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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Is there a “revival” of Confucianism in China Today?

Sébastien Billioud

Texte intégral

1March 2011

2In January 2011, a statue of Confucius measuring 8 metres in height was erected in front of the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square. The “Wise One” now stands alongside Mao in one of the most symbolic locations of China’s recent history.

3To mention the revival of Confucianism in China today may seem highly paradoxical considering the number of attacks it received during the 20th century. With the end of the empire, it had also lost its place both in politics and society. The remnants of Confucianism only live on in the form of a few schools of thought, be they ideological, religious or intellectual. However, after 1949, the era of Confucianism came to an end. During the Maoist regime, fierce political campaigns fought against the “Four Olds” (old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas). Furthermore, during the Cultural Revolution, a famous campaign was launched to criticise the principles that both Confucius and Lin Bao had stood for. The politics behind both the reform and the opening up of China to the outside world has driven profound change in the country since the 1980s. It has been referred to as the “individualisation of the Chinese society”, and can be seen in areas as diverse as economic activity to family relationships, personal relationships and cultural references. With this in mind, it would seem that a revival of Confucianism might not be so favourable after all.

4On the other hand, references to Confucianism have made a strong appearance over the past decade. Now largely reinvented, Confucianism takes on a variety of forms, as it is a component of dreams, utopias and, occasionally, nationalist aspects.

5Regarding education, classical Confucian texts are constantly being rediscovered by different members of the public and taught to children. The latter takes place mainly outside of the compulsory education system, most often as an extracurricular activity. The methods of teaching (i. e. repeated reading of difficult texts until they are learnt off by heart) often reject “Western education” and its emphasis on contextual understanding. This is not simply a meagre movement to be ignored. Although no official figures exist, the return of Confucianism in China today has attracted the support of millions of people. In its most radical form, the movement could lead to the opening up of traditional institutions (an entire host of private schools, which would offer a curriculum largely based on studying classical Confucian texts), a minor phenomenon that has nevertheless developed and which is paving the way for an array of different educational experiments to be performed. The revived interest in classical Confucian texts is not only limited to children; it is for everyone of society and is particularly popular among businessmen and women.

6This strong interest sometimes has utilitarian objectives, such as attaining a “cultural capital”, improving a child’s level at school and the economic benefits stemming from the “business made from Confucianism”. There is also a “spiritual aspect” of self-cultivation that echoes the many initiatives to revive Confucian rituals: ceremonies in temples to honour Confucius, and the reinvention of the main rites of passage (manhood, weddings and funerals), for example. This is close to being a religious aspect of Confucianism that may be openly claimed or not. Despite not being considered as one of the five officially recognised religions in the People’s Republic of China, there have been some attempts by activists to form a cult in order to promote the teachings of Confucianism. In addition to this, intellects inspired by Confucianism, have put forward a number of different strategies to reinstate Confucianism; be it as a religion of the state, a civil religion or even simply as the sixth official religion in China.

7The current revival of Confucianism in society could easily be implemented in a number of ways. Examples of these include the development of NGOs, the promotion of classical texts in companies and the reopening of traditional sites, such as ancient temples. In practice, however, these activities lack the structure and coordination required. The few organisations that have managed to emerge still have very fragile foundations.

8The following factors may help to explain the resurgence in the popularity of Confucianism.

9Firstly, let us turn to the history of China. Throughout the 20th century, there have been fragments of Confucian heritage preserved within religion, ideology, education and intellect. Countries affiliated with China, especially Taiwan and Hong Kong, have played an important role in contributing to this. It is essential that we consider these fragments of Confucian heritage in order to help us understand Confucianism as it is today. Secondly, the revival of Confucianism is a concept that must be analysed within a much broader context in relation to China’s past and China’s present. One of the most striking phenomena concerning China today is the “revival of its past”. If we refer to the well-known ideas of Koselleck, this revival seeks to “broaden the people’s wealth of experiences as well as their horizons of expectation”. Yet all do not welcome this revival of Confucianism. This reproduction of the past remains incomplete (there are many forgotten areas), largely reinvented, diverse, and ranges from the strong interest for Ming studies or “national studies” (guoxue) to the return to “Maoist fever”. Given the pivotal role in history that Confucianism had played, it is hardly surprising that there should be renewed interest in this subject.

10Having already explored how the history of China has contributed to the revival of Confucianism, let us turn to how society in China affects this matter. The individualisation of Chinese society and the dissolution of socially cohesive structures (ranging from unity in the workplace to unity within families) have moved China away from the grasps of collectivism. Religious followers, who had experienced a rise in the power that they held, also played a part in this. Not only is Confucianism able to capture a slice of this growing religious market, but also the “market of values” in a post-Maoist and partially secularised society.

11So what part do the authorities play in the revival of Confucianism? An answer that is often heard is that Confucianism in China today is that of an ideological project. Also often mentioned are a few official slogans, which sound vaguely Confucian-like (such as, harmony), the necessity to have an ideology of substitution, the debate in the 1980s over Asian values, cultural artefacts (such as the film, Confucius, by Zhang Yimou) the infamous Chinese “soft power” that is spreading across the world and network of Confucius institutes. In reality, the role of the authorities should neither be ignored nor exaggerated.

12Even though the Chinese authorities make references to the traditional culture within their cultural policies or include aspects of traditional culture in the image of China that they want to promote, it is not clear what precise function they serve, if any at all, in the revival of Confucianism. Apart from their support on a few occasions, for example, when the Minister of Culture supported a local project to celebrate a prominent figures of Chinese civilisation, the largest contribution from the central government under the “current Confucian fever”, was that of tolerating the initiatives that were made from the bottom up.

13Locally, Confucian activists need to structure their activities. In order to do so, they are obliged to discuss and negotiate their projects with the authorities. The local authorities address this issue when there is an absence of clear policies within the central government. Due to the diverse nature of the activities carried out by Confucian activists, the attitudes of local authorities towards them fluctuate enormously, depending also on the place and the people involved. The response of local authorities can range from direct support at one end, to mere tolerance, or the total banning of such activities from taking place at the other end of the scale. Support from the authorities may depend on a variety of factors, for example, how it will affect tourism and the economy, the implications of such activities on society, education, culture, ideology, moral values and so forth. The importance of the personal commitments of Confucian activists employed with managerial positions within the government level is highlighted. This situation, which occurs frequently, contributes greatly to the current development of Confucianism. Moreover, it provides a clear illustration of the fact that it is difficult to explain the “Confucian revival” based on explanatory models opposing the state and society.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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