Confucius confusion

By Li Qian in Qufu Source:Global Times Published: 2012-8-23 19:55:03

Freshmen from Nanchang Hangkong University in Jiangxi Province wearing traditional clothes worship a statue of Confucius on the campus on November 3, 2011. This is a rite of passage ceremony the university holds annually for freshmen. Photo: CFP
Freshmen from Nanchang Hangkong University in Jiangxi Province wearing traditional clothes worship a statue of Confucius on the campus on November 3, 2011. This is a rite of passage ceremony the university holds annually for freshmen. Photo: CFP

"China has perished from the cultural landscape," a professor lamented of the fate of China's 5,000 years of civilization. "Traditional Chinese culture is now in Taiwan, or South Korea and Japan."

Talking about the necessity to revive traditional cultural elements, Zeng Zhenyu, an expert with the Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies of Shandong University, was outspoken yet sad.

He is currently working on a proposal aimed at reviving Confucianism.

Increasing numbers of scholars like Zeng as well as officials are seeking to revive the teachings of China's greatest thinker, at a time when economic development trumps basic ethics and spiritual pursuits in society.

Many scholars believe that most of the problems that have arisen from economic development could be solved by looking at ancient wisdom.

Zeng and another scholar and two local government officials initiated a plan at the Shandong committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in 2011, blueprinting a "Confucius cultural special zone" as a way to restore the status of Confucianism in China.

According to the plan, the cultural special zone, centered in Qufu, Confucius' hometown in Shandong, would be an area 200 kilometers wide. It would incorporate the hometowns of Mencius, another Confucian master, and other ancient thinkers. It would serve as a prototype for the ideal social and cultural makeup in Confucian ethics. The eventual goal of the proposal is for Confucianism to regain its reigning position in Chinese society.

"The establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone three decades ago represented a transition from a planned economy to a market economy. Now, China is at another historical crossroads - it must make the change from a GDP growth-oriented mindset to a green economy that focuses on the all-round development of people," read the statement compiled from their latest meeting on July 4.

So far the proposal is at its inception. Specifics about how the special zone will work remain unclear and Zeng said some basic questions still need to be answered, such as what kind of special policies the zone will enjoy and how it will be managed.

Even at this early stage, the proposal met with a warm response from the provincial authorities.

The sole pursuit of economic development in the past decades has left Chinese society bereft of spiritual fulfillment and that common manners and ethics had been lost, said Yang Chaoming, dean of the Research Institution of Confucianism, another initiator of the plan. He attributes most of the social problems of today to a lack of faith and ethics, including environmental pollution, unsafe food, unhappy people and social injustice.

Long track record

For most of feudal Chinese history in the last 2,000 years, Confucianism was regarded as the guideline of sovereignty, and was strictly adhered to.

Confucious was worshiped as the greatest of the Chinese sages in the past, and emperors of different dynasties built and renovated Confucius temple, cemetery and family mansion in Qufu, making them a rare family compound that could rival royal palaces.

The decline of Confucianism came from the development of Communist ideas. The overwhelming May Fourth Movement in 1919 that promoted "new culture" targeted Confucianism, blaming it as a remnant of feudal culture that stemmed the progress of Chinese society and calling for its wholesale jettisoning.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was another major blow to Confucianism, which was denounced as counter-revolutionary thinking.

It never regained its status in the 20th century at a time when the Chinese society, led by the CPC, was seeking to cleanse itself of centuries of imperialism and suffering.

Hard climb back up

Confucius does retain a measure of support among the Chinese public. The temple and family mansion of Confucius in Qufu are popular tourism destinations, especially for parents seeking to provide a glimpse of past Chinese values to their children.

Walking in the town of Qufu, one can feel the palpable pride the local people take in being from Confucius' hometown. The tourist-crowded Confucius mansion, temple and cemetery seem better organized than many other tourist attractions. The city also has a lower crime rate than most other cities in China and the taxi driver was glad to uninvitedly lend an umbrella to tourists wandering in the rain.

