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Confucius is a hometown hero again

The Chinese city of Qufu is leading a revival of the philosopher, once scorned but now embraced by communist leaders.

March 25, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Visitors file through one of the gates at the temple in Qufu where Confucius lived and where the religious aspect of Confucianism is in evidence.
Visitors file through one of the gates at the temple in Qufu where Confucius… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Qufu, China — Confucius says, "Study the past if you would define the future."

Not long ago, it was a disgrace to carry the surname Kong, which indicated one was a descendent of the philosopher better known in the West as Confucius, a man vilified by the staunchest Communists as a throwback to China's feudal past.

Here in the town where Kong Qiu was born in 551 BC and where about 20% of the population still bears his surname, corpses were once dug up from their graves at the Kong family's cemetery and hung from trees. More than 6,000 artifacts were smashed or burned.

"We were crushed by the Cultural Revolution," said Kong Qingying, a 52-year-old calligrapher, who lowers his voice to a dramatic hush when speaking of those dark years four decades ago.

Now Kong makes his living selling scrolls at the Confucius Temple, a sprawling compound on the family's ancestral grounds, and his family name is both a source of honor and a sales pitch to tourists.

Chuckling to himself about the irony of it all, he noted that Communist Party propaganda today is packed with Confucian aphorisms about respect, virtue, righteousness and "harmonious society."

"The Communist Party has come to appreciate that they can find new ideas in the old," Kong said.

Confucius was rehabilitated in the 1980s, but the current generation of leadership has embraced his ideas to such an extent that some scholars believe President Hu Jintao to be a closet Confucian. ("Confucius said, 'Harmony is something to be cherished,'" Hu told the National People's Congress in 2005.)

Today, Confucius is literally bigger than ever: A 31-foot-tall statue of him, unveiled in January, watches over the hallowed ground of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Lest anybody forget Confucius' directives about filial piety, Jiangsu province enacted a law March 1 that requires people to visit their elderly parents, or expose themselves to civil liability, and the National People's Congress is considering making that a requirement nationwide.

The epicenter of the revival is Qufu, a small city in Shandong province 300 miles south of Beijing that has seen its fortunes ebb and flow with the popularity of its most famous son.

The place is half pilgrimage site, half theme park. Restaurants serve "Confucius duck" and "Confucius soup" — "just how the master liked it," says a waitress — and in souvenir stands, they sell Confucius' writings in little red books just like the quotations of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, along with an assortment of busts and figurines of Confucius and the Communist leader.

The atmosphere is more reverential, however, inside the walls of the Confucius Temple and the adjacent Confucius Mansion, labyrinthine compounds of dozens of buildings that once housed the Kong descendents in the style of the emperors. The properties were restored in the 1980s and attracted 3 million tourists last year. The religious side of Confucianism is in evidence here.

In front of a looming, painted statue of Confucius in a vaulted niche — in which the ancient sage looked a little like a skinny version of Buddha — visitors burn incense and bow their heads low three times.

"Once for family, once for fortune and once for the future," intoned one of the temple custodians to the worshipers.

For $1.50, visitors write their wishes and prayers on strips of red paper to be hung next to the temple. "I want to pass the entrance exam for college and make my whole family happy," was a typical message; another read, "I want to lose weight in the future."

Li Gaimei, 57, a retired office worker who came with her daughter's family over the Chinese New Year's holiday, said she had been studying Confucianism for seven years.

"I'm not religious, but I feel there is a lot I can learn from Confucius that is applicable in your modern life, whether it is at the job or at home," Li said. "Confucius helps us remember to conduct ourselves as moral people."

Cui Donglei, a slouchy 18-year-old with dyed red hair and a rhinestone earring, said he had come with his parents to learn more about Confucius. "All that he wrote about setting goals in your life is very helpful to me," he said.

For the Communist Party, Confucius' writings about virtuous conduct serve as a warning to those who use cutthroat tactics in the emerging market economy, and his writings about modesty and self-control offer an antidote to Western liberalism.

"China is in a values crisis. Marxism doesn't service as a restraint on the natural pursuit of self-interest, so where else can China turn to for a sense of social responsibility?" said Daniel Bell, a professor of political philosophy at Beijing's Tsinghua University and author of a book about the revival of Confucianism in China.

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