WHEN the 13th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party convenes on Oct. 25, ``rejuvenation'' will be the official theme. A new generation of leaders is expected to succeed the old guard in China's Politburo. The future will certainly be the prevailing tense. But just as in the United States, where power is shifting into new hands in both parties, the past remains a factor in the future. Americans are simultaneously looking ahead to the elections of '88 and reappraising the Constitution in its 200th year.
In China, before the Communist Party gets to hold its congress, there has already been a kind of congress on Confucius, assessing the special meaning and importance this philosopher still possesses for his country 2,465 years after his death.
While conceding that the thaws of the ``Hundred Flowers'' period in the late '50s and the ``Cultural Revolution'' of the mid-'60s ended in deep freezes, the China-watcher writing under the name of ``Simon de Beaufort'' concluded that throughout the past decades of ``revolutionary change, China still maintains important parts of the oldest intellectual and cultural tradition.''
Even the writings of Chairman Mao, de Beaufort pointed out 10 years ago, ``contained as many references to Confucian treatises as to Stalin dissertations.''
Politics (and journalism) tend to concentrate on the exciting and often forgettable power struggles of the moment. In scribbling profiles of the new players, with box scores on who's hard-line Marxist and who's less hard-line, the reports out of China later this month are likely to give short shrift to Confucius.
Yet a cultural or even a political reading of China in '87 that neglects Confucianism may be almost as delinquent as a reading of Iran that neglects Islamic fundamentalism.
Nations are not so much pure identities as the peculiar sum of their contradictions, and China is no exception. The fact that Confucius is still a presence to reckon with underlines the paradox that the Chinese, even in the midst of their revolution, are still a traditional society.
Indeed, what else did Confucius teach but the virtues of tradition? - arguing that destiny consists in ``carrying out the unfinished work of our forefathers and transmitting their achievements to posterity.''
Unlike many traditionalists, Confucius believed in tradition for the sake of the individual rather than for the sake of society. And so Marxism, with its emphasis on a collective society and a system so perfect nobody will have to be good, runs squarely into Confucius' emphasis on the moral human being. He who would bring order to the nation, Confucius said, must first create order in his family; he who would bring order to his family must first find harmony within himself. Only good men produce good government - this is the essence of Confucianism.
In words that must sound quainter and quainter in China - and everywhere else on the political scene - Confucius declared: ``If a man enters public life, he does not change from what he was in private life.'' One should not deceive others, but above all, one should not betray oneself. In the final balancing between the individual and the state, Confucius came down firmly on the side of the individual. ``A man may be able to put a country in order,'' he said, ``and still he may not be able to find the central clue to his moral being'' - which, according to Confucius, is the goal of life.
What does this have to do with the wheeling-and-dealing that will occur at the party congress toward the end of the month? No more, perhaps, than the wheeling-and-dealing over the Republican and Democratic nominations for president has to do with the question from the Sermon on the Mount: ``What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'' That is to say, very little. But ``very little'' is not the same as ``nothing.'' And who could be so cynical as to presume that ancient ideals, still buried deep in millions of hearts, make no difference at all?
A Wednesday and Friday column