Some Chinese find relevancy for today in ancient Confucianism. Scholars say teachings could temper obsession with material growth

The young tour guide was pleased with the reputation of people from his native province and insisted they were the most upright in all of China. ``I've been to every province,'' said the native of Jinan, the provincial capital, ``but people from Shandong are the best.''

``They're simple and honest. I think it's because this is home to Confucius.''

Have some of the ancient virtues taught by Confucius (551-479 B.C.) survived as living traditions among Shandong people? Many Shandong residents think so, especially those in Qufu, hometown of China's greatest philospher, where some 110,000 out of half a million residents are proud to carry Confucius' family name of Kong.

Benevolence and honesty, loyalty and trustworthiness - these are some of the traditional virtues which, say scholars, have their origins in Confucius' teachings. Scholars also say the ``distilled essence'' of Confucianism can explain the cohesiveness and even economic success of Asian societies as disparate as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

Some modern Confucianists hope that these same virtues can be revived and openly promoted in the ``Master's'' homeland as its native, spiritual heritage. They claim, ever so modestly, this would help to temper China's national obsession with material development and fill a gap left by the intellectual decline of Marxism.

``What are the prospects for the virtues that appear in the Confucian classics in China today and tomorrow?''

This was one of many subjects raised at a conference on Confucian studies held in Qufu, China, earlier this month.

An elite assembly of scholars from ten countries, the meeting was the first open symposium on Confucius held in China in 25 years. It was an opportunity to reflect on the teachings of a man who, over the centuries, has provoked more passionate debate than Karl Marx or Mao Tse-tung.

Jointly sponsored by the Confucius Foundation of China and the Institute of East Asian Philosophies in Singapore, the exclusive Qufu gathering was partly an effort to explore what capitalist Singapore has in common with socialist China - a Confucian tradition.

``The purpose of this conference is to evaluate Confucius thinking, to take what is valuable, and to discard what is useless,'' said a philosophy professor from a Peking university. ``Whether everyone agrees or not, Confucianist practices are a part of China today.''

Indeed, everyone does not agree, especially those who still hold to the view of Confucius as an obstacle to China's modernization. Paternalism, social hierarchy, discrimination against women, ancestor worship (not actually sanctioned by Confucius himself) - these are some of the traditional practices identified with Confucius and attacked by those who have wanted to change China, whether liberal intellectuals or Maoist Red Guards.

Foreign scholars at the Qufu meeting tended to point to the more admirable Confucian traditions - the assumption that human beings are perfectable, a deep concern with morality in government, and an emphasis on harmony in social and political relations.

The sympathetic views of Confucius, expressed by scholars from Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the United States, received a warm reception from many Chinese colleagues.

The polite atmosphere of the meeting was disturbed briefly when one of the West's leading scholars of Confucianism, William Theodore de Bary of Columbia University, commented on a paper by China's best-known critic of Confucius.

``Feudal'' and ``capitalist'' attempts to redeem the sage were of little use, argued Cai Shangsi of Fudan University. Professor Cai's orthodox Marxist perspective, coincided with the views of the ultra-leftists who waged violent anti-Confucius campaigns several decades ago. The Shanghai professor has been a consistent critic of Confucianism since the 1940s.

Mr. De Bary responded by advocating debate free of ideological prejudice and respect for what Confucius has meant in people's lives for the past 2,500 years.

In view of the continuing debate, the Qufu meeting was historic. The last such conference held in China was in 1962. The Cultural Revolution (1966-76) began just four years later. Some of China's leading scholars, who attended the 1962 meeting, later committed suicide rather than renounce their lifelong commitments to Confucian studies.

Now that the Chinese are struggling to achieve senior leader Deng Xiaoping's modernization program, however, some ask: ``What are our moral and ethical principles and where can we find them?''

``Under Deng's leadership, China has been developing the basic principles of Marxism but also has been tapping the spiritual resources of China's traditions,'' said Kuang Yaming, president of China's Confucius Foundation.

Donald Munro of the University of Michigan said that the meeting showed a resurfacing of interest in ethical principles and the search for a humanist tradition that is relevant to China today.

``After this meeting, the orthodox Marxist-Leninists will be more and more willing to openly acknowledge that one or two virtues in traditional Confucianism are worth inheriting and promoting in Chinese culture,'' he said.

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