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January 14, 2011

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Confucius brings harmony

THERE'S a new face keeping Chairman Mao company on Tian'anmen Square in Beijing.

A mammoth sculpture of the ancient philosopher Confucius has been unveiled this week off one side of the vast plaza. A mausoleum holding the body of Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, sits in the middle and his giant portrait hangs at one end.

Placing the statue of Confucius at China's political heart is the government's most visible endorsement yet of the ancient sage and, selectively, his teachings.

Confucius is enjoying a revival, in books and films, on TV and in classrooms. His message of harmonious social order and his emphasis on ethics resonate among Chinese coping with fast-paced social change on the back of torrid economic growth.

The government is increasingly marshaling his popularity to bolster national identity.

"The rise of a big country requires a cultural foundation, and Chinese culture upholds the spirit of harmony," said Wu Weishan, the sculptor, who has made more than 200 statues of the philosopher. "The essential thoughts of Confucius are love, kindness, wisdom and generosity. And peace and prosperity are what the people are striving for."

The 9.5-meter bronze sculpture depicts a robed Confucius with a serious expression and sits on the east side of the square, facing in the direction of Mao's portrait and amid the bustle of Beijing.

Chinese tourists busily snapped photos and agreed that Confucius' teachings bear a message for modern China, where "money worship" and consumerism feel like national preoccupations.

"Confucianism has been governing the lives and ethics of Chinese for thousands of years," said 25-year-old engineer Cui Xiaozhan, on a business trip from the eastern city of Qingdao. "We should study it. But everyone is too busy and tired."

Confucius laid down a code of ethics that was adopted as a quasi-religious national philosophy of governance and personal behavior. His teachings emphasized duty to family, respect for learning, virtuous behavior and obedience of individuals to the state.

Books about his teachings are best-sellers. A movie about Confucius last year featured Chow Yun-fat, a veteran actor known for starring in stylish gangster thrillers.

The flip side of economic development is "increased individualism and increased sense of competition and anxiety," said Daniel Bell, a philosophy professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of "China's New Confucianism."

"There's a need for ethics and morals and promoting social responsibility."

For the government, there's appeal in a philosophy that preaches harmony at a time when a yawning rich-poor gap and anger at corruption have fueled instability.

Top leaders "certainly realize the absence of a value system," Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, told The Associated Press. "It's a desperate search for ideology, for a new value system."

So far, the government hasn't made any overt proclamations pushing Confucianism, though one of its favorite recent slogans is "harmonious society." It has backed the creation of hundreds of Confucius Institutes to spread Chinese language and culture abroad.

A proposal to amend the law on protecting the rights of the elderly would make clearer that children have the duty to visit and care for their aged parents.

What's next? "You will see some top leaders more explicitly talking about reinforcing, promoting ... Confucian values," Li said. "It's such a big basket you can select whatever you want. They will ask people to behave appropriately, not too aggressive and not use violence."


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