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She makes Confucius cool again

A professor's fresh look at the ancient teachings is a bestseller in China, where a booming economy has left some feeling spiritually bereft.

May 07, 2007|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

Beijing —

CONFUCIUS famously considered a good woman to be an illiterate woman. The ancient sage might want to eat his words: More than 2 1/2 millenniums after his death, he's back in vogue, thanks in no small part to a Chinese woman with a PhD.

Confucius, meet Yu Dan.

But make it quick. The professor is so busy these days she barely has time to go home and see her baby daughter.

Since the publication of her enormously popular book on the teachings of Confucius late last year, Yu has been racing from college lectures to book signings, TV appearances and speaking engagements. The public can't seem to get enough of this overnight sensation who has turned dusty old Confucian teachings into a Chinese version of "Chicken Soup for the Soul."

"I never expected this," the smartly dressed 42-year-old said in a hurried interview from the back of the black Audi taking her to the airport. "In the 21st century, our value system is changing; people are faced with a lot of confusion and choices. The classics are not just fossils. They are a value system that can help us find answers to modern-day problems."

For more than 2,500 years, the Confucian doctrines of filial piety, moral righteousness and hierarchical relationships were the guiding principles of life and government in China and most of East Asia. Then the Communists came to power and Chairman Mao declared Confucianism counterrevolutionary and his Red Guards ransacked temples dedicated to the philosopher.

Today, China is charging ahead with dizzying economic growth and breathtaking social change. But many believe the world's most populous nation has lost its moral and spiritual anchor. Enter the wisdom of Kong Fuzi, or Master Kong, as Confucius is known in China -- interpreted by a woman.

"I'm amazed," said Hong Huang, a cultural commentator and publisher of fashion magazines in Beijing. "Her success has a lot to do with the fact that modern China has an identity crisis and spiritual crisis. The only value system we have today is money. Everybody is looking for the Chinese meaning of life."

Confucius' collected teachings, called "The Analects," are written in classical Chinese and are nearly as incomprehensible as Latin is to the average English speaker. But Yu's book, "Insights on the Analects," is conversational and full of modern-day applications.

When Confucius talks about the qualities of a good ruler, for instance, Yu connects it to the life of the average man. Confucius asks his students about their aspirations. Instead of praising the most ambitious for wanting to run a big country with a vast army, he supports one who merely wants to enjoy a fine spring day with friends.

Yu says everyone has dreams, but too many people are so busy working that they have no time to figure out what they really want out of life. "Just because you have a successful career does not necessarily mean you have made your dreams come true," she writes.

To illustrate, she tells the story of three field mice preparing for winter. One gathered food, one built shelter and the third did nothing but play. Winter came and there was plenty to eat but nothing to do inside the hideaway. That was when the third mouse made himself valuable by telling stories from his days of fun and games.

Yu's book has sold more than 3 million copies in four months, making modern Chinese publishing history and beating out the country's other top seller, the Harry Potter series. Bootleg videos of her television lectures and speeches, an unfortunate sign of popularity, are prominently displayed here next to American hits such as "Desperate Housewives" and "The Devil Wears Prada."

YU recently completed an 18-city tour during which she autographed 39,000 copies of her book, twice sitting for stretches of 10 hours. "I saw so many people waiting in line," she said. "Once it was really windy. Another time it was snowing and past midnight. I kept going out of conscience, even if I felt like passing out. They were there not for me. They were there for Confucius."

Confucius is indeed enjoying a huge revival -- and is even endorsed by the Communist Party that once tried to erase his influence.

"Maybe 99% of Chinese people today never read his writings, but Confucian values are steeped in our culture," said Miao Di, a professor at Communication University of China. "The worst example might be his views on women, which is believed to be the basis for our patriarchal society, where male chauvinism prevails despite recent improvements on gender inequality."

Even before the Communists came to power in 1949, Chinese intellectuals had begun to question his teachings, blaming them for keeping China from embracing modern science and Western notions of democracy.

Confucius-bashing reached a peak during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, when schools banned "The Analects" and mobs tortured scholars for teaching a book that for centuries had served as a philosophical primer for this nation.

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