Kongming is more than just a great tactician with a charmingly demure manner and surprisingly decent rapping skills. He’s also the kind of adult I aspire to be, and one I think that all of us—as we hand in our membership cards to “the young generation” (ahem, as we age)—can stand to learn a thing or two from. This is because Kongming models the kind of servant leadership and honor for the youth that we see too little of in our world. He does what all of us should do, as we grow in skill, experience and expertise: Kongming invests in the next generation. And in doing so, he’s going a long way toward building the kind of inter-generational relationships that are so easily lost in an age of rapid change, instant gratification, and a media culture that seems more often to emphasize the irreconcilable differences between generations than partnership among them.
In other words, Kongming offers us nothing short of a blueprint for forging multi-generational legacy, something that lies at the heart of the gospel.
Kongming died in the mid-200s, and materializes (seemingly from a shooting star) in Shibuya 1800 years later, younger than when he died, but still likely in his 30s or early 40s. Though his hair betrays no grey as of yet, he is no youth. If anything makes this plain, it’s his distinct distaste for the club scene and EDM music, which he takes to be confirmation that he’s woken up in hell. At least, until he hears Eiko singing.
This is to say, Kongming awakens to find himself an alien in a world he doesn’t recognize.
How many of us can relate to that, I wonder? Do you remember kitchen phones attached to the wall? The Commodor 64s at school being the cutting edge in modern technology? Having a pen pal to whom you wrote letters on paper, putting them in envelopes with a stamp and posting them through a red or blue metal box on the street corner, in hopes of receiving a reply in a month or so? I do. Sometimes I marvel at how much the world has changed in my lifetime—technology, language, worldviews—and how much I’m lagging behind. I even catch myself saying occasionally, “In my day, …” as if it’s not “my day” any longer, though it was just a moment ago.
This is where resentment can creep in. When we realize that the world that was seemingly defined by us and our peers now belongs to someone else, to the next generation who are shaping the trends, skyrocketing to fame, wowing the world with their precociousness, their activism and innovation. It’s easy to start to see them as, well, “them”, as some Other. And it’s easy to start complaining about a generation that doesn’t appreciate the advantages and opportunities they enjoy and which “we” didn’t have.
When Kongming arrives in Shibuya, in a place that seems like him to be hell in its disorienting noise and unfamiliarity, he would be well excused to complain. To criticize the garishness and crudity of the world he saw around him; the rudeness of the youths who mob him and chug tequila down his throat. He’d be well excused maybe even to start ordering people around, as he must have been in a position to do in his previous life, having been the top advisor to a king.
He doesn’t do any of this though. Instead, amid all the noise and chaos, he remains open and humble, and because of this, he hears beauty and potential and heart in the midst of the alienness. He hears a single voice ringing true above the turmoil of the club: he hears Eiko.
What follows from this moment early in episode 1, all the way up to now with episode 9, is the story of a man who chooses not to try to recapture his former glory or recreate the world he used to live in, but instead to make it his life’s work to see the next generation step into its full potential and continue to change the world, taking it even further from the world he knew. Kongming wants to see Eiko and Kabetaijin (and their fans and supporting crew) strive toward what he and his generation were never able to achieve. He wants to see them step into the glory that eluded him.
To do this, he starts listening to EDM, and more to the point, listening for the beauty he can find amid the “inscrutable tootle” that he first takes it to be. He learns about the music industry, modern technology, social media, and dropping rhymes. He works a menial job to supplement the “war coffers”, as he calls them, taking his finely honed tea serving skills (truly an elite art form in the Three Kingdoms-era China from which he hails) and putting them to use mixing drinks in a club. He quite literally serves.
Kongming does not, however, adopt streetwear or change his refined manner of speaking—these things are part of who he is and he’s not trying to “fit in” with the youth, be relevant, or pose in some way to gain their approval. No, he doesn’t change who he is. But he does broaden his horizons and engage with the changed world he finds himself in, discovering beauty in unexpected places and seeking out new ways to put his wisdom to work.
He does all this for the sake of supporting Eiko and her dream to become a professional singer. He does it also to get Kabetaijin over his gut-wrenching anxiety and back onto the stage in front of the microphone that brings him to life. And for the dj and bespectacled super-fan in the background too, whose skills he recognizes, and for whom he makes a place on his team, in his community. (Can’t wait til he meets Nanami and enfolds her into the merry band as well!)
Kongming breathes purpose and hope into each of these young people, coming alongside them and equipping them for the journey ahead.
At times this means confronting and challenging them, particularly with Kabetaijin; at others, simply setting them up for opportunities they could not or would not have sought out for themselves, as is more often the case with Eiko. Kongming opens doors and pushes them through with a motivating word and a nudge to the backside. Most importantly, he sets them up to fight their own battles, as with Eiko and the recording studio dude (or pudding geezer, as she calls him), or Kabetaijin and himself in the rap battle. Kongming is there to advise them along the way, and to celebrate them when they surprise themselves with their ability to stand tall and do what they thought was beyond them.
Kongming is, in other words, an elder to them.
Part of what this entails is adapting his own dream—to unite the world—so that it complements the dreams of the next generation, undergirding and facilitating them. So rather than prioritizing his own agenda, Kongming seeks to ensure that Eiko becomes the singer she wants to be. In so doing, he will achieve his dream of uniting the world—through her music rather than military conquest.
