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Is Confucius still relevant?

By Zhao Ruixue in Jinan and Randy Wright in Beijing| China Daily| Updated: October 30, 2019
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At a ceremony in September to commemorate the 2,570th anniversary of the birth of Confucius in Qufu, Shandong province, hundreds of students and residents recited classic quotes from the ancient sage's Analects. More than 2,000 people - including UNESCO officials, scholars and descendants of Confucius - attended the ceremony, which featured ritual dances by performers in costumes from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

Memorial ceremonies were held on the same day in more than 30 Confucian temples across the country, as well as in cities abroad, including Tokyo - testimony to the widespread influence of China's philosopher of the people, whose ideas have become articles of national faith.

Yet Confucius remains an enigma to many Chinese. They know Confucius is an important element of the culture, but they can offer only references to a handful of the social principles he advocated. Most learned about him in school, but they're not too sure about his current influence in fast-moving modern China.

The sage's soaring reputation in the country's history became a target of ideological attacks during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), but recent decades have seen a revival, fostered in part by the government. He has emerged again as a central figure in defining what it means to be Chinese, and the message is spreading through hundreds of teaching institutions worldwide - the Confucius Institutes.

But while many people pay glib lip service to Confucius, do they really sense his presence in their day-to-day lives? Or does he merely serve as a sort of national decoration, like a plant relegated to the corner of one's sitting room? You know it's there, but nobody really thinks about it.

This is no small matter. In fact, Confucius reaches deeply into the souls of ordinary Chinese people, whether they realize it or not.

Signal vs. noise

Like a strong, steady radio signal, or carrier wave, emanating from the distant past, the essence of Chinese identity has survived troubled times, despite some noisy interference.

"That's a very nice metaphor," said Roger T. Ames, a Confucius expert in the Department of Philosophy at Peking University in Beijing.

"During the 10-year national nightmare they tried to root out the ancient tradition, to pull it out of the ground. And then a few years later, it grew back again. It's like rain in the desert. That indigenous impulse - the signal - is so strong that you just can't override it. It's there in the language. It's in the people, in the institutions, in the family. It's in the way people relate to each other."

China's dramatic rise can be explained in part by looking at its ancient social underpinnings and the cultural threads that have connected its people. Confucius played a crucial role in knitting those threads into a national fabric: He crystallized principles of social cohesion and lubrication that had been evolving in China for centuries before him. Crucially, these were written down, thereby binding his ideas across the arc of time and elevating him as an oracle for a nation.

It was Confucius (551-479 BC) who brought ideas of right and wrong down to earth from the more abstract philosophical works of philosopher Laozi (604-531 BC) and delivered them to the common people in a simple, gritty form they could understand.

His impact on China is arguably greater than that of any other intellectual.

"It is hugely important to make this connection between the past and present in China," Ames said, adding that people are "profoundly aware" of the cultural wave that's embedded in the Chinese character.

"It's tihui. It's tiyan. It's something that you know through practice, through language, through experience. It's a way of thinking. Maybe ordinary people don't have a vocabulary to express it, but that's the way they live their lives," he said.

"First of all, it's the idea that today is better than yesterday; tomorrow will be better than today. So there's this kind of optimism."

Zhang Jun, 33, a construction projects supervisor in Jinan, Shandong province, cannot quite put his finger on it, but he definitely feels the power of the cultural signal carried forward by Confucius. "I can't speak specifically how it influences my life, but it is there. Everybody knows it. After thousands of years, Confucius is still quoted by people. His sayings are seen all over this city, such as on the bus," he said.

Cultural realignment

Guo Jiulin, 51, a professor of American studies at Dalian Minzu University in Liaoning province, also senses the cultural carrier wave. "As a broad and profound ancient Chinese philosophy, Confucianism has been affecting - unconsciously - the behavior of each individual Chinese person for more than 2,000 years," he said.

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