Of all the changes taking place in China these days, one of the least reported is the rehabilitation of Confucius, that old sage born 500 years before Christ. For centuries, as Bard College’s Ian Buruma wrote, “Confucianism, originally a moral as well as a political philosophy, became ideologically imposed to instill obedience to authority.” For more than 2,000 years, Chinese emperors used the teachings of Confucius to “support social hierarchy and autocratic rule.”
Then came the revolution in 1911-1912. The monarchy was overthrown, and with it the old Confucian order. The New Culture Movement saw Confucianism as simply the tool of repression, backwardness, and old thinking — similar to binding women’s feet — that needed to be overthrown if China were to become a modern country. When Chairman Mao Zedong consolidated power in 1949 under the People’s Republic of China, the assault on Confucius intensified, especially during the decade-long Cultural Revolution, during which 2 million people died as Mao sought to reestablish his communist revolution.
Campaign after campaign to criticize Confucius rolled in waves throughout China. As Boston University’s Merle Goldman wrote in September 1975: It was a “continuation of the Communist effort to eradicate traditional habits and attitudes that have persisted despite the revolution. It was a campaign against elitism, bureaucratism, scorn of physical labor, and the inferior condition of women. Most important, it was the rejection of the Confucian values of idealism, humanism, and conservatism.” It was also used by different factions against one another jockeying for power, and we who were trying to understand what was going on in those turbulent times tried to discern who among the living was really being criticized with each new campaign to criticize Confucius.
During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards from Beijing arrived in Qufu, the town where Confucius was born and buried, and began to break and destroy the monuments to him. They even dug up his grave and found there was nothing in his tomb. Maybe there never was a body in the tomb of Confucius, or perhaps the old sage was clever enough to escape the indignities the Red Guards intended for him.
Today, if you go to Qufu, you will find that the temples and monuments to Confucius are all spruced up and repaired, although you still can see where the damage was mended. Tourists, Chinese and foreign, flock to the site with the approval of the Chinese state. The Confucius Institute was founded in 2004, and today there are hundreds of Confucius Institutes in cities and on college campuses throughout the world. At best they act as cultural centers, like the French Alliance Française. At worst they are propaganda centers for promoting the ideals of the Chinese Communist Party and for keeping an eye on Chinese students studying overseas.
How did Confucius go from being reviled for most of the 20th century to being revered in the 21st? No doubt China’s leader, Xi Jinping, recognized that Confucius could be used to instill and maintain obedience to authority, as done by the emperors of old. For Xi, the revolution and class struggle that marked the Marxist years is over and what China needs in the 21st century is stability, discipline, adherence to party doctrines, and, of course, obedience and reverence to Xi. With Marxism dead in the new China, why not harness Confucius to the Orwellian mind-control of the surveillance state over which Xi rules today?
China has found its new emperor, and Confucius has been reinstated in his court.
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe and is the author of “Foreign Correspondent: A Memoir.”