In changing times, many Chinese find wisdom in Confucius

More citizens are turning to the ancient sage as they try to cope with the economic and social changes racking their country.

Come back, Confucius, all is forgiven.

For nearly a century the ancient sage was confined to the intellectual doghouse in the land of his birth.

Today he is fast supplanting communism as Chinese rulers, businessmen, and ordinary citizens turn back 2-1/2 millenniums to his teachings to help them cope with the economic and social changes racking their country.

"The economy is developing very fast, but people feel the need for wisdom and morality," says Gu Qing, who publishes books on traditional Chinese culture. "Now we've solved the problem of filling people's stomachs, they are looking for something to fill their minds."

The signs are everywhere. Confucianism is now on the curriculum at the Central Party School for high-flying Communist officials; private schools inculcating the Confucian classics are sprouting around China; and a recent self-help book of Confucian answers to modern questions has sold 4 million copies – outstripping Harry Potter.

For most of the 20th century, Chinese leaders reviled Confucianism as a feudal philosophy whose emphasis on respect for elders, propriety, and the harmony of hierarchy had trapped China in its past. The nadir for the man whose precepts defined society for more than 2,000 years came during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards went on a weeks-long rampage of destruction in his hometown.

The current government sees Confucius in a more positive light: President Hu Jintao's key slogan, "a harmonious society," is a conscious evocation of the Confucian value of harmony and balance.

"For the government, this is a way to provide some sort of legitimacy for what they do" as corruption scandals and a growing gulf between rich and poor feed public skepticism about official policy, says Daniel Bell, who teaches political philosophy at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "Socialist ideals do not do it, and economic growth works only to a certain extent.

"The government needs to think about deeper sources of legitimacy, of resolving conflicts in peaceful ways. Confucius points to a peaceful way," he adds.

Authorities might also hope that officials would be inspired by Confucius's ideal of the "gentleman," a righteous person who puts service to others before his own interests.

At the same time, suggests Zhang Huizhi, vice president of the Chinese Confucian Association, the government has a more political goal in mind. "Another purpose is that through the study of Confucianism people will realize the glory and brilliance of Chinese traditional culture," says Professor Zhang.

"A lot of Western culture is invading China at the moment, so developing Confucianism helps people develop self-confidence in their own culture," he adds.

Beijing "is using two legs to walk on," Zhang says. The government is encouraging academic research into Confucius and the tradition of thought he spawned. It is also "spreading the results of academic study into ordinary peoples' lives."

Yu Dan, the author of the surprise bestseller "Insights into the Analects," her take on the key compilation of Confucius's teachings, has enjoyed success with this approach. Her book began as a lecture series on state TV last fall. She has since become a celebrity, and looks more like a star – in dark glasses, apricot blouse, and tight black capri pants – than the university lecturer in media studies that is her day job.

Ms. Yu says she struck a chord with a public confused by rapid change. Not long ago, she notes, citizens found a job and stayed in it for life, were assigned a home and lived in it for life, and rarely contemplated divorce. "Life was poor, but poverty brought its own kind of stability," she says.

Today, the freedom to choose a career and a home can be unsettling, Yu says. "For a person who knows what he wants, choice is a luxury. But for someone who has no standards by which to choose, it can be a disaster. That's why the pursuit of belief is getting stronger."

Yu says her lectures would not have resonated with so many viewers had it not been for their history. "Confucianism has been the essence of Chinese culture for 2,000 years," she says. "I am not teaching people from the outside – I am unlocking something that already exists deep in their hearts … that they don't know how to express."

Eva Wong, who founded China's most widely used executive-coaching system on a blend of Confucian values and Western corporate methods, says she has found the same thing. "Confucianism is in our blood," she says. "We all get it. But clients wonder what it has to do with their businesses.

"We have to present it in a modern way," she says, which in the business world means corporate social responsibility. "We bring our clients to see how they relate to others and to generations to come. Confucius teaches that you are not a Lone Ranger, that if you don't balance your relations with your stakeholders, you'll be in trouble sooner or later."

For Zhang, this and other recent manifestations of Confucius's return to the limelight are simply "a return to normality.

"You can change a country's regime," he argues. "But you can't change its cultural foundations."

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Confucian sayings

• The gentleman is devoted to principle but not inflexible in small matters.

• Being good as a son and obedient as a young man is, perhaps, the root of a man's character.

• Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.

SOURCE: The Analects of Confucius

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