The Coming of Confucius

Friday, 22. January 2010     1 comment(s)
Jyrki Kallio
Senior Research Fellow - The Global Security research programme

If you think that China is a communist country, think again. If you think that China is not a communist country, think again once more. It is true that the Communist Party holds power in China, and the political system largely reflects that fact, but economically and ideologically communism is an endangered species. All kinds of unwanted influences loom in the horizon, lured in by the ideological vacuum. The Party has begun a pre-emptive strike and promotes ‘traditional learning’—a compote of values and teachings of ancient Chinese philosophers—as the new moral ground upon which China will grow into a ‘harmonious society’.

The latest effort to educate Chinese in the virtues of traditional learning is the movie Confucius. The movie, directed by Hu Mei, will hit 2,500 cinemas throughout China today, January 22nd, forcedly replacing all the 2D copies of Avatar. The movie will be released elsewhere in Asia today as well, and later in the rest of the world. Judging by the comments of those who have already seen the movie, Hollywood might not need to fear. Perhaps, however, the rest of us must brace ourselves. For Confucius is coming! We shall be seeing much more of him, because nobody can give a human face to both harmonious society and China better than Confucius. At least so the Communist Party of China seems to think.

Confucius who? That is not a simple question. Confucius was a teacher and philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago, in an era when several states flourished and fought each other in the North China Plain. During the imperial era, he was made something of a saint-king. For the revolutionaries in the early 20th century he was the embodiment of everything backward. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s he became the scapegoat in the political campaigns targeting ‘revisionism’. Recently, Confucius has been rehabilitated, but nobody seems to know exactly what to think of him.

Those who explain the rise of the ‘Asian Tigers’ through cultural values like to say that Confucianism is about valuing education, selflessness and common good. The Communist Party explains that Confucius taught stability, unity and harmony. Some contemporary New Confucians equate Confucianism with liberalism and democracy.

The only other major movie about Confucius was made in China in 1940, directed by Fei Mu. The film shows Confucius as a scorned prophet who fails to get his message across to any of the rulers he advised. They wanted to win wars and not to hear about good governance. Similarly, in a book by Li Ling (Sangjiagou, 2007), Confucius is pictured as a stray dog unable to find anyone worth serving or even as a Don Quixote who attacked the wrongs of the society, all in vain.

Then there is the book by Yu Dan who is responsible for starting the Confucius-fever. Her bestseller Confucius from the Heart (original in Chinese 2007, translations in English and Finnish in 2009) has probably sold more than ten million copies. In her book, Confucius is made to promote wisdoms suitable for the socialist harmonious society. Yu Dan writes, for example, that you must learn to accept disappointments in life and that if you stop criticizing the society, you will start feeling happier.

It is interesting to see what the new movie Confucius will be like. Judging by the prominence of the massive battle scenes in the trailers, Confucius might be the new Hero (a patriotic blockbuster from 2002, directed by Zhang Yimou), extolling China’s glorious history and showing how history inevitably led to the unification of the nation. In that case, Confucius might not recognize himself in the character played by the Hong Kong action star Chow Yun Fat.

But the movie Confucius is just one piece on the go board of international politics. What we will be seeing here outside China—whether the movie makes it here or not—is the continuing rise of China. Confucius is used to promote a positive image of China through a growing network of Confucius Institutes, already situated in almost 90 countries, and the propagandists in Beijing are explaining how the foreign relations of imperial China were based on such Confucian values as harmony and mutual benefit. According to the propagandists, China did not occupy foreign lands, because Confucius taught that an enlightened ruler with high moral standards will win the world over without wars. This tradition will continue, and it is the highest hope of contemporary China’s leaders that the whole world becomes one community. Have no fear for China’s rise, they say.

Indeed, trust is a much better basis for international relations than fear. Trust, however, is built only by deeds, not words. More than movies are needed, both inside and outside China. But it doesn’t harm to have a better understanding of what Confucius said—or what he said according to Confucius the movie. Let’s wait and see—Confucius, for starters.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discussion (1 comments)

22.1.2010, Jouni Pulli

Talking about deeds rather than words, I find it quite annoying that China has started building up infrastructures in many parts of Africa in order to be able to exploit the natural resources of the said continent while we in the West are used to "help" African States by giving them money.

One might ask, in which case the local people are able to demonstarate that they've benefited and in which case it is most likely that the beneficiaries will be those with power in the State in question. Thus, after the starters, it would be adviseable for the EU to start thinking in new ways, proactively, not only by reacting. This is one more reason why we in Finland should understand China much better than we do now and, therefore more research in this subject is a factual necessity even in our country.

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