Hello hello again. It sure has been a while since my last article! So much has transpired in the world of Pokémon since then and as always I am ecstatic to be back writing again. I have participated in two Regional Championships since my last adventure at the State Championships and while I performed poorly at both, there is much to be said about the new format!
If you were to talk to me about BCR–ROS at the turn of the month, I think I would have little more than complaints to offer you. I opted to run a M Rayquaza-EX ROS 61 deck in Madison, WI for the first event under the new format and found it to be one of the clunkiest and most disappointing decks I have ever played. Theoretically, the deck seemed strong and like it could compete with a diverse field, but after playing about five rounds with the deck, I knew that I had made a large mistake. Not only was the deck cumbersome and awkward to pilot, but also there were no good arguments to be made over why I should play it compared to any of the Seismitoad-EX/Shaymin-EX ROS decks. The power between those two cards was unparalleled in a way I do not think I have ever experienced and as we saw from Jason’s win against an assured auto-loss in the finals, the combo created between heavy draw, replenishing your deck and cycling absurdly strong cards like Crushing Hammer and Hypnotoxic Laser needed to be dealt with as soon as possible.
However, as I’m sure everyone knows, not even a full day passed before the people behind the cards decided that Lysandre’s Trump Card had to go. To me, it is funny to see that the card was so broken that it only got one event in the new format before being canned, but I am happy that the change occurred so quickly. As a realist, I thought that we may see a nerf of the card by the start of the next season (if we were lucky) and so for once my incorrect assumption was only greeted with relief and an eager desire to begin attempting to figure out the game without Lysandre’s Trump Card. The last time TPCi implemented a gigantic change in the middle of the season, I tested the most I ever have in my life and placed 26th at US Nationals and so I am eager to accomplish a similar finish.
However, if you want more on the effects losing Lysandre’s Trump Card, please refer to Nicholena’s and Kenny’s recent articles! For today, I have a very unique topic I want to try to delve into and you’ll have to come back for my next writing in order to hear the rest of my thoughts on the new format.
If you’ll recall to my very first article, I went over my mission statement and made it clear that the main area that I wanted to cover was the blending of the Pokémon community and my philosophical pursuits. So, for today, I am going to attempt to synthesize my vast understanding of Confucian ideology into a sentiment about the community as a whole and attempt to explain how adapting the theory into our card game practices, goals and habits will aid us in excelling as players and people alike. Many of my sentiments about striving to be excellent or exemplary players are derived from the influence Confucian thought on my body of ideas. As such, I wish to spend this article to delve into these ideas further in order to make the points as compelling as possible. Furthermore, I believe that there are very strong ties to Confucian thought and many of the clichés that regularly get associated with the Pokémon universe and so linking the two is not as difficult a task as one might think. I hope you enjoy and I look forward to hearing feedback!
The Master said, “At fifteen, I set my mind upon learning; at thirty, I took my place in society; at forty, I become free of doubts; at fifty, I understood Heaven’s Mandate; at sixty, my ear was attuned; and at seventy, I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the bounds of propriety.” (Lunyu 2.4)
An Introduction to Confucius
Confucius (551–479 BCE) derived from Kongzi (Master Kong, Confucius being the latinization of his name by Jesuit missionaries) was born in the state of Lu during the Summer and Autumn Period shortly after the beginning of the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The violence of this time period was unprecedented in the proto-Chinese world and many different groups, both militarily and intellectually, were striving for power and attempted to conquer using any means necessary. Confucius himself was not after power, but was merely attempting to foster education and virtue. Many of his teachings share sentiments like “do unto others” of the often-quoted Golden Rule yet predate similar sayings by centuries.
Zigong said, “What do I not wish other to do unto me, I also wish not to do unto others.”
The Master said, “Ah, Zigong! That is something quite beyond you.” (Lunyu 5.12)
In his own time, Confucius saw himself as little more than a failure and his own teachings would not be recorded as the Lunyu (perhaps more commonly known as The Analects, a collection of his sayings recording years after Confucius’s death). However, many dynasties after his lifetime and the life of many of his successors, his ideologies would be codified into all forms of Chinese life. One of the main goals of Confucian thought is to embrace the notion that we are always learning and our habits should foster a desire to further our education and better ourselves. To become the best possible players, I believe that such a mentality is the best way to improve and so as this article progresses, I will continually tie the theories into ways I believe that players act and sell themselves short.
