Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Return of Confucianism troubling

  • Print

HONG KONG — On Jan. 1, scores of children assembled to read aloud, in near perfect synchronicity, a 17th-century Confucian text called Dizigui, which translates to "standards for being a good student and child." The performance, according to local newspaper Beijing Times, was laden with symbolism: It took place at the historic Imperial Academy in central Beijing, which has been a center of Confucian learning for hundreds of years, and the children wore hanfu, a style of traditional clothing said to be similar to those donned more than 2,500 years ago in the days of Confucius.

It’s part of a changing reception for Confucian classics, which Chinese schools and education authorities had largely abandoned since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 in favor of more modern curricula like math, science, and colloquial Chinese. But these days, Dizigui’s short and simple brand of Confucianism — a way of thinking that has always included a heavy dose of respect for family and social hierarchy — has even the ruling Communist Party on its side.

The 1,080-character Dizigui, authored by a Qing-dynasty scholar named Li Yuxiu and short enough to fit into a small pamphlet, began to re-emerge in Chinese society more than a decade ago on the back of an educational movement, called Dujing, that seeks to teach the Confucian canon to children. The movement’s adherents believe that memorization of classics will help transform China’s generation of infamously spoiled single children, often called "little emperors," into more dutiful ones — and in time, morally upright adults. The text has found a ready set of fans among modern Chinese parents, many of them concerned that contemporary social ills trace back to an abandonment of traditional values, and are thus anxious to provide their children with a moral compass in a fast-changing society.

Even compared to other classic Chinese works written for children, Dizigui is austere. It evinces a singular focus on the Confucian code of conduct, generating advice such as this: "When my parents do wrong, I will urge them to change. I will do it with a kind facial expression and a warm, gentle voice. If they do not accept my advice, I will wait until they are in a happier mood before I attempt to dissuade them again, followed by crying, if necessary, to make them understand.

"If they end up whipping me I will not hold a grudge against them."

Given the text’s emphasis on obedience, it’s not hard to understand why the ruling Communist Party has come to embrace Dizigui in spite of its tumultuous relationship with Confucianism. (During the Cultural Revolution, a violent and turbulent period from 1966 to 1976 aimed at stamping out vestiges of Chinese "feudal" culture, Mao Zedong fiercely denounced the Confucian belief system.) But by 2009, Xi Jinping, then expected to be China’s next president, specifically named the text as recommended reading for party cadres. A professor at the Central Communist Party School, which trains Chinese officials, wrote a book called Everybody Should Study Dizigui, and party organizations in far-flung corners of the country have convened study sessions on the text.

It’s also had an impact on some bottom lines. Corporate bosses have claimed that building a corporate culture based on Dizigui increased productivity and profitability. The chief of a Chinese company making electronic components has actively promoted the text in his factory, telling the magazine Chinese Times in 2010 that managers who read Dizigui are more responsible, and the workers more grateful. Hu Xiaolin, the CEO of a Beijing-based boilermaker, said that he communicated better with employees after studying the document. Hu "used to have a brusque management style," according to an article in Chinese business magazine World Manager, until the Confucian text "made him reflect."

Many Chinese, however, aren’t pleased by the newfound popularity of this ancient wisdom. To them, the increasing popularity of Dizigui feels like a throwback to a darker age when education encouraged conformity and suppressed free thought; not exactly the best way to prepare children for a 21st-century knowledge economy.

When, in Aug. 2013, Guangzhou’s prestigious Sun Yet-Sen University required freshmen to submit a summer essay reflecting on the text, the move drew sharp criticism from some teaching staff and Internet users who saw the requirement as a repudiation of modern educational values like creativity and skepticism. And after the Jan. 1 children’s reading in Beijing, screenwriter Zheng Xiaochong commented on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, that the text "is a part of a zombie culture with no ability to innovate." Another Weibo user argued that it was effective — but only "for training slaves."

That may be too tendentious. Most of Dizigui brims with universal adages like, "If criticism makes me angry and compliments make me happy, bad company will come my way and good friends will shy away." That’s actually part of its attraction to those in power: Few can object to its anodyne moral lessons, but hidden within them is a code of conduct that emphasizes acceptance of strict hierarchy, respect for social order, and deference to authority. For more than 2,000 years, Chinese emperors have found Confucianism a useful tool for authoritarian governance. Now they seem keen to try again.

 

Rachel Lu is the co-founder of Foreign Policy’s Tea Leaf Nation and is an editor at FP.

 

—Foreign Policy

 

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Huge vigil held in support of Tina Fontaine, Faron Hall

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A golfer looks for his ball in a water trap at John Blumberg Golf Course Friday afternoon as geese and goslings run for safety- See Joe Bryksa’s 30 day goose challenge- Day 24– June 15, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 090728 / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS White Pelicans belly up to the sushi bar Tuesday afternoon at Lockport. One of North America's largest birds is a common sight along the Red RIver and on Lake Winnipeg. Here the fight each other for fish near the base of Red RIver's control structure, giving human fisher's downstream a run for their money.

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What do you think of the new Blue Bombers uniforms?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google