The party originally denounced Confucius in the 1920s and Mao Zedong tried to wipe out his image during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution as a symbol of feudal thinking. In much of Asia, however, he remained a revered symbol of enlightenment who tried to balance principles like justice and benevolence.
Now Confucius is being presented – some critics say appropriated – by Beijing as a uniquely Chinese sage, if not a patriotic figure. And as China pushes harder to define itself as an Asian power not beholden to the West and its ways, Confucius has become a wellspring of interpretive wisdom on everything from personal growth and management to economics and team leadership.
The party is also using him to brand its “soft power” outreach to the world, in hundreds of “Confucius Institutes” around the world that teach Chinese language and culture.
Imbibing Confucian wisdom
No place more avidly promotes Confucius than Qufu, a small town about two and a half hours by fast train from Beijing. In Chinese official history Confucius was born here circa 551 BC.
His rebirth in the nation's collective estimation has transformed Qufu. A stunning $35 million Confucius research center opened in 2010; luxury hotels, shops, conference centers, and visitor centers fill the downtown, and partly-built high rises ring the city. At visitor seminars and corporate retreats, participants imbibe Confucian wisdom.
Tourists can stroll solemn courtyards, terraces, gates, and pavilions surrounded by ancient evergreens where Confucius is said to have taught. There are cartoons exhibitions for kids and free daily lectures.
“Confucius tells us you can be smart, talented, and brave, but if you don’t have ethics, you aren’t really a person,” Wang Chao Yang, the director of the Confucius Research Institute in Qufu, told a visiting corporate group.
Behind the promotion of Confucius is not only a hunger for values, but also a bid by leaders to offer deeper traditions as the nation enters a new era of increased wealth. In the eyes of many Chinese, that prosperity has created a moral void and fueled social instability, always a concern for China’s leaders.
Rehabilitation and civilization
China watchers say it's curious that a figure so long disregarded has been rehabilitated.
“The party never spoke of him with anything other than opprobrium if not rage,” says Lionel Jensen of Notre Dame University and author of “Manufacturing Confucius.” “To suddenly become a new and uniquely Chinese symbol is quite a trick…it seems he’s become institutionalized.”
During the Cultural Revolution students smashed or defaced many of Qufu's Confucius statues. One ancient obelisk was spared, a tour guide tells visitors, because it was inscribed with the Chinese character for “party."
The re-appropriation of Confucius came in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests where students talked of loving China and its culture, but not the ruling Communist Party. It marked a rediscovery of Chinese history and culture that Maoism had tried to wipe out.
The party responded in 1992 with “socialist spiritual civilization” – a concept aimed at curbing any wayward student impulses. In the new framing, Confucius and other ancients were reintroduced to help fuse the party, the nation, and the culture into one seamless whole.
Confucius’ actual historical record is quite fuzzy, Prof. Jensen says. Historians say he was probably a composite character rather than of a single person. “He’s more a myth, a collection of teachings…more like Homer... any actual record of a person at this point is fictive.”
Respected, but not yet beloved
Even in his hometown, some Chinese are unfamiliar with Confucius. Others say he’s highly respected but not yet beloved. “We didn’t learn about Confucius when China was poor” says a local driver, who was born in Qufu and served in the military. “But now that we are rich we can pay attention.”
A couple from Beijing here on their honeymoon said they came because a fortuneteller had told the bride she had been a maid to Confucius in a previous life. A high school teacher on his summer vacation says he tries to get his students interested in Confucius but admits, “he’s a little too serious for them. They are still into fun and videos.”
Some Chinese intellectuals say that much of Confucius’ thought is about appreciating plurality and diversity, and that if he were alive today he would favor universal human rights. He might also be aghast at being framed as a Chinese nationalist, they say.
“Confucius questioned everything…I think if Chinese start systematically reading the texts of Confucius there would be an awakening that isn’t necessarily what the party would wish for,” says Jensen.