"The reason why the superior man tries to go into politics is because he holds this to be right, even though he is well aware that his principles cannot prevail." Confucius

If Confucius could return to his hometown today, he probably would be hailed as a hero, then warned to stay away from the apricot orchard where he used to propagate his political ideas.

Although the great sage died 2,461 years ago, he has been enjoying a modest comeback since China's current regime brought him out of historical exile in hopes of unifying the nation through the pull of tradition.

Confucius still is regarded as a misguided politician, but some of his thoughts have gotten good enough reviews over recent years to find their way back into Chinese classrooms, occupy the time of professional scholars and lure a few thousand tourists weekly to his ancestral seat in this medieval hamlet of east China.

Even the Communist Party has accented a few of its policies with Confucian values, although it sets strict limits on veneration of the only Chinese thinker except for Mao Tse-tung who has managed to unify the vast nation with a set of political principles.

"Socialist moralities are quite different than the teachings of Confucius," observed history professor Lo Chenglei, voicing the party line. "But we cannot ask a man who lived 2,500 years ago to be as good as man today."

Confucius is best known outside China as the avuncular philosopher to whom many attribute the pithy sayings that fill fortune cookies. But inside China, he has been a controversial political symbol for centuries, supported by some rulers as a brilliant social organizer and denounced by others as a defender of reaction.

Communist officials have never looked kindly on his elitist views of governing, but they seemed content to let Confucius fade into historical oblivion until the leftist hysteria of the Cultural Revolution erupted in the 1960s.

Then, with invectives harsh enough to curl the sage's wispy beard, Red Guards called him "a stinking corpse" and "the spokesman for the decadent slave-owning aristocracy."

Confucius even became a nonperson in Qufu, where a fifth of the town's 30,000 people claim descent from him and where the only architectural distinction is a legacy of the great teacher's family. It was as if Lincoln had been struck from the rolls of the Springfield, Ill., town hall.

Red Guards traveled to Qufu like pilgrims of the past, then flouted the traditions that their forebears have revered since the 6th century B.C. They beat up Confucian scholars, toppled gravestones in the ancient family cemetery and built a public road through the courtyard of the Confucian temple.

"Our people looked on with disgust," said Kong Fanyin, a local official charged with protecting Confucian relics. "We were just too scared to do anything about it."

When temperate Communists seized power in 1978, they looked for ways to restore civility after a decade of ideological strife. One of their first moves was rehabilitating Confucius, perhaps hoping he was prophetic when he advised, "If you begin by setting yourself right, who will deviate from the right."

Now, Confucius' teachings once again are sold in bookstores, stimulate debate in academic journals and even seem to creep into Communist Party policy.

Slogans like "five stresses and four beauties," scrawled everywhere from classroom blackboards to train station bathroom walls, call for a revival of Confucian virtues of courtesy, morality, hygiene and purity of the soul.

No less a dedicated Marxist than Party Chairman Hu Yaobang sounded like a closet Confucian last fall when he invited Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo to fulfill his filial duty by burying his father's remains at the family's ancestral home in southeast China. "A tree may grow 10,000 feet high," said Hu, "but its leaves fall back to the roots."

In Qufu, it has become safe again to honor the town's most famous son. Residents scrubbed Confucian shrines to prepare for his symbolic homecoming, scraped off insulting big character posters from his temple and renovated the family mansion with the help of $1.6 million in state aid.

While Chinese visitors to Mao's birthplace in Hunan Province have fallen off to a trickle, Qufu now draws 1 million tourists yearly, according to town officials.

When you walk through the walled city today, there is exactly a 20 percent chance of meeting someone named Kong (Confucius' Chinese surname) who will proudly define his place in the family's lineage.

At the No. One Middle School, teachers have restored the few pages of biographical material on Confucius that had been ripped out of history books in the 1970s, and they try to inculcate some of his social theories -- albeit with a contemporary spin.

"Our students know Confucius is part of their cultural heritage," explained history instructor Chen Guanghuan. "We tell them he was a great thinker. But every child in China hears Chairman Mao Tse-tung's name first."

Although Confucius' boomlet has been quietly encouraged by Peking, Communist officials hold fast to their goal of "letting the past serve the present." To make sure Confucius' precepts remain no more than historical curiosity, they continue to ban burning of incense at the sage's altars and public celebration of his birthday. They also criticize the superstitious marriage and burial rituals that grew out of the Confucian era.

"Qufu is not a mecca for religious pilgrims," insisted professor Lo, an official Confucian scholar. "Confucius was a very learned man who had his weaknesses. He served the ruling class. He is not a saint.

"Nobody comes to Qufu because he is lured by Confucius' ideas. They come just to see the ancient statues."

Official views like Lo's create another issue separating the mainland from Taiwan, whose constitution incorporated some of Confucius' views of government.

Confucius' eldest direct heir -- Kong Decheng -- fled the mainland ahead of the Communist advance, breaking a 2,500-year chain of descendants in Qufu. Now 62, he lives in Taiwan where he is recognized as "the rite official of the supreme sage and teacher."

In Qufu, however, a few aged loyalists keep alive the famous thinker's spirit, possessing personal histories of the struggle of Confucianists in modern China.

One of them is Liu Changhou, 68, a Confucian disciple since age 7 who later worked as an attendant in the household of Kong Decheng, then a boy but nonetheless accorded the title of duke.

Confucius' birthday was still a national holiday in the 1920s and 1930s when he worked for the family, said Liu. Officials from Peking came to the tiny city to watch the young Kong ride on a sedan chair to the Confucian temple, kowtow before each altar and leave offerings of freshly slaughtered cow, pig and sheep.

"When the ceremony was over," said Liu, "the procession would return. A big gong was beaten at the head of the column. There were people carrying incense burners and long red banners."

Although Kong left Qufu with the Chinese Nationalist forces in 1937, the birthday celebrations continued during the Japanese occupation. When the Communists took over China in 1949, Liu said, he was asked to stay on at the residence as a guardian of historical records.

When Red Guards marched into Qufu in the 1970s, they viewed Liu's lifelong service as treason. He was forced to do hard labor and stand before screaming mobs for hours at a time while they denounced him as a "watchdog for the royalists."

"All I could think of was the master's thinking," said Liu. " 'Do to others what you wish done to you.' "

Now that the rampage has ended, Liu has retired to raising flowers, calligraphy and the private study of his life's inspiration. Still, he knows the limits of today's political tolerance.

"I believe in Confucius," said the old man, "but I don't necessarily worship him."

Confucius may have responded with one of his warnings to feudal dukes and princes: "Even the general of a great army may be kidnaped, but no force can steal the determination of the humblest man."