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China's Revival of Confucianism

Joy Lam investigates the social context that enables the revival of Confucianism in China and its social and political implications.
September 18, 2008


I started to pay attention to the revival of Confucianism in China since 2007 – the year when the Beijing government officially sponsored the worship of Confucius on his birthday and broadcasted the event nation-wide through CCTV. This was only one of the events that signify Confucianism is "re-entering" the public space in China during the post-reform era. Politically, the government established Confucius Institute worldwide to promote the study of Chinese language and culture. Culturally, there was a trend of revisiting the Confucian classics. Walking into any mega bookstore in China nowadays, it was not difficult to find numerous publications on the Analects, Mencius, Xunzi and other classics of Confucianism. The new concern about these classics was to reinterpret the ancient wisdom to deal with everyday life issue and the Yu Dan phenomenon   was one of the most significant examples. In addition, public schools started to develop new syllabus that includes Confucians Classics (including the Analects). All these are the signifiers of the new Confucianism movement (Yang 2007).

The recent changing attitude towards Confucianism by the Chinese government is intriguing. During the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was considered as one of the "Four Olds" and "the ideology of the feudal" that needed to be eliminated. Three decades later, Confucianism regained (or is regaining) its role as the "core cultural value". Scholars have different interpretations on this phenomenon. Some see that as a nostalgia religious movement that emerged in response to the "spiritual crisis" fueled by globalization, arguing that Confucianism as source for constructing a stronger cultural identity for China in the time of a market economy, commercialism, and globalization. Others see the revival as a political project initiated by the government. As Daniel Bell (2006) suggests, the government is trying to use Confucianism to fill in the "ideology vacuum" of the country -- since Marxism an no longer play the role of leading ideology, and religious sects and extreme nationalism are too radical for the Beijing government, promoting Confucianism is seen as the best way to protect "social stability" and a "harmonic society". All in all, the significant social implications of this phenomenon are undeniable. However, there is still lack of empirical researches to investigate further on these issues.

USCI funding supported my recent four-week visit to Beijing to have a better understanding of the new social meanings of Confucianism. I visited two kinds of organizations that illustrate this multi-faceted phenomenon of how Confucianism is reentering the public space in contemporary Chinese society. I visited the Sihai Confucius School and Xiangtang Confucius School, both located in the suburb of Beijing, and conducted interviews with the founders of these schools. I also conducted participant observations in activities organized by Yidan Xuetang, which I characterized as a new form of non-governmental voluntary organizations arise to promote traditional culture.

The Confucius Schools

The Sihai Confucius School was founded in 2004 and the first private Confucius school that was approved by the district government to recruit full-time students. According to the founder Mr. Feng, there are currently 40 full-time students aged 3-10. Students focus on reading and reciting the Confucian and other Chinese classics including the Analects, the Great Learning, the Three Characters Classics, Dizhigui, Zhuangzi, Laozi and Yijing etc. Students are expected to be able to recite these classics before they move on to studying English classics (including Shakespeare's sonnets and selected readings of Plato) and choose other subjects of interest to study (like Mathematics, Physics, or History etc.). They now have 20 fulltime teachers and staffs.
When I visited the school, they were hosting the annual summer camp for children aged from 3 to 13 for short-term intensive studies about Confucian classics and learning "a good living style". Students read and recite the Confucian classics in the morning, and they have outings and farming activities in the afternoon. The school promotes organic vegetarian diet, organic farming, and encourages students to develop a sense of environmentalism.  In the interview with Mr. Feng, he explained to me that a healthy living style is an important part of moral education in the school.

Comparatively, Xiangtang Confucius School is much smaller in scale. The school situated in a traditional siheyuan that is 1-hour away from Beijing. When I visited, I was impressed by the politeness of the students (who bowed and greeted everyone who walked through the main door of the school) and the scholarly atmosphere, with the yayue (Chinese elegant music) playing at the background around the school. Mr. Zhao, the person in-charge of the school, explained to me, "you cannot teach a child how to appreciate music. You just need to let them to listen first, intensively, and then they will naturally learn how to appreciate this music'. There were around 20 full-time students in the school and around 15 students who were studying there for the summer when I visited.
Both Sihai and Xiangtang are boarding schools and students only go back home during weekend and holidays. The curriculums in these two schools are very similar as they both strongly influenced by the Taiwanese educator Huang Caigui, who first initiated children scripture readings in Taiwan and continued his promotion to China. Mr. Zhao said that many parents who sent their children to his schools were seeking an alternative from the mainstream education system which is not fulfilling what they want. Many parents are planning to send their children overseas but would like their children to learn more about their own culture before they take off.

The Volunteer Groups

Every Sunday, Ms. Huang and her follow volunteers hike together in Xiangshan, one of the favorite outing spots for Beijingers during weekend. Halfway of their hike, they stop at the park and invite people to join their Confucian scripture public reading session. They distribute the reading materials, such as Confucian classics like Dizhigui, the Great Learning or the Three Character Script with hanyu pinyin. On average they attract 40-50 people to participate in readings with them, and the attentions of many others who are passing. This is one of the weekly activities organized by Yidan Xuetang. During my visit, they were planning on expanding their activities to more public parks across Beijing.
Yidan Xuetang is a voluntary group founded in 2001. The motto for this group is "youth + public welfare" and it recruits university students as volunteers to promote traditional culture through participating in community services. The group organizes volunteers to teach Confucian classics in primary and secondary schools as an extra curriculum course. It organizes morning reading sessions in university campuses across the country, which is also the key channel for the group to establish its national network and source of recruiting volunteers. Other activities organized by the group are including Guoxue seminars, training sessions for volunteers, and establishing the network of free Confucian schools in rural area.

The majority of the volunteers were highly educated. Many of them started to volunteer when they were college students and continued after they graduated. Some of them used their professional knowledge in developing the programs in the group. For instance, a group of Chinese medicine students organize free medical consultants every Saturday at the headquarter. The group was financed only by donations. The founder Mr. Pang explained that this is only way to remain independent and to be "authentic" in revitalizing traditional Chinese culture. He portrayed himself as the pioneer of "cultural public welfare enterprise of youth". This idealistic aura attracted many of the volunteers, and media reports on his personal story about his founding of the group were used in introductory sessions to recruit new volunteers.

In sum, Confucianism is having its comeback in contemporary China. However, this revival is not merely a reimplementation of the Confucian traditions or reinstallation of its institutions. New groups are formed in respond to the quest of traditional culture and there is a process of reinventing the new meaning of Confucianism in contemporary era. The rise of Confucian schools, such as the Sihai and Xiangtang Confucius schools, is more a response to the parents' request for an alternative education choice for their children. These Confucian schools are not a total imitation of the sishu that was prevailing in China when Confucianism was the state official ideology. The integration of new healthy living style (for instance, a vegetarian diet) and the study of English classics are the indicators for that. Moreover, a new manifestation of Confucianism that is incorporating with community and social services, and participation in public spaces by lay people is something totally new in Confucianism. All in all, Confucianism is reentering into the public space in China right now, and this time, it has a new image. We should be serious about the social implications of these changes, the creation of new meaning of traditional Chinese culture, which reflect part of the rapid social changes of the post-reform China.

Bell, D. 2006. "China's leaders rediscover Confucianism". International Herald Tribune, 14 September 2006.
Yang, F. 2007. "Cultural Dynamics in China: Today and in 2020". Asia Policy (4): 41-52.

Joy Lam is a graduate student at USC's Department of Sociology.