DURING the harvest here in the birthplace of Confucius, Yan Shikui and his mother fill straw baskets with wheat and fling the grain skyward in amber plumes. The Yan family has scattered the chaff from the grain this way for 77 generations. But recently, they and other Chinese peasants have winnowed much more than just wheat.
Reforms that have swept away Peking's most radical Marxist dogma over the past decade have enabled Chinese peasants to embrace anew traditional family values. The Confucian ethics that guided family life for centuries before communist rule are reemerging.
The return to these ancient ideals has led to a new emphasis on closer family ties and individual initiative.
Moreover, the strengthening of the family has helped restore prosperity to the countryside. Since 1978, the state has dismantled the country's disastrously inefficient communes and returned power over basic agricultural decisions back to family, the most productive farming unit in China.
``These are good days for my family, the best I've seen,'' said Mr. Yan, standing behind a knee-high mound of wheat while his neighbors tossed grain in the air as if celebrating windfall riches.
China's peasantry began reviving Confucian values after senior leader Deng Xiaoping dismantled the country's disastrously inefficient communes in 1978 and gave power over basic agricultural decisions back to the family.
``The past 10 years of economic reform has helped reinforce the Chinese family, especially in the countryside, because family members have realized that if they join their energies together they can prosper and get rich quickly,'' said Liu Ying, director of the marriage and family research office at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Mr. Deng has counted on China's tightly knit peasant families to build a sound agricultural base for China's plan for industrial and technological development. His reforms have enabled Yan and most Chinese peasants to nearly triple their income.
By relying on the family, Deng turned to the same institution Confucius extolled in an effort to save China on the eve of the tumultuous Warring States Period (403-221 BC).
As regional fighting and social chaos threatened to tear China apart, Confucius tried to restore stability by promoting a philosophy built on the solid ties of the Chinese family. He made filial piety the highest virtue, espousing ancestor worship and specifying the proper relation between father and son, husband and wife, and elder and younger brothers.
``The family, rather than the individual, the state, or the church, has formed the most significant unit in Chinese society,'' according to Harvard Sinologist John Fairbank.
``Each individual's family was his chief source of economic sustenance, security, education, social contract, and recreation. Through ancestor worship it was even his main religious focus,'' writes Dr. Fairbank in his book ``East Asia.''
The very strength of an ethical system oriented toward the family rather than the state made it the target of attack by a totalitarian, Marxist regime. After taking power in 1949, the Communist Party jealously assailed the family during two decades of gross abuse of power.
Led by Mao Tse-tung, the party forced family farms into communes and tried to graft industry onto the countryside and forcibly create a communist Utopia in the catastrophic ``Great Leap Forward'' of 1958-1960.
Facing starvation, Chinese in Bo Ning withdrew into their immediate families and let their ties to the extended family wither. ``Many people in Bo Ning died of hunger at that time,'' Yan said. ``Often all we had to eat was the bark and leaves from the trees.''
Starting in 1966 the party turned family members against one another during the decade-long Cultural Revolution. It dispatched radical fanatics throughout China to ostracize, torture, or kill ``bourgeois reactionaries'' and other political groups it deemed distasteful. Throughout China, Maoist zealots goaded spouses and siblings to denounce each other and children to denounce their parents.
In a effort to wipe out Confucianism, party cadres destroyed Confucian temples and forced peasants to hurl ancestral tablets into public bonfires. Many families in Bo Ning fell apart, village family heads say.
``During the Cultural Revolution it was completely mad and no one dared to follow old traditions of the family and religion, but now there is order, and people are going back to those old ideas,'' said Yan Shitian, another farmer in Bo Ning.
Since the end of the party's campaign of devastation, village families have returned to the security of ancient traditions and the rhythms of the Chinese lunar calendar. They worship their ancestors, celebrate a birth with full-month ceremonies, offer a dowry to a bride, and marry on ``lucky'' days.