Spirit of the Game
As players, I have always argued that our aim is not to win every event at any cost or attempt to be the very best for the sake of success or reward. Rather, being excellent means a flourishing within one’s community or social environment and developing a focus on learning, self-transformation and an abandonment of individual interest in favor of the communal. I believe that the explicitly stated Spirit of the Game captures this very well:
“Play! Pokémon events are enjoyed for their atmosphere of friendly competition and good sportsmanship. The objective for every Play! Pokémon tournament is that every participant has fun while also playing at his or her best.
We want everyone who participates in Play! Pokémon events to keep these principles in mind—fun, fairness, honesty, respect, sportsmanship, and learning. Together, these principles make up our Spirit of the Game.”
It’s never just about winning, but also developing a positive environment where growth and doing one’s best is the key. Note that winning is not mentioned anywhere within these codes that outline how we ought to engage with the game as a whole. It takes a step back in order to create an environment focusing on learning, respect and so on. Many of the concepts explicitly referred to in the Spirit of the Game happen to be Confucian virtues, so I hardly think it is a stretch for me to link these two.
Unlike much other prescriptive philosophy, there is never an absolute for a Confucian. The proper Confucian does not orient himself or herself toward an attitude like “Never X” or “Always Y.” Rather, authenticity is to be derived by always doing what is most appropriate or Yi 義.
The Master said, “With regard to the world, the junzi has no predisposition for or against any person. He merely associates with those he considers right.” (Lunyu 4.1)
Yi, then requires one to understand the nature of each an every relationship. Every single relationship can be broken down by benefactor or benefiter and thus what is “appropriate” is a matter of bringing out the very best from both parties. This, however, is merely the beginning of the comparisons! Let’s jump right into the main ideas of the ideology.
Mengzi said, “Ren is simply being human. The Way is simply to harmonize with ren and put it into words.” (Mengzi 7B16)
The Master said, “Is Goodness really so far away? If I simply desire Goodness, I will find that it is already here.” (Lunyu 7.30)
Flourishing as the Ultimate Goal
As Ash Ketchum famously proclaimed over and over again, his goal was to be the very best like no one ever was. With excellence as his aim, Ash unwittingly shows a strong compatibility for what Confucius himself would have talked about. That is, like Ash, our ultimate goal is not to simply win everything or do our best to win regardless of the cause but rather harmonize with our environment.
As I’ve written before, every single one of us wants to win everything, but of course we are not able to do so and this creates an adverse environment where we begin to value the external things like winning over making friends or bettering ourselves through adversity. The Pokémon community, in my opinion, has always meant something because of the relationships we make and the friends we get to spend time with at every tourney and what is not valued is whether or not you make top cut and can win six League Challenges in a year and so on. When I focus on whether or not I win or lose, I quickly become dissatisfied or upset and I begin to miss the fact that I get to spend quality time with friends in odd and exotic locations across the country.
The Master said, “To learn and then have occasion to practice what you have learned — is this not satisfying? To have friends arrive from afar — is this not a joy?” (Lunyu 1.1)
Practicing what we learn from our late-night play testing sessions and spending time with fellow players from around this world is a joy indeed and begins to unveil what I mean by flourishing. For Confucius, this notion of flourishing becomes directly associated with the concept of ren 仁 which often becomes translated as benevolence or goodness itself though conceptually it is a bit more complicated than that. Ren itself is derived from 人 (also ren, but simply meaning person in this instance) and 二 (er, the character for the number two), implying that this concept cannot exist without two people involved. Goodness itself requires at least one relationship between two people!
I would also argue that Pokémon as game exists in the same fashion since for the game to take place or have any semblance of meaning, you need at least two people to be engaged fastidiously within the rules. Without two players, there is no game to even attempt to discuss. Furthermore, ren is a triumph of harmonizing within one’s relationships. In order to further explicate this framework, I will need to explain the specific concepts that make ren possible.
The Master said, “Master Zeng! All that I teach can be strung together on a single thread.”
“Yes, sir,” Master Zeng responded.
