Bringing Confucius to Medical School

Dong Kong, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Tufts, is a proud descendant of the ancient Chinese sage
collage of photo of Dong Kong and of Confucius statue
The Confucian heritage goes back 2,500 years and continues to inform Chinese life. “No matter what dynasty was in charge, they all respected Confucianism,” says Dong Kong. Photo: Alonso Nichols; Illustration: Betsy Hayes
August 27, 2015

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When he was a boy growing up in China, young Dong Kong was routinely taught how to behave. On their daily rounds, his father would point out the good and bad actions of their fellow citizens and say, “Son, you should do this, not that.” The parental messages carried special weight given that they were derived from the family’s most luminous ancestor, Confucius, and the boy was himself a direct descendant of the sage who lived and died 2,500 years ago. In effect, the boy was being taught to do his lineage proud.

Dong Kong, 35, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the School of Medicine, is a 76th-generation descendant of Confucius. This is no mere wishful hope. As it happens, the Kong family lays claim to the best-documented pedigree of any family in the world, now numbering more than 2 million members. (“Confucius” is a Latinized form of “Kong fuzi,” or Master Kong.) In Qufu, Confucius’ hometown, located 300 miles south of Beijing, approximately 100,000 Kongs crowd the local cemetery. Dong Kong belongs to the closest family branch to his ancient progenitor—to the innermost circle, in effect. This distinction he wears easily, like vapor.

Kong is matter-of-fact about his heritage. After he prints out a Wikipedia article on Confucius for this author’s benefit, he gestures toward a photograph of the Kong family mansion, the ancient ancestral home, displayed amid the text. He comments offhandedly, “I lived in that house for a while when I was a boy.” The lightness of the remark burns through centuries.

The name of Confucius may be famous, but the man’s exact contribution to the world is less well understood among Westerners. By any measure one of the most influential figures in human history, Confucius was a keenly observant moral philosopher who believed in self-cultivation and the strength of self-improvement. He stressed modesty, family loyalty, respect for elders and the transformative power of education. He was preaching a version of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” some 500 years before the time of Jesus. Although often resembling a religion in its practice, Confucianism never mentions God or the afterlife in its teachings.

Confucian belief has its basis in individual and familial life, and the sage also argued that the greatness of nations stems from this foundation. In that sense, his thinking was classic and conservative in its import, imbued with the essence of human virtue, transcending politics.

“No matter what dynasty was in charge, they all respected Confucius and used his teachings,” Kong says. Confucius fell decidedly out of favor during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. But a feature in the Wall Street Journal notes that more recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping has often cited his reliance on the “brilliant insights” of Confucius to explain his own political and social philosophy.

“When we see men of virtue, we should think of equaling them,” Xi Jinping wrote, quoting Confucius, in The Governance of China, published last fall. “When we see men of a contrary character, we should examine ourselves.” The Journal article proceeded to link “the rise of Asia,” in part, to this cultural underpinning.

Kong, who earned his doctorate in genetics and molecular biology at Nanjing University before coming to Tufts by way of postdoctoral study at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, has found a way to embed Confucian wisdom into presentations he makes to his graduate students.

His research interest lies in homeostasis and the complex internal signaling process by which a metabolism retains its stable state. In a recent talk, Kong told his students, “‘Going too far is as bad as not going far enough.’ That’s what Confucius said, and it’s also true for metabolism.”

He is a loyal son, as proud of his current stature on the faculty at Tufts as he is of the bright chain of personal connections he owns extending back through time. He may be based in Boston now, but he makes a point to venture 7,000 miles home to China to see his family two or three times a year. “Confucius said, ‘Respect your parents,’” Kong explains, “so I try to do that.”

Bruce Morgan can be reached at bruce.morgan@tufts.edu.

This article first appeared in the spring 2015 issue of Tufts Medicine magazine.