Peking enlists moral support of Confucius

Each age claims the sage for its own, reports Teresa Poole from Qufu, China
The 83 tourists on a works outing from the Xinyan Transportation Management Bureau had their cameras at the ready as they approached Confucius's tomb. The hallowed spot was not much to look at, a grassy mound with a solid tombstone in front. But for many of the million Chinese visitors a year who journey to this forest graveyard, the site is a compulsory photo-opportunity at the end of a hot day's tramping around Qufu, birthplace (some time around 551BC) and final resting place of China's greatest sage.

Guo Paiyuan was typically reverential: "Confucius's philosophy was rather advanced at that time. He stressed justice, honesty, fidelity. He is the source of our Chinese culture." Mr Gao had not actually read Confucius, but could quote some of the "Analects". His favourite was Confucius's invention of the Golden Rule: Do not impose on others what you yourself do not like.

Qufu, a peaceful town some 300 miles south of Peking, is where one comes to contemplate Confucius's modern-day role in China, and the uneasy liaison between traditional culture and reforming Chinese communism.

The town is dominated by the old Confucius family mansion and the 1,100 yard-long compound of the Temple of Kong Fuzi, as Confucius is known in Chinese. One fifth of the 600,000 local population go by the surname Kong, and claim to be his descendants. Another 100,000 Kongs are buried in the Confucian forest graveyard, and their descendants still have the right to rest in peace under the pine trees.

Pinning down Confucius can be difficult, both literally and philosophically. It turns out that this is not exactly his tomb at all. Gao Jinghong, head of the Qufu office of the official Confucius Foundation, remembered the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese traditions were among the "Four Olds" which had to be smashed. "The Red Guards dug up the grave of Confucius, but found nothing," said Mr Gao.

He suggested three explanations: this was not the original resting place; an early emperor did not like Confucius and desecrated the tomb; or a Song dynasty emperor renovated it. But it is easiest just to let visitors pay homage anyway. "The grave should be around that area, we just don't know the exact place."

Confucius's role in defining Chinese mores has been similarly flexible. For centuries emperors used his teachings about "The Way" to justify feudal hierarchies and demand unquestioning loyalty from their subjects. Chinese men have over the ages happily adopted Confucius's commandment that a woman's life should centre around obedience to her father, husband and finally her sons. And now, to fill a perceived moral vacuum in China, Peking is cautiously invoking a selective reading of Confucius as an alternative to Western values.

Chairman Mao visited Qufu in 1952, but never came back. At the Peking headquarters of the International Confucius Association (ICA), the deputy president, Gong Dafei, 79, explained that Mao's policy was to "inherit with criticism" from Confucius, but Jiang Guanghui, the general secretary, admitted: "In practice, we criticised a lot of Confucius, and the things we wanted to inherit were not even put on the agenda." During the turbulent years of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, "the party and government attitude to Confucius was totally negative", said Mr Gong. The forest tombstones were broken and the 17 big temple statues of Confucius and his pupils smashed as more than 200 Red Guards ran riot.

Rehabilitation started quietly after Deng Xiaoping's reform programme took hold in the early 1980s, but it was not until after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in June 1989 that Confucius's official modern role emerged. In 1992 the party mouthpiece, the People's Daily, commented approvingly on the increasing popularity of Chinese traditional culture. President Jiang Zemin visited Qufu the same year, and in 1994, the ICA was launched, the final stamp of official approval.

So Confucius is on hand to provide a value system for a fast-changing society. "Since the reforms," explained Mr Gong, formerly a vice foreign minister, "the economy was the priority, and social morality degenerated. So the government began to pay attention to this, especially how to be a good person. That is the reason for the study of Confucius."

Confucius was a natural supporter of authoritarian-style rule, but also decreed: "In ruling a state, you influence people with virtue." So if Confucius was around now, would he be in government? Tang Yijie, a Confucian scholar and president of the independent International Academy of Chinese Culture said: "Ifhe was, he would lose the good traits in his character. He would not be Confucius at all."