I’ve been spending my Memorial Day reading articles from my own personal GetReligion “guilt folder,” stories that I knew would be interesting but would take time to digest.
If you have a few minutes, consider reading this front-page story from the Washington Post: “Ancient wisdom of Confucius reverberates in modern China.” The average American might have to dig into distant memories from world history textbooks to remember Confucianism’s influence, but reporter Andrew Higgins uncovers a seemingly significant trend.
Higgins begins his story on Confucianism’s comeback by focusing on a wealthy metals trader’s travels to the birthplace of Confucius, explaining how it involves a larger trend happening in China.
The ceremony, a mix of theme-park gimmickry and earnest ritual that dates back more than two millennia, took place at Qufu’s Confucius Temple, the focal point of what, in imperial times, was China’s guiding creed.
Today it’s the center of a burgeoning personality cult built around a philosopher who died in 479 B.C. It’s a movement endorsed by the government but one that is also providing cover to some who question China’s direction.
A revival of interest in Confucius and other aspects of what Mao Zedong vilified as China’s noxious feudal past has been underway for years, spawning best-selling novels, television dramas and films set in the Imperial Era. The Communist Party, tapping into a deep vein of cultural nationalism, has encouraged the trend, in part as an antidote to Western ways.
Near the top of the story, Higgins calls Confucianism a religion and philosophy, but the story could have been improved by explaining why scholars debate these two distinctions. The following paragraph also seems to gloss over what it means to follow Confucianism.
Confucianism, an elaborate system of moral philosophy and political theory, has always been a two-edged sword, both deeply conservative and potentially subversive.
The terms “two-edged sword,” “conservative,” “subversive” likely mean nothing to the average reader unless the reporter spells them out. Perhaps he could have spent one or two more paragraphs explaining what it means to follow Confucianism. Higgins mostly looks at the political implications, which is important, but he could have explained what it meant on a personal level. Does a follower change his or her lifestyle or participate in regular rituals? In other words, what are some of the practical implications of practicing Confucianism?
Successive Chinese dynasties, deploying Confucianism to cement their rule, distilled its complexity to a simple message: obedience. Confucius prized hierarchy and order, but he also believed that virtue, not wealth or power, should decide who governs: “If a ruler departs from benevolence, how can he be worthy of that name?”
China’s current government is still backing Confucius and has adopted as its own one of his favorite concepts: harmony. But it sometimes has a hard time selling its preferred image of the sage as a bookish patriot, now on display in movie houses across the country thanks to “Confucius,” a multimillion-dollar bio-epic. It has been widely panned as a snooze.
The reporter spends the bulk of his space arguing for Confucianism’s resurgence and giving examples for his thesis.
Far more interested in philosophy than electricity, Duan has set up his own Confucius academy, part of China’s growing network of private schools and study groups dedicated to the revival of Confucianism. Unlike government-funded scholars who “just research Confucius,” Duan said, “we live Confucius.”
Duan’s school has formal approval from the state, and he shares the leadership’s distaste for democracy. But he also shares many of the concerns of government critics: rampant corruption, corrosive greed and what he called the “ideological chaos” of a nominally communist country guided mostly by the pursuit of profit.
I’m still left wondering what Duan means when he says “we live Confucius.” What kinds of things do people who attend the academy do? I was also searching for more historical context in the story. For example, how far did Confucianism spread and where can we see its influence today? Why did the Red Guards sack Confucius’s temple? What was the threat back then and why is Confucianism considered to be safe now? Why does the Chinese government recognize this religion/philosophy while banning something like the Falun Gong?
Reporters have limited space to explain complex ideas and systems of thought, but a little bit of history goes a long way.