How do we grapple with forces beyond our control? This question is particularly salient for Confucians, who believe that relationships are a central part of self-development—despite the fact that these relationships are partially determined by others, whom we cannot control. Michael Ing, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, is examining the theme of vulnerability in several early Confucian texts. His research reveals a rich discussion within these texts about the necessity and even value of vulnerability in human experience.
Read a blog post by Michael Ing about cultivating our co-humanity in Confucian thought here.
How does your research for the Enhancing Life Project fit into the broader scope of your work?
I study ritual and ethics in early China (5th century BCE to 2nd century CE), and my first book looked at a text that was purportedly written by Confucius’s early disciples about the importance of ritual performance. In a Confucian context, ritual is conceived more broadly than specific ceremonies. It can extend to simple or mundane social interactions, like how you respond to your mother or father, or how you interact with friends. There are proper and improper ways of action and ritual covers everything, including what we’d call etiquette or generic social interactions.
What does “enhancing life” mean for you? In what way will your project contribute to the enhancement of life?
In early Confucian contexts, human beings are largely seen as interconnected entities. They’re interconnected in the sense that we are biologically rooted in a lineage, and at the same time, human beings and everything else in the world are seen as being comprised of the same stuff, called qi. And there’s a kind of continuity of being in the fact that we’re made of the same stuff. It allows us to relate to other humans, but also to animals, plants, and inanimate objects. But we’re also interconnected because human beings are largely defined by our relationships.
The idea of enhancing life, then, can be summed up as a kind of self-cultivation, but the self is understood in these interconnected terms. The development of oneself—me—entails the development of the other person who’s in some kind of relation with me. So in that regard, enhancing life can be understood as a kind of realization of relationships or the proper performance of roles. Learning to care for the many other things that I find myself in relationship with can actually define who I am.
How does ritual fit into this?
Ritual, because it’s so all-encompassing, is a means of realizing the connections that we have with other people and things. It’s about coming up with norms or standards or appropriate ways of engaging in relationships. Here’s an example. Mourning rites are one of the specific rituals that Confucian texts are often preoccupied with, and texts in the period I study will describe what’s supposed to occur as a part of burying the deceased. After the deceased is buried, the mourners go back to the house of the deceased person and look for the person as if he or she is still alive. They go room to room calling after the person, finally approaching the person’s bedroom, and finally discovering that the person isn’t really there. And it’s at that moment that the loss becomes the deepest—it’s the moment of realization that the person is really gone.
This particular part of the mourning rites is about helping people understand the transformation of relationships. It’s about recognizing the vulnerabilities that we have in our relationships and allowing for an appropriate degree of vulnerability, which ritual provides. When somebody’s dead, a transition has to take place. We can’t remain open to the relationship in the same way we were when they were living. This ritual helps us manage that vulnerability.
How do public debates – whether it’s political, cultural, etc – shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those debates?
For the past 300-400 years in Western history, China has served as an important “other” and continues to play that role. So I am trying to challenge perceptions of what China is. Western intellectuals and people in the public discourse more broadly have sometimes characterized China as hierarchical, feudal, unscientific, traditional—and the West is the opposite. And some people tend to operate under the assumption that there are traditional societies and there are modern societies and that in order to modernize, some traditional things need to be left behind. But when we look closely, we see that tradition is complex and diverse and modern, even postmodern in some ways. And these popular Western perceptions of China often aren’t reflected in the texts and traditions that I study.
You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?
I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. So there’s no place like home. I grew up surfing and enjoying the beach, and I love to spend time there whenever I can.