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Hunting Confucian Cowboys (Part I)

Hunting Confucian Cowboys (Part I)

While visiting my childhood New Jersey home in my late twenties, I ask about a Chinese scroll hanging on the wall. It has been there as long as I can remember but reading it is not an option for me. It is a qilu poem written over seven centuries ago by an ancestor, Gong Guang-Chuan, and passed down. My father translates Gong’s “advice to the Liu family”:

Stay on course crossing borders.
Uphold ethics where you dwell;
foreign lands will become home.
Recall your parents’ teachings;
every day burn fragrance to
venerate your ancestors.
Heaven bless the Liu household.
Young men, prosper together.

This advice poem is part of a tradition of patriarch-poets that everyone–emperor and bureaucrat to Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong–has taken up. Over the years, this startlingly prescient qilu has kept unfolding for me as I examine the traditions of patriarchy I come from–cowboys and Confucius. Whether transmitted directly, subconsciously, or whispered into my dreams, I am a son of both.

Only in the last few years have I started to reflect and respond to Gong’s poem. (Elsewhere I have written a poem, “A Son Writes Back”–published in Lantern Review–in response to the original.)


Stay on course crossing borders.
Uphold ethics where you dwell;
foreign lands will become home.

Seven hundred forty-two years later in California. In the original Chinese, I am instructed to stay the course on my horse–a spaghetti western immigrating into unfamiliar territory, traditions in my saddlebag. Which traditions? Hollywood, that pernicious story-spinner, offers the best entry point.

In the very mediocre film The Warrior’s Way, the assassin Yang (an ambiguously Chinese character played by a Korean) ends up in the American West where he takes up a laundry business (what else?) and comes to care for Lynne, a young white woman (who is remarkably free of prejudices). Yang is running from his violent past, but of course, it catches up to him. He cannot reciprocate Lynne’s love, and like a good cowboy, he walks into the sunset. Real cowboys never run, they just ride away.

Yang’s character is the cowboy and Confucius holding hands. Despite Yang’s unethical past, a newly awakened sense of ethics stemming from his unwillingness to kill a baby girl obligates Yang to become a protector against evil. But a cowboy is a free agent, honorable underneath the scruff but in the end a drifter, emotionally unavailable. Lynne and the baby are just foils for Yang’s ethical recovery.

In Gong’s poem, the English word “ethics” is a simplification of the three principles of ren, li, and yi. Contained in ren is the right way to relate to others. Love, but a certain kind. Benevolence from above, obedience from below. Father and son. Older and younger. Husband and wife. Ruler and subject. Harmony depends on knowing your place and how to comport, as John Wayne knows: “Women have the right to work wherever they want, as long as they have the dinner ready when you get home”.

The 19th century’s virulent racism against Asians, Native Americans, Blacks, and Mexicans is nowhere to be found in this Hollywood story. It’s cleaned up for the 21st century. In reality, while Confucian cowboys may be free to walk into the sunset, they are likely to be chased out of town by a mob for touching a white woman.

Duke Ching of Chi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, “Let the ruler be a ruler, minister be a minister, father be a father, son be a son.” The Duke said, “Excellent! Indeed, if the ruler is not a ruler, the ministers not ministers, fathers not fathers and sons not sons, even if I have food, how can I eat it?”

Confucius, Analects (Book 12, Chapter 11), 500 BCE

To be a man is a tautology that is so normal it usually needs no explanation: A man is a man. It should be obvious if you were raised correctly. It is self-referential, complete in itself. Except if, like me, you live between different versions of manhood.

The dominant story of manhood in the United States: a true man is rational, unemotional (except when angry), a breadwinner, physically dominant with women, follows sports, prefers sex over emotional intimacy, does not love other men, and is white. A modern cowboy. If anything leaks, we all keep each other in line. We police and self-police. Be a man. Be a man so that harmony can be maintained, so that manhood is not in danger, so our country is safe.

If you cry, cannot win enough bread, do not care for sports, are attracted to men, something unnatural has happened. Heaven and earth are out of alignment. Or it is simply your fault. If a man is not a man, how can we eat, even if we have food?

In the late 19th century, Congress passes laws preventing Chinese and other Asians from land ownership and citizenship, and excluding Chinese women from entry into the United States under an anti-prostitution pretense. It is not possible for Chinese men to become true heterosexual men. Yet Congress can eat because Chinese labor farms and builds railroads. It is still the case today with other immigrant communities.

My father is not a particularly athletic man, nor is he a sports person, or a drinker. He does not glue himself to the tube on weekends with a beer, or recite team and player statistics, or ties emotions to the fortunes of a major league anything. The first time I ever had a conversation about sports with other men was the day before my 35th birthday.

Although a man is a man, my experience tells me there is more than one way. So, perhaps this idea of man is not natural. There are gaps. No matter which land you are in.

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