The Vinegar Tasters
Before I begin this article, I’ll try to give the uninitiated a crash course in the “Big 3” East Asian philosophies: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. The easiest way to do this I think is through the old Chinese allegory of the The Vinegar Tasters (text shamelessly ripped from Wikipedia):
The three men are dipping their fingers in a vat of vinegar and tasting it; one man reacts with a sour expression, one reacts with a bitter expression, and one reacts with a sweet expression. The three men are Confucius, Buddha, and Laozi, respectively. Each man’s expression represents the predominant attitude of his religion: Confucianism saw life as sour, in need of rules to correct the degeneration of people; Buddhism saw life as bitter, dominated by pain and suffering; and Taoism saw life as fundamentally good in its natural state.
In Yuasa’s Ping Pong the Animation the three main characters introduced each represent one of these philosophies, or rather, they represent people who bastardize and corrupt these philosophies. Weng is a “bad” follower of Confucius. Peco is a “bad” Buddhist. And last but not least, Smile is a “bad” Taoist.
Weng and Confucianism
Weng seems to naturally gravitate toward seeing life as “sour”. Much like Confucius who saw rules and regimens as the secret to success, Weng practices with his coach daily to hone his craft. He is the result of a stereotypical Chinese upbringing and has a superiority complex due to this. As such, Weng despises those who he views as inferior, those he views as degenerates.
The beginning of Confucius’s Analects begin with a rhetorical question, “Isn’t it a pleasure to study and practice what you have learned?”. Indeed for Weng, it most certainly is. He relishes in competition and the opportunity to practice his skills. He supports his family, another Confucian virtue, with this skills.
Confucius has another quote, “I am not bothered by the fact that I am not understood. I am bothered when I do not know others”. Weng certainly exhibits this property too when he first meets Smile. He is curious and intrigued by what he doesn’t understand about Smile. Why does Smile sandbag when he plays Peco? Why doesn’t he practice?
However, Weng has some issues with his Confucianism. While he is rigid, driven, and uncompromising, he is arrogant and mean. Confucius tells us that “The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions”. Weng exceeds in both his speech and action. In addition, Confucius writes that “Benevolence is the characteristic element of humanity”. Weng is most certainly not a benevolent competitor.
Weng understands the impersonal teachings of Confucius, that he must work hard, but he doesn’t understand that his hard work is useless if he doesn’t use it for anything. If he uses his skills as a defense mechanism against his disdain for human interaction, he is not really using them to their full potential. Weng is unhappy not because he was kicked out of his Chinese team, but because of his own lack of moral fiber.
Peco and Buddhism
Peco is a worse Buddhist than I am, but he represents the idea that life is inherently bitter quite well. Life is bitter to Peco so he is always seen eating candy and partaking in the enjoyment of other materialistic escapes.
In addition, unlike Weng and Smile, he seems to have a clear ambition:
Peco hopes to escape the displeasure of life, which to him can be summed up as “losing ping pong” by becoming the best in the world at it. This is a bit of a leap, but becoming the best at ping pong is Peco’s attempt at becoming enlightened. It is his path. As Buddha said before his attainment of Buddhaship, “Let my skin and sinews and bones dry up, together with all the flesh and blood of my body! I welcome it! But I will not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom”.
While Peco has a noble goal, much like Weng, he’s missing the true part of his philosophy that would lead him to contentedness. Peco is much too caught up in material goods and failure/success. Ikkyu, a Zen Buddhist priest, is quoted as saying “If it rains, let it rain, if the wind blows, let it blow”. This idea encapsulates Buddhism and encapsulates everything that Peco fails at. He can not let the wind blow. He must challenge it, and when it blows him over, his self esteem just dissipates.
Peco would be much happier if he would recognize his flaws and his obsession with the fleeting. While winning feels good, it shouldn’t be all one plays a game for; losing is just as important if not more so. While candy and other sweets give momentary pleasure, they will make one sluggish and bloated. Peco wants to become enlightened, he wants to become the best at ping pong, but he won’t make the long term sacrifices necessary. In this way, he is a terrible Buddhist, much like Weng is a terrible Confucius.
Smile and Taoism
The Tao Te Ching is my favorite work of philosophy on the planet (if you didn’t know, I’m a Taoist). My favorite quote from the it is the following:
“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.”
Smile succeeds in following the middle of this quote, but not the end.
He’s great at living modestly and “close to the ground”. He keeps his thoughts simple, ping pong to him is simply something “to do until he dies”. Smile’s relationship with Peco is much like the Taoist interpretation of what the relationship between the governed and governor should be. Smile is constantly told to be Peco’s keeper, and yet he refuses. In John A. Rapp’s book Daoism and Anarchism, he opines that the Tao Te Ching has a “positive view of a stateless society”. To Rapp, Taoism emphasizes a natural “free” condition of human nature, a rejection of coercive authority, and a notion of the possible existence of a non-coercive, non-authoritarian society. Simply put, Taoism is inherently anarchical.
Smile detests authority. He dislikes doing everything his coach forces him to do. He dislikes the seniors in the club and he hates being responsible for Peco.
He sounds like the perfect Taoist, then. Where does he go wrong?
Smile is not content to be himself.
As his coach puts it aptly, “you don’t chase the ball, the ball chases you”. Smile doesn’t desire anything, he seems beyond that. He doesn’t want to be the best like Peco. He doesn’t feel the need to impress others like Weng. And yet, he is constantly being chased by his inner demons, by his past self, hiding in a locker from god knows what. Responsibility perhaps?
Laozi tells us that:
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”
Smile knows others, but does he know himself? Hardly.
What does it all mean?
Ultimately, these characters all have strengths and weaknesses. They’re all on the path for success, but they must overcome obstacles first to grow as people. In the end, it may not matter if life is inherently good, or bad, or neutral. All that matters is carving our own niche within it. I’m curious to see who will grow as the show progresses and who will stagnate.