For many Chinese of the old, meals are a moment where 孝(xiao) or filial piety is displayed. In the 2010 Hong Kong movie Bruce Lee, My Brother, one of the scenes depicts this traditional Chinese culture where, around a meal, the younger ones or juniors in the family rank would call the name of their elders or superiors before eating. Bruce’s parents just arrived in Hong Kong from San Francisco, where Bruce’s father was performing for an opera tour of the United States. It was there that Bruce was born and automatically became an American citizen. It was meal time and everyone looked very happy and excited, including Bruce’s grandmother, who was overjoyed with the arrival of her baby grandson. When it was time to eat, Bruce’s father went ahead to eat while everyone watched in dismay, including Bruce’s grandmother. Then one of Bruce’s aunties started calling out the name of Bruce’s grandmother, and said, ‘Mom, eat.’ She then called out her other siblings and did likewise. This was followed by everyone else, including Bruce’s mother, who said, ‘Mom, eat. Husband, eat.’ And Bruce’s father would call out to his mother and said, ‘Mom, eat.’
This scene during a meal is a typical culture that all Chinese do. When I was a young boy, I did likewise. My grandmother inherited the kopitiam or Chinese-style coffee shop from my late grandfather. We are after all Hainanese, and the Hainans are well known for two trades – kopitiam and Hainan chicken rice. I would go to the kopitiam during the weekend and Saturday would be the day where I would remain until late at night, sometimes beyond midnight to help out with the business. After all, our kopitiam was situated right across the major theatres – Rex, and Federal - that were showing Hollywood, Shaw Brothers, and Golden Harvest movies, and I got to enjoy watching those box-office movies, only if I went to the kopitiam. When I left the house with my father who rode the motorbike, I would call my mother and say, ‘Mom, I am leaving.’ And when I arrived home, even at the time when my mother was fast asleep, I would still call her and said, ‘Mom, I am back.’ And whether it is the kopitiam or at home, when it was meal time, it would be customary for us to do what those in the Bruce Lee movie were doing, and we would not eat unless our elders proceeded to do first.
Such a practice describes a certain psychology of the Chinese, and this is the reciprocal relationship between the higher and the lower, the superior and the junior, and the elderly and the younger, in human relationship. The relationship is reciprocal in the sense that the ones in the upper bracket of the family rank have the responsibility of overseeing the well-being of those in the lower bracket, and in return, the ones in the lower bracket have the responsibility of rendering obedience to those in the upper bracket by making sure they do not do things that will put them and others in harm’s way. I still remember when I was in primary school, me and my elder brother and sister went for a band competition at the Kubu Stadium (now called Stadium Hang Tuah) where both my siblings were participating. We went together but came home separately. When my father came home that night and got to know about this, all the three of us were made to squat on our knees, given a lecture, and, of course, the cane. My father said, ‘When you leave home as a family, you come home as a family.’
I thus believe that when our beloved Prophet Muhammad said, ‘Seek knowledge even unto China,’ these words were directed at the practice of the Confucian ethics that so much colours the Chinese way of life. After all, the Prophet had said, ‘Certainly, I was sent but to bring to fruition the noblest of qualities in man’s character,’ and what else is there to seek in China but the rich legacy of the Confucian ethics as exemplified in the practice of filial piety that made all the difference to the meaning of being human that is the essence of the human existence.
Today, this aspect of the Chinese culture is gradually becoming a forgotten truth. For the many Malaysian and Singaporean Muslims of Chinese descent, to be able to reclaim this aspect of humanity and practice it, is a faithful portrayal not only of their Chinese identity, but more significantly, it is a fulfilment of the words of the Prophet with regard to what seeking knowledge even to China is about. We would have made our Prophet proud for through the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese Muslims, the practice of a rich ancient teaching that is slowly becoming a disregarded alien practice, is brought back into life into the Chinese society, but by way of Islam through the Chinese Muslims of these two countries. Therefore, to invite other Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore to the way of Islam, the Chinese Muslims of these two countries must show that Confucianism is still relevant in modern times, and to do this, they must continue to preserve, promote, and practice those aspects of the Confucian ethics that constitute the practices of Islam itself. Should Confucianism be seen as irrelevant to modern life among the contemporary Chinese, then it is for the Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese Muslims to put its relevance back in the Chinese culture and way of life by themselves being the converging point of the rivers of these two great civilizations.
Note: The saying of the Prophet on seeking knowledge even unto China has been said by some scholars of hadith as a weak hadith, or that its authenticity is disputed.
"The one who acts without knowledge is like a wayfarer without a way, and such a person ruins more than he fixes. Therefore seek knowledge, in a way that does not harm your worship, and seek worship, in a way that does not harm your knowledge seeking, for there was a nation that sought worship and neglected knowledge, until they went out with their swords against the ummah (nation) of Muhammad peace be upon him. Had they sought knowledge, it would not have led them to what they did."