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Reconstructing Confucius

Saturday, August 4, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:44 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Children at a Young Pioneers school in Zhengzhou practice kung fu. The school is one of a growing number teaching Confucianism, a philosophy the Communist Party once sought to destroy.

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.

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“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.

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.

In Beijing, the Education Ministry has approved more courses in traditional Confucian culture. The government also supports 145 nonprofit Confucius Institutes in more than 52 countries and regions, aimed at promoting Chinese language and culture. People’s University added a new major in 2005: the study of ancient Chinese civilization.

The popularity of Confucianism is in part a sign that most ordinary Chinese citizens, except for party officials and some academics, no longer truly believe in a communist ideology.

“China has made great economic achievements in the past 30 years, and this has brought back a confidence that we lost. With this confidence comes a return to being proud of Chinese culture,” said Kang Xiaogang, a professor at People’s University and one of China’s top proponents of Confucian education. “Another important reason for the growing popularity of Confucianism is that the effectiveness of Marxist ideology has decreased. That’s why the government needs to look for new ideologies.”

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.


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