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Confucius, he say 'Action!': Film aims to bring philosopher's thinking to the masses

China's most famous thinker has long been condemned as the enemy of communism. But his philosophy is back in fashion – and now the state is funding a film about his life. Clifford Coonan reports from Beijing

To solve the problems of today, the Chinese communist leadership is setting aside its ideological hang-ups and turning to Confucius. Chairman Mao Zedong once condemned Confucius as a feudal thinker who had no place in Marxism's materialist pantheon, and zealots including the Red Guards smashed any evidence he ever lived. But today Mao's successors are taking a different approach.

In an effort to combat a perceived lack of spiritual sustenance, the philosopher's writings are being endorsed and propagated by the President, Hu Jintao. Now Chow Yun-Fat, the tough-guy actor best known for his roles in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and hard-boiled Hong Kong gangster movies, has been lined up to play the ancient scholar in a state-funded film that aims to bring his thinking to the masses.

"We have just signed the deal with Chow Yun-Fat," said Wang Kefei, a spokesman for Dadi Film Group in Beijing, which is one of the backers of the £16m biographical movie about the thinker, along with the state film company, China Film Group.

The casting may seem strange to British viewers, who will know Chow as a pistol-toting mobster in John Woo movies, facing equally violent adversaries. His new role will be a little more sedate. Dressed in scholarly garb and solemnly intoning the sayings made famous by the philosopher, statesman and educator who lived more than 2,500 years ago, he will only have an ink-brush and scrolls to get his message across. Perhaps even more surprising is President Hu Jintao's enthusiasm for Confucian principles. He relies heavily on the teachings of the philosopher, also known as Kongjiu, when he urges the masses to learn a "socialist sense of honour and shame" as a way of combating the eight "disgraces" creeping into society.

It is all a long way from the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when the ultra-leftist Red Guard went to Confucius's eastern hometown of Qufu and destroyed his family home, grave-plot and a temple in his honour. In the process, they wrecked about 6,600 priceless relics.

But the country's leadership has come to believe that the loss of traditional Confucian values of honour and decency have harmed the country, as burgeoning wealth and the rise of consumerism caused a more self-serving, money-grabbing approach.

The Communist Party is coming to join scholars in the view that Confucian principles of achieving harmony through self-refinement in manners and taste could help to achieve the "harmonious society", the cornerstone of Mr Hu's own thinking. As part of an effort to redress that balance, his addresses are decidedly Confucian in tone. And it is hoped that director Hu Mei's film will help to carry that message to the masses. The philosophy of Confucius, who lived from 551 till 479BC, dominated Chinese society for centuries. His thinking spread to Europe in the late 16th century. His Analects are probably the most important text written in Chinese, and Confucian thinking stresses harmony and obedience. It is palatable to Marxist-Leninism because it emphasises those points without reference to God.

As China's economy has opened up, a commercial value to the philosopher's work has become apparent. The book, Thinking of The Analects of Confucius sold millions of copies in China and made its author, the Beijing Normal University professor, Yu Dan a media darling. It became known as the "Chinese Chicken Soup for the Soul" for the way it broke down fears about approaching the teacher's work. "When I was a student, such classics were to be worshipped, demanding our spending a whole life in researching and absorbing its essence," Professor Yu said. "But now, as we need to spread the understanding of the classic, I think we should get rid of this stance of worship. We should make it easier to understand, and apply it to ordinary life."

The resurgence of Confucian thinking is particularly obvious at exam times, because Confucius is credited with inventing the system of examination which remains crucial in China. His teachings formed the basis for a later system of examinations which decided who would join the all-important civil service.

China still relies on examinations for officials as well as entrance exams for students, and parents still visit temples in his name around the country, where they burn incense, light candles, make offerings and pray for success. It is common to leave a note saying, "Please help my child pass the exams".

In the face of such a public faith in the philosopher, and with an eye on the PR benefits an association with him can bring, the government has started to incorporate his guiding principles into public life. The Olympic opening ceremony featured a Confucian theme welcoming, "Friends who have come from afar", and prisoners are taught Confucian principles to keep them on the straight and narrow. When the Chinese government introduced its own version of the British Council in 2004, it emphasised the great man's significance by branding the international outposts as Confucius Institutes.

The Beijing Insitute of Genomics, part of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, has compiled a database of descendants of the great philosopher, trying to clarify who among three million people can claim a blood connection. That should put paid to charlatans whose surname is Kong and who claim to be a distant relative of the Wise One after a few glasses of baijiu, a spirit.

All they need to do is offer a hair for DNA testing; the institute started offering the service after DNA research identified a Florida accountant, Tom Robinson, as a descendant of Genghis Khan.

It is not known if Chow Yun-Fat can claim any connection to Confucius, but the China Confucius Federation's distribution of a standard image of the philosopher at least offers him a physical model, even if its version of a robed old man with a long beard, broad mouth and big ears has drawn the disdain of scholars.

Chow's fascination with Confucius is well-known, and the movie's producers no doubt hope that his fame will help sell the film internationally. Whether he can adjust his handsome, tough guy image to fit the part remains to be seen.

What Confucius really said

* The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell.

* Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.

* Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance.

* Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

* An oppressive government is fiercer and more to be feared than a tiger.

* By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.