Confucius Comes Home

In my fifth year in Beijing, I moved into a one-story brick house beside the Confucius Temple, a seven-hundred-year-old shrine to China’s most important philosopher. The temple, which shared a wall with my kitchen, was silent. It had gnarled cypress trees and a wooden pavilion that loomed above my roof like a conscience. In the mornings, I took a cup of coffee outside and listened to the wakeup sounds next door: the brush of a broom across the flagstones, the squeak of a faucet, the hectoring of the magpies overhead.

It was a small miracle that the shrine had survived. Confucius, who was born in the sixth century B.C., traditionally had a stature in China akin to that of Socrates in the West. He stressed compassion, ritual, and duty. “There is government when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son,” Confucius said. Chairman Mao believed in “permanent revolution,” and when the Cultural Revolution began, in 1966, he exhorted young Red Guards to “Smash the Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Zealots denounced Confucius for fostering “bad elements, rightists, monsters, and freaks,” and one of Mao’s lieutenants gave the approval to dig up his grave. Hundreds of temples were destroyed. By the nineteen-eighties, Confucianism was so maligned that the historian Yu Ying-shih called it a “wandering soul.”

In September, 2010, nine months after I moved in, I was at my desk one morning when I heard a loudspeaker crackle to life inside the temple. A booming voice was followed by the sound of a heavy bell, then drums and a flute, and the recitation of passages from writings by Confucius and other ancient masters. The performance lasted twenty minutes. An hour later, it was repeated, and an hour after that, and again the next day.

The wandering soul, in one form or another, has been stirring. As China undergoes an economic transformation ten times the speed of the first industrial revolution, people are turning to ancient ideas for a connection to the past. The classics have become such reliable best-sellers that, in 2009, the company behind National Studies Web, a site that sells digitized Confucian texts, went public on the Shenzhen stock exchange. To appeal to entrepreneurs, Peking University and other respected schools created mid-career courses that promised to reveal “commercial wisdom” in the classics.

Confucianism has no priesthood or rites of conversion, and is not generally considered a religion, but new members of China’s middle class regard an interest in philosophy and history as a mark of cultivation and cultural nationalism. Parents have enrolled their children at private Confucian academies; I visited a weekend school where children aged three to thirteen were learning the classics by rote, reciting each passage six hundred times. Around the country, Chinese tourists flocked to the surviving Confucius Temples, where they filled out prayer cards. “The overwhelming number are about exams,” Anna Sun, a sociologist at Kenyon College, who studied the cards, told me. “They are primarily wishes for the college entrance exam, but also the TOEFL, the G.R.E., law school.”

It would have been anathema to Chairman Mao, but his heirs have changed their view on revolution. In the eighties, when China set itself in pursuit of prosperity, the Party studied how Confucian values had helped to stabilize other countries in East Asia. Generations of Chinese thinkers had dreamed of finding the optimal recipe for “national studies”—the mixture of philosophy and history that might insulate China from the pressures of Westernization. After the democracy demonstrations at Tiananmen Square in 1989 ended in a violent crackdown, leaders needed an indigenous ideology that might restore the Party’s moral credibility. Top Communists gave speeches at meetings devoted to Confucianism, and state television launched a series about traditional culture intended, it said, “to boost the people’s self-confidence, self-respect, and patriotic thought.” In 2002, the Party officially stopped calling itself a “revolutionary party” and adopted the term “Party in Power.” The Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, declared, “Unity and stability are really more important than anything else.” In February, 2005, the Party chief, Hu Jintao, quoted Confucius’ observation that “harmony is something to be cherished.”

Soon, “harmony” was on billboards and in television commercials and intoned by apparatchiks. In 2006, a team of government-backed historians marked Confucius’ 2,557th birthday by unveiling what they called a “standardized” portrait: a kindly old figure with a luxuriant beard, his hands crossed at his chest. The Chinese Association for the Study of Confucius, supported by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, introduced traditions that had never existed before. It arranged for couples to renew their wedding vows in front of a statue of the sage.

