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Confucius’s Comeback

China's respect for the ancient philosopher continues to grow


President Xi Jinping grabbed headlines when he gave the keynote address at the International Confucian Association (ICA) Conference marking the 2,565th birthday of Confucius on September 24. The speech, given at the the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, was the first time a sitting Chinese president had attended, let alone spoken, at such a high profile meeting on the ancient Chinese philosopher.

During his speech, Xi emphasized the ways in which Confucianism can help guide a flourishing China, and the ways it can combine with Marxism to provide ideological guidance for the future. He spoke at length on the ways in which Confucianism can help provide social stability and promote friendship and harmony. Most interestingly to students of recent Chinese history, Xi claimed that the CCP is ““successor to and promoter of fine traditional Chinese culture.”

Although Xi’s speech was widely reported upon as groundbreaking, it hardly came out of the blue. News reports by Chinese state-run publications have repeatedly emphasized Xi’s expertise in classical Chinese philosophy and poetry. This renewed respect for ancient Chinese texts, especially as demonstrated by the leader of China, would have scandalized and infuriated the government during Chairman Mao’s rule. So those foreigners who are less familiar with today’s China politics and culture may be left scratching their heads at this renewed respect for Confucius. However, since China’s opening up, and especially during the last 15 years, respect for China’s ancient cultural heritage has grown tremendously.

Across the country, more people are studying ancient Chinese history. As TWOC has previously reported, newly popular Confucius academies are being turned to for moral guidance as today’s China searches for something besides money and success to believe in. In addition to studying classical tests at these academies, one can also learn everything from how to take care of a younger sibling to how to treat a woman properly. But if you can’t attend, don’t worry. Even Chinese self-help books have taken on a Confucian flavor.

However, modern Confucianism is not just about respecting ancient China’s history or achieving a better, more moral society. Confucianism’s revival is also about helping China make its way towards a more certain and stable political and economic future. Today, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, scholars of Confucianism probe the wisdom of the ancients to solve the problems of the present. Political Confucius scholars debate the ways in which the Chinese government can best express its will through a  humane, Confucius approved version of authoritarianism. Economists debate what Confucius would have to say about market privatization and a smaller, less centralized government. University professors debate the best Confucian ways in which China can best spread its soft power abroad.

Perhaps the most well known example of the re-popularization of Confucius to those outside of China are The Confucius Institutes. Founded in 2004 and overseen by a committee of Chinese governmental officials, Confucius Institutes around the world teach Chinese language and culture and promote cultural exchange. Today, there are more than 480 Confucius Institutes on six continents. The organization is only set to grow, as there are plans to open as many as 1,000 such centers abroad by 2020. The fact that the Chinese government chose to name the most public face of its soft power efforts after the once reviled philosopher show a great deal about the ways in which Confucianism has once again become fashionable.

However, this renewed emphasis on Confucianism has not been without its challenges. On an abstract level, how exactly does one square Confucianism and Marxism into one coherent belief system, as the two philosophies hold many contradictory views? As Confucianism becomes more popular, will Marxism suffer a decline? On a more practical level, though, this is not Confucius’s fault, Confucius Institutes have generated an enormous amount of controversy, particularly in Western countries.

Still, Confucianism as a powerful philosophical guiding force within Chinese society is probably here to stay. As China grows more prosperous and proud of its success, it is increasingly celebrating its long and rich history in art, literature, architecture, and philosophy. Probably no person is more symbolic of China’s long and illustrious past than Confucius. And for a country with a multitude of difficult problems–from corruption to environmental degradation to the soullessness of new money–leaning a bit on the wisdom from the ancients might not be such a bad idea.


Image via Wikipedia




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