After the Master left, the disciples asked, “What did he mean by that?”
Master Zeng said, “All that the Master teaches amounts to nothing more than dutifulness tempered by understanding.” (Lunyu 4.15)
A Single Thread
Though inevitably a matter of contention amongst Confucian scholars (and wannabes like myself), I am of the belief that all aspects of the Master’s thought can be seen in the play between the virtues of zhong 忠 and shu 恕. I personally would argue that there is not a single passage within the Lunyu that does not contain a reference or dialogue about one if not both terms in some form or another. As seen in the passage above, zhong is translated as dutifulness while shu is meaning understanding. Expectedly with a language like Mandarin (very old Mandarin to boot), the real meaning of these characters and their radicals is quite a bit more complicated. Zhong can also mean middleness (as we can observe in the characters Zhongguo 中国 meaning China though literally “Middle Kingdom”), loyalty and respect. Shu, on the other hand, bears one of the same radicals as zhong (xin 心 loosely referring to something related to the heart or mind) as well as the radical Nǚ 女 for woman imply a more feminine conation to the concept exposing shu as being flexing and molding to the needs of others within a given relationship. For the sake of simplicity and easier argumentation, I will remain consistent with 4.15 for the meanings behind both zhong and shu.
Thusly, ren is achieved by a dutiful commitment to harmonizing and flourishing within one’s relationship as well as and empathetic understanding of the roles and roles of others. Without the two in perfect unison, it is simply not possible for ren to be achieved. To highlight the play between these ideas, we must further examine both of these terms.
The Master said, “I will not open the door for a mind that is not already striving to understand, nor will I provide words to a tongue that is not already struggling to speak. If I hold up one corner of a problem, and the student cannot come back to me with the other three, I will not attempt to instruct him again.” (Lunyu 7.8)
The Three-Fold Nature of Zhong: Standards, Difficulty and Excellence
To borrow from the writings of my undergraduate advisor and Confucian scholar Dr. Chris Panza, zhong itself can be broken down into three separate categories that all need be in play in order to fully capture the term. Understanding zhong is a transformative process that requires loyalty, respect and a total commitment to one’s social roles. It is a process of learning that never ends.
First, zhong can be understood as a meaningful embrace of communal standards. By this, I am not asserting that one ought to blindly follow the rules simply because they just so happen to be the rules in play. Rather, it is an understanding of these standards and being able to flow within them that will grant one the ability to create new meaning in a sea of possibilities.
In the case of Pokémon, I will attempt to understand the communal standards only in terms of the competitive scene. As such, I argue that these standards are mostly captured within the Spirit of the Game (creating a fun, healthy environment, attempt to do one’s best and so on) as well as being simple notions such as showing up to registration on time, always coming prepared with extra sleeves, damages counter and everything else. Not doing so simply becomes an inconvenience for everyone else. These standards are arbitrary in the sense that they could certainly be otherwise, but they exist in a way to ensure efficiency within social and tournament settings alike.
Furthermore, I would also argue that an embrace of these standards is required in order to make meaningful deck choices and in-game decisions. What do I mean here? When I am building a deck, I must absolutely understand that every deck in the format is going to adhere to a handful of standards such as playing four copies of Professor Juniper or Professor Sycamore, Seismitoad-EX-focused decks are likely to play multiple copies of disruptive Supporters, Virizion-EX decks have open space to play a wide variety of tech cards etc. By not taking the time to recognize these standards, I will never come close to making a strong deck choice. Without the embrace of these standards, I merely become a mindless netdecker who has no understanding of the complexities and inner workings of the game and simply makes decisions based around popular opinions and what others tell them.
Confucius said of the Ji Family, “They have eight rows of dancers performing in their courtyard. If they can condone this what are they not capable of?” (Lunyu 3.1)
The Master said, “Zang Wenzhong housed his sacred tortoises in a hall where the column capitals were carved in the shape of mountains and the root beams were decorated with images of water plants. How could he be considered wise?” (Lunyu 5.18)
Next embedded within zhong is a tacit requirement that difficult must be embraced. As they say, nothing worth wanting comes easily and ren of course is no different. Difficulty is something that is established within the standard themselves. This stuff is hard! But that does not make it not worth achieving. In fact, the difficulty is part of what makes zhong so appealing.
