Waking Up After September Ends

“Wake me up when September ends…”

Well, ok, it’s October now. Gosh… I actually can’t believe I haven’t been blogging for slightly more than two months. It felt like eternity.

I’ve been so ridiculously crazy over the past two months. Somehow, when the semester began, I found myself flooded with a never-ending stream of activity. It was exhausting and stressful, but it was amazing.

The past 2 months have so far, been the greatest high points of my life and career here in NTU.

I never would have imagined so many amazing events to have happened in two months, but it did! And now that the high tide of activity has subsided, I can breathe a little easy now, recollect, and can’t help but feel like the past two months were nothing but the most amazing beautiful dream that I’ve had.

So, what did I do?

I spent the entire month of August writing a paper for an academic journal. It’s my first paper for an academic journal. I’m pretty excited about it. It’s not the previous post (if you’re wondering, the previous one had too many problems and too little textual material available to make a solid case; I had to write a different paper). In many ways, it was reminiscent of my undergraduate days. In some ways, it was nostalgic.

Anyway, the editor got back to me. The reviewers’ comments were: It was very very interesting. They loved it! But, major revisions required. Oh dear…

In addition, I participated in a small workshop that involved several directors of research centres around the world (including the UN), discussing issues about East-West boundaries, and problems in science and policy making. It was inspiring to sit in a room filled with one of the most brilliant minds in the world. I want to be like them! They spoke elegantly, conducted themselves in the most gentlemanly manner, and most of all, they were full of brilliant ideas and insights.

Those were the mast amazing 3 days of my life. I grew a lot and I came out a changed person.

Not too long after that, in September, I had to fly to China alone, on my own, for the very first time in my life. I made two trips, each trip lasting a week. If you did not know, I’m involved in the production of a massively open online course (MOOC) in Confucian Philosophy. A MOOC is an online course complete with video lessons, online readings, and online quizzes and assignments, which can earn you a lovely certificate by the administering university.

I won’t be the one conducting the lessons in front of the camera. Rather, I’m the one who does all the behind-the-scenes stuff, such as going to China to get government clearance to film lessons in historical sites in China, among many other matters.

Anyway, the birthday of Confucius was coming up, and we wanted to film the Grand Ritual to Confucius at the Confucius Temple in his hometown in Qufu. But that’s not the only thing we wanted to film. There’s a lot more, but I won’t spoil it for you – at least not now. Anyway, all these things required administrative clearance from the Chinese authorities. It was a learning experience, as China has a very different work culture.

But perhaps the greatest eye opener and learning experience was to experience Confucianism as it was lived and practiced by the people of Qufu. Perhaps, it’s because Qufu is the hometown of Confucius that Confucianism is strongly practised till this day (I can’t make the claim for all of China since I’ve only been to this small town). Imagine this: everywhere you go, you are met with the most sincere, authentic, and friendly people ever. Doesn’t matter where I go (and no, it wasn’t special treatment because I was a foreigner, they all thought I was a local – they were very surprised when I told them I was from Singapore). Human affection and close relationships are the number one priority. Everything that is done is done for the sake of deepening the friendship. Even if you are doing business or working, the close friendship is of utmost importance.

It is no wonder the first line in the Analects is so strongly featured in Qufu:


For a friend to come [visit you] from afar, is this not a great joy?

Analects 1.1

I guess you could say I returned from China a convert, a strong fervent believer of the teachings of Confucius.

It was so refreshing to meet sincere people interested more in friendships than in being able to suck something out from you. It’s a tragedy because nowadays in Singapore, there are just far too many pretentious people who lie that they’re interested in being friends, but actually want to gain something from the friendship. (Seriously, I’m ok if you just say point blank that you want something from me – I don’t like this kind of hypocritical bullshit where you can’t voice your true intentions, but have to keep going around in circles.)

That was a wonderful experience.

