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 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 modelled 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 centre similar to the Alliance Française.
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 values.
But the revival of Confucianism is not just government-sponsored. On the contrary, 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. It can be an uphill struggle to convince people in Western countries that Confucianism can offer a progressive and humane path to political reform in China. Why does the revival of Confucianism so often worry Westerners? One reason may be a form of self-love. For most of the 20th century, Chinese liberals and Marxists engaged in a totalizing critique of their own heritage and looked to the West for inspiration. It may have been flattering for Westerners - look, they want to be just like us! - but there is less sympathy now that Chinese are taking pride in their own traditions for thinking about social and political reform. But more understanding and a bit of open-mindedness can take care of that problem.
Another reason may be that the revival of Confucianism is thought to be associated with the revival of Islamic "fundamentalism" and its anti-Western tendencies. Perhaps the revival of closed-minded and intolerant Christian "fundamentalism" also comes to mind. But the revival of Confucianism in China is not so opposed to liberal social ways (other than extreme individualistic lifestyles, in which the good life is sought mainly outside social relationships). What it does propose is an alternative to Western political ways, and that may be the main worry. But this worry stems from an honest mistake: the assumption that less support for Western-style democracy means increased support for authoritarianism. In China, packaging the debate in terms of "democracy" versus "authoritarianism" crowds out possibilities that appeal to Confucian political reformers.