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china’s confucian revival

By: James Miller

ConfuciusBy James Miller

In a recent article entitled Two Big China Stories You Missed This Year Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a respected professor of Chinese history at UC Irvine, highlighted the rehabilitation of Confucius as one of the most significant trends in contemporary China. As a historian, his main point was, well, historical. To outsiders it may seem perfectly normal that Chinese leaders want to associate themselves with Confucius, China’s most famous philosopher. But this would be to ignore the fact that for most of the 20th century, Confucius was distinctly out of favour among the CCP leadership. According to Communist revolutionaries, Confucianism was a patriarchal feudal ideology that could have no place in the “new China.” How staggering it was, therefore, to see Confucius at the heart of the mega-spectacle of the Beijing Olympics. 

Wasserstrom writes:

This revival reached new heights during the torch run, when the flame’s arrival in Qufu, the sage’s hometown, was celebrated lavishly. It was then taken to an even higher crescendo during the Opening Ceremony, when Confucius was quoted as Hu [Jintao] and other leaders looked on with approval. Then 3,000 actors took the stage at the Bird’s Nest, dressed up to represent a massive contingent of the sage’s disciplines.

The question here is whether this revival of interest in Confucius actually means anything, or whether it is window dressing on the part of China’s elite.

It’s certainly true that Confucius is being used as a political tool by the elite. By clothing themselves in Confucius’s aura, officials themselves take on the appearance of wisdom. Confucius also continues to be a godlike figure revered in temples from Korea to Vietnam. Officials are thus tapping into this common East Asian sentiment that treats Confucius as a god of learning. 

But the revival of Confucianism has to be understood in the context of the crisis of legitimacy that China’s leaders face, and the crisis of belief in the post-Communist era. In the chaotic sea of ideas and values that currently floods mainland China, Confucius stands as an enduring symbol of China’s cultural power throughout the East Asian region.  

Moreover, no symbol is ever purely symbolic. Symbols carry meaning that can overpower those who wield them. The hope of China’s new Confucian intellectuals is that the official rehabilitation of Confucius will usher in an new era of Confucian philosophy. The question is how to adapt Confucian values for the 21st century context.

In the writings of new Confucian intellectuals such as Harvard’s Tu Weiming, gone is Confucius’s traditional association with feudalism and patriarchy. Instead Confucianism is reinvented as a sophisticated theory of ethical relationships that pays close attention to social contexts and roles. It is a kind of non-dogmatic ethical theory that holds much promise for 21st century ethical thinking because of its emphasis on contextual thinking.

Since the present context is one of ecological crisis, contemporary Confucian philosophers have had no difficulty in extending Confucian values such as harmony and relationship to incorporate the wider ecological context of human action.  Ethics is no longer confined to the realm of human relationships, but incorporates the extended ecological family within which human civilization flourishes.

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