked with the cashier like old acquaintances,” she said lightly. “Oh, I see,” I answered. “Yes, the cashier and the cook both know me well. They all know I like a hot pot of sliced tofu.”

Our impromptu conversation ended abruptly as her bowl of spicy noodles was served. I was still waiting for my hot pot of sliced tofu when she finished her meal and was ready to leave.

She stood up, but did not leave right away. She paused and bent over my table, asking with a smile: “Can I add you as my friend on WeChat?” (WeChat is a popular Chinese instant messaging device designed especially for friends.) I was surprised, because we were not friends yet. “Why do you want to add me on WeChat?” I asked politely.

“I liked your good manner, sir,” she said, meaning the polite way I talked to the cashier. Well, indeed, my manner was good, I thought to myself, but was still reluctant to add her.

“I’m not an expert on WeChat and I’m not sure if I know how to add you,” I said, hoping that she could get my polite message of refusal.

“I know how to do it,” she replied. “Use your phone to scan my WeChat code and it’s all done.” So she did, and I was added to her WeChat. Then I saw her WeChat name: Zhi Xing He Yi (Act on Conscience). “Wow, are you also reading Wang Yangming about acting on conscience?” I asked her, apparently overjoyed in meeting a real friend who’s also interested in the teachings of Wang Yangming (1472- 1529), a great military strategist and a great Confucian scholar who stressed the importance of following one’s conscience (of doing good to others).

“I actually don’t know about Wang Yangming, but my own teacher taught me Zhi Xing He Yi,” she said.

At this moment she was about to run, so we bid farewell to each other. Later, as I read her diaries on WeChat, I found she was an avid seller in a local pyramid sale system, hawking beauty salon products. Oh my! Where was my favorite image of a high school teacher? Without hesitation, I put her on my blacklist, so that she would never see my diaries.

But one question bugged me: Did she really understand Zhi Xing He Yi?

On second thought, I knew what was wrong with the sales lady and her own teacher. Like many other Chinese people, they mistook Zhi Xing He Yi as meaning this: If you know what you want, act upon it! (Zhi means know, Xing means act, He Yi means combine.)

But what Wang Yangming meant was not “do whatever you know you want to do.” Wang meant that you should know your good conscience (to serve others) and then wholeheartedly act upon it.


In Wang’s own time, there was already such misunderstanding. A disciple asked Wang: If he wholeheartedly did one thing, like reading a book or receiving a guest, did it mean that he acted upon his conscience?

Wang replied: “If you wholeheartedly pursue pretty women or fancy goods, does this wholeheartedness mean conscience? No. It only means you are chasing after things outside your conscience. You should wholeheartedly look for the heavenly way (your conscience) and act upon it.”

In the sales lady’s case, she knew she wanted my WeChat, so she acted upon her desire. She thought this was Zhi Xing He Yi, but she acted from her desire to sell stuff, not from her conscience to do me good. Wang Yangming’s teachings about acting on one’s conscience, later suppressed in the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911), are being rediscovered in today’s China as a tour de force against popular indulgence in material accumulation at the expense of conscience.

But, like Wang had warned in his own time, there was a risk in paying lip service to his teachings, because it was easier for most people to know what they want than for them to know that everyone was born to have good conscience.

“Being wholehearted in doing good to others” is the essence of Zhi Xing He Yi, not “being wholehearted in doing what you know you want to do.”

This moral wisdom is meant for society as well as for individuals.

In Wednesday’s Shanghai Daily, Simon Zadek noticed that China’s latest embrace of sustainable development was driven by China’s own interests, that is,

The need to protect its own land, water and air from pollution. Zadek is codirector of the UNEP Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System and a visiting scholar at Tsinghua School of Economics and Management. Does China act on its own interests? Certainly.

But is it just about interests? Is there a place for conscience? There should be. If we apply the theory of acting upon conscience, instead of upon interests, to all national and international affairs, wouldn’t we live in a much simpler and better world? Why do we often act upon an impulse to sell our stuff?


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