This is to continue the article, Skeptical of everything – “that’s that” for the Cynics.


It's worth noting that Cynicism and Confucianism have different interpretations of “attending to one’s own good”. Confucianism propounds that we should scrupulously abide by our own duty with some prior effort. Traditional Confucian scholars emphasise that absolute principles always prevail. What one has to do is to decide what he should or should not do as well as to take on the responsibility of educating the masses in times of prosperity. On the other hand, they are aware that the way of the world is always changing and life is not always how one wants it to be even though he has put in a lot of effort, and aspirations are difficult to accomplish, especially in the face of adversity. However, one should always try his best to abide by his duty and cultivate his own virtue. In fact, this is what Mencius said in Jin Xin 1: 

“If the ancients accomplished their aspirations, they would turn them into benefits for the people. If not, their self-cultivation would serve as an example to the succeeding generations. In times of hardship, one should try to cultivate his own virtue while in times of success, one should share his goodness with the whole world.”

“Attending to one’s own good” in Confucianism does not mean giving up without trying at all. Even though the way of the world goes against their conviction, Confucians would try their best to do the knowingly impossible. They would strive hard to put their conviction into practice; and only if all their efforts turned out to be futile, they would then “step back” and silently uphold their principles. In contrast, Cynics show acceptance even when they disagree. On the one hand, they are discontented with reality, but on the other hand, they have never tried to uphold their own conviction and put it into actions, simply because they want to protect themselves from injury, failure and disappointment. One could say, Cynics are resentful and always show disdain for social change; from the outset they rebuff the world.

To awaken people through writings

Thus, Cynics are apparently different from Confucian scholars. The latter mostly exemplify the spirit of doing the knowingly impossible. They always regard conveying the right principles through writing as their own responsibility with a view to spreading the Confucian orthodoxy and educating the masses. Their writings may expose contemporary social injustice in a satirical manner, but certainly the targets of their satires are neither the righteous nor the oppressed. They aim at arousing public awareness of social justice instead of just expressing discontent and stooping to compromise. Lu Xun’s comparison of Cynics to the nonhuman bee reflects his attitude towards them.

That also explains why Lu Xun felt reluctant to be a silent and indifferent onlooker when one day he saw photographic slides showing a public beheading of a Chinese person during his study in Japan. Ashamed to be associated with Cynics by “attending to his own good”, he decided to abandon his medical studies and take up literature instead. He subsequently got himself into the tides of history and politics with a view to transforming the spiritual outlook of the people through his writings.

"Since then, I have realised that medical science is not so important. The people of a weak and backward country, however physically strong and healthy they may be, can only serve to be made examples of, or to witness such futile spectacles; and it doesn't really matter how many of them die of illness. Thus, the most important thing is to change their spirit, and since at that time I believed that literature was the best means to this end, I resolved to promote a literary movement.” (Preface to Call to Arms)

Cynics did exist in the past but were seldom recognised as such in Chinese society. It’s simply because history only records those who keep trying to do the knowingly impossible, which by reference precludes mention of Cynics. Both Confucians and Cynics start with the letter “C” but their philosophies could not be more different.