Elevating Confucius: China’s Philosopher of Social Harmony

Chinese online news sources recently reported the unveiling of a gigantic statue of Confucius in Qufu, Shandong province, in Eastern China, the birthplace of the ancient philosopher.

Constructed of brass and reinforced steel, the statue stands at a whopping 72 meters (236 feet), making it the world’s largest statue of Confucius. To give some perspective, New York City’s Statue of Liberty is about 93 meters (305 feet)—including the base it stands on.

It’s pretty big, but not the biggest. Dubbed the Nishan Confucius, it ranks only 16th on a list of the world’s largest statues. There are some bigger statues of the Buddha in China and elsewhere.

So, why did the Chinese erect it and what are they saying about it?

Chinese news sources usually give a bit of background: Confucius was born around 551 BCE. Later in life, he gained a reputation as a wise sage and adviser to leaders.

The South China Morning Post describes him as someone concerned about “engendering social harmony in an uncertain world.” Confucian thought, it adds “revolves around following good taste in aesthetics and manners, and a strict observance to the hierarchy of social relationships.”

Confucius “believed that acting ethically in situations relating both to the family and state would create social harmony, and that it was the job of rulers to emulate and spread ethical behavior, just as it was children’s duty to venerate their parents and continue their traditions, codifying the filial piety that continues to define familial relations across Asia.”

The China Daily reports that the “ideas advocated by Confucius include rule by virtue, self-discipline in appeasing others and harmony in diversity.”

Taking stock of this rhetoric, a few words and phrases jumped out at me: “social harmony,” “strict observance,” “hierarchy,” “venerate,” and “appeasing.” The emphasis seems to be on Confucianism as a social glue.

Confucius by the way, at least in the West, is best known for his contribution to the Golden Rule (phrased in the negative): “Do not do unto others what you don’t want done to yourself.”

Confucius and a Disciple. An image from the ‘Life of Confucius,’ probably dating to the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

So why is China reviving Confucianism now when it was long vilified under the country’s early Communist leaders like Mao Zedong, who, in pursuing an egalitarian ideology, sought to eradicate social hierarchies and everything that smacked of tradition and China’s imperial past?

After visiting China last year, my interest in this question grew. It seems to me that the Chinese government is trying to contain a social upheaval born out of contradictory values. While the Chinese continue to pledge allegiance to Communist or socialist principles, capitalism has gone wild.

In his 2012 book China in Ten Words, Chinese journalist Yu Hua writes: “‘Better a socialist weed than a capitalist seedling,’ we used to say… Today we can’t tell the difference between what is capitalist and what is socialist—weeds and seedlings come from one and the same plant.” This confusion, he adds, breeds ever-growing disparities between the rich and poor.

To illustrate the point, Yu Hua tells a story about his visit to a rural village in China’s southwest in 2006. He was touring the country with a news crew to gather footage for a documentary. The crew, hoping to celebrate the ongoing World Cup games, organized a soccer match for local school children, but nobody in the village had a ball. So someone was sent off to buy one in the neighboring city.

That wasn’t the least of it. Nobody in the village had a clear grasp of the rules. So, the cameraman stood up before 1,000 children sitting patiently on the grass and began Soccer 101 with a demonstration of the penalty kick. Too eager to impress, he kicked the ball high; it sailed over the goal and landed in a pile of cow dung. He ran over to the ball, plucked it out of the sticky poop, and rinsed it off in a nearby pond.

When it came time for the schoolchildren to try some penalty shots, each kid gave the ball a good kick, ran after it, picked it up, and then promptly carried it off to the pond for cleaning. For the children, such were the rules of the game.

At the same time, Yu Hua explains, wealthier children in urban centers were fiercely competing over who had the most expensive attire. Since they all had to wear school uniforms, the only way they could gain an edge over rivals was to get their feet into the latest Kobes or Jordans. Meanwhile, children in rural areas have never even heard of soccer.

How do the Chinese address such glaring contractions?

One way is through ambitious public campaigns. While roaming around Beijing for a few days last year, I picked up the Global Times, a local newspaper published in English. My eye fell on the article, “China pushes core socialist values knowledge in primary, middle schools ” (September 15, 2017). The author reports that students and teachers will soon ramp up “ideological education.” The plan will require pupils “to read the socialist core values textbook every day before the first morning class for three minutes.”

What are these core socialist values?

They “summarize the nation, society and individual” and “are a set of moral principles defined by the central authorities,” the author writes. They include: “prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, the rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship.”

But can moral principles be truly moral if they are “defined” for you by the central authorities? I wondered.

To get some perspective after my trip, I spoke with Michael Levy, a San Francisco-based educator and author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion (2011). He wrote the book after spending several years in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer.

On the question of Chinese values, Levy cites Orville Schell, a well-known American scholar of China. “Schell wrote a brilliant book a few years ago called Wealth and Power,” Levy tells me. “That’s it. Those are the values—wealth and power.”

But the Chinese are trying to remedy this, he explains. “It comes out of a screaming worry from top to bottom in Chinese culture and the Communist Party that it’s a nihilistic country. There is nothing other than money,” Levy asserts.

He adds that if you express something out of a sense of moral obligation, many Chinese see it as an absurdity. “People will say you’re an idiot. My Chinese friends say this but then add, ‘I wish we had more of that.’”

Levy spots a similar modus operandi at work in schools. As an educator at a Mandarin immersion school in San Francisco, he works with young Chinese students regularly.

“From the beginning, they are told over and over again, ‘One and a half billion people are all competing against you. You cannot think about anything except the goal. Get there by any means necessary, shove everyone aside or you’ll be destroyed.’”

However, on a positive note Levy says Chinese are incredibly flexible. Unlike the government, they are are admirably non-ideological and pragmatic. “They listen to every idea, take a good one and run with it.”

If the Chinese hope to truly revive and elevate Confucius, a key question is this: How can they employ the ancient sage to generate a qualitative turn?

Instead of using him to justify authoritarianism and forge “social harmony,” perhaps they can rekindle aspects of Confucius’ thought that provide citizens with resources for living well as individuals.

And if the Chinese can make use of their vast reservoir of cultural, philosophical, and historical patrimony to enhance the lives of its citizens, then the world stands a good chance of benefiting as well.

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