In birthplace of Confucius, descendants puzzle over the sage's legacy

Confucianism coexists uncomfortably with communism here in Qufu, the town where the great Chinese philosopher (551-479 BC) lived and taught.

Qufu's discomfort mirrors that of China as a whole. The ruling Communist Party has not pronounced a clear-cut verdict on Confucius's achievements and errors.

''Yes, he was a great sage and his contribution to Chinese history and civilization is undeniable,'' said an official here. ''But he also had faults, and the party has made no evaluation as to whether his contribution outweighs his faults.''

Confucius's temple and its spacious grounds are officially classified as a historical monument, as are the elegant adjoining pavilions where Confucius's descendants, ennobled as hereditary dukes by successive dynasties since the Han (206 BC-AD 220), lived lives of feudal splendor. The 77th duke, Kong Decheng, fled to Taiwan when the Communists came to power and remains there. But numerous relatives continue to live in Qufu where, indeed, one person in five bears the surname Kong.

''I have studied the Analects (Confucius's main teachings as recorded by his disciples) and I think they teach valuable things,'' said Kong Fanlan, a bright-eyed attendant at the Qufu Arts and Crafts Gallery. Miss Kong is a direct descendent of the 74th duke. ''Confucius valued learning. He told us that we should study hard. He also taught us that we should venerate our parents.''

''There are, of course, a lot of references to loyalty to the emperor in Confucius's teachings,'' said a white-collar worker who said his name, alas, was not Kong but Xu. ''These references are not taught in the schools today. But we do teach what Confucius said about filial piety. And as you know, this part of his teaching is enshrined in our laws. Children who do not take proper care of their parents can be punished by law.''

Qufu, Confucius's town, has a few factories. But its principal industry is tourism. It grew up around the Confucius temple and the family seat of his descendants. Even today, these edifices form the town's core.

Tourists visiting Qufu are housed in the western wing of the ducal residence. This is one of the very few hotels in China where tourists can get some idea what life in a grand feudal family must have been like, with pavilion after pavilion standing in its own courtyard on a north-south axis. The rooms are sparsely furnished and dark, but one has only to open one's door to step out into a traditional Chinese courtyard. Confucius's tomb is in a spacious walled forest a short mile's walk from the town's northern gate. One can imagine the splendid imperial palanquins that made the pilgrimage dynasty after dynasty, along this road. The avenue of honor leading to the tomb is peaceful and solemn, shaded by huge juniper trees.

Confucius lived in a time of disorder, when China was divided into numerous small warring states. He spent the first part of his life wandering from state to state, looking for a ruler who would accept his philosophy and carry out his policies, but returned to Lu, his native state, disappointed. Thereafter he lived in the capital of Lu, just outside what is now Qufu, teaching how a wise ruler should govern, how a wise father should run his household, and how a wise individual should learn to control himself and to manage his relations with his family and his ruler. Confucianism is not a religion in the traditional Western sense, for it is not concerned with the hereafter, but with how to manage properly one's affairs in this life. Ritual and veneration of ancestors played an important role in Confucius's teachings.

As long as the Communists were rebelling against the established order, they were iconoclasts and anti-Confucianist. But once they solidified their power, they could make convenient use of the submission to authority implicit in Confucius's definition of the proper relationship between a ruler and his subjects.

At the same time, the Communists are anti-feudal. They can see that the way in which Confucianism institutionalizes authority can lead to the ossification of a regime, to personality cults such as that of Mao Tse-tung, and to rites and ceremonies with little relevance to the actual needs of the people.

Today ritual plays an increasingly important role in the affairs of the communist state. It is not Confucian ritual. But some Chinese citizens think their government has developed the same historic tendency previous dynasties have fallen into, of confusing ritual with substance and of maintaining that because the ritual continues to be observed with rigorous solemnity, therefore the substance of good government remains unimpaired.

''I think Chairman Mao started the Cultural Revolution because he was afraid the government was becoming ossified,'' said a lively young magazine editor. ''That was a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. We have to pay due respect to Confucius. He was, after all, a great educator, but we have also got to work out just exactly what we want to keep of Confucianism and what we should clearly reject. That work is just beginning.''

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