Two big China stories you missed this year
The brief yet radical shift of patriotic fervor into criticism of the government after the Sichuan earthquake and the official revival of Confucius were crucial moments in a pivotal year.
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The philosopher at the center of this second overlooked story is Confucius, who has been making an extraordinary comeback in a land where, within living memory, he was officially excoriated as a retrograde thinker.Skip to next paragraph
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As recently as the early 1970s, the Communist Party still held to the Marxist dictate that progress tended to comes as the result of struggle and conflict (whereas Confucius celebrated harmony), and Chairman Mao insisted that old modes of thought that venerated the past and prized social hierarchies (as Confucianism did) had to be uprooted once and for all for China to advance toward utopia.
In addition, Mao's longtime archrival, the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, had praised Confucius as China's greatest thinker – another point against the sage in the eyes of the Communist Party of the Cultural Revolution era, when mass rallies denouncing him were held.
The revival of Confucius has been going on for years. It has been linked at the popular level to a general loss of faith in Marxism and Maoism, which has led to an interest in reappraising many once-discredited belief systems. And recently, thanks to how nicely Confucian bromides fit in with talk of a "harmonious society," the sage has gotten official support. Old temples honoring him have been rebuilt, new statues of him have gone up, and "Confucius Institutes," devoted to spreading Chinese culture, have been set up in foreign countries.
It is hard to tell whether this official embrace of Confucius expresses a genuine renewed admiration for the sage within the leadership, or is merely a cynical use of his image and legacy. It may be a bit of both. Another factor behind the popular official revival alike may simply be national pride. Whatever strengths or weaknesses may be in the man's ideas, there is no question that he ranks as among the most famous philosophers in world history.
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 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 prominent Confucian sayings and symbols played in the opening ceremonies were treated in a surprisingly matter-of-fact way, as though Confucius had never ceased being a revered figure and positive symbol of China's long history.
For the historically minded, the effect was shocking. It was similar to what a sports fan might have experienced if a man who had won a gold medal as a sprinter at the Rome Olympics in 1960, then disappeared from the track scene, suddenly took the lead in the finals for the 100-meter dash in the 2008 Games – and the commentator simply said: "Gee, we always knew he was fast!"
Each of these under-the-radar stories played a role in making 2008 a Chinese "year of great significance" – to borrow a phrase my colleagues and I use in the title of a forthcoming anthology.
And each gives us a sense of things to watch for in 2009 and beyond, as the Communist Party continues to try to ride out still longer the legitimacy crisis it has faced ever since the faith in Maoism as a creed dissipated decades ago. In struggling to come up with novel ways to remake their image and stay in power as a ruling group, China's leaders will very probably continue to play the nationalism card and rev up still further the uses of Confucius.
We should be ready for these developments. We should also watch for moments when, as happened briefly last May, patriotic fervor morphs into antigovernment backlashes, and officially sponsored Confucian-sounding calls for pursuit of a "harmonious society" are attacked by the public as nothing more than window dressing for a ruling group most of whose member care above all simply about keeping hold of the reins of power.
• Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese History at University of California, Irvine, is the author of the just-published "Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments," and a co-editor of "China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance," forthcoming in March.