In other words, Kongming recognizes that it’s not a zero sum game: this is not old world vs new world; his generation vs the next generation. Instead, he understands that the two work together; that he, with his superior skill and experience, must partner together with others, even those who are relatively inexperienced and have not yet stepped into their full potential in the way that he himself has done. The youth need him, and he, they. Together, they will shape the world into the kind of place where dreams come true.
This dynamic is a two-way street though, and hinges on active participation from the younger generation too. Kongming takes the lead in reaching out and making the offer, but Eiko, Kabetaijin and the others must grasp his hand and accept.
Eiko does this very early on. Moved by Kongming’s kind words about her singing, and no doubt also by his childlike wonder at the new world and the vulnerability he shows as he quietly mourns all he’s lost, Eiko’s heart is softened toward the older man, and she opens up to him in a way she rarely does, according to Owner. And she continues to do so, as she learns to trust him more and more.
Kabetaijin follows a different path, but likewise learns to respect Kongming through their unusual encounters, first, in the laundromat and ultimately, on the stage. In the midst of his resentment and fear at being duped into a rap battle, Kabetaijin recognizes the heart behind it, and the truth that Kongming was setting him up for success and not failure.
Trust. Respect. Acceptance and appreciation. These are the things the youth offer in return to Kongming.
Not so though with the villain who finally appears in episode 9.
Until now, the “bad guys” in Ya Boy Kongming have been more obstacles in the great tactician’s stratagems, than true opponents. But episode 9 sets up music producer Toshihiko Karasawa as a genuine villain, in that he is the opposite of Kongming in the area that matters most: his relationship with the young people under his care, the girl band Azalea.
In short, Karasawa exploits them. He seeks to control them, choreographing their every move from what they wear and what they sing, to when and where they perform, even banning Nanami, the lead singer, from busking. He promises to make them stars and have them singing in stadiums within two years, yes, but only on his own terms. And those terms are pleasing others, namely him. It is a lesson he claims to have learned himself, and now he is forcing it onto Nanami and her friends. Karasawa does not partner with them and their dream, but rather co-opts them into serving his own vision and priorities. As a result, it is an abusive relationship.
But even this relationship is a two-way street. And the sad reality is that Nanami and her friends are in part responsible for landing themselves under such tyranny. In a moment of discouragement, Nanami wanted a quick fix, a surefire way to fame and fortune, to market their music. And she viewed this man, with his expertise, connections, and financial resources, as the way to achieve it. She approached him in an instrumentalist way, seeking to get what she could from him. Trust and respect, acceptance and appreciation had nothing to do with it. Instead, this was a transactional relationship.
And so the battle lines between the two generations here were drawn.
Too often, our society falls into this tendency to decamp along generational lines. It happens in the world and in the church too—ironically, often over music. We don’t understand each other and the respective worlds that we come from. We see each other as obstacles, tools, or at best, something to be tolerated or perhaps addressed politely, but not really permitted to be a part of our lives and dreams in a meaningful way. We each stick to our own priorities, our own way of understanding the world, our own goals for what that world should look like.
This is why we have so much to learn from Kongming: because he doesn’t fall into this destructive cycle.
As an elder, as someone from an older generation, Kongming has the advantage in his relationship with the youths. It’s never an equal balance of power between the generations, you see. But Kongming uses his advantages—superior experience, skill, expertise—to enable the young people in his care to grow in experience, skill and expertise themselves, and realize their full potential.
In this, he’s like Moses with Joshua, Paul with Timothy, Naomi with Ruth, or Jesus with the disciples. All these mature adults took youths who were at a loose end under their wing, investing time, effort and insight into seeing them mature and become adults who would carry their legacy (that of Moses, Paul, Jesus and Naomi) beyond what they themselves could do. Moses was never able to realize his dream of leading Israel to the promised land, but his apprentice Joshua did. David never got to fulfill his dream of building a temple for God, but he prepared the way, and his son Solomon did. Jesus never had the chance to preach the gospel to the whole world, but his disciples did. God thinks and plans and acts across generations, spanning tens, hundreds and even thousands of years.
We can’t do the same exactly, but we can position ourselves more readily to pass the baton—and to receive it well also.
Like Kongming, we can be on the lookout for the beauty that persists in a rapidly changing world, rather than constantly mourning the loss of what was more familiar to us. And we can be on the lookout for the young people whose dreams and maturation we can invest in and partner with, that in so doing, we might see all our dreams come true.
So the next time the style of worship music changes, or a bizarre new trend sweeps up the younger generation, let’s be like Kongming. Let’s be elders who realize that this isn’t a zero sum game, and who refuse to draw battle lines between the generations. Let’s listen for that beautiful voice that rises above the alien, ear-splitting din of a place we may rather not be in, and invest in that instead, so that our legacy might be found in what we did for and with those who came up after us.
These are words to live by as we leave our youth behind and become the “Fathers” and “Mothers”, the elders of this world. Let’s age well, my friends!
Ya Boy Kongming can be streamed on HiDIVE. And it’s totally awesome. (Yes, I grew up in the 90s, dude.)