The Spiritual World of A Great Man (Excerpt)
By Tang Haoming
Trans. by Zhang Zhijie (张智杰)
A little over a decade ago, The Complete Works of Zeng Guofan and other literary works about Zeng Guofan were published, after which the man who had changed the course of history immediately attracted widespread interest from Chinese people, as though a rare cultural relic had just been excavated. At that time, government officials and literati, businessmen and troops, and even ordinary folks found it cultured and stylish to have conversations about Zeng. The craze also spread to overseas Chinese communities, and Chinese-language media scrambled to cover the long-neglected Zeng Wenzheng1.
There were numerous immensely powerful figures in modern Chinese history, but how did this man capture the attention of people from various fields and social classes? Apparently, every Chinese person knows something about him! In that case, his rise to fame came not only as a result of his legendary personal experience, but also because of his being an iconic representative of Chinese ethnic values and culture.
Today, we live in an era of global economic integration. Drawing on its great economic strength, Western culture is sweeping into every corner of the world, aggressively excluding and overpowering all other cultures. Under the circumstances, Chinese culture, which has shaped 5,000 years of splendid civilization, is thus confronted with several problems. How can it gain a foothold in today’s world? Is its existence still necessary? Does the Chinese nation still need its nurturing? Can it continue to develop? These problems, which should not have existed to begin with, have now confused far-sighted intellectuals.
Zeng is recognized as the last exemplar to embody the values of traditional culture in modern China. We can conclude from his rise to fame that during times of changes the impetuous and restless Chinese people still crave the nourishment of the native culture, and, in particular, some enlightenment from high achievers who developed in the culture. Such enlightenment, since it is gained from someone of the same ethnic origins, is deemed more harmonious, practical and effective.
This has inspired those of us working in the field of Chinese culture by boosting our confidence and showing us the way ahead for Chinese culture.
Chinese culture is, however, profound yet complicated. In the current era of information explosion where competition is fierce, abundant opportunities have arisen and time is considered precious. Therefore, people are precluded from enjoying the bygone idyllic serenity or relishing staying in to read books for months on end. How is it possible for success chasers to appreciate the wisdom of Chinese culture? The author believes that if you aspire to do so, over a period of time, you can try to focus on an individual who is representative of a particular field; then study and understand him or her thoroughly to gain insights into the field as a whole. The practice carries the meaning of a Buddha quote, “One can see a bodhi in a leaf; One can see a world in a flower.” The same implication is also manifested in an ancient saying, “If one has mastered a single classic, he can master all classics.”
Zeng Guofan is indeed one of the representatives of Chinese culture. No matter our standpoint, we can always learn something from his deeds. For example, as a mere human being, how did he, though physically weak, have inexhaustible energy to accomplish so much and leave us with so much to ponder in only 60 years? As a commander, what capabilities did he have to succeed in raising a regional army independent of the government from scratch and bring success to the army while facing adversities? As a father and brother, why did he have so much devotion to write thousands of letters to his children and younger siblings and even continue tending to and inculcating them while facing the perils and mortal dangers of war? As a senior official, how did he think up the idea of learning from the West for self-strengthening and implement it within the boundaries of his authority when all Chinese people were baffled about how to get out of the grim situation? All these questions deserve our consideration today.
(Excerpted from the preface of Tang Haoming's Review of Zeng Guofan’s Family Letters, Yuelu Press, 2002)
1. Wenzheng: a posthumous title, the highest title given to civil officials under the Qing dynasty.