BEIJING -- Not too long ago, China's Communist rulers would have sponsored a meeting on world socialism. Now it's world Confucianism that has received their blessing.
More than 300 Confucianists, including 100 from outside China, gathered in Beijing yesterday to establish the International Confucian Association. Their goal: to make the world appreciate the current value of the Chinese philosopher and statesman, born 2,545 years ago.
Fittingly, the association designated Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, as honorary chairman. Mr. Lee, an ardent champion of Asian family values and obedience to authority, is also a strident critic of Western individualism, which he told the gathering he tried to curb when he ran Singapore for more than 30 years.
"My experience in governing Singapore . . . convinced me that we would not have surmounted our difficulties and setbacks if a large part of the population of Singapore had not been imbued with Confucianist values," Mr. Lee told the group.
With its stress on education and mutual obligation, Mr. Lee said, Confucianism helped hold together his small city-state of sometimes-antagonistic ethnic groups and make it prosperous.
Confucianism has been used to explain the success of many Asian countries, with its teachings of filial piety and respect for authority being credited with the economic development of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Mr. Lee's Singapore. That sort of track record has gained increasing support from China's rulers, who are facing turmoil and unrest among their 1.2 billion subjects.
On Confucius' birthday last week, Communist Party Chairman Jiang Zemin called the sage an "outstanding thinker."
And the venerable Communist newspaper, People's Daily, wrote that Confucianism would soon replace Western philosophy and religion as the next era's great guide to life. "The culture combining Confucianism with science has taken shape in East Asia. Because this new culture is free from the contradictions plaguing modern and contemporary Western culture, it is far better . . . it will thrive particularly well in the next century," the newspaper said in an editorial.
But whether Confucianism is really being revived by the Chinese government is debatable.
The innermost sanctums of the old Confucian Temple in Beijing, for example, have been turned into gift shops by the government. The run-down buildings receive few visitors.
Across the street, the state-run Kong Fu restaurant claims to serve meals cooked according to recipes handed down by Confucius' family. It also has a karaoke bar.
"Confucianism is a part of our history," says Gu Meng, who sells plastic Confucius busts and pins of Mao Tse-tung, the late Communist leader who led an attack on Confucianism that ruined the temple 25 years ago. "Mostly foreigners come here to see the old buildings. He's a famous person in our history," Mr. Gu said. "But who knows what he stood for? We don't learn that anymore."