About 2,565 years ago a wise and aristocratic Kong Qiu came to the world, 551 years before a certain Jesus of Nazareth. The main reason why we all live in the year 2014 of our Lord Christ is because Jesus declared himself the son of the Jewish God, and the king of Jews on top of that, which got him nailed to a cross by the Romans and the Jews. To get back at them, he resurrected. The rest is advanced political sciences.
Confucius never claimed to be the son of God. Instead, he got himself an education and a real job. Since he was an academic, historians would compare him to Plato. Either way, Confucius probably is to East Asia what Jesus Christ and Plato are to the West: the spiritual and the ideological master source.
So, when Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the international seminar to mark the 2,565th birth anniversary of Confucius this week at the Great Hall of the People, we China watchers stayed up all night wondering: What does it all mean?
Outside academic circles, Confucianism is new to modern China, or, more precisely, it would have to be re-learned. That’s because ever since the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, China neglected its traditions in order to modernize itself. After a bloody civil war and the wars of resistance against Western powers and imperial Japan, in 1949 the Communist Party of China envisioned a new China built from scratch. At that time looking back at a 2,500 years old tradition was not an option.
However, times have changed. China has worked relentlessly and will soon become the largest economy in the world, yet there is a price to pay. Rapid economic growth has its side effects such as consumerism, materialism, egoism and so on. Many people are spiritually deprived and lack manners and mores. Confucius never taught “young person rides bus must be quick and snatch elder people’s seat”, or “smart man travels overseas eats many instant noodles because hot water is free”. But some Chinese parents did. As a result, daily life in China is a struggle invested with cruel adventure: Some people push, steal and exploit. The obscenely rich buy flats for their mistresses and children are left confused.
Xi has said it more than once: China needs to revive its culture. He said it during the zhongguomeng or Chinese Dream campaign. He reiterated it while promoting the concept of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. He visited Tang Yijie, China’s most prominent Confucian scholar, this year in May, shortly before he died at the age of 87. “The time is right for Chinese culture,” is what I assume Tang told the president.
China is a growing diversified inclusive society. And if China doesn’t provide enough supply of spirituality, religions and even foreign cults almost certainly will. Pope Francis was seen cruising over South Korea. German evangelists are converting Chinese by the thousands. Islam is on the rise and Japanese Soka Buddhists are ready to swamp China’s south once regulation is relaxed.
There are tens of thousands of ruxuejia or Confucian scholars across the world, most notably in Ivy League in the US. A new class, the rushang or Confucian entrepreneurs is emerging. Some political theorists have called for a Confucian constitution. Ten years ago Western literati didn’t know what a junzi or Chinese gentleman was – now they are listening.
And the foreign media have likened China’s ongoing “crusade” against corruption and clampdowns on sex trade to the Confucian ideal of hexie shehui or harmonious society governed by haoren or uncorrupt men.
Not a day passes without some China watchers ringing: “Is he back?” The day Confucius returns may bring big change to modern China.
The author is a German scholar and cultural critic, and has books such as The East-West Dichotomy, Shengren and Inside Peking University to his credit.