Bill is an eight-year-old Chinese who wears a Winnie the Pooh T-shirt to his expensive private school, perched above a pizza shop in suburban Beijing.
The Western influence seems to end there.
At school, Bill bows thrice before a bronze statue of Confucius (551-479 BC) who would have turned 2,559 years old this year. He studies Kung fu chops and the classic Chinese script instead of the modern simplified version. His homework instructions are to practise obedience, bow to his parents, massage their shoulders and make them a cup of tea.
There’s no computer training in this school — in the China with the world’s richest foreign exchange reserves, with a Starbucks around every corner, and clubs called Mao Live House in Beijing playing Beatles songs banned 30 years ago.
In the new India, on the other hand, there is no room for ancient history and scholars like Chanakya. But as neighbouring China grows faster than any other economy, it is soul-searching in its past when a man called Confucius extolled morality and harmony in governance and relationships. (And probably the idea that white-haired people should be cared for, and not work.)
China’s communists with hair dyed black — led by President Hu Jintao’s Confucian call in 2005 for a ‘harmonious society’ — are delivering the Confucius rebirth in schools, universities, offices, party politics, family dining tables, and indirectly, even at karaoke bars.
Meanwhile, the annual number of public protests across China is growing by the thousand.
“The key motive is that the government needs a new source of ‘ideological’ legitimacy,” says Beijing-based Daniel Bell, the only Westerner hired to teach philosophy at the Tsinghua University since the Mao Zedong-led Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) cracked down on Confucianism and intellectuals.
Tsinghua, which produces many of China’s political elite, now buzzes with ideas for a new political model. Bell’s students discuss whether Confucianism can be extended beyond family values, or even become a state religion in officially atheist China.
“It is not entirely fanciful to surmise that the Chinese Communist Party will be relabelled the Chinese Confucian Party in the next couple of decades,” wrote Bell in China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society released this year.
In the pirated market, Confucius is a bestseller. A self-help Confucian guide by Yu Dan, a chicly dressed Chinese media studies professor, has sold over 10 million copies including six million pirated versions.
In corporate China, Confucian values of loyalty, harmony and meritocracy have made a comeback in staff and CEO training. Millions of students in China are studying Confucianism in some form.
Some of the 150 students at Bill’s three-year-old school, like the hundreds of Confucian schools sprouting across China, are less than two years old. “The younger they enroll, the better,” says Gu Jian Hua, director of the Da Cheng Classic Education school, who believes that Confucian training instills a ‘well-rounded personality’ and competitive career edge.
HT visited the school with a police officer turned Confucian teacher called ‘Rock’ Yang. Since August, Rock, a director at the International Youth University, has been arranging a fortnightly discussion on the relevance of Confucius.
“Young people who once ignored politeness, loyalty and obedience to parents…basic Confucian values,” says Yang, “have started searching for that spirit.”
Bill’s father and schoolteacher Gong Hong Yuan, 32, is an engineer’s son who had planned a business career until he studied the classics. “Now I am happier. I have more friends,” he says simply.
Bell thinks that newly rich Chinese parents believe Confucian ethics can fill the moral vacuum that often accompanies
modernisation. “Most people in China don’t want to be viewed as individualistic and self-centered,” he says. “That’s where Confucianism comes in, based on the assumption that the good life lies in social relationships.”
The ethics are moving into karaoke bars where business partners and friends prove their trustworthiness by allowing others in the group to choose the hostess first. Male customers at karaoke bars are expected to be ‘civil,’ wrote Bell in his book. “When the client and hostess sing together, they listen carefully to each other and must harmonise their voices, and experience togetherness if the job is well done.”
The Communist Party of China interprets Confucius to suit its current purposes, so debates on the Confucian emphasis on meritocracy and examinations to choose the best for party posts, remain just debates.
The Party is obsessed with stability, as the economic crisis — blamed largely on spendthrift Americans — slashes jobs, profits and growth rate.
“There will be renewed pride and emphasis on Confucian values,” says Bell. “But the government needs domestic consumers to buy more, so it may de-emphasise the traditional idea of saving and emphasise social responsibility of companies to workers and communities.”
As for Bill, he wants to be a teacher. Does he like school? “No!” he replies, grinning politely.