Define your own ‘guī jŭ’
April Feng | Friday, January 22, 2016
Verb: To regulate, to limit, to straighten, to shape.
Noun: Rule, good manner, limit, shape, self-control.
One day when I was four years old, my kindergarten teacher walked into the classroom and announced: “Today we will learn how to sit.” She then introduced to us the concept of guī jŭ, the ability to limit oneself.
“Nobody will respect you unless you learn guī jŭ. First lesson, sit as you are sitting. Dan!” She pointed at me. “You look like you are sleeping, not sitting! Put your legs down on the ground! Fold your hands and rest them on the table! Press your back to the chair and sit up straight!” I followed her commands. Just like that, I learned my first guī jŭ that day, without much appreciation for the concept. Why can’t I rest my head comfortably on my elbow? Why can’t I scratch my face as I wish? Why must I be limited by this stupid guī jŭ? As I was mumbling my complaints, my teacher shouted at me again. “Raise your hand before you say anything on class!”
After my first encounter with the concept, I painstakingly acquired many other guī jŭ from my parents, my friends and my teachers in school. Aside from how to sit properly, I also learned and practiced how to stand properly, how to eat properly, how to talk properly, how to walk properly and even, believe it or not, how to sleep properly. I still remember my dad asking me to never praise myself in front of others, my elementary school teacher coaching me to accept things from people with both hands, especially from those that are older than me, and my mom teaching me to never pick up my chopsticks and eat before the elders in the family do.
Sometimes I would question why there must be so many limits in my life. The answer was always the same: Because China is “the land of propriety and etiquettes” and every Chinese person needs to learn how to act properly. “Guī jŭ is a virtue,” they said. “Learn it and practice it until it becomes part of you.” Despite my love for my culture, I sometimes secretly wished I would go to a place where no guī jŭ is needed, a place where I would never be limited or at least where I could sit as I wanted to.
I got part of that wish by coming to America. During freshman orientation at Notre Dame, I was surprised by how unconstrained my American friends were. They crossed their legs on the sofa cushion and scratched their face whenever they felt like it, and they did those highly “improper” things while the rector was speaking! During the first week of school, the cultural shock got more and more difficult to handle. My classmates never saw the need to take their exam papers back with both hands, even when the papers came from the professors. They sometimes even interrupted the professors in class and found it funny that I raised my hand in a perfectly vertical angle every time before I spoke.
At the same time, my friends marveled at my ability to sit still for hours, even when the conversation was clearly not engaging. They asked me from time to time why I always tried to look “so formal.” The fact is, I was not really trying. It was already part of my nature to guī jŭ myself at all times. It had already become my habit to sit, eat, stand, walk and talk “properly” and to limit my behaviors constantly.
One instance changed my understanding of guī jŭ permanently. On a study night in LaFortune, I overheard the conversation of two people behind me. It did not take me long to figure out they were talking about China, and many of their comments were not only racist, but also far from accurate. I was furious and wanted to walk straight up to them and say something equally rude and offensive.
However, as I stood up, weirdly enough, the guī jŭ on talking which I learned years ago echoed in my head: “Do not say anything if you cannot say it properly (fei li wu yan).” A strange power deep in my heart forced me to sit down, reflect on my anger and try to find a proper way to express it. It was at that moment I realized guī jŭ had become so much more than the simple rules I received. It helped me constrain my anger and return it not with violence or fierceness but with reason and respect, which everyone deserves, no matter how they have behaved. That moment I felt proud, dignified and weirdly free. I was no longer a slave to my own irrational impulses. I had finally become used to a life limited by guī jŭ and found a newly defined freedom within it.
Last semester, I had a conversation with Leon Krier, the founding father of New Urbanism, a school of architectural thought. I asked Leon what his objective was as an architect, and he answered without hesitation: “To define limits.” That single phrase was the heart of guī jŭ. Freedom is not the absence of limit but the full acceptance of it. Some of the guī jŭ I learned in elementary school still govern my everyday manners, both in China and America. They give me the ability to regulate myself, to present myself with dignity and propriety, to fully appreciate the value of limits and to find freedom within the inevitable boundaries. Confucius once defined the ultimate freedom as “following what my heart desired, but with perfect propriety and without transgressing the boundaries.” I hope everyone can set off on a journey to define his or her own guī jŭ in this new semester.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.