You Can’t Kill Confucius

An ancient sage makes a
comeback to serve the Communist party’s purposes in China

 

confucius“Serve the
people, don’t betray them,” urges one line printed in
posters that are plastered all throughout Beijing. These “Eight
Honors, Eight Shames” posters are the latest political
propaganda and ‘theoretical musings’ of President Hu
Jintao, expected to be written into the Chinese constitution in the
upcoming Communist Party Congress later this month.

Make no mistake,
however. These Communist-like sayings, which include calls to love
the country, help each other, be disciplined, and dissuasions not to
harm the motherland, sacrifice ethics for profits and wallow in
luxuries, are in fact Confucian in spirit.

Confucianism is indeed
back in vogue in China. The recent birthday of the great philosopher
was celebrated with much pomp across the country. Ceremonies paying
homage to Confucius, said to be born 2,558 years ago, were held in
various temples even in far-flung provinces, as far as Sichuan and
Fujian, Guangxi and Jilin.

The biggest celebration
was in his birthtown, Qufu in Shandong province. A record number of
3,500 people attended the colorful celebration in late September,
broadcast live nationwide by the state-run television. Leading the
procession at the Confucius Temple were party cadres and officials
from the national, provincial and city governments. The VIP list
included the descendants of Master Kong, as Confucius is also known,
and academic-turned-TV celebrity Yu Dan, whose commentary on the
master’s works, Notes on the Analects, sold for 4
million copies within four months.

“We know China is
a communist country, but all our beliefs are also based on China’s
traditional culture,” declared Hou Duanmin, vice mayor of
Jining City (which also administers Qufu) amidst the fanfare that
included 1,500 students’ reciting lines from the master’s
classics and a mass performance of ancient ritual dance. The
festivity reached its climax with burning incense at the altar, in
front of the looming statue of the philosopher.

Such reverence to the
ancient philosopher was unthinkable even 10 years ago. “The
situation has totally changed,” says Tu Weiming, Confucian
philosopher and professor at Harvard University. “It has
something to do with the economic vibrancy of China; the Chinese
voice has become more audible. The big question now is the new search
for cultural identity.”

The revival of
Confucianism coincides with the growing interest in Chinese
traditional heritage. Earlier this year, Starbucks was evicted from
the Forbidden City after a TV anchorman, writing in his blog,
declared its presence there was “a contamination to Chinese
culture.” Last December, a group of scholars urged
non-Christians not to celebrate Christmas. “Western culture is
growing from a gentle wind and light rain into a heavy storm in
China,” the group said in their posting on a Confucianism
website.

According to Professor
Tu, China faces two options in its search for an identity. “The
cultural identity could lead to national pride, but this can become
more chauvinistic and more nationalistic,” he says. “Another
option is the cultural identity that is based on an open, pluralistic
countenance that exhibits a very high level of flexibility.”

An example of the
former is the 19900s debate over Asian values. Confucianism, which
traditionally emphasizes regimented social relations including
ruler-subject and father-son ones, enjoyed a brief revival in
Southeast Asia. As the East and Southeast Asian nations basked in the
success of economic prosperity and faced mounting social challenges
(not unlike China of today), Lee Kuan Yew, the patriarch of
Singapore, championed the shared values of the “Confucianist
sphere of influence,” dubbing them “Asian values,”
a spurious notion at best, since many of the countries scattered
across Asia from Japan to India hardly share anything beyond the same
hemisphere. After the financial crisis in 1997, Asian values
disappeared into oblivion. In an interview with Newsweek in 2001, Lee
acknowledged that “Confucian” values had become obsolete
under the demands of global economy.

Nonetheless,
the travesty of Asian values also underlined one interesting aspect
of Confucianism: until recently, it flourished largely outside China.
In the early 1900s, Chinese intellectuals blamed Confucianism, the
political dogma of imperial rulers, as the culprit of China’s
malaise. It took a further blow during the Communist rule, denounced
for its ‘feudalistic values’. During the Cultural
Revolution, Confucian temples, including the one in Qufu, were
smashed and desecrated by the Red Guards. In a more bizarre episode,
following his downfall and mysterious death, Lin Biao, the heir
apparent of Mao, was condemned as “that traitor who sold our
nation” and “a close follower of Confucius.”

During those decades,
however, Confucian thought survived overseas and in the periphery of
mainland China. New Confucianism movement, which believes the Chinese
thought should incorporate Western ideas such as democracy, first
emerged among the academics in Hong Kong and Taiwan and later thrived
in the United States. The Boston Confucians, with leading figures
including Professor Tu of Harvard University, Robert Neville and John
Berthrong of Boston University, played a major role in introducing
the thought in the West.

It was during its
venture overseas that Confucianism evolved through its encounter with
Western thinkers. Professor Tu, who says he is influenced by both
Confucian philosophers and Christian theologists like St Augustine
and Søren Kierkegaard, has introduced the Confucian idea of
‘salvation’. (This isn’t the first religious
encounter; the Neo-Confucians of the Song and Ming dynasties drew
greatly from Buddhist thought).

Confucianism has made a
comeback in recent years just as the more affluent China faces
growing social ills, from land disputes to environmental devastation,
to corruption scandals to child slavery. It’s not only the
leaders who are worried, common folks too. “Our world is like a
cherry tree growing pumpkins,” sighs a 34-year-old man called
Pang Fei, who opens a private Confucian academy in Beijing. “The
world has become so complex that we don’t understand it
anymore.”

“Without goodness
a man cannot for long endure adversity, cannot for long endure
prosperity,” the master said in the Analects, written
from the spring and autumn era to the Warring States period – a
very turbulent time in Chinese history. Confucianism, with its
notions of harmony, virtue, benevolence and righteousness, gives some
hope for guidance in this confusing time, and some people may argue
that with its emphasis on governance and social relations, it shares
some traits with Communism.

Hu and his premier Wen
Jiabao may also see it that way. In their quest for ‘harmonious
society’, these senior Communist cadres have no qualms to dig
into Confucian tenets. But hasn’t history shown whenever
Confucianism got co-opted by the government, it can be detrimental on
the school of thought? “Yes, it could have negative effects,”
Professor Tu admits, but he rejects that Confucianism is all about
the status quo and authoritarianism.

“There is a major
distinction what is practical, and what is ideal,” he says.
“You have people who want to support the government, give up
their own idealism and are very practical. Then, you have public
intellectuals: they are politically concerned, socially involved and
culturally sensitive [which are the embodiment of Confucian values].
They envision themselves as the public conscience.”

The scholar believes
these public intellectuals may lead to democracy. “One vision
of democracy is public reasoning,” he says. “All these
discussions will have a direct impact on policy formulation, allowing
people’s participation in the political process. But one
important criterion for this is freedom of expression. Unless that
happens, the public reasoning is distorted.”

And so is the true
potential of Confucianism.

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