China’s Confucian Makeover

At The Guardian, Isabel Hilton asks why, amid noisy celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party’s 90th birthday this year, the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Qing Dynasty goes relatively unsung.

One easy answer is that the revolution preceded the appearance of the Communist party by a full decade. Since the party’s preferred historical narrative casts it as the only begetter of China’s liberation and subsequent rise, this awkward complication is hard to overlook. The fact is that the 1911 revolution was a messy and virtually unplanned affair. Nor was it led by the next best thing to the unborn Communist party – Sun Yatsen, a tireless non-Communist revolutionary later adopted by the party as a semi-paternal figure: he happened to be away in the US on a fundraising trip. The revolution happened without him ….

A century later the Communist party’s rule has begun to resemble the system that 1911’s accidental revolutionaries overthrew: a large and privileged bureaucracy, hereditary privileges in the ruling elite, a mass of toiling workers and farmers – and, finally, the embrace of Confucius, the man the revolutionaries rejected 100 years ago, as someone with a lot to say about hierarchical government. In January a 31ft statue of the sage, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the artist Ai Weiwei, was erected outside the National Museum in Tiananmen Square, hitherto the preserve of revolutionary heroes. In April, without explanation, the statue disappeared.

Confucian influence, however, remains. The official doctrine today is not class struggle but harmony. In China’s parks and city squares ever larger numbers of people are coming together to sing the stirring songs of the Maoist era – the latest wave of nostalgic cultural revolution kitsch to be reinvented as a social trend. But in the party schools, theorists labour to refashion the Marxist theoretical canon to a task as painful and difficult – and finally pointless – as the legendary Confucian eight-legged essay, the gold standard examination that imperial bureaucrats had to pass.

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