In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight Series, I sat down with Professor Emeritus Donald Munro, who retired in 1995 but remains active in the LRCCS Community. In this interview, Professor Munro tells me about learning Confucianism from a Manchu prince, the importance of ritual practice, and some of his earliest experiences in the PRC.
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard
Couillard: I like to start these interviews off from the very beginning – where do you call home? Where did you grow up?
Professor Munro: I grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. A happy place to grow up. I started out college at Amherst, but had not developed any sense of goal or reason for studying. I failed calculus and had to go to summer school, and that gave me sufficient shame and incentive to put some more thought into what I was doing. I spent a year in Europe and North Africa, studying French and French society. When I returned home, I wanted to learn about a different culture, so I chose China, at the University of Michigan. I was totally enraptured by the richness of the culture.
I took Chinese at Michigan, then transferred to Harvard to finish my undergrad.
Couillard: So you went to three different schools for undergrad?
Professor Munro: That’s correct. By the time I graduated, I had had enough of universities. So I went to Navy Officer Candidate School and became a naval officer for a few years - this was during the tail end of the Korean War. After that I came back to the US to study Chinese and philosophy at Columbia.
Couillard: When did you learn Chinese?
Professor Munro: I started learning at Michigan where the Chinese language teaching was superb, but that only set me up with a rudimentary foundation. I had three years of Chinese language at Columbia. It wasn’t until I was living in Taiwan that I really began to grasp the language. At that time I was studying under a prince three times a week, and read the Chinese philosophical classics with him.
Couillard: A prince?
Professor Munro: Yes, Aisin Gioro Yu from the Manchurian royal family that had ruled China during the last dynasty. During World War II, he had been recruited by the Japanese to be the Manchukuo delegate to Vietnam. He told me a lot about life in the Forbidden City in the late teens and early 20s of the last century.
Couillard: Do you remember any of those stories?
Professor Munro: Oh sure. He had a lot of good things to say about both Confucianism and Buddhism, but also lived with some of the negatives. For example, the quantity of rituals that a person of his position in the court was supposed to observe was exhausting. If he wanted to get up in the middle of the night to go pee, he had to make sure he had certain belts, certain vests, and certain stones hanging from strings on the belt. So he made special effort to never have to pee in the middle of the night.
Couillard: Haha. What’s the other side of the story? I know some of your research relates to Confucian rituals – what draws you to that?
Professor Munro: Are you familiar with the term 功夫 (gongfu/kung fu)? In the west it’s mostly associated with martial arts, but in Chinese it refers to any practice which can develop skill. Ritual practice is a kind of gongfu to instill ethical behavior so that it becomes spontaneous, just like a tennis player who has honed their technique so well that they don’t need to think about their swing.
In relations, I think ritual practice makes things easier – they work as a kind of social lubricant. It fosters connection so that people can establish some trust before they talk about more ‘inconvenient’ topics.
Couillard: I never thought of it like that – fascinating. To what extent did you practice this kind of gongfu?
Professor Munro: It was expected that I would live according to these rituals with most of my relations in Taiwan, especially in association with the prince. For example, every time I went to a new person’s house, we would spend time appreciating their ‘personal art,’ which meant calligraphy, before doing anything else.
Couillard: So do you think the practice of rituals is a key component of learning about Confucianism? Not just the philosophy or memorizing The Analects.
Professor Munro: Yes I do. But they don’t have to be Confucian rituals.
Couillard: Would you say that practicing rituals to learn about philosophy is a kind of embodied knowledge? Similar to how Emily Wilcox focuses a lot of her research on the physical practice of Chinese dance
Professor Munro: Yes, I would say her work is right on target.
Couillard: I also wanted to ask you about was your early experience in the PRC. Your first trip there was in 1973 – what was that like?
Professor Munro: I went there in 1973 as the co-leader of a delegation of officers in U.S. K-12 teacher organizations, such as the National Association of School Superintendents. Before the trip, most of them had been impressed by Maoism, thinking it was a utopia. They thought China was going to be the first real egalitarian society. And I said, “Well, when we get there you can see for yourself.” They were angry with me, they thought I was some right-wing type. When we crossed the border, we were met by two communist party officials, and one of the first things they did was ask me for my protocol list so they would know who should ride up front in the limousines and who would ride in the gray bus.
Couillard: Haha, yeah, welcome to China! I have to ask – do you think there were any spies with you on that delegation?
Professor Munro: I don’t think we had any on the American side, but I’m sure our Chinese colleagues were writing reports to their information bureau.
Couillard: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was this gift you and Mrs. Munro gave to the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and the Philosophy Department to create a tenure-track professorship in in Chinese philosophy. What are you hoping creating this role will do?
Professor Munro: First, I hope it will solidify Chinese philosophy as a justifiable part of world philosophy in the curriculum of a Western philosophy department. The occupant of the position must also be proficient in the Chinese classical and modern languages. Second, I think there’s a great deal to be gained by having someone familiar with both Western and Chinese philosophy working together with their counterparts in China. The person in the position will be able to do that.
Couillard: What are you working on these days?
Professor Munro: I’m interested in the degree to which there is a relationship between facts and values of which most of us are actually aware. For example, part of human health is a function of social relations. The value of social bonding derives its strength from the emotions of love and sympathy. These in turn can lead to our care for those with whom we bond. These are objective facts, as are the positive impact of caring on our own health and wellbeing. I think that need is innate and biological – we manifest it with our families, professional associations, all of that. These are symbiotic relations not just among humans, but also animals like chimps. There are wonderful books on the latter, such as those by Frans de Waal. So I think this fact has ethical implications, and I want to explore those implications.