Confucian Comeback: China Remains Divided Over Reviving its Ancient Sage

Dancers performing in Qufu. The city is home to China’s Confucian resurgence. Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP-Getty Images

In Tiananmen Square last year, when the stolid National Museum of China reopened its doors following a costly renovation, a 31-foot-tall statue of Confucius stood outside. A short while later the statue mysteriously disappeared. The museum offered no explanation. But speculation ran high that as the decade-old effort to reinsert Confucius into Chinese society has gathered steam, some in Beijing have grown ambivalent. Government officials "hope to make good use of Confucianism, but fear criticism for reviving it," said Zhang Lifan, a former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Given that the revered scholar died back in 479 B.C., many doubt that modern China can be governed entirely by Confucian proverbs. Still, China needs something to fill the moral vacuum; Marxism long ago lost its luster, and many fear that money madness now holds sway, that capitalism has created a Darwinian struggle that some have dubbed "keeping up with the Wangs." Meanwhile, the regime's rule has increasingly come under siege from bloggers and an influx of Western notions like universal suffrage. As a result, many officials have put their hopes on a mix of nationalism and Confucian thought to glue together China's tattered social fabric.

The epicenter of this new cultural revolution is Qufu, a town in the countryside of coastal China, where Confucius was born. Here visitors don fuchsia-trimmed robes, kowtow before a statue of the great sage, and on his birthday—Sept. 28—observe a full-blown ancient ceremony, complete with song and dance. Last year Zeng Zhenyu, an analyst at the Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies of Shandong University, proposed to the provincial government that Qufu be transformed into a special Confucian culture area, modeled after the government-created special economic zones, which spearheaded the nation's shift toward capitalism. In these areas, people would behave according to Confucian ethics and study ancient texts. "The government has gradually understood the importance of popularizing Confucian thought," Zeng told Newsweek. "That's good, but not enough. We need to carry it out in practice."

Yet reinserting Confucius into schools would represent an irony of sorts—and thus some may be reluctant to see it occur. The Communist Party catapulted into power by attacking the Confucian order, which it said perpetuated inequality. Indeed, Confucius is credited with promoting a social hierarchy in which roles are strictly defined: students defer to teachers, kids revere elders, wives serve husbands, and citizens obey rulers–unless they become abusive, in which case citizens are justified to rebel. The government's critics are divided over the Confucian revival. Some believe that it's nothing more than cynical nationalism. "If Confucius could help China, he should have done it 2,000 years ago," said Liu Junning, a researcher at the Cultural Research Institute at China's Ministry of Culture. Others see the Confucian comeback as a mixed blessing. "There's something to it when people say Confucian thought seeks to prolong autocracy and is essentially antidemocratic," said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing University of Technology. "But it also advocates kindheartedness and justice." In other words, when it comes to Confucius, both the regime and its critics are of two minds.