Cultural Confusion Sends China Back to Confucius

As communism decays and capitalism grows, the Chinese reach for new values and take a fresh look at traditional ideals

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN two years, artist Qiu Qingfeng has painted 30 portraits of Confucius, each with a stormy visage mirroring his own disquiet.

"Society needs Confucius. His teachings for self-improvement, studying hard, and being a man of integrity are still applicable today," says the 23-year-old, whose paintings hang in the great sage's hometown manor. "But very few people now understand Confucius. And that's a tragedy."

As communism decays and capitalist greed spreads, Chinese grasp for new values amid a spreading cultural unease. Increasingly, people speak openly of self-doubt and soul-searching triggered by rapid-fire market change, bankrupt Marxism, and the drift from traditional Confucian ideals.

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Beijing's communists confound the confusion. They scuttled the virulent anti-Confucius campaign of the Cultural Revolution and now invoke Confucian ethics of obedience, respect, and sense of commonwealth, which form China's cultural bedrock. Still, in a campaign reviving communism's favorite everyman, they exhort Chinese to "learn from Lei Feng," the fictional soldier and Marxist paragon.

Both Chinese and Western observers say weakened Confucianism, disillusionment with communism, encroaching Westernization, and the pell-mell pursuit of wealth have eroded recent beliefs and left many Chinese at a cultural crossroads.

"During the Cultural Revolution the struggle against self-interest ... was commonly accepted. But later we discovered that we had been fooled because the practice was mine is mine and yours is mine too," says a professor at People's University in Beijing. "I still believe in the struggle against self-interest.... But today we are asking what are the values that work in the market economy?

"There is chaos in Chinese values," he adds. "What should be the values for today?"

"The most important thing is that the social contract doesn't exist anymore. Can China be as Confucian as before? Certainly not. But this is no longer the culture of Mao's new man, either," says Yves Nalet, a China analyst in Hong Kong. "Many are asking how long can people just care about themselves and not care about others. The Chinese are saying we don't know what we want to be."

Amid the disarray, the 2,500-year-old tradition of China's greatest thinker and educator, known here as Kong Fuzi, is key to a lively intellectual debate overfilling what some Western scholars consider China's moral void.

More of an ethical code than a religion, Confucianism, first taught by the philosopher in the 5th century BC and adopted by subsequent rulers over the centuries, remains deep-rooted in the Chinese way of thinking, even in ways people are not always aware of, intellectuals here say.

Even communist supremo Mao Zedong, who attacked Confucius as a misguided feudal lord, used Confucian strictures to stay in power, Chinese scholars say.

"Confucianism and communism are contradictory in nature. But they have one thing in common: Both were used by ruling classes to keep society in order," says one scholar. "To maintain their rule, the communists changed Confucianism so that loyalty to the emperor became loyalty to the chairman."

Today, in Qufu, a bustling tourist hub of almost 1 million people in southeastern Shandong province, Confucius is once again king. The government has spent millions of dollars to repair damage to the temple and mansion of Confucius and his descendants that was caused by marauding Red Guards. Much of the Confucian legacy was saved through the intervention of Premier Zhou Enlai and the secret efforts of local residents.

Confucianism also is making a theoretical comeback, say local young people who claim the philosophy gives them a moral anchor.

"This has been passed down from generation to generation for 2,000 years," says Wu Lixin, who reads Confucius' teachings regularly and plans to study hotel management in the United States. "The reason it has lasted is because it is truth."

But another side of the philosophy justifies oppressive politics and social conservatism, Chinese observers say. Recently, public-security officials here blocked a rock concert by an Australian band, which went ahead only after intervention by the Australian Embassy in Beijing. When pro-democracy protests swept China in 1989, the response in Qufu was muted.

"The older people said the students were wrong because [the older people] are still very conservative and worried that the public good would be harmed," a young man says. For legions of uninterested young Chinese, though, Confucianism is irrelevant in a modernizing but callous China swept by crime, cynicism, official corruption, and the rush to get rich.

"Young people in Shanghai don't believe in Confucius," said a visiting Shanghai businessman who was touring the old mansion. "But we still regard him as our old ancestor."

"We've had enough of Confucius," said a taxi driver in the Shandong capital of Jinan. "His teachings are too strict."

Still, Chinese scholars say that Confucianism is here to stay, contending that any moral vacuum is temporary and part of the evolution under way in China.

"With the change from the rigid economic structure to the market economy, the old rigidity is under shock and is being smashed," says scholar Sun Changjiang. "As the old ideology fades, a new ideology is growing."

"The impact of Confucianism, positive and negative, will last for a long time," says Tan Yijie, president of the International Academy of Chinese Culture in Beijing. "There are a considerable number of people in China who have real ideals. Though they may not constitute the majority of the population, they represent the future."

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