Confucius has become China's biggest celebrity. Enjoying an unprecedented revival of interest from China's population, he has also become the country's cultural ambassador to the world: his words adorned the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony, his teachings are being studied by millions of Chinese from all backgrounds, and his physical spirit itself is being revitalized through the acting of international movie star Chow Yun-Fat in a soon-to-be released, government-supported film on his life. In other words, Confucius is being resurrected. Even more significant, this resurrection is occurring in the backdrop of a national resurgence of interest in guoxue, or "national learning," the study and appreciation of traditional Chinese history, culture, arts, and literature.
It is hard to believe that just a little over thirty years ago, Confucius was vilified by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the Cultural Revolution. His teachings were denounced as oppressive remnants of China's feudal past. Confucian intellectuals were persecuted. Indeed, traditional Chinese culture itself was attacked through the "smash the Four Olds" campaign, which aimed at stamping out the traces of China's old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Confucius became the symbol of, in the eyes of the CCP, a tyrannical and backward "old China." Not only was he rejected on an intellectual level, he also faced very physical destruction. Mao's Red Guards swarmed through Confucius's hometown of Qufu in Shandong province, destroying thousands of cultural relics. The government aimed for a complete and total eradication of Confucius and the historical China he represented.
Today, the CCP has not only ended its previous oppression of Confucius, but has also become an important ally of Confucianism, taking an active interest in revitalizing the great philosopher and elevating the importance of Chinese historical culture. In the eyes of the CCP, Confucianism may be a valuable source of legitimacy to strengthen its rule, filling the ideological void left by Marxism. Some commentators have expressed concern that Confucius, and more generally, guoxue, is already being politicized and used as a tool by the government. Others have suggested that public interest in guoxue and Confucius is turning into a dangerous public obsession that will lead to cultural chauvinism.
Despite such pessimism, it appears that the revival of guoxue and Confucianism in China is by and large a positive thing. Moreover, we should not be surprised of this government-supported resurgence of interest in Confucianism or classical Chinese studies, especially when we put such events in historical context. While the Chinese government would do well to promote more domestic and international involvement in guoxue, it still must be careful not to inadvertently create a standardization of interpretation of Confucius or traditional Chinese culture. Rather, the innate complexity and diversity of Chinese culture and history welcomes and necessitates a wide-ranging, open, and varied discussion and presentation of guoxue. Nor is it advisable to allow this resurgence of interest in guoxue--termed "national studies fever" by some to emphasize some individuals' obsessive interest in guoxue--to get out of control.
Confucius's Comeback and the Rise of Guoxue
What are some of the signs of Confucius's comeback in China, and more importantly, of government support for such a resurgence? One single person--Yu Dan, a professor of media studies at Beijing Normal University--has become the symbol of the public interest in Confucius. Her book, "Yu Dan's Reflections on The Analects," has become a best-seller in China, selling over 4.2 million copies and an estimated 6 million pirated versions since hitting book-shelves in December 2006. The book has been described as a "chicken-soup" presentation of Confucius, using Confucius's sayings to show readers how his philosophies can help them better their lives. …