The Next Step Forward - A Revival of Confucianism Sweeps China

By Weiss, Julian | The World and I, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Next Step Forward - A Revival of Confucianism Sweeps China


Weiss, Julian, The World and I


"The story of Confucianism is the story of China," comments Wen Shei-ho as we walk briskly through the streets of Shanghai. "Each group of political leaders--not just in the relatively recent period of Marxism-Leninism but throughout the past twenty-five centuries--has either embraced or attacked Confucianism. They used positive references to support their regime, or attacked it- -as representing all that was wrong--before they took power."

Wen has an advanced economics degree. He has taught at Fudan University--"the Yale of China"--and been witness to the great transformations that have swept his homeland in the latter part of the twentieth century. As we near Shanghai's fabled Bund, a bustling center of historical landmarks, cultural icons, and thriving markets, I begin to understand the points he is making. Nerve center of China's burgeoning high-tech and manufacturing developments, Shanghai is a microcosm of the People's Republic of China (PRC), a nation that in so many ways is a cultural melange. As Wen observed, Confucian thought has been the common historical thread that has woven together this vast conglomeration of nationalities, customs, and races. It has been the backcloth of a country seldom unified into a single nation-state.

Over the centuries, every cycle in the birth, decline, and rebirth of Confucianism has been witnessed in Shanghai. Indeed, each phase of China's existence has been mirrored by changes occurring in this urban melting pot. At the turn of the last century, for example, Shanghai's populace experienced rapid transformations in their society. Foreign colonials made use of the seaport, strategic location, and local resources to set up trading empires. (The name Bund is one reminder of Germany's presence.)

Other nineteenth-century European influences were equally profound. European architecture became the dominant form within the city's commercial center. Ideas and information sharing were commonplace. New concepts challenged reigning orthodoxies. Decades later it was in Shanghai that the Chinese Communist Party was born. Marxist meetinghouses were blocks away from homes where the fortunes of great trading companies were spawned. And today, in Shanghai, one can perceive a reawakening of the Confucian spirit taking place.

Seeking a social anchor

We decide to ride to the top of the impressive Shangri-La, a five-star hotel adjacent to the high-tech planned city of Pudong. On the way up we run into an acquaintance of the professor. The man is in his early thirties and as he joins our conversation, he tells of attitudinal shifts among his colleagues at work. "My friend's interest in Confucianism began just a few months ago," Wen confides to me.

Gazing out over the teeming megalopolis, we remark on the size of the Star TV Tower, an eighty-story colossus and the PRC's tallest building. The dramatic landscape puts our conversation in perspective. On the streets below the masses seek not only jobs but also meaning in their lives. After two decades of market- opening reforms, the world's most populous nation must find a new course for its restless and increasingly mobile society. Communism, commercialism, the high-tech convergence, and Confucianism are proving to be four competing systems in one struggle for continuity and unified growth. Social and economic leapfrogs have thrust the PRC from stagnant totalitarian poverty into the circumstances of an increasingly affluent and dynamic, though hardly less authoritarian, nation. In the midst of such dramatic change the Chinese seek an anchor of stability.

Should a Confucian revival occur among the PRC's general populace, it might prove the equivalent of the various religious revivals that have overtaken the West on occasion during the past few centuries. Many Chinese people are interested in finding answers to a range of personal and societal problems, insists Wen. But religious movements have taken root in China in the past and often have been linked to concurrent or subsequent political upheavals. …

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