In competitive scene, all players attempt to win every event that they take part in, but if this were easy, I think it is easy to see why it would mean less. For example, most players already take in ways that value difficulty whether they know it or not. Achievements in smaller, uncompetitive regions are valued much lower than those who are surrounded by competition. I do not believe people should be faulted for their region (unless they actively seek out weaker competitions which of course happens) but it is clear to see why I value someone winning an eight-round Regional Championship lower than someone who had to grind through fourteen rounds with a much higher player quality. Even with the invite structure to Worlds this year, it is hard to compare years past of needing 500 Points compared to 300 or Top 40 in a region compared to the 100+ who have earned 300 Championship Points this year.
By ignoring difficulty, we strip our relationships or Pokémon of its meaning. If I were to begin breaking the rules simply because it made things easier, I would place my focus on externals alone. Talking about winning while cheating is a contradiction since everyone else is playing an entirely different game than I am! My friend Dustin Zimmerman always says that he’d rather just not play at all than cheat and I strongly sympathize with this notion.
To frame this in Confucian terms, imagine that I am in a longtime relationship with a significant other. We are at our 10th anniversary dinner and my significant other is showering me with praise of my loyalty and dutifulness. Oh, wow wonderful I am for never cheating on her. Imagine then that I pause the conversation and utter the following to her:
“It is indeed true that I have never cheated on you. All your words about my loyalty are true. However, I think about cheating on you all the time. Not a second passes where it’s not in my mental framework. In fact, I see most other people as instruments to fuel my own mentality of indiscretion. But you’re still right. Happy anniversary!”
Obviously the dinner probably ends in some sort of violent conflict and while perhaps ridiculous, it illustrates my point very well. That is, zhong and ren are not mere words or actions. They are the unity between the two. The drive for excellence is perhaps the most difficult undertaking imaginable, but only working through this difficulty can we find our efforts completely rewarded.
With a great sigh Yan Hui lamented, “The more I look up at it the higher it seems; the more I delve into it, the harder it becomes. Catching a glimpse of it before me, I then find it suddenly at my back.
The Master is skilled at gradually leading me on, step by step. He broades me with culture and restrains me with the rites, so that even if I wanted to give up I could not. Having exhausted all of my strength, it seems as if there is still something left, looming up ahead of me. Though I desire to follow it, there seems to be no way through.” (Lunyu 9.11)
Rain Qiu said, “It is not that I do not delight in your Way, Master, it is simply that my strength is insufficient.”
The Master said, “Someone whose strength is genuinely insufficient collapses somewhere along the Way. As for you, you deliberately draw the line.” (Lunyu 6.12)
The final component to zhong is a total devotion and reverence toward holistic excellence. As Ash strived to become the very best, we must also orient ourselves in a similar fashion. Winning a plethora or events or even every event is not constitutive of “excellence.” Zhong is an embodied experience that transcends anything external and cannot be captured so succinctly. Self-betterment and perseverance are all necessary components, but ren cannot be reached without a reverence to the task at hand.
Furthermore, excellence is not something that can be achieved in the traditional sense. The path to excellence has no moment where we can place our flag down and proclaim, “Yes, I have done it. I am indeed excellent.” Instead, it is more of an infinite pursuit toward doing one’s utmost in every single instance. We may never “get there,” but the path itself is one of existential motivation. This three-fold understanding zhong is required for flourishing to be a possibility and as players, I too will argue that flourishing ought to be our primary goal. When we place our focus on it, I truly believe that it progresses us toward our best possible self (which itself ought to make the pursuit a worthy one) but also that our external desires may come along for free. That is, by merely wanting to win events or win Worlds, I will always find myself dissatisfied and strictly focused on particular instances of success. But, if I focus on become a dedicated player who practices fruitfully and accepts difficulty, I develop positive habits that in and of themselves will lead me to becoming good enough to takedown achievements.
