Only three decades ago, the birthplace of Chinese philosopher Confucius was a battle-ground.

Urged on by Mao Zedong, Red Guards laid siege to Confucian temples in the town of Qufu in Shandong province, tearing down any legacy of China's greatest philosopher and burning thousands of artefacts.

But after decades of being vilified by the Communist Party for its “feudal” ideas, Confucian thought is firmly back in the spotlight in China. Its biggest promoter — the government.

The latest indication of Confucianism's revival came on Tuesday when Beijing, for the first time since the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, joined other cities in marking the philosopher's 2,561st birthday at the once-abandoned Temple of Confucius.

For centuries one of the most important temples outside Shandong, Beijing's Temple of Confucius was converted into a private residence after 1949. Following the end of Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the launch of reforms and opening up, it was turned into a Confucius museum in 1981.

On Tuesday morning, it was the stage for the capital's grandest tribute to Confucius in decades, as 500 volunteers in flowing red robes paid tribute. While the birthday celebrations have become increasingly common — and extravagant — in the past decade, this was a first for Beijing, the AFP reported.

Confucius, who lived between 551 and 479 BC, impacted Chinese thought and culture for centuries with his ideas on individual morality, the nature of social relationships and harmony.

Scholars say the Communist Party is now bringing back his ideas both to fill “a cultural void” in modern Chinese society, and also as a means to push China's soft power overseas.

“In today's China, there is a crisis of culture and a crisis of spirituality,” says Fan Yafeng, a scholar of Confucian thought. “The Chinese government wants to use Confucianism, with its emphasis on harmony, to consolidate society and bring people together.”

But Mr. Fan says few Chinese see Confucianism, with its precepts on how to lead a better moral life, as a way to fill a spiritual void.

Hence, China is seeing a proliferation of other religious faiths, from Christianity to Buddhism.

Reinterpreting Confucius' “Analects” for modern Chinese society has divided opinion among scholars. Some prescriptions, on feudal hierarchies or restrictive social roles for women, would be unpalatable for modern Chinese.

The Communist Party has emphasised the Confucian ideal of harmony, which was a centrepiece of President Hu Jintao's political theme of creating a “harmonious society”.

In 2006, a Beijing scholar, Yu Dan, rose to fame with her populist interpretations of the Analects, focusing on individual spirituality and self-improvement.

Her interpretations were given official sanction, presented in a series of lectures on the state broadcaster. A book based on the lectures went on to sell more than 10 million copies.

This week, China has invited scholars from around the world to Qufu to exchange views on Confucian thought. Part of the reason behind the exercise was to find ways to elevate aspects of Confucian thought as a “core value” of today's China, and to brand it overseas to boost China's lagging efforts at spreading its soft power.

“Clearly, central to [China's] cultural power is the spreading of notions or ideas of Confucius civilisation, like harmony and balance and world peace,” Dwight Hopkins, a professor of theology at the University of Chicago, suggested at the forum.

However, the jury is still out on how successful the efforts to popularise the old philosopher have been.

Last year, the government sanctioned an expensive biopic on the philosopher's life, starring Hong Kong star Chow Yun-fat in the titular role, to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the PRC. But the film found few takers at the box office, reflecting the tastes of a new generation of Chinese. Movie-goers, instead, opted for much different fare — James Cameron's Avatar.


Seeking an elusive harmonyOctober 2, 2010

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