Anyway, the second week, my professor and the filming crew came down to China, and it was, for me, a really stressful week as I encountered administrative hiccups here and there. The Chinese authorities do not operate as efficiently as the Singapore civil service. So I had to run around China, making phone calls to various offices just to find alternative solutions or to fix the problem. It was the most stressful week. On the bright side, I was able to pamper myself with delicious foods while I was there, so I was quite happy.

I just came back from China last week, and spent the past couple of days recuperating from the two months of madness. I think I’m now properly rested, which means I should be able to work very efficiently and I can return to blogging regularly. Yay!

So stay tuned for more!

Destiny (命)

命 (ming) is often translated as fate, destiny, decree (Heaven’s Decree 天命), or even Divine Providence. But regardless of how this word is translated, and regardless of whether we really believe in fate/destiny/Providence, there is an important lesson that we can learn from 命 (ming).

There are many things in life that are beyond our control, and these things play a part in shaping the course of our future, as well as the successes and failures of our endeavours. Our beliefs about what led things to be that way (e.g. fate, Providence, chaos) doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we have to remind ourselves – time and time again – that there are things that are beyond our control whether we like it or not.

The fear of the unknown is one of our greatest fears. (It is most certainly one of mine!) It is this fear that paralyses us and prevents us from going forward in life. It is this same fear that makes us even more obsessed about being in control of things.

We want to be in control, we want information. After all, it’s my life! We probably wouldn’t worry so much if life was like a game with a reset button. But there doesn’t seem to be one! And so it seems as if there is very little room for trial and error. This is probably why we are often so worried about what happens to us in the future.

Here’s where one of Confucius’ famous sayings can help us a lot:


(translation mine:) The person who does not know 命 (ming) can never become a gentleman.

[Analects, 20.3]

The reason why such a person cannot become a gentleman is that this person ends up being ruled by his/her fears, and acts irrationally as a result. We all have similar experiences of this. When things don’t go our way, we get very upset, and we sometimes go to the extent of finding someone (or something) to blame and vent our frustration at for the failure. If not, we’d probably give in to our fears and desperately try to make sure things go our way, OR we do not even dare to do it, but instead opt for a safer route where in the end, we never really learn to live our own lives and be ourselves.

Sometimes, all it takes is for a friend to gently remind us that we can’t possibly be in control of everything OR just to take a step back from all that frenzy, to realise that we’ve been acting quite irrationally (and possibly, rather childishly).

So… What does it mean to know 命 (ming)? I think Fung Yu-Lan has a really good explanation:

To know 命 (ming) means to acknowledge the inevitability of the world as it exists, and so to disregard one’s external success or failure. If we can act in this way, we can, in a sense, never fail. For if we do our duty that duty through our very act is morally done, regardless of the external success or failure of our action.

As a result, we always shall be free from anxiety as to success or fear as to failure, and so shall be happy. This is why Confucius said: “知者不惑,仁者不憂,勇者不懼。 The wise are free from doubts; the virtuous from anxiety; the brave from fear.” (Analects, 9.29) Or again: “君子坦蕩蕩,小人長戚戚。 The gentleman is always happy; the petty man sad.” (Analects, 7.37)

[Fung Yu-Lan (馮友蘭), A Short History of Chinese Philosophy (New York: The Free Press, 1948), p.45]


One of my friends puts it very nicely:

To know 命 (ming) is to sit back and let the world take its course, and not be a control freak. For when you seek to control every aspect of your interactions with others you will be disapproved as a jerk. (And yes, its out of your control anyway.)

This is why 命 (ming) is currently my favourite word. I even wrote it and hung it at my door so that I’ll see it everytime I leave my room. This is to remind me that there are many things beyond my control, and so there’s really no point getting upset or anxious.

What’s more important is that I do the things that I have to do anyway. If it’s meant to be, then it shall be. If not, then 算了吧 (let it be)! And if we still find it hard to go through life like this (don’t worry – I struggle with it too), then we’re probably still trying hard to be in control of things beyond our control.