In China, Communism has lost the capacity to inspire. Enter
Four decades ago, it would have been suicidal to say a good word
about Confucius in Beijing. Confucius was the reactionary enemy, and
all Chinese were encouraged to struggle against him. Chairman Mao
himself was photographed on the cover of a revolutionary newspaper
that announced the desecration of
Confucius's grave in Qufu. My own university (Tsinghua University
in Beijing) was a hotbed of extreme leftism.
How times have changed. Today, the Chinese Communist Party
approves a film about Confucius starring the handsome leading man
Chow Yun-Fat. The master is depicted as an astute military commander
and teacher of humane and progressive values, with a soft spot for
female beauty. What does this say about China's political future?
"Confucius" bombed at the box office, leading many to think that the
revival of Confucianism will go the same way as the anti-Confucius
campaigns in the Cultural Revolution.
But perhaps it's just a bad movie. "Confucius" received the kiss
of death when it went head-to-head against the blockbuster "Avatar."
A vote for "Confucius" was seen as a vote against the heroic blue
creatures from outer space. In the long term, however, Confucian
revivalists may be on the right side of history.
In the Cultural Revolution, "Confucius" was often just a label
used to attack political enemies. Today, Confucianism serves a more
legitimate political function; it can help to provide a new moral
foundation for political rule in China. Communism has lost the
capacity to inspire the Chinese, and there is growing recognition
that its replacement needs to be grounded at least partly in China's
own traditions. As the dominant political tradition in China,
Confucianism is the obvious alternative.
The party has yet to relabel itself the Chinese Confucian Party,
but it has moved closer to an official embrace of Confucianism. The
2008 Olympics highlighted Confucian themes, quoting "The Analects"
of Confucius at the opening ceremonies, and playing down any
references to China's experiment with communism.
Cadres at the newly built Communist Party school in Shanghai
proudly tell visitors that the main building is modeled on a
Confucian scholar's desk. Abroad, the government has been
symbolically promoting Confucianism via branches of the Confucius
Institute, a Chinese-language and cultural center similar to the
Of course, there is resistance as well. Elderly cadres, still
influenced by Maoist antipathy to tradition, condemn efforts to
promote ideologies outside a rigid Marxist framework. But the
younger cadres in their 40s and 50s tend to support such efforts,
and time is on their side. It's easy to forget that the 76-million-
strong Chinese Communist Party is a large and diverse organization.
The party itself is becoming more meritocratic - it now encourages
high-performing students to join - and the increased emphasis on
educated cadres is likely to generate more sympathy for Confucian
But the revival of Confucianism is not just government-
sponsored. The government is also reacting to developments outside
its control. There has been a resurgence of interest in Confucianism
among academics and in the Chinese equivalent of civil society. The
renewed interest is driven partly by normative concerns. Thousands
of educational experiments around the country promote the teaching
of Confucian classics to young children; the assumption is that
better training in the humanities improves the virtue of the
learner. More controversially - because it's still too sensitive to
publicly discuss such questions in mainland China - Confucian
thinkers put forward proposals for constitutional reform aiming to
humanize China's political system.
AN UPHILL STRUGGLE
Yet, the problem is not just the Chinese government. …