Family Tree of Chinese Sage Branches Out to Include Women

The Chinese philosopher Confucius lived more than 2500 years ago, and his teachings about how to live a life of purpose still resonate today. As a code of ethics, Confucianism emphasizes peaceful relationships and benevolent dictatorships through hierarchy, requiring women to obey men, the young to obey old, and subjects to obey rulers. China’s government is promoting Confucius values – including harmony, unity and humility – and also updating them for the modern world by noting that women now have equal standing to men. The government also plans 100 institutes worldwide to promote Confucius and Chinese values. As China transitions into a market economy, the government wants to promote ethical behavior that favors generosity over rampant consumerism. – YaleGlobal

Family Tree of Chinese Sage Branches Out to Include Women

Traditional teachings of Confucius find favor as China looks to fill ethical vacuum in wake of market reforms
Jonathan Watts
Monday, October 9, 2006

It has taken almost 2,557 years, but the family tree of Confucius, the philosophical father of Asia's male dominated society, is finally going to acknowledge women. Female descendants will be recognised in a new lineage chart of the Chinese sage's family - forecast to grow to more than three million people by the time the survey is complete in 2007.

The change, announced ahead of birthday celebrations in Confucius's hometown of Qufu, reflects a growing move to reinterpret and apply the ancient teachings, as the world's most populous nation moves further and further away from Marxism.

Confucian temples are being rebuilt, school textbooks include increasing references to the teachings, at least 18 universities have started offering courses in Confucian studies, and the government is using the sage's name to project China overseas through a $10bn (£5.2bn) programme to establish 100 Confucius Institutes worldwide by 2010.

According to the Xinhua news agency, more than a million descendants will be added to the register of the country's most prestigious family name, Kong - Confucius is a westernised version of the scholar's name.

A fifth of the new members will be women, which is a big departure from the traditional interpretation of the philosopher's words. To create a harmonious society, Confucianism emphasises the need for a strict hierarchical order: women should obey men, the young obey the old, and subjects their ruler.

This is often used to justify the low status of women. But in a significant departure, scholars estimate that 200,000 women now will be allowed to join the Kong family register at its fifth update. "We have to adapt to the times," Xinhua quoted Kong Dehong, a Confucius descendant leading the fifth update of the family tree, as saying. "Men and women are equal now. Even if a woman has to leave the family when she gets married to live with her husband, that doesn't change the fact that she is descended from Confucius."

The change is part of a big push to strengthen Confucian values among the population of 1.3 billion people in China at a time when moral compasses have been sent spinning by the country's rapid shift from revolutionary communism to ultra-materialistic capitalism.

Thirty years ago, during the Cultural Revolution, Confucianism was scorned as a backward philosophy, but in recent years it has made a strong comeback with the full support of a communist one-party government that now has every reason to embrace the sage's emphasis on harmony and benevolent dictatorship.

China's president, Hu Jintao, has been the most obvious convert. At a keynote speech last year the communist leader eschewed Marxist rhetoric for some words of wisdom from the sage. "Confucius said, 'harmony is something to be cherished'," he observed.

Since that moment the government's central goal has been the construction of a "harmonious society". Its moral basis was outlined by Mr Hu earlier this year with a lecture on ethics that owed more to Confucius than Mao Zedong.

The sermon on the "socialist concept of honour and disgrace" extolled the distinctly unrevolutionary eight virtues, which include obedience, hard work, plain living, patriotism and public service. The eight disgraces include lawlessness, the embrace of chaos (which Mao would have been guilty of), and the pursuit of profit and luxury at the expense of others.

According to the mouthpiece of the Communist party, the People's Daily, the concept offers "a perfect amalgamation of traditional Chinese values and modern virtues". Posters in trains, military barracks and Communist party offices throughout the nation now remind people of these honours and disgraces.

The rediscovered respect for tradition is evident at the sage's birthplace in Shandong province, where the magnificent Confucian temple has been expensively renovated and is visited by a growing stream of tourists. At tomorrow's birthday celebrations scholars and performers are expected to take part in a series of ceremonies and symposiums. As part of the preparations last weekend a new statue of Confucius was unveiled that was part of an attempt to standardise his public image.

A short distance from the centre of Qufu is the Institute of Confucius, which was built in 1996 on the orders of the state council to reinterpret the traditional philosophy for the modern age.

"In the last century the political atmosphere and people's attitudes were not right for traditional Chinese culture, but now is a time of recovery," said the head of the institute, Kong Xianglin, a descendant.

There are now more than five million Chinese students of Confucianism in China, but Mr Kong argues that the state should do more because textbooks in Japan and South Korea contain more references to the Chinese sage than those in his home country.

The renewed interest in Confucianism is a sign the government is worried about the ethical vacuum that has appeared since the country began its market reforms in the late 1970s.

"In recent years people have put great focus on materialism. This has led to backwardness in morality. Nobody can deny that," said Mr Kong.

It is unclear whether the population at large is embracing Confucianism with as much gusto as the government. The sage's teachings have permeated culture for more than two millennia, but in recent years there has also been a rise in numbers of Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, as well as the growth of several cults as more people look for something beyond economic growth.

Ultimately, ambitious scholars hope the philosophy will help address Beijing's ideas deficit. The outside world wants China's cheap goods, but few countries want to buy into its type of materialism. "Some scholars see Confucianism as a potential ethical model for global society," said Mr Kong. "In China's case, I think the most apt Confucian saying is that everybody should put their country's interests above their own."

A philosopher's life

Venerated as the greatest of China's sages, Confucius (551 to 479 BC) lived in relative obscurity and poverty as a minor official in the Li state court. But his Analects have formed the basis of one of Asia's most influential philosophies.

Confucian values - altruism, unity, morality, respect for authority - have been used by emperors and presidents throughout the ages as a means to maintain hierarchies and order. But the philosopher also believed that the state should serve the people and its leaders should be humane, and well-educated and diligent.

After the Communist party took power in 1949 Mao Zedong called for a campaign against such conservative thinking and during the Cultural Revolution many Confucian temples were smashed. But the Analects have made a comeback since the 1980s as a new generation of leaders once again started to appreciate the anything-but-revolutionary principles of the ancient teacher.

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