Master Zeng said, “A scholar-official must be strong and resolute, for his burden is heavy and his way (dao 道) is long. He takes up Goodness (ren 仁) as his own personal burden — is it not heavy? His way ends only with death — is it not long?” (Lunyu 8.7)
Shu: Shifting the Focus to Others
Now that we have a solid and detailed understanding of the first piece of the thread, we must begin to talk about shu as it is equally required to be ren. As first mentioned, this virtue can generally be understood as understanding, though its real connotations are much deeper. Imbedded within this notion of “understanding” is a required empathy and always attempts to understand the situation based upon the social role of the other party within the relationship.
If one of the main purposes of zhong is to desire to better yourself in every way possible then it can be argued that shu is the desire to extend such an orientation to everyone else. As such, excellence cannot be understood in terms of the individual, but rather as a harmony between two or more parties. In the same way that ren would make zero sense if targeted for only one person, zhong and shu necessarily most operate in the exact same fashion.
Desiring to take his stand, one who is ren helps others to take their stand; wanting to realize himself, he helps others realize themselves. Being able to take what is near at as an analogy could perhaps be called the method of ren. (Lunyu 6.30)
Through observing the actions and saying of many of Confucius’ disciples, it is easy to see how one can contain either zhong or shu, but not both. It should be thoroughly clear why both are required for ren to be uncovered as the project, but what does it look like to only have one of these virtues?
To make this distinction clearer, I argue that we may understand zhong as an understanding of rules, values and so on while shu is a flexibility to rework those rules and values for a specific person. Displaying too much zhong is thus the type of person who believes in the importance of rule and structure simply for the sake of it and not because it is a framework for making ren possible. Attempting to use the rules equally for every person would not take into account how each person or player has different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I myself struggle to commit to long sessions of play testing but another person prefers to test in blocks of time that are too long. In both of these instances, a different rule or standard would need to be prescribed in order to balance our individual weaknesses, but an individual with an overabundant amount of zhong would find it satisfactory to try to tell us to do the exact same things.
The Master said, “It is said, ‘In archery, one does not emphasize piercing the hide of the target,’ because people’s strengths differ. Such is the ancient Way.” (Lunyu 3.16)
Conversely, too much shu would then entail a person who has absolutely no adherence to rules and simply becomes too flexible. This would begin to sound like “just do whatever you want” or “practice what feels best” which of course is very problematic in its own right. Recall that the first component of zhong is a reverence to these standards and by being too shu, we act as if such things never existed at all which becomes a volunteer commitment to live in falsity. Truly, it is a balance and harmony brings the best out of everything and the dual relationship between zhong, shu, and ultimately our end goal of flourishing through ren is no different.
The Exemplary Player
The final component of my argument is thus to show how the person who properly embodies zhong and shu would act. For Confucius, the separation between knowledge and action does not exist and so an agent who knows what is means to be ren cannot possibly act in a way that is not ren (buren 不仁).
“This player pays complete attention to what cards their opponent plays throughout the game. They are always trying to track what cards are in their opponent’s hand, as well as in their opponent’s deck. This player is very aware of what cards their opponent has already played and keeps track of what cards are in their opponent’s discard pile. This player notices discreet details such as ‘My opponent has played one Virbank City Gym, but I saw another reverse holo Virbank City Gym during Game 1. Thus, I know that they play at least two.’ This player is very attentive to detail, and they use it to gain an advantage whenever possible.”
His distinction between good, great and exemplary essentially can be understood as an increased level of awareness. The good player notices little and focuses on winning their game while the exemplar pays attention to everything and focuses on not just the state of the game, but the state of themselves and the opponent. While every bit of this is certainly true, I think that being an exemplary player encompasses much more than understanding the game at a higher level. For me, the exemplar is one who embodies the excellence highlighted many times so far today and thus it is only fitting for me to further explicate on this concept.
I know that every single one of us has the capacity to achieve everything I outline in this article, but let us turn back to Ash and his rival Gary to highlight what it means to be (or not to be) an exemplar of the Confucian model.
The Master said, “One who rules through the power of Virtue is analogous to the Pole Star; it simply remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars.” (Lunyu 2.1)
Ash Ketchum: Junzi?
