As part of the introduction to our ongoing culture series on Chinese soft power and Confucius Institutes, I’ve already touched on the fact that there’s actually very little connection between the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius and Confucius Institutes, (although from a branding perspective, the name seems to be working well on various levels).
Regardless, there’s been an interesting revival in interest over Confucianism in China, a shift that could eventually alter its overall image.
‘Early last month, the most striking symbol in Beijing was a huge nine-metre statue of Confucius in Tiananmen Square. As you know, Tiananmen Square is almost a sacred political space and it’s the only part of Beijing that’s almost been frozen in time for the past three decades. The fact that they put that there suggests that the regime is moving closer to an official embrace of Confucianism.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This is what Daniel Bell, author of China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society, told me when I asked him about the revival of Confucian philosophy in contemporary China. Bell, who resides in Beijing and also teaches philosophy at Tsinghua University, explained that this is just one of the many examples of the dramatic increase in interest in Confucianism in China over the past two decades. According to Bell, though, it’s really in the past 10 years that it’s really taken off.
It’s interesting to me how a figure who was for most of the last century attacked by the country’s intellectuals and the Communist Party is now being so widely embraced domestically.
So how else is Confucianism being promoted and spread throughout China? According to Bell, it’s happening in many different ways across the nation, including through the national education system. He noted how Confucian classics, for instance, are increasingly being taught in the nation’s classrooms. ‘It’s estimated that at least 10 million students are now studying the Confucian classics in a serious way,’ he explained.
Confucian ‘Test’ Communities
Meanwhile, there are also experiments, such as a ‘test’ community in Anhui Province, where citizens are basically being encouraged to live according to Confucian principles, (a heavy emphasis on filial piety, importance of education, etc). Bell believes that if such trials are deemed successful, they could act as the model for more Confucian communities across China. ‘China’s a huge country and there are many experiments going on and if it works on one level then it could be internalized at other levels.’
The revival is also being driven by individuals, Bell says, citing the example of a former Chinese police officer based in Beijing, who began to read the Confucian classics—and is now a full-time educator promoting Confucianism in the educational system.
It’s happening at different levels in the government as well, he says, ‘especially in places like Qufu, Confucius’s hometown, where people are proud of their Confucian heritage.’ And, adds Bell, it’s even being incorporated into Chinese civic education. ‘I’ve been to conferences on civic education where they often use Confucian values…without calling it that.’
So, what are the reasons behind this revival? According to Bell, there are numerous reasons.
Better Than Buddhism
On a political level—which is the most obvious—Bell explains that while China is still considered a communist or Marxist state, ‘hardly anybody except old revolutionary codgers believe in Marxism anymore.’ This has resulted in a sort of ‘ideological legitimacy crisis’ which has given rise to the question: ‘What can Marxism be, if not replaced, then at least complimented by?’
For some, liberal Western-style democracy seems the only ‘plausible’ answer to the status quo, but according to Bell, because of the level of cultural pride in China, the people tend to reject a Western political model. Therefore, ‘not just the government but social reformers, critics and young students are looking more and more to China’s own traditions’—such as Confucianism. Bell adds that it’s important to keep in mind that these new generations aren’t simply ‘blindly following’ what happened in the past, but also drawing upon those traditions for inspiration for thinking about how to address China’s current political problems.
Meanwhile, on a social level, Confucianism is also being embraced to address the decline of social responsibility that comes with capitalism, Bell suggests. He says that Confucianism, in this regard, may have a lot to offer in terms of a societal solution compared with Buddhism or Christianity, which are more about how to improve personal spiritual well-being versus society.
‘Confucianism is more that the good life lies in social ties, and by virtue of being members of different social relations, that entails certain social responsibilities,’ he explains. ‘And so Confucianism is an obvious resource for thinking about how to promote social responsibility in an age of individualism—which really is common nowadays in most capitalist societies.’ In effect, Confucian philosophy simply seems to work well with China’s current economic growth.
Finally, on an ideological level, China’s growing international presence is sparking a rethink about the value of old traditions. ‘Now that China is doing relatively well economically, compared to many other countries, people say “Hold on a second, maybe our own traditions contributed to that.”’ And this is when Confucianism enters the picture, and can be linked to a sense of cultural pride.
With the revival of Confucianism in China, might Confucius Institutes start to actually embrace and promote Confucian values for the rest of the world? Next, I’ll explore how this might happen, and if so, why it could be a good thing.