Global interest in classics is fading, but not in China
Last month at the Athenaeum, Sheldon Pollock, a Columbia University professor of Sanskrit, spoke of the fading interest in the classical heritage of cultures across the globe. There is, however, one exception: Chinese classics – referred to in Mandarin as guoxue – has been experiencing a reawakening of not only scholarly study but also public interest. In a world increasingly alienated from its classical past, what explains China’s sudden fascination with its volumes of ancient texts?
Confucius, China’s 2,500 year old sage has come a long way in the past 100 years. As a symbol of China’s imperial past, Confucius has been the target of China’s reformers and revolutionaries since the end of the Qing dynasty. Mao attacked China’s “old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas” during the Cultural Revolution and Confucius was singled out in the “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” campaign of 1976.
Yet today, Confucius and guoxue are more popular than ever. Signs of this classical comeback are everywhere: Yu Dan, associate professor at the Beijing Normal University, sold 1.5 million copies of her book on Confucianism within 40 days in 2007, and 322 Confucius Institutes – organizations aligned with the Communist party of China that promote Chinese language and culture – have opened since 2004. Once criticized as the cause of China’s stagnation in the nineteenth and preceding centuries, guoxue is back for good.
There are clear reasons behind the Communist party’s support of guoxue. The authoritarian government can strengthen its rule by relying on the nationalistic tendencies of the public. The Confucian system is also arguably suppressive. This analysis is supported by a CMC junior from Nanjing, who asked to remain anonymous. The student commented, “The conformity and rigid hierarchy imposed by Confucianism suppresses individual expression, which is what the party wants.”
CMC History Professor Arthur Rosenbaum agrees. “Confucianism always has been a useful doctrine in governing a stable society and promoting order,” he explains.
Government encouragement, however, cannot explain the public fascination with guoxue. According to Rosenbaum, the revival of Confucian ideas “has roots in society quite apart from the government.” Even Yu Dan cannot claim to be the source of interest in guoxue; rather, her success is a symptom of a deeper cause. The public is the true driver of the guoxue revival.
The short explanation of the public fascination with guoxue is that as China’s population grows increasingly affluent, it faces different challenges than it did 30 years ago. While starvation was a legitimate concern for the average citizen prior to former leader Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, the explosion of wealth in China has created rampant consumerism. This issue is personified by a candidate on China’s popular matchmaking show “Feicheng Wurao” who declared that she would rather be “weeping in the back of a BMW than be happy on the backseat of a bicycle.”
In the face of such rampant materialism, one reaction has been to paint a rosy picture of the days before Deng’s 1978 economic reforms, depicting a climate in which wealth was more equal and society less shallow. This dream of a poorer but more egalitarian society is further strengthened by China’s rising income gap.
Another reaction has been a turn to faith. Cathy Zhu, a college student from Beijing, observes there is a “lack of faith and vacuum of values or things to believe in for modern day China,” which is why “Christianity and other forms religion are becoming popular in China.”
Similarly, Confucianism and guoxue are sources of values and morality. The Chinese public, which for the past decades worshipped good fortune and success as their sole idols, have now found material items lacking gods. The turn to guoxue may be the reaction of a society looking for higher ideals.
Apart from reaching to its classical legacy as a way to deal with its new challenges, the Chinese public is turning to guoxue to understand philosophical problems and develop an identity in an increasing international and multipolar world. Wendy Qian CMC ‘13, who is from Beijing, says, the “Chinese people believe that they should claim their own culture.” While the student protesters of the May Fourth Movement in 1919 rejected classical China’s legacy as obsolete in a modern world and embraced ideals such as science and democracy, students today are looking back to guoxue for inspiration to deal with challenges to the Chinese worldvi