On Oct. 27 dozens of scholars packed a conference room in Beijing’s university district for a weekend forum on Confucianism. There was much discussion of traditional topics, like the leadership role in society for junzi—or the exemplary gentleman—and the proper place for xiaoren—the short-sighted, acquisitive average citizen. These were first raised by the Chinese sage some 2,500 years ago and compiled by his disciples in the Analects.
The scholars’ often-heated debates also raised more contemporary questions: How can traditional ideals of benevolence help a rising China build its soft power? Can an emphasis on harmony quell a spiritual crisis triggered by excessive materialism? And could a government based on meritocratic Confucian principles eventually replace China’s brittle Party-dominated authoritarianism?
Confucius, the sixth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher and teacher, developed a school of thought emphasizing ritual, harmony, and the proper order of social relationships, especially within the family. He stressed obedience to authority and believed a society’s leaders should not be selected based on hereditary titles but on achievement. In China today a strong allegiance to family, ancestor worship, and education reflects Confucianism’s continuing influence—even though Mao Zedong and other revolutionary leaders savaged Confucianism as the philosophy of the imperial era and the mandarins who subjugated the peasants to quasi-slavery. In 1973, toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s wife launched the “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” campaign, which equated the ancient philosopher with Lin Biao, a reputedly reactionary, coup-plotting general. Confucian temples were destroyed and sacred texts of his teachings were burned.
Today, some 30 years after China threw open its economy, political scientists are publishing such books as Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power by Yan Xuetong, who advocates a state based on the Confucian concept of “humane authority.” Writes Yan: “The goal of our strategy must be not only to reduce the power gap with the United States but also to provide a better model for society than that given by the United States.” Yan gave the opening address at the forum. Another speaker, Jiang Qing, founder of the Yangming Confucian Academy in Guiyang, advocated replacing Communism with a Confucian-based system, complete with an appointed legislature and a symbolic monarch, as superior to adopting Western liberal democracy.
The beginning of the Confucius revival dates back several years. The biopic Confucius was released in theaters across China in early 2010, and there’s been a push to get children to read traditional Chinese philosophy. What’s newer is the growing effort to use Confucian principles in politics and economics.
Economists are citing Confucius’ support for a small state as evidence of the value of a more privatized economy. Sheng Hong, director of the Unirule Institute of Economics in Beijing, co-authored a report critical of resurgent state capitalism in China, citing the sage’s advocacy of small government and limited taxation. “Confucius’ theory is very similar to the invisible hand of Adam Smith,” says Sheng. “People will [naturally] seek their own benefit, the government doesn’t have to interfere, and the economy will flourish.”
Even entrepreneurs are meeting to discuss what business strategies might be gleaned from traditional philosophy. “People read Confucius to help them do business better,” says Qin Yunong, who runs a Shanghai-based micro-credit company. His lending decisions are partly based on how deferential to parental authority applicants are, because that trait correlates with reliability in repaying loans, Qin says. He also heads a Chinese traditional philosophy study group, with 400 businesspeople as members.
As corruption taints the legitimacy of today’s one-party system, scholars like Fudan University’s Bai Tongdong are arguing for a new model that incorporates more accountability, as in Western democracies, but avoids what he sees as the West’s serious flaws. “No one believes in Communism anymore. But one man, one vote doesn’t work either,” says Bai, citing problems such as massive budget deficits and an inability to slow global warming as examples of problems democracies aren’t well equipped to tackle. “The modern state is too big and too complicated for average people to understand. And people don’t have the time anyway.” He advocates a bicameral system, with one house popularly elected and a second house chosen by a vote of wise and capable elites, much as Confucius would advocate today, he says. Only those who passed a test or proved themselves through a track record of previous political service would have the right to vote for the second house.
The government has provided qualified support for the Confucius revival. The biopic, for example, was heavily promoted by the state. (It was a box-office flop.) Government-coined slogans, such as “harmonious development”—aimed at promoting more balanced growth—sound more Confucian than Marxist, points out Jean-Pierre Cabestan, the head of the Department of Government and International Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. “The Party uses Confucianism as a tool, as a way to legitimize their rule, and as a way of criticizing Western democracy,” says Cabestan. He says he doesn’t think the Party is ready to embrace the scholar’s precepts seriously. Confucius’ modern-day disciples face a long struggle to make the sage the true center of the Chinese political system once more