Yesterday, millions of Chinese participated in the annual Qingming Festival. Traditionally, Chinese would take this spring day to sweep the tombs of ancestors and bring fake money and other offerings for the spirits to use in the afterlife. The Ministry of Civil Affairs reports that more than 520 million people visited cemeteries during last year’s festival.
In the past ten years or so, Chinese traditions, including Confucianism and Buddhism, have experienced a resurgence at both popular and official levels. Qingming dates from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), but its roots in folk religion go back more than 1,000 years before that.
This is quite a switch from the days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Mao Zedong tasked the Red Guards with combating the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. The movement singled out Confucianism in particular as an ideological hangover from China’s days of “feudal” authoritarianism. Any remnant of Confucianism, therefore, was a threat to consolidating the new authoritarianism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Nowadays, many (if not most) of the Chinese who lived through the frenzy and violence of the Cultural Revolution remember it with anger and shame. The experience marked an ideological turning point because it led millions to recoil from the version of Marxism that the CCP was putting forward. Since then, as market reforms have aggravated the country’s disparities of wealth and power, more and more Chinese dismiss the party’s official ideology, whose espousal of equality and liberation has become a sick joke. Many within the party itself have also “lost the faith.”
As people have lost confidence in the mission of the party, the party has come to emphasize nationalism as the ideological glue to hold society together and to bind the loyalty of ordinary Chinese to the regime. The ideology of national development and national pride was already a prominent feature of CCP politics under Mao, but now it’s almost the whole ballgame.
Nationalism, however, provides a fairly thin basis for moral conviction, and therefore, on a personal level, it provides people with little guide for how to live day-to-day — how to judge what’s good or right. Many have looked to religion to fill in the gap that the CCP’s “Marxism” has left behind. The Falun Gong movement incorporates traditional disciplines of movement and meditation, but it is, more than anything, a movement for moral renewal in a period of rampant corruption. Likewise, a smaller Christian movement of independent congregations offers a vision of neighborly concern and mutual aid to counteract the destruction of old communities and their replacement with atomized, market-driven urban life.
The CCP has regarded these movements as rivals to its own moral authority and has responded with repression. Confucianism, on the other hand, has received tentative official approval. The government has set up Confucian Institutes all over the world to educate local Chinese and to project an attractive picture of Chinese tradition to the world. Local officials promote public readings of the Confucian classics, including readings by children. The official national television station, CCTV, airs a regular educational series on the classics, which have been republished for the mass market.
Unlike Falun Gong, and especially unlike Christianity, modern-day Confucianism is closely connected to Chinese nationalism. When the Boxer Rebellion rose up against Western imperial influence in 1890s, Christians and Christian missionaries were some of its first targets. In the same decade, Chinese intellectuals tried to launch a Confucian revival as a cultural counterweight to Christianity. Within a few years, Sun Yat-sen’s Nationalist movement replaced the Qing Dynasty with the Chinese Republic in 1912, and the new government proclaimed the principle of religious freedom, including for Christians. Conservatives regrouped and advocated Confucianism as a state religion. They failed, but Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi) used Confucianism as a nationalist ideology in the war against the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s.
Even in ancient times, Confucian tradition had many strands, and its later practice has often borne little connection to what’s written in the classics. Some Chinese, and many Westerners, refer to the whole tradition of China as “Confucian.” Nevertheless, many practices, such as the ancestor worship expressed in the Qingming Festival, run directly counter to the teachings of Confucius. According to the Analects, which records the sayings of Confucius and his disciples, he did not concern himself with “ghosts or spirits.” He seemed to be agnostic about an afterlife, and he insisted that we pay attention to the people who are alive now (Analects 11.11).
Considering the elastic relation between Confucius and Confucianism, it’s no surprise that today’s renewed practice involves a reinterpretation of the tradition. As Joy Lam puts it:
Confucianism is having its comeback in contemporary China. However, this revival is not merely a reimplementation of the Confucian traditions or reinstallation of its institutions. New groups are formed in respond [sic] to the quest of traditional culture and there is a process of reinventing the new meaning of Confucianism in contemporary era. [Joy Lam has an informative blog devoted to understanding the revival of Confucianism.]
The ruling party’s interest in Confucianism goes beyond the goal of consolidating people’s identification with the modern nation-state of China. The ideology is also strongly family-centered, which encourages its adherents to look for the meaning of their lives in kinship relations rather than in broader affiliations such as workplace or class solidarity. What’s more, Confucianism’s authoritarian family norms are supposed to provide a model for loyalty to people in official positions.
Those are all things that the authorities want, but popular Confucianism could diverge from anything that the state would sanction. The classics uphold a right to revolution, for example, in those cases where the bureaucracy is corrupt and the rulers don’t care for the people. As such, Confucian values, as much as Christian or secular ones, could provide an independent standard for judging and condemning the current regime.
Party leaders must recognize the danger of authorizing a moral authority outside that of the party itself, but they don’t have much choice. At this point, popular trust in the party is virtually nil. The regime may be hoping to bolster its legitimacy by identifying itself with the tradition that allegedly defines China’s “essence.”
It wouldn’t be the first Chinese regime to try this. As Beijing scholar Wang Hui explains in The Politics of Imagining Asia, many a dynasty has come up with a revived/transformed version of Confucianism to burnish its own credentials as the carrier of authentic Chinese tradition. “An old platitude has it that Chinese history is continuous,” writes Wang, “while that of the West is discontinuous.” But in fact,
China experienced ceaseless invasions and penetration of the center by the periphery, and ruptures both of politics and of ethnic relations took place repeatedly throughout Chinese history. In other words, this so-called continuity results from a process of continual intentional or unintentional historical fabrication. For example, the rulers of the dynasties established by ethnic minorities exploited Confucianism (including its various manifestations as neo-Confucianism, classical studies, and historiography) to make themselves Chinese. Thus, the matter of “ritual China” is not so much a ritual or moral issue but one of politics, or rather, a question of political legitimacy.…
If there were no political culture or theory of legitimacy centered on Confucianism, it would be impossible to discuss continuity among the dynasties. Historical continuity, then, was a product of self-conscious construction.
Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, these Chinese rulers were recapitulating what Confucius himself tried to do. As part of the ru stratum of scholars and officials, he was concerned with matters of ritual, etiquette and other customary practices, especially those that supposedly bore a pedigree dating back to the Golden Ages of previous rulers. Later editions of Confucianism may have called for a “return” to a fictionalized past, but that conformed to Confucius’ original intent.
China’s current rulers are promoting Confucianism because they seek to invent their own connection to a newly “re-imagined” Chinese past. No doubt they hope that the operation will confer some legitimacy upon their power and cloud Chinese memories of the regime’s actual past.
 Wang Hui. The Politics of Imagining Asia. Edited by Theodore Huters (Harvard University Press, 2011), 85 and 87.