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Scholar Says Changing China Has New Respect for Confucius

The Olympic games are drawing attention to China, which is undergoing sweeping changes as it modernizes. Yet some in China look to the past for inspiration, to the ideas of social harmony of the philosopher Confucius. Mike O'Sullivan spoke in Beijing with political scholar Daniel Bell, author of a book called "China's New Confucianism," who says the thought of the ancient Chinese sage is being revived.

For more than 2,000 years, China was guided by the teacher and moral philosopher Confucius. For 600 years, this Confucian temple and university complex in Beijing was at the heart of a national system that trained the scholar-officials who ran imperial China.

Twentieth century communist revolutionaries rejected Confucianism as a part of China's oppressive feudal past. But Chinese and Western scholars say the ancient sage is being rehabilitated.

Daniel Bell teaches political philosophy at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

"Throughout most of the 20th century, China felt itself weak and vulnerable and they blamed their own traditions for their problems, and they looked to the West, whether it was Marxism or liberalism for inspiration," he said.

"They sill look to the West to a certain extent, but more and more now they're looking at their own traditions," he added.

Confucius taught that society should be based on well-defined relationships, observance of ritual, personal rules of conduct, virtues like loyalty, and on learning, accomplishment and merit. Bell says that for the ancient sage, social life begins with relationships in the family.

"And you're supposed to learn about morality through the family," he said. "And then you extend morality outside non-family members, first to the nation and then it reaches eventually to the whole world."

Bell says China's early communist leaders rejected Confucianism and turned to a rival ancient system known as Legalism, which elevates the government and embraces force as a means of control. They were not the first to do that.

Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who unified China, rejected Confucian learning more than 2,000 years ago, executing Confucian scholars and burning their writings. But Confucianism revived, with its softer approach to power. Bell says that like the first emperor, the early communists struggled to consolidate their power.

"But once the country becomes stronger, less vulnerable to foreign bullying and more self-confident, then I think the Confucian ways of soft power can begin to reassert themselves, just as they did 2,000 years ago," he said. "I think we have a similar development now, where there won't be this very harsh kind of authoritarian way of governing, which owes much more to Legalism than to Confucianism."

Bell sees renewed interest in Confucius at all levels of Chinese society, among government leaders and ordinary people.

A 2006 book by Chinese Confucian scholar Yu Dan sold 10 million copies, and Bell says students are flocking to classes on the subject at Tsinghua university.

Some Chinese commentators have criticized this focus on the past, known as "national studies fever." But Bell says parts of the tradition mesh well with the modern Chinese goal of building a harmonious society.

He says the Beijing Olympics are inspired by Confucian ideals of friendship and harmony, and notes that the opening ceremony quoted Confucian sayings. He cites another Confucian theme not included in the program, the observation that harmony does not demand conformity. Bell would like to hear more about that part of the tradition.

Still, he is encouraged by China's rediscovery of its past, which he says will serve the country well as it shapes new institutions for its future.