Despite this, the fact remains that Confucianism is still out in the cold. Zeng said teaching materials in schools on the Chinese mainland about traditional culture and literature are only a quarter of those seen in Taiwan.

Zeng teaches a public course on traditional Chinese philosophy at Shandong University. He said this course is receiving more attention from the students and faculty. "Students get more interested in the course after the first several classes. At first, they usually have only a little sense of what the subject is about but get more involved when they understand more."

This convinced Zeng that most young people are not uninterested in traditional culture, but just haven't been taught about it in right way.

The pullout of Confucianism created a vacuum of faith in today's Chinese society and millions of people are seeking some form of spiritual guidance. In recent years, both Christianity and other religious beliefs have expanded quickly in China.

Realizing the absence of traditional culture, authorities have been promoting their studies. There are a number of Confucianism research institutes in Shandong and in universities around China. Several new ones have been established in recent years, and opinion exchanges and conferences among them have been popular.

However, these efforts seem stalled at the academic research stage and have not resulted in any major breakthroughs to curriculums or in public views.

The planned special zone is not the first attempt to revive Confucian culture, but none of the previous plans yielded concrete results. In 2008, officials in Ji'ning, to which Qufu is attached, commenced a massive 30 billion yuan ($4.72 billion) project to build a "cultural city of Chinese symbol" in Qufu. This project was later widely criticized as trying to exploit the cultural heritage and building "fake antique" structures.

Culture clash

China's "anti-tradition" attitude for much of the 20th century remains strong. The younger generation, growing up in a fast-changing economic and social environment, prominently hold Western-inspired liberal views. Many people hold that traditional thinking only shackles the country's modernization drive.

Some tenets of Confucian thought fly in the face of modern values, including the place of women and obeying a feudal social pyramid.

Professor Zeng counters these arguments by saying that they are simply incomplete interpretations. He believe many Confucian teachings have a form of universal wisdom that is still applicable today.

Daniel Bell, author of China's New Confucianism and a professor at Tsinghua University, said the experience in other Asian countries have proved Confucianism can tag along well with modernization in the economy. "The value of hard work and the importance of education are stressed in Confucianism and will contribute to the economy," he said.

Zeng conceives his ideal political system for today's China, as having a Western-style separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, but backed up by a public well-versed in Confucian values.

Blurry future

According to the proposed plan, the cultural zone in Qufu would be a place for people to practice Confucius doctrines in their daily lives and stick to traditional values of life.

Yang admits that neither he nor other proponents have a clear mind about the zone's final look but they share the feeling that Confucianism has a huge potential to contribute to China.

The other two initiators for the plan, government officials in Qufu and Ji'ning, were cautious and preferred not to comment on the premature plan.

So far no mass building plans have been tabled. Though the proposal of a cultural special zone remains vague, experts have a number of goals for the zone.

As the local government is under pressure to generate revenues, tourism is currently based around sightseeing, while experts wish to use the Confucian heritage to create an education base which would be free for the public.

The biggest barrier to achieve their goal is how to deal with the relationship between Confucianism and the Party's guiding theory of Marxism. Research is lagging behind in this sector, putting the CPC in an awkward position when trying to discuss ties, according to Zeng. "The authorities do try to promote traditional culture, but their practices so far are lacking concrete and practicable policy backing."

Bell told the Global Times that the revival of Confucianism bears strong political significance for the CPC. "As Marxism has lost its attraction in the past few decades, the Party resorts to traditional culture to glue the people together again," he said.

The CPC has been endeavoring to achieve "social harmony," a concept Professor Zeng sees as being borrowed from Confucianism. The first step to bringing back Confucianism at full strength, for Zeng, is to boost Confucian valued education in schools.

Li Xiangping, director with the Centre on Religion and Society, East China Normal University, played down the role of Confucianism in boosting traditional culture, and would like to see the country build on the many schools of thought it has inspired to create a better mix.

"The key to a prosperous culture is to have cultural construction become independent of administrative power and business. Otherwise, when power and money are tangled with culture, it leads to a dead end," he concluded.

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