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Contemporary Confucianism

ConfuciusIn 21st Century China, Confucianism is again functioning as a religion, providing the possibility of a moral vision that can fill the cultural vacuum created by the collapse of Marxism. The twentieth century was a bad century for Confucianism. For more than 2,500 years, Confucian thought held sway in China, advocating a state guided by highly ethical scholar-bureaucrats and a society ruled by morality and a strong emphasis on hierarchical relationships. But by the end of the 19th century, the Chinese state, powerless to fight off foreign encroachment and growing public dissatisfaction, was tottering on the brink of collapse. Leading intellectuals pointed an accusing finger at Kongfuzi (551-479 BC), better known outside China as Confucius.

In 1905, a last-ditch effort to reform a floundering empire led to the abandonment of the ubiquitous civil-service exam system, around which higher education in China had been based for centuries. This was followed, in 1911, with the collapse of the last dynasty itself. In 1915, Chinese intellectuals inaugurated a "New Culture Movement" that sought fundamental changes to Chinese values, practices, and even the Chinese language. In many ways, this movement was a more pervasive "cultural revolution" than the later Maoist movement of that name. The values of "modern civilization" were on the rise and older traditions like Confucianism were roundly criticized. During the May Fourth Movement of 1919, intellectuals frustrated by China's failures shouted "Down with the Confucian store!" and called for science and democracy to take the seat of the Great Sage.

Confucianism did not die, but after the first decades of the twentieth century, it would need to find new ways to be relevant in Chinese society. After this unpromising start, the twentieth century continued to pose obstacles to any rebirth of Confucianism. Confucius was harshly attacked when the Communists came to power, in 1949.Confucianism and socialism seemed totally contradictory in the Maoist era (most notably during the 1973-1974 "Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius" campaign). During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Confucian temples throughout China were damaged by rampaging young Red Guards, and Confucian scholars were frightened--and often beaten--into silence.

In the 1970's the rise of Deng Xiaoping brought extensive social, economic, and legal reforms. Among these were the "open door" policy regarding other nations, the policy of one child per family, and economic pragmatism. Confucianism emerged as the centerpiece in an ideologically tinged narrative about what has made China superior to other civilizations over thousands of years and will enable it to prevail again in the future.

Now, almost a century after Confucianism first came under attack as an obstacle to development, it is being heralded as a solution to the many political, economic, and ethical problems China faces. Some political leaders tried to portray it as a shallow ideology of loyalty to power, while others tried to wipe it completely from the hearts of China's citizens. There were some exceptions: philosophers and educators like Liang Shuming (1893-1988) and Mou Zongsan (1909-1995) developed Confucian ideas for the new century and sought to teach its ideals both within the People's Republic (to the limited degree that was possible) and in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and even further afield. The "New Confucianism" championed by Mou and others is a fascinating philosophical movement with which current scholars are much engaged. But for the most part, these lonely voices were all that could be heard about Confucianism. Gradual change started on the mainland in the 1980s, initially in very circumscribed ways.

There is ample evidence that Confucianism is undergoing a multi-faceted revival in contemporary China. This can be seen in government slogans, in a runaway best seller on the "Analects" (the compendium of Confucius's teachings), in educational experiments, and in academic activities.

John Dotson, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Research Coordinator, notes that "In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has undertaken an official rehabilitation of imperial China’s preeminent social philosopher Kong Zi, better known in the West as “Confucius.” Once a target of official condemnation in Mao-era China as a relic of the country’s feudal past and as an obstacle to the Party’s vision of social transformation, Confucius has been revived in official propaganda as a national icon of China’s traditional culture, as well as a symbol of the Party’s concern for public welfare.

The CCP has turned to Confucian ideals – or at least, to the promotion of a selective interpretation of the Confucian tradition – for several reasons. In the face of widespread public cynicism regarding traditional Communist ideology, the Party has undertaken a search for an alternative philosophical tradition that could appeal to the public without contradicting the Party’s continuing use of official Marxist theories on politics and social development. The CCP is also facing widespread social unrest sparked by disparate factors such as income inequality, environmental pollution, and official corruption. Alarmed by the potential threat this unrest could pose to the Party’s ruling status, the Chinese authorities have repeatedly invoked the need for “social stability.” They have also promoted broad propaganda campaigns, both domestically and abroad, asserting China’s desire for a “Harmonious Society” and for “Peaceful Development.”"

The central project of Chinese cultural diplomacy is the rapidly growing network of Confucius Institutes around the world, in which Beijing sought to create new cultural ties around the world through. In 2006 the government set a goal of establishing more than one hundred institutes within five years. This target has already been realized and the number seemed likely to break 200 by the end of 2010. Beijing actually completed the construction of 322 Confucius Institutes in 96 countries as of late 2010. Their title reassuringly emphasizes the glories of the classical Chinese past rather than the vibrant present (or controversial Communist history) but the Institutes activities typically emphasize opportunities to get to know contemporary China rather than its historical abstract. These institutes provide Chinese language classes and promote knowledge of Chinese culture.




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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:12:23 ZULU