"When the multitude detests a man, inquiry is necessary. When the multitude likes man, inquiry is equally necessary."


After suffering a very bad press for the last several years in the country of his birth, China's most famous thinker, Confucius, is making a comeback.

Not that he cares.

The founder of Chinese literature has been dead for 2,457 years, and, anyway, he was prone to be skeptical of public opinion during his years as an adviser to the dukes and princes of the Middle Kingdom in the 6th century B.C.

Still, it might have curled his beard to hear himself described, as he was in recent years, as a "demon" and a "stinking corpse." As he said himself, "without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beast?"

Among China's 800 million to 900 million people, particularly those of the older generation, there are apparently those who objected to the symbol of the world's richest ancient culture being labeled as "a spokesman for the decadent slave-owning aristocracy." Now, as the dust has settled from the purge of the most dogmatic members of Peking's modern-day Communist Hierarchy, Confucius' admirers have grasped the opportunity and persuaded the official People's Daily to acknowledge that even the late Chairman Mao Tse-tunk admired Confucious' ability to "inquire into everything."

running China and looking for a practical way to restore its economy after years of ideological strife, there is much to admore in the old sage's advice: "The requisites of government are that there be sufficiency of food, sufficiency of military equipment, and the confidence of the people in their ruler."

Even filial piety, the respect for parents which Confucius enshrined and the youthful Red Guards of the 1960s defamed, is creaping back into its place as the most Chinese of virtues. The closet Confucianists now influencing the Chinese media have even attached it to Mao, once the symbol of youthful rebellion.

Mao, in his first and only biographical interview, told American journalist Edgar Snow in 1936 of his distaste for his father, an ill-tempered man who "frequently beat both me and my brothers."

"I learned that when I defended my rights by open rebellion my father relented," Mao said, "but when I remained meek and submissive he only cursed and beat me the more."

Thus a European journalist expressed surprise recently when he saw a huge picture of Mao's father prominently displayed at the memorial museum in Mao's hometown, Shaoshan. "The chairman had great trouble with his father, didn't he?" the visitor asked. "Oh no, replied a Chinese guide. "He was always a filial son."

Recently the People's Daily printed an account by Gen. Lo Jui-ching, one of the Red Guards' prime rargets during the late 1960s, of an incident in Mao's life hushed up until now.

Overt reverence toward deceased parents and ancestors was a Confucian virtue that had fallen into disrepute. To emphasize this, Red Guards destroyed thousands of shrines, including one raised in Confucius' honor in his home town.

But when Mao paid a visit to Shaoshan in 1959, Lo recalled, without a word he led his entourage up a hill and "came to the site of a grave. We did not know until we read the inscription that it was the grave of our leader's parents. He went up and bowed. We all did the same. We were distressed that we had not asked our chairman about this trip. We had not taken a wreath with us, not even a white paper flower. Luckily, a young man among us was quick-witted. He picked some pine twigs, tied them into a bundle and let our chairman place it on the tomb.

"Upon our return, Chairman Mao said: 'We Communists are thoroughgoing materialists. We do not believe in ghosts or deities. But still we must acknowledge the fact that we owe our birth to our parents, and our education to our party, comrades, teachers and friends. The next time I come back, I will pay them another visit.'"

Confucius, in his latest reincarnation, is no longer a villain, but just a hapless fall guy for the infamous "Gang of Four," the purged dogmatic group led by Mao's wife, Chiang Ching.

"They made a clay man out of Confucius, to be molded into different shapes as they changed the target of attack," said the Peking University Communist Party committee in the People's Daily. "They called their trumped-up charges truth which was not to be questioned, and in a murky parody of criticizing Confucianism, they misrepresented correct statements of party leaders as reactionary and false."

As Confucius could have told them: "They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and they who love it are not equal to those who delight in it."