Cultural Confusion Sends China Back to Confucius as Communism Decays and Capitalism Grows, the Chinese Reach for New Values and Take a Fresh Look at Traditional Ideals

By Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 1993 | Go to article overview

Cultural Confusion Sends China Back to Confucius as Communism Decays and Capitalism Grows, the Chinese Reach for New Values and Take a Fresh Look at Traditional Ideals


Sheila Tefft, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


IN two years, artist Qiu Qingfeng has painted 30 portraits of Confucius, each with a stormy visage mirroring his own disquiet.

"Society needs Confucius. His teachings for self-improvement, studying hard, and being a man of integrity are still applicable today," says the 23-year-old, whose paintings hang in the great sage's hometown manor. "But very few people now understand Confucius. And that's a tragedy."

As communism decays and capitalist greed spreads, Chinese grasp for new values amid a spreading cultural unease. Increasingly, people speak openly of self-doubt and soul-searching triggered by rapid-fire market change, bankrupt Marxism, and the drift from traditional Confucian ideals.

Beijing's communists confound the confusion. They scuttled the virulent anti-Confucius campaign of the Cultural Revolution and now invoke Confucian ethics of obedience, respect, and sense of commonwealth, which form China's cultural bedrock. Still, in a campaign reviving communism's favorite everyman, they exhort Chinese to "learn from Lei Feng," the fictional soldier and Marxist paragon.

Both Chinese and Western observers say weakened Confucianism, disillusionment with communism, encroaching Westernization, and the pell-mell pursuit of wealth have eroded recent beliefs and left many Chinese at a cultural crossroads.

"During the Cultural Revolution the struggle against self-interest ... was commonly accepted. But later we discovered that we had been fooled because the practice was mine is mine and yours is mine too," says a professor at People's University in Beijing. "I still believe in the struggle against self-interest.... But today we are asking what are the values that work in the market economy?

"There is chaos in Chinese values," he adds. "What should be the values for today?"

"The most important thing is that the social contract doesn't exist anymore. Can China be as Confucian as before? Certainly not. But this is no longer the culture of Mao's new man, either," says Yves Nalet, a China analyst in Hong Kong. "Many are asking how long can people just care about themselves and not care about others. The Chinese are saying we don't know what we want to be."

Amid the disarray, the 2,500-year-old tradition of China's greatest thinker and educator, known here as Kong Fuzi, is key to a lively intellectual debate overfilling what some Western scholars consider China's moral void.

More of an ethical code than a religion, Confucianism, first taught by the philosopher in the 5th century BC and adopted by subsequent rulers over the centuries, remains deep-rooted in the Chinese way of thinking, even in ways people are not always aware of, intellectuals here say.

Even communist supremo Mao Zedong, who attacked Confucius as a misguided feudal lord, used Confucian strictures to stay in power, Chinese scholars say. …

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