Resigned to the popular allure of old practices, officials have rebuilt Confucian temples around Qufu and joined in celebrations of Confucius' birthday.
During the Chinese Lunar New Year, Yan Shikui gathers with the 50 other members of his extended family for feasting, storytelling, and other revelry. The clan places ancestral records on the central table of the home but Yan, raised during the Cultural Revolution, says he doesn't worship his forebears.
``Those people are gone and such a practice is just symbolic,'' said Yan, sitting in his three-room home next to sacks of wheat as chicks scrabbled on the dirt floor. ``But my mother, she is here, and I should provide her with enough food and give her a pleasant time.''
The life of the Yans within their mud-and-brick, thatched roof enclosure shows that even in good times they must foster strong family bonds to get by.
When not helping out with farming, Yan's mother tends two pigs and a small coop of chickens, or cooks outdoors over a coal-fired wok. She sleeps with her daughter and young grandson on straw ticking in one bedroom while Yan and his wife sleep in the other.
Yan, his wife, and sister work outside their tiny walled yard on an 0.8-acre plot of state-leased land, cultivating wheat, corn, and soybeans. His wife mends clothes, sweeps their home, and does other household chores.
``As Confucius says, I must respect my parents. If I don't show respect toward my mother, then my children won't respect me,'' said Yan.
Although reinvigorated nationwide, traditional family mores are stronger in the countryside than the cities, where rapid economic growth has eroded old-fashioned morality. Some urban families still practice ancestor worship, and most uphold the basic Confucian value of respect for elders, said Wang Bingkun, a Peking city official.
But the number of three- or four-generation families living together in the city has decreased, Wang said. And cases of divorce, while extremely rare by the standards of developed countries, have more than tripled in China in 10 years.
One of the biggest challenges to Confucian values is a persistent attempt by the Communist Party to put its own mores at the center of Chinese hearts.
``On the whole Confucianism is a heavy burden in the way of our development and we should get rid of it,'' said Ms. Liu of the Academy of Social Sciences. She identifies sexism as perhaps its most pernicious legacy.
For example, the party has found the Confucian bias toward sons and large families an impediment to its most controversial policy of social engineering: a limit of one child per couple.
Recognizing that since the beginning of reform fines have not discouraged many peasants from having more than one child, the party has recently allowed rural couples in a few provinces to try to bear a son if their first child is a girl.
The party's main strategy has been to try to supplant Confucian values with the rule of law. It has made Chinese legally obligated to care for their parents and has drawn up a law aimed in part at protecting children against Confucian patriarchs who demand blind obedience.
Yet the party has failed to moor the new laws to a secure ethical system like Confucianism. Adrift in the public consciousness, these laws are vulnerable to abuse.
China's official press frequently depicts law as an end in itself rather than as a safeguard to fairness and sound values. The official Peking Science and Technology Journal recently decried how some couples, observing traditional values, have endured an unhappy marriage rather than turn to divorce.
``Divorce is more a matter of law than an issue of morality,'' the journal said. Noting the widespread aversion to divorce, the official New China News Agency chided Chinese for using ``outmoded ethical codes, rather than the law, to justify their out-of-date concept of marriage.''
Trying to uproot ``outdated'' family ethics, the party has attempted to build law and social order on the ideals of the ``socialist spiritual civilization,'' Liu said. ``This is not just an empty slogan. The socialist spiritual civilization has been developing since the revolution in 1949, and its guiding principle is to serve society to one's best ability: Serve the collective, and not focus on oneself,'' she said.
``In the name of such selfless public service, the minions of the party's Cultural Revolution ravaged families in Bo Ning and elsewhere, defying everything Confucian including its essential rule: ``Don't do unto others what you would not like done to you.''
Working alongside his mother in the coppery, harvesttime sun, Yan said, ``What is socialist spiritual civilization?'' as the wind culled the wheat from another shower of Yan family grain and strewed the ragged chaff.
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