Confucius, who had been erased from all memory during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, is slowly being rehabilitated by political authorities to assume a new moral mission for modern China.
"China is looking for something to take the place of a failed Marxism," Wm. Theodore de Bary, the John Mitchell Mason Professor Emeritus of the University and Provost Emeritus, told The Wall Street Journal recently.
De Bary was a featured speaker at a 2,545th birthday celebration for Confucius in Beijing in October. The four-day symposium was attended by 300 scholars from China and abroad.
"Money worship is eroding the body of society, [and] morality has lost its sacred meaning," said an editorial in the People's Daily earlier this year. The appeal of Communist ideology had long since waned among the populace.
Coupled with a surge of interest in entrepreneurship and market economics, a moral and philosophical vacuum has evolved to a degree that worries Communist party officials, the paper's editors wrote.
"They are confronting the specter of an unrestrained individualism, and their worry is articulated in the form of an attack on Western individualism," said de Bary, in a recent interview published in the South China Morning Post.
"The complaints about Western individualism actually reflect a concern about a Chinese individualism that is running rampant," said de Bary. "It's the consequence of the failure of Marxism or Maoist morality. Their idea is to try to shore up public morality somehow by going back to Confucianism."
De Bary said that there was evidence of the return to Confucianism as early as 1989. Just weeks after the crackdown on pro-democracy dissidents in Tienanmen Square, the government of leader Deng Xiaoping sought to cleanse the public of Western influence by scheduling, without overt party endorsement, a celebration of Confucius' birthday.
The party couldn't afford to officially declare its affection for the teachings of Confucius, since that would be a direct contradiction of earlier Maoist attacks on the ancient philosopher. Nevertheless, de Bary reported in his book The Trouble with Confucianism (1991), that Jiang Zemin, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the Peoples Republic, made an unannounced appearance at the birthday party, signalling the party's approval.
Chinese officials may find that Confucianism, properly understood, will foster, instead of inhibit, dissent among its citizens. De Bary told the Wall Street Journal that the teachings of Confucius may well raise difficult questions for the Communist regime.