At the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the tomb of Chinese philosopher Confucius was vandalized, the remains of his descendants exhumed and hanged from a gallows, and the statue in honor of the sage was cremated by young Red Guards.
Back then, teenagers steeped in revolutionary rage were striving to destroy the so-called “four old men”: old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits. Confucius, according to Communist leader Mao Tse-tung, was one of the greatest symbols of the feudal rubble that kept China from being truly revolutionary.
Fifty-five years later, the philosopher has not only been saved: his ideas have been erected into state doctrine and have served to legitimize the current government, whose power is more concentrated in the figure of the main leader, Xi Jinping, than in the previous ones. administrations.
According to Xi, China will be able to recover – and expand – its greatness by combining socialism with Chinese characteristics with the millennial wisdom of the country’s philosophers.
Xi was the first ruler to officially participate in a Confucius birthday celebration in 2014, when the sage’s 2565th birthday was celebrated. That year, the now 100-year-old Chinese Communist Party ordered its members to attend classes on the philosopher and other classical thinkers.
Thus, textbooks also began to incorporate traditional texts, and Confucius gained great importance in school curricula. The Chinese leader, who often quotes Confucian thoughts, says traditional culture is the soul of the nation.
“Xi uses Confucianism to strengthen the authority of the Chinese Communist Party, promoting values such as loyalty to the state, dedication to family, and public and private virtues,” said Yingjie Guo, professor of Chinese studies at the University of Sydney and a specialist in Chinese cultural nationalism.
For Karin Vazquez, a researcher at Fudan University in China and professor at OP Jindal World University in India, Xi is reinterpreting Confucianism in the light of today.
Confucius claimed that the main goal of a ruler is to make sure the people trust him.
Mencius, the second sage of Confucianism, went further by asserting that rulers have a divine mandate to rule. He also warned that if a leader did not act on behalf of the people, he would cease to be legitimate and could be deposed by the people.
“Anchoring his ideology in the thought born in China more than two millennia ago is a way for Xi to legitimize his power, especially after the [aprovação da] constitutional amendment that removed the limits of the president’s term and given the influence in Chinese society of Western cultural and democratic values that emphasize individual freedom, ”Vazquez said.
Confucius was born in 551 BC in Qufu. For 2000 years, since the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, Confucianism has been a state dogma. His precepts were the basis of Chinese education and the entrance examination for officials of the emperors.
The sage preached devotion to the elders and respect for hierarchy and authority. He taught that these values were essential for individuals to achieve excellence and moral righteousness. And those who would follow his precepts would be the basis of a harmonious and stable society.
At the start of the 20th century, Confucianism began to be called into question. The opinion was that the theory, which was reminiscent of the feudal era, did not correspond to the revolutionary spirit and was to blame for China’s backwardness. For the CP rulers, the precepts of Confucius made society too rigid, stifled innovation and generated corruption – and so the country was overtaken by Western nations.
In 1949, when the Communists took power, ancestor worship and other Confucian rituals were banned, classified as “feudal practices”. With the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the demonization of Confucianism reached its peak. Mao, who had been a great lover of classical works, began to attack Confucius, whom he accused of being a defender of the interests of aristocrats and slave owners. Statues of the philosopher and related artifacts have been burned across the country and his teachings banned.
Rehabilitation began in the 1980s. At the time, Confucius’ supporters were largely conservative intellectuals who wanted to turn the page on the excesses of the Communist revolution. “The defense of Confucianism at this time was a reaction to Marxism, especially historical materialism, which argues that societies, driven by class struggle, leave feudalism, slavery and capitalism and inevitably evolve towards socialism and communism, ”Yingjie explains.
CCP leaders, on the other hand, didn’t embrace Confucius’ return until the 1990s, although full redress came in 2013, when Xi visited Qufu, the sage’s hometown.
The return of Confucianism, according to the professor at the University of Sydney, reconciled two movements that clashed from the beginning of the 20th century until 1989: cultural nationalism and political nationalism. Political nationalism was aimed at restoring state authority and creating a militarily and politically strong China. And for political nationalists, ancient Chinese traditions, defended by cultural nationalism, were an obstacle to the modernization of the country.
“Now there is a convergence, because the CP has stopped being anti-traditionalist, and cultural nationalists have stopped attacking Marxism. Confucianism, or some of its values, is now seen as part of the Chinese value system and the basis of its cultural identity and the unity of the people.
It is not by chance that by creating the current 541 centers of Chinese culture in 162 countries – a way of projecting soft power – the Chinese government named the Confucius institutes.
For academics, Xi uses Confucianism to “Chinese” Marxism, giving more local characteristics to the country’s socialism. In addition, making the regime more identified with Chinese culture helps to contain the spread of Western values such as freedom and democracy.
Another reason for the rehabilitation of Confucianism is the concern of Communist leaders over what they see as moral decay resulting from years of unbridled materialism.
“The Cultural Revolution left a moral vacuum in Chinese society, and Confucianism preaches, for example, children’s devotion to their parents and respect for hierarchy, values that contribute to social cohesion”, explains Calebe Guerra, doctoral student in classical Chinese literature at Wuhan University. “Confucianism responds to a spiritual need of the community, it functions as a moral glue.”
Of course, some Confucian teachings are dated – one of the wise man’s precepts was “the husband leads, the wife follows.” But the Chinese Communist Party actually adopts the thoughts that interest it the most.
“Xi has been reasonably successful in selling himself as the man who can make China great again, just as the country has been for so many centuries. He stands as the one who will correct the injustices committed by Western nations and restore Chinese power, ”says Michael Schuman, author of the books“ Confucius and the World He Created ”and“ Interrupted Superpower: The Chinese History of the World ”.
But Schuman sees much of the rescue of Confucianism as mere rhetoric and limited to phrases “that sound good in speech.” “I don’t see the Chinese government becoming ‘more Confucian’ in its ideology and practices; party officials thoroughly study Xi Jinping’s thought, not Confucius’ philosophy; Xi’s use of Confucianism is superficial.