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Time now for Ma to laugh it off and get back to work

Albeit conscious of appearance, the Emperor apparently does not spend much on his wardrobe. Call him a penny pincher if you are honest, or something else if you are polite. The last time he had a suite of clothes made that he showed off with much fanfare was in the early 18th century. According to a story by Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, two weavers promised His Majesty a new suit of clothes that would be invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent. When the Emperor paraded before his subjects in his new clothes, while all the pompous court sycophants and jesters pretended they were fit for their positions — smart and competent — a little boy cried out, “But he isn't wearing anything at all!”

The Emperor has since wised up. So this time, in the 21st century, when he was given another suit as a present, the first question he asked was “Is it ugly?” And the answer from all the sycophants was a sheepish “No.” The sad thing, according to Bob Dylan, is that dragons live forever, not so little boys.

The importance of such factors as looks, bearing, reputation and image, especially those of a political leader, can hardly be overstated, hence the need for public relations and propaganda machinery, but a preoccupation, or even obsession, with such externalities simply bespeaks a lack of self-confidence. If a political leader honestly knows what he is doing and what he has done, he should be nothing less than self-confident and not be overly concerned about criticisms directed against him and his government, that is, if he or she heads one. And then the last thing they need would be advice on whether some name-calling from outsiders is indeed justified or over the top.

Fu Bi (富弼), a Northern Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1127) official known for his personal and political integrity, was such a self-confident official. When he was told that somebody had been trying to defame him by citing his rather rare name in their verbal attacks, he said: “They are just calling my namesakes names.” Fu, who was perhaps less appreciated than he should be in his own lifetime, knew he could spend his time more profitably on pressing national matters than bickering with his distracters. Did Confucius not say: “If a person doesn't even feel annoyed when he is not being understood in the proper light, he is a true gentleman indeed.” In this light, one can really call Fu a true gentleman.

In the same vein, even assuming the British magazine The Economist was totally unjustified when it called President Ma Ying-jeou a “bumbler,” one might still have expected the Taiwanese leader, presumably familiar with Chapter One of the Analects, to laugh it off more or less in the same way Fu Bi did. And then, isn't there enough on his plate: the tanking economy, his own poor approval ratings, upcoming fishery talks with Japan and a timely scrutiny of a proposed acquisition of Next Media to prevent the concentration of the country's major media in the hands of a few media tycoons, and so on.

And yet, despite his tight schedule, the president last week managed to find time to visit noted poet, essayist, and scholar professor Yu Kwang-chung and publish on Facebook an account detailing his visit and conversation with the distinguished man of letters. Of course, the word “bumbler” was incidentally mentioned.

According to Ma's Facebook account, Yu suggested that the word “bumbler” should be translated according to a quote from Lao Tzu, a philosophical treatise widely thought to be written during China's Warring States Period (475-221 B.C.). The quote, according to James Legge's translation, reads as “Thy greatest art still stupid seem.”

Toward the end of his account, commenting on one of Yu's jokes, the president said the professor had a sense of humor. Yes, he does. And he is polite, too.

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