BEIJING - After years of double-digit economic growth in the "new China", the
communist government seems to have almost everything: booming exports, a
growing middle class and rising global leverage. However, many Chinese feel
this growth has come at the cost of traditional values, and that the country
still lacks a belief system to replace Marxism.
Confucianism, which was attacked during China's New Culture Movement
(1917-1921) particularly during the May 4 movement of 1919 and the Cultural
Revolution of 1966-1976, is being touted as the answer. The Chinese Communist
Party (CCP), after setting up more than 300 Confucius institutes around the
erected a Confucius statute at Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing - the
Chinese capital, in another strong signal of the rehabilitation of the ancient
But some believe the communist government is merely using Confucius as a
"[Government officials] think they have some sort of ideological legitimacy
crisis because not many people believe in Marxism anymore," said Daniel Bell, a
professor of ethics and political philosophy in Shanghai's Jiaotong University
and author of China's New Confucianism: politics and everyday life in a changing
society. "For many [officials], Confucianism is the obvious way to
"It looks like the Communist Party has nothing else to offer, so they are
promoting Confucianism again," said Wei Hsing, a Christian mother who sends her
daughter to a Confucianism study class in suburban Beijing.
Generally speaking, Confucianism promotes the values of harmony, respect,
social welfare and personal morality, which are all said to be eroding in
modern Chinese society. More importantly historically, it has offered a
mechanism for Chinese emperors to maintain social order.
Over China's 2,500-year written history, most Chinese emperors worshipped
Confucianism, and an important memorial ceremony was held each year to mark his
birth. However, the Communist Party abolished this ceremony when it founded the
People's Republic of China, and didn't revive it in Confucius's hometown of
Shandong province until 1984, after China sent a delegation to South Korea to
re-learn the related rites.
The CCP began more actively embracing Confucius from 2002, with President Hu
Jintao's ideas of "harmonious society" and Xiaokang, wealthy society. In
late 2002, Hu's senior advisor, Zheng Bijian, also gave a copy of Confucius'
Analects (sayings) to then-United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice,
along with a copy of book by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping on the
differences between Russia and China.
Chinese colleges, such as Shandong University, Renmin University, Peking
University and Shaanxi Normal University, also have also founded Confucius
study centers since 2002, despite being condemned by anti-traditionalists. In
2005, for the first time, China's state-run China Central Television (CCTV)
broadcast the four-hour long Confucius memorial ceremony.
Through its Confucius Institute, the philosopher has become a core concept of
the "Chinese culture" Beijing promotes internationally. The government founded
the first Confucius Institute in South Korea in 2004, and to date, China has
set up 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius Class around the world.
Academics are also promoting Confucius. The most popular is Yu Dan, whose book
explains Confucius in colloquial language and short stories. Her book, Yu Dan's
Notes on the Analects, has sold millions of copies and been translated
into 17 languages. Though some academics have accused her of oversimplifying
Confucius' message, others say the book has helped bring Confucianism to a new
Professor Kang Xiaoguang, an outspoken scholar at Beijing's Renmin University,
and Jiang Qing, a retired civil servant who initiated a campaign encouraging
children to read Confucius, have both suggested that Confucianism become
China's state ideology. Their arguments have been condemned as "evil fallacies"
During the Cultural Revolution, in order to promote the "New China" concept,
Mao Zedong showed his derision of Confucianism, and the impact remains strong.
For instance, Chinese elementary and middle schools still teach stories by Lu
Xun, a anti-traditionalist philosopher from the 1930s who was once categorized
by Mao as a sage of modern Chinese culture. Lu Xun's works attack Confucianism
as oppressive and hypocritical.
Due to the pre-1980 education system, most Chinese over 40 have never read
about Confucius. When the People's Daily website conducted a survey in January
on whether a Confucius status should be erected at Tiananmen, 61.6% of the 11
million respondents opposed the idea.
Tang Yijie, chairman of Peking University's Confucius Studies Center, blames
politics for China's divided views on Confucius. He says promoting the ancient
philosophy is an urgent issue and plans to publish 330 books in the next decade
on Confucianism, at a cost of around with 50 million yuan (US$7.6 million).
Some academics that the government's misuse of Confucius' as a political symbol
has eroded his popularity.
"The government has really not shown much interest in embracing or engaging
with that richer Confucius tradition," said Steven Angle, a Chinese philosophy
professor at the US Wesleyan University, "The Confucius Institutes don't really
have anything to do with Confucius or Confucianism. It is just that Confucius
is a symbol of Chinese culture and China."
As part of the efforts to popularize Confucius, the government helped fund a
US$25 million budget movie Confucius in 2010. But the movie was names as
the worst Chinese movie of 2010 by a local movie association, and its box
office takings were reportedly low.
Still, some parents believe it is important for their children to know
Confucianism as they believe it shapes a strong personal moral character.
Chen Yang, an 11-year-old elementary school pupil who commutes two hours to
suburban Beijing for a Confucianism class every Saturday, said Confucianism has
taught him to be grateful to his parents.
"After I started studying Confucianism, I have prepared water for my parents to
soak their feet every night," he said, "Without the classics, people would lose
ideas on how to behave properly and become money-making machines."
Not many parents and children can appreciate Confucianism as Chen Yang does,
since it is not a required reading for exams. Chang Jun, a 42-year-old mother
who also sent her son to study Confucianism, said she hopes the study will
prevent her son from being polluted by the "utilitarianism" she said was
dominating Chinese society.
"We lost our confidence in Chinese culture after the Opium War. We became rich,
but we still have no dignity when it comes to culture," said Bao.
Ting-I Su is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.
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