Confucius Making a Comeback In Money-Driven Modern China

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

ZHENGZHOU, China -- At first, the Web site director and his schoolteacher wife sent their 5-year-old son to a Confucian school in this central Chinese city simply because it was two minutes from home. But the more they learned about the school, the more they liked what they saw.

Children as young as 3 were memorizing and reciting ancient Chinese classics, notably the works of Confucius, the philosopher best remembered for promoting filial piety in the 6th century B.C. Even if students didn't understand all the words, they grasped the concepts of treating their elders with respect and their classmates with care.

"Nowadays society is very superficial," said the Web administrator, Guan Tao, explaining why he continued to enroll his son at the school. "As a Chinese, you must know something about your own culture and literature."

Confucianism is enjoying a resurgence in this country, as more and more Chinese like Guan seek ways to adapt to a culture in which corruption has spread and materialism has become a driving value. For many Chinese, a system of ethical teachings that stresses the importance of avoiding conflict and respecting hierarchy makes perfect sense, even if it was first in vogue centuries ago.

State-supported commemorations of Confucius have become more common, and the number of people studying his works has increased. A new best-selling book and TV program based on the sage's teachings have made Confucianism easy for the masses to digest.

"With the fast economic growth, many people have become selfish and have no morality," said Ren Xiaolin, founder of the Zhengzhou Young Pioneers school, which Guan's son attends. "This has created a need for Confucianism. . . . The change is overwhelming and many Chinese can't get used to it. It's created a clash of values."

Because Confucianism has only recently regained its popularity -- it was seen as an obstacle to modernization during the anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 -- many Chinese today are hard-pressed to fully describe the philosophy. It has become a grab bag of ideas that people are tailoring to their own needs as they search for a new belief system.

For the government, Confucianism is a way to encourage order and bring more legitimacy to its rule -- the philosophy's emphasis on respect for authority, for example, is appealing to Communist Party leaders. Although they are loath to slow economic growth, those leaders have nonetheless promoted a return to traditional values as an alternative to the Chinese preoccupation with financial gain.

For parents, Confucianism is a way to raise obedient children who won't forget their own culture. In an age of conspicuous consumption, the philosophy is also appealing to a growing middle class whose members often say they can finally afford to consider spiritual matters.

"Now we have the chance and the financial ability to send our son to school to study Chinese traditional classics," said Guan, who never had the opportunity to study Confucianism himself. "This is something that represents the country."

In the town of Qufu, in Shandong province, where Confucius was born in 551 B.C., the observance of his birthday becomes more elaborate each year. State television began live broadcasts of the Sept. 28 celebration in 2004; the event is being hosted this year by provincial officials, a testament to its perceived importance.

Officials seeking promotions in one county of Henan province are evaluated by friends, relatives, co-workers and members of the public on how well they care for their parents. Traditional values of filial piety and family responsibility "are the foundation of a successful career," Liu Sen, head of Changyuan County's Communist Party committee, told the state-run China Daily in April.

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