Filling China's spiritual vacuum

The party's revival of Confucius reveals a contest of ideas and faith among the Chinese.

As Confucius would say, a society's moral order needs exemplary persons. And lately, with Beijing promoting its ancient sage, the world should look for examples of Chinese helping to put the world aright. One example came last week: China will soon send 300 engineers to Darfur to help the United Nations end a genocide there.

That small step sent a big signal. Beijing's Communist Party is looking for a new type of global influence, one that resolves conflicts and creates a harmonious world order. That may be one way for China to counter America's large global presence.

For sure, China needs to present a new face to the world. Its appetite for other nations' resources – oil, wood, and minerals that feed its export machine – has left the Asian giant looking like an exploitative capitalist. It's ruled by an authoritarian and corrupt party, and rising wealth inequality is stirring instability. China's military buildup and threats toward Taiwan also create unease in the Far East.

At home, a spiritual vacuum has crept into Chinese society by the peoples' rush to riches over the past three decades. Various faiths, from Christianity to the indigenous Falun Gong, are gaining ground among millions of people unhappy with simply making money.

A few years ago, the party tried to fill that moral void with strong nationalism. But that only led to uncontrollable, anti-Japanese riots.

Now, with a need to keep its legitimacy with the people, the party has reached for Confucius and a selection of ethical insights from "the Analects" attributed to him. Simply put, Confucius (or Kong Fuzi – Master Kong) taught family values, respect for hierarchy, and moral uprightness – especially of rulers.

His 2,500-year-old legacy is still deeply rooted in Chinese society, even though he's long been blamed for keeping precommunist China backward – and despite Mao's attempt to obliterate that legacy during the Cultural Revolution.

In recent months, the party has been pushing a popular book that translates his ideas for 21st-century China, turning him into a Dr. Phil for the middle class. Confucius schools and think tanks are popping up. And leaders hope to spread the sage's advice to instill better civil behavior among the Chinese before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Most of all, the party wants to use him to create a new obedience and unity – and to block calls for multiparty democracy.

Abroad, China has created Confucius Institutes in dozens of countries to teach Chinese art and language. This "soft power" is designed to create a cultural appreciation of China that can counter the image of Chinese businesses as rapacious.

It's unlikely the giant portrait of Mao (the "great liberator") hanging over Beijing's gate to the Forbidden City will be replaced soon by an image of China's great revelator. One reason is not all of Confucius's advice is welcomed by the party, especially one bit that calls on intellectuals to challenge immoral rulers.

His revival reveals that a contest of ideas and faiths is under way to meet the spiritual needs of China's 1.3 billion people. If neo-Confucianism doesn't work for China, the Communist Party will likely try something else simply to stay in power.

And oh, how un-Confucius that would be

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