The notion of an exemplar is very prominent in the teachings of Confucius. In fact, there’s even a term for it! The junzi (君子) has a wide variety of connotations literally meaning something along the lines of “master’s son,” but generally gets translated as the gentlemen. However, such an understanding is far too gendered for it to be maintained in contemporary scholarship and thus it is better to understand the term as “authoritative person” or merely the Confucian exemplar. The junzi is someone who embodies ren in each of his or her actions and relationships. However, as noted previously, this commitment toward excellence is an absurdly difficult one and so being known as a junzi would be a monumental achievement to say the least. Confucius would not have even considered himself a junzi if that will serve to highlight the distinction anymore clearly.
The Master said, “The junzi is not a vessel.” (Lunyu 2.12)
As the above passage indicates, the junzi is not a vessel — not a tool with a singular purpose or ability. As the embodiment of excellence, the junzi is up for any challenge and has the tools and knowledge to tackle them accordingly. Throughout this paper, I keep coming back to Ash as a role model for the ideal player and so the question becomes would I consider him a junzi. My answer leans toward yes or at the very least his on the threshold. Why would this be?
Zai Wo asked, “If someone lied to a junzi, saying ‘a man has just fallen into the well!’, would he go ahead and jump in after him?”
The Master replied, “Why would he do that? The junzi can be enticed, but not trapped; he can be tricked, but not duped.” (Lunyu 6.26)
You may want to object by noting how Ash seems to lose all the time, never quite becomes the champion and simply is lacking in a few areas of basic common sense. While a lot of that may be true, I still do not believe that it detracts from his overall position as a potential exemplar. Winning alone is not enough to determine whether or not someone is excellent. Flourishing is a harmonious relationship within all of one’s relationships and I think Ash always gives priority to this type of mentality. Instead of winning, Ash values the bonds and friendships he makes over whether or not he wins or loses. I have not seen any episodes of the anime in many years, but I remember the original few seasons rather fondly and there are countless examples of this. He doesn’t force Pikachu to evolve to beat Lieutenant Surge, understanding that his friendship with Pikachu is more important than whether or not he gets his badge. He lets Butterfree return to the wild rather than forcing it to stay with his party to further his own ends.
He makes a point of giving each of his teammates an equal opportunity to succeed and relies on their own strengths and weaknesses to tackle the challenges presented to him. While it is indeed true that he never totally succeeds, his mentality never changes. It is always about getting better and better until he finally has the right to say that he is the best.
The Master said, “The junzi cherishes virtues, whereas the petty person cherishes physical possessions.” (Lunyu 4.11)
The Master said, “The junzi understands rightness whereas the petty person understands profit.” (Lunyu 4.16)
I also believe that Ash’s rival, Gary Oak does a great job of embodying the antithesis of the junzi known as xiaoren (小人) literally meaning small person or petty person. Like Ash, Gary wants to be the very best but clearly has a much different approach. He travels around with a cohort of fan girls and insults Ash given the opportunity. The Pokémon that he catches and trains are not his friends (as Ash’s are) and merely tools to get him closer and closer to his goal. He abandons them if they are too weak to keep up in his personal conquest. A winning result is the only thing that matters to Gary and if I’ve stressed anything too many times throughout this article, it’s that outcomes are never to be the most focused.
So, what if anything, has my purpose been today with this article? Ideally, this will come off as much more than just a self-congratulatory sessions where I am merely some jerk attempting to show off how much I know about such an obscured topic. Truthfully, I wanted to use this topic to show how much it relates to our everyday interactions with this wonderful game that we all play and allow it to illuminate ways for us to better ourselves as both people and players.
So often in our daily lives, I think we miss the importance of attempting to better ourselves and all those around us and so if we can become more adequate at such a task, I belief that we will see improvement in our own drives and practices which of course encompass our pursuits within Pokémon.
There is simply too much to talk about when it comes to Confucius and there are many of even the more basic ideas that I have either skipped or glazed over and so if you have any questions or interested in more detail, I would be more than happy to go into them.
I cannot imagine I have the time to write something that once again highlights my intellectual endeavors with Pokémon, but it was an absolute pleasure to write this and I hope you enjoyed it. In future articles, I will return to offer my insight into the current metagame and attempt to prepare us all for upcoming National and World Championships. If you have not noticed, I recommend checking out our new coaching page and if you think it is something that will help you improve, book a session! I myself have given a few sessions and think they are fun and informative.
Until next time!
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