As a gentler alternative to Mao, Confucius has been enlisted as an avatar on the world stage. The opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics made no mention of the Chairman but featured recurring references to harmony and to the classic texts. In the past decade, China has opened more than four hundred Confucius Institutes around the world to teach language, culture, and history. Many universities have welcomed them; the program provides teaching materials and cash. (Some scholars have complained that the institutes seek to limit expression. In July, McMaster University, in Canada, closed its Confucius Institute after a teacher complained that she had been prevented from practicing Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement.)

The Confucian revival has been especially visible in the city of Qufu, the sage’s home town, in present-day Shandong Province. In 2007, the city’s International Confucius Festival was co-sponsored by the Confucius Wine Company. Thousands of people filled a local stadium, giant balloons bearing the names of ancient scholars bobbed overhead, and a Korean pop star performed in an abbreviated outfit. Near the cave where Confucius was said to have been born, a five-hundred-million-dollar museum-and-park complex is under construction; it includes a statue of Confucius that is nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty. In its marketing, Qufu has adopted comparisons to Jerusalem and Mecca and calls itself “The Holy City of the Orient.” Last year, it received 4.4 million visitors, surpassing the number of people who visited Israel.

No one has harnessed the interest in Confucius more successfully than Yu Dan, a professor of media studies at Beijing Normal University. She presented a popular series of lectures on state television and wrote a book, “Confucius from the Heart” (2006), that is said to have sold ten million copies. Today, she occupies a position in Chinese pop culture somewhere between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Dr. Phil. She plays down themes that irritate modern readers—such as Confucius’ observation that “women and small people are hard to deal with”—and writes, reassuringly, “The truths that Confucius gives us are always the easiest of truths.” Scholars mock her work—one critic attended book signings in a T-shirt that read “Confucius is deeply worried”—but within a year Yu became the second-highest-paid author in China, after Guo Jingming, a writer of young-adult fiction who travelled with guards to hold back the crowds.

At Yu Dan’s headquarters in Beijing, a suite of offices on a high floor at the edge of the campus, her assistant ushered me into a modern conference room. Yu Dan arrived, smiling broadly, and asked the assistant to prepare tea. Yu Dan, who is in her late forties, has high cheekbones and a short, severe haircut. I asked what prompted her to embrace the classics. She said that, like others her age, she had grown up denouncing the ancient scriptures. “When I began writing ‘Confucius from the Heart,’ a lot of people asked me, ‘Why are you writing this?’ And I said, ‘I am atoning for the crimes of my generation, because we were young and we criticized him mercilessly.’ ”

She paused, and turned her attention to the assistant, a graduate student. “Child, how could you be so stupid!” Yu said. “This tea has been steeping for too long!” She looked at me, and the smile returned. “Children today do not know how to host people,” she said. After Yu became popular, the Party invited her to conferences, and she began presenting her readings of the classics in a political context. “Unlimited possibility leads to chaos, because you don’t know where to go or what to do,” she told me, adding, “We must rely on a strict system to resolve problems. As citizens, our duty is not necessarily to be perfect moral persons. Our duty is to be law-abiding citizens.”

Confucius—or Kongzi, which means Master Kong—was not born to power, but his idiosyncrasies and ideas made him the Zelig of the Chinese classics. His story runs through the ancient books—the Analects, Zuozhuan, Mengzi, the Records of the Grand Historian—with details that range from historical to mythical. His father, Shuliang He, was an aging warrior—physically enormous and famously ugly—who was desperate for a healthy son. When he was in his seventies, he found a teen-age concubine, and they had a son, in 551 B.C. The baby, like his father, was unsightly, with a crooked nose and a bulbous forehead so peculiar that he was given the name Qiu, meaning “mound.” (Admirers insisted that his head resembled a crown.)

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