The long history of Confucianism in China is one of a philosophy buffeted by change, forever colliding with, and integrating, other schools of thought. Confucianism not only played a role in the imperial court, but also permeated the mundane tasks of everyday life, guiding relationships between parents and children, the family and the state — until the disillusionment of the New Culture Movement in the 1920s portrayed it as a stumbling block to progress. Confucian culture has come under criticism for more than a century, but it has not disappeared — and now, if anything, its influence is growing.
In January, the Chinese government issued a series of suggestions for developing traditional Chinese cultural heritage, a move that placed Confucianism on its highest pedestal since the early 20th century. But for this revival to gain traction, we must revitalize participation in Confucian traditions among Chinese young people.
How do today’s youth regard Confucian culture? At Shanghai’s Fudan University, a project group on globalization and religious studies is undertaking research on this very topic, using a combination of surveys and in-depth interviews. They have spoken with thousands of university students from 10 schools across northern and eastern China. I have participated in the study myself.
We discovered that most students understood Confucian thinking through the rituals that persist in daily life. Traditional holidays like Tomb-Sweeping Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, and Mid-Autumn Festival encourage students to spend time with family, an important tenet in a philosophy that favors filial piety. Traditional food also plays a role: Eating green rice balls, sticky rice dumplings, and moon cakes are symbolic of family unity, and are generally eaten only during festival season.
In addition, our research suggests that more and more Chinese young people are choosing to make offerings to their ancestors, a practice that usually involves laying out food at the family altar, lighting incense sticks in their forebears’ honor, and occasionally burning paper money. To them, the act of making offerings no longer seems old-fashioned, but instead allows them to connect emotionally with their heritage.
This generation of college students closely identifies with the concept of family, though our studies show that they do so in different ways. Chinese society historically placed crucial importance on extended family networks: Large numbers of siblings, cousins, and distant relatives would pay their respects to one another, visit each other’s families, and perhaps lend money to each other. This is largely the case in the countryside, but in post-one-child policy China, many urban youngsters now conceive of “family” as a nuclear unit, privileging greater self-love and stronger parent-child relationships instead of an interconnected family web stretching across the country.
Additionally, college students’ modern interpretations of classic Confucian thinking are filtered by their own experiences. During an official address to commemorate the birthday of Confucius, President Xi Jinping offered 15 ways in which traditional Chinese culture has inspired and guided national governance. The two that resonated most with students were “being practical and seeking truth from facts” and “being frugal and guarding against extravagances,” quotes from two ancient Confucian texts. In other words, college students today judge Confucian values by two criteria: Is it needed in society today, and can it reasonably be put into practice?
It is therefore apparent that Confucianism is making a resurgence among college students. One reason is that as Chinese economic reform puts more money in people’s pockets, society begins to re-examine its cultural heritage and values. Second, radical social environments, such as modern China’s breakneck development, cause anxiety to ripple through society as a whole. In seeking meaning in life, many turn to traditional philosophy, religion, or spiritualism.
Moreover, as the current craze for ancient Chinese studies becomes increasingly commercialized, Confucian culture has moved into the modern market. College students have a high sensitivity to new products. The entry of Confucian culture into the market is, without a doubt, one reason behind its incorporation into the mindsets of college students.
However, the rise of Confucian culture among college students today can only be described as a revival, not a return. First, there is no single class designed to teach the Confucian classics in the way they were taught within previous Chinese education systems. Instead, materials from the Four Books — widely recognized as the authoritative canon of Confucian texts — are embedded into other classes like history, literature, and politics. As a result, students lack a comprehensive and well-rounded familiarity with the Confucian classics. Instead, their knowledge is superficial and fragmented.
Secondly, the values with which young people identify come from their personal experiences. Ancient Chinese culture espoused that a gentleman must first be able to manage his home before he can hope to manage the country; everyone’s strengths played a role in shaping the country, and every individual has a responsibility to improve oneself and, in turn, improve the country. However, students today are largely apolitical and instead focus on how Confucian values can shape their day-to-day lives.
On top of that, the business world and marketing departments have moved to take advantage of the craze around the study of traditional Chinese culture. To catch the attention of young people, they repackage Confucian culture as contextual and situational. Insofar as this bridges the gap between the youth and Confucian culture, it also ultimately transforms a classic culture into an entertainment platform.
Confucian culture no longer has the official sanction it once held in imperial China, and today’s young Chinese hold to a diverse range of values. This is perfectly permissible, and easy to understand when we admit that we have allowed our cultural heritage to become fractured — indeed, at various points during the tumultuous 20th century, we tried to completely obliterate it.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Teenagers read Confucian classics during a ceremony in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 28, 2015. Li Junfeng/VCG)