Confucius 2.0: Role in China reprised

Updated: 2015-03-16 10:44

By Leshuo Dong in Washington(China Daily USA)

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Confucius - that controversial sage of ancient China - is getting something of a makeover with the launch of Beijing-based Time correspondent Michael Schuman's new book Confucius: And the World He Created.

Confucius 2.0: Role in China reprised

"I think it's very relevant and timely," said Christopher K. Johnson, senior adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. "It's fascinating to see how Confucian ideas are playing out in China as it goes forward."

Though it is actually a new subject for Schuman, he has been seeking answers to questions about Confucius over his 16 years as a journalist in Asia.

For Schuman, Confucius was a person who never actually achieved his own goals. In his research, Schuman found that the actual stories of Confucius - even in the books that were written by his biggest fans - paint him as someone who "very much meant well in his life but ended up achieving very little", Schuman said at a book event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on March 12.

During a time of great violence and upheaval, Confucius developed a doctrine that "believes peace and order will bring prosperity to China". He spent his life wandering around hoping people would listen to him, but his ideas never took hold in his lifetime.

As a teacher, Confucius had loyal followers his whole life. They carried on his thoughts and wrote down what he said. Lun Yu (The Analects), which recorded his teaching and philosophy, became one of the foundations of Chinese civilization.

What Confucius means to contemporary China is profound and extensive, Schuman said. The "Chinese government is attempting to present an alternative system to American style democratic capitalism", he added.

China thinks that Western concepts of democracy and human rights are not universal; nations have their own political history, based on their own culture and philosophy. Confucius is playing a very important part in that it is viewed by China as "a truly indigenous political tradition".

Schuman thinks that Confucius' political message is about virtue and the power of benevolent government. "If a leader is truly benevolent, truly cares about people, cohesion becomes unnecessary, people will follow him willingly," Schuman said.

Confucius can help the complex reform that is underway in China. It's very common to hear President Xi Jinping quote Confucius in his addresses to officials and the Party congress. Confucianism has been invoked in the anti-corruption campaign.

Confucius has also become part of a much larger vision of China's role in the world. China is promoting harmony as a central political idea not only domestically, but also regionally and internationally. Schuman thinks China has been portraying itself as a regional leader that is not bringing competition. "Confucius has been helping in that process," he said.

The Chinese government is embracing Confucius and encouraging people to go back and review his writings and reconnect with Confucian tradition and ideas.

Schuman told China Daily that the younger generation in China is starting to go back to reading more classics. "It's very interesting to see what the young people take from Confucius. Not just on a national level, but on a personal level. What will people learn from him?" he wondered.

Especially what will students studying abroad think of Confucius after they receive ideas from the West? Will they bring it to the world stage or will they teach it to American students?

Schuman talked about how the Confucian idea of filial piety has become an important concept in the Asian business culture. He cited as an example that during the last financial crisis, viewing the company as "family", many Asian companies felt it was morally wrong to cut people who had families of their own.

"Some companies in the US may want to look at the companies in Asia who have incorporated family responsibility in their corporate culture," Schuman suggested.

"Asian philosophical traditions are playing a much bigger role on the world stage, just as Asian economics are, and just as Asia is becoming more important politically as well. You are going to see Asia contribute more and more to the global culture," Schuman said.

"Today's China is an extension of its past and Confucius' guiding influence remains at its core. China is incomprehensible without this intellectual framework," wrote said Jon Huntsman, former US Ambassador to China, in a blurb on the book's dust jacket.