Wall Street Journal on September 20, 2015, reported on one of the aspects of China’s aim to re-establish as a great world power: the export of the thoughts of Confucius. One morning in June, 200 senior officials crammed into an auditorium in the Communist Party’s top training academy to study a revolutionary idea at the heart of President Xi Jinping’s vision for China.
They didn’t come to brush up on Marx, Lenin or Mao, staple fodder at the Central Party School since the 1950s. Nor were they honing their grasp of the state-guided capitalism that defined the nation for the last 35 years. Excerpts below:
They came to hear Wang Jie, a professor of ancient Chinese philosophy and a figure in the country’s next ideological wave: a renaissance of the traditional culture the Communist Party once sought to destroy.
For two hours, Prof. Wang says, he reeled off quotes from Confucius and other Chinese sages—whom the party long denounced as feudal relics—and urged his audience to incorporate traditional concepts of filial piety and moral rectitude into their personal and professional lives.
Two years after outlining a “China Dream” to re-establish his nation as a great world power, Mr. Xi is backfilling his vision and seeking a fresh source of legitimacy by reinventing the party as inheritor and savior of a 5,000-year-old civilization.
The shift forms the backdrop for Mr. Xi’s visit to the U.S. this week and could shape China for years.
Mr. Xi appears to be seeking to inoculate Chinese people against the spread of Western political ideals of individual freedom and democracy, part of what some political insiders say he views as a long-term contest of values and ideology with the U.S.
In the last year, the party has publicly ordered its officials nationwide to attend lectures on Confucius and other classical Chinese thinkers, while tightening restrictions on Western influence in art, academia and religion.
The education ministry has decreed that traditional culture, including classical literature wiped from the curriculum a century ago, be taught in schools and feature prominently in university entrance exams.
The goal isn’t just to encourage “national self-confidence” but to aid “personality development,” encourage altruism and instill “Chinese national moral thinking,” the ministry says in an emailed response to questions.
The government is also plowing money into projects including a free online classical library, television series on China’s ancient history and a $250 million national center for traditional culture next to Beijing’s Olympic Stadium.
They also have suggested they see it as a new way to justify China’s authoritarian government—as an extension of an ancient political tradition—and to tackle corruption.
“To solve China’s problems, we can only search in the land of China for the ways and means that suit it,” Mr. Xi in October told the party’s Politburo, its top 25 leaders, official media reported. “We need to fully make use of the great wisdom accumulated by the Chinese nation over the last 5,000 years.”
The changes mark a U-turn for the party and come with significant dangers. By embracing classical thinkers it once demonized, the party risks undermining its authority among citizens who recall earlier ideological campaigns.
It could also encourage Chinese citizens to explore other ideas the party has tried to wipe from history, such as those in organized religion, which the leadership still considers subversive. Some scholars argue Confucianism is compatible with democracy; others want it to become a national religion or ideology.
Mr. Xi continues to stress the importance of Marx and Mao, and of Deng Xiaoping, who launched China’s market reforms in 1979. He has placed greater emphasis on Mao than his two predecessors and stepped up political education on Marxism in universities.
But party insiders and political analysts say his longer-term agenda is to merge those ideas with elements of China’s ancient political culture to forge a new nationalist ideology.
Central to the ideological pivot is Confucius. Thought to have lived in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., Confucius emphasized respect for elders, social ritual and personal moral virtue, including among leaders. His ideas formed the basis of Chinese schooling and entry exams for the imperial bureaucracy for two millennia.
When the Communist Party took power in 1949, it banned ancestor worship and other Confucian rituals as “feudal practices” and taught party loyalty. It renewed that onslaught in the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
Since market reforms began in 1979, the party has allowed a limited, uncoordinated cultural renaissance. It has also carried out periodic “patriotic education” campaigns since crushing 1989 pro-democracy protests.
Until recently, it has been wary of overtly embracing China’s ancient past amid opposition from older party members who still see Confucianism as a source of weakness. In 2011, a Confucius statue was erected along Tiananmen Square but removed 100 days later following heated debate online and within the party.
Mr. Xi is taking a different tack, explicitly endorsing the cultural revival and formalizing it in schools and Party training—cherry-picking elements that suit his needs. In September 2014, he became the first Communist leader to attend celebrations marking Confucius’ birthday. He has complained that textbooks lack enough Chinese classical literature.
People can follow Mr. Xi’s lead at places like the Confucius Academy in the southwestern city of Guiyang, a 75-acre complex local property developers built for 1.15 billion yuan ($185 million) and opened in 2013.
The complex has support from the central government, which funds a permanent exhibit on Confucius. Top leaders have visited, including party ideology chief Liu Yunshan.
One recent Saturday, some 300 people, many in their 20s, attended a free three-hour lecture on the “Book of Changes,” one of the foundations of the feng shui system for aligning physical places and structures with the spiritual world. Also viewed as a moral and political guide, it is among the Confucian canon’s five classics.
Popular interest in traditional culture has grown in the past decade, influenced by Taiwanese and Hong Kong activists, experts say. Many private kindergartens have children recite classical texts. Mainland scholars offer businessmen private classes in “national studies.”
The Guiyang complex is among clear signs the party is trying to exploit and regulate that interest, says Sebastien Billioud, author of the book “The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China.”
Before Mr. Xi took power, some party members pushed a more-assertive revival of Maoist symbols and rhetoric, championed by former Politburo rising star Bo Xilai. That movement weakened after Mr. Bo’s wife was convicted in 2012 of murdering a British businessman and Mr. Bo was jailed the following year for corruption and abuse of power.
While Mr. Xi has borrowed from Mr. Bo’s leadership style, the ideological balance has tipped toward cultural revivalists, political insiders say.
Wang Qishan, China’s powerful anticorruption chief, is said by people who know him to be an avid reader in history and philosophy. In April, he held an unusual meeting with three foreigners, including the American political thinker Francis Fukuyama, according to a transcript one participant posted online. Mr. Fukuyama says the transcript was accurate, declining to comment.
During the meeting, Mr. Wang said he had read books on U.S. constitutional law, the Ming empire and England’s Tudors. “First, we need to make clear our own history and civilization,” he said. “China has outstanding DNA in its own culture.”
He said China needed to study Confucius and Mencius, a sage of the same tradition. Mr. Wang…also expressed admiration for 15th-century Confucian scholar Wang Yangming.
The education ministry has mandated that primary-school children be taught to understand Chinese festivals, honor their parents and “know they are part of the Chinese nation,” according to a notice issued last year.
High schoolers should take up a traditional Chinese sport, do calligraphy and recite ancient poetry, the ministry said. University students should study “important books of ancient Chinese thought and culture.”
The China National Culture Art Center, a civic organization, has produced new traditional-culture textbooks used in pilot schemes in places such as the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou…
Aware of such sentiments, the party is treading cautiously. Education authorities publicly criticized one Shanghai school for making 700 children kneel before their parents in what was deemed an excessive display of filial piety. A Beijing school was scolded for going too far in teaching girls “traditional female virtue.”
Comment: This article is of great interest as China prepares to compete with the West in public diplomacy. China leaders seem to understand that brutal Maoism is not a worldwide bestseller. Part of the new image of the regime is to build Confucius Centers in the West.
Ancient Chinese culture is best represented on Taiwan and it should be remembered that there are also other ancient cultural ideas in Chinese culture such as Taoism and the Legalists. A rival of Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, has long been studied by the military in Taiwan and in military schools on the mainland. As freedom is the main goal of mankind mixing Marxism-Leninism with Confucius will probably have small chances of world success. He who understands history will be politically victorious.