China Flexes Soft-Power Through Confucius

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BEIJING, China -- This week, the U.S. got a closer look at China as President Barack Obama made his first visit to that country during his tour of Asia.

With a fast-growing economy and the world's largest population, China is becoming a major player on the world stage.

As it emerges into a modern-society, its people are revisiting an ancient philosopher in an effort to hold on to their roots.

Confucius Makes a Comeback

The setting could not be more picturesque. Lui Ling, 34, is enjoying a moment of respite during a long day of work.

"I come here to get away and soak in the peace and tranquility," Ling said.

Just a few steps away is a statute of the ancient Chinese philosopher she's come to rely on to cope with China's breakneck changes.

"The teachings of Confucius are helping me find my place in society," she said.

Increasingly across China, people are turning to Confucius to help them balance the demands of the modern world with lessons from the past.

Last month, in Confucius' hometown in China's Shandong Province, more than 10,000 people gathered at a temple in honor of his 2,560th birthday. Confucius lived from 551 to 479 B.C.

Daniel Bell teaches philosophy at Tsinghua University, one of China's most prestigious universities.

"Communism no longer engages people, you know, very few people say, 'Wow, our future is communism' - nobody really thinks that way anymore," he explained. "And so there's a need for another ideology that provides a kind of social responsibility and that's where Confucianism comes in."

Once trashed by the Communist Party as a symbol of a backward China, this sixth century philosopher is now back in fashion. There are even Confucius schools sprouting up across the country.

"Like even at Tsinghua, my university now, there's a class in the humanities where before they were reducing the number of compulsory Marxist courses and now the students have to memorize the four classic Confucian books, which are 2,000-year-old texts," Bell said.

"First they memorize them," he explained. "And then they think about them in more critical ways."

Christianity, Islam Gain Popularity

It's not just Confucius ideology that is gaining amongst the Chinese today. Religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism are also drawing large crowds.

But the Chinese government has turned to the great master to be the standard-bearer of its soft-power around the world, emphasizing the philosopher's teachings on peace and social harmony.

"And that's where the Confucian values like filial piety and meritocracy and compassion, those sorts of values," Bell said.

So now, in some 87 countries, the Chinese government has set up Confucius Institutes offering people cultural and language courses to try and win hearts and minds. More than 60 such centers are in the United States. The government hopes to open 500 of them worldwide next year.

However, for Ling, it's more basic and personal: revisiting old traditions to help her confront the demands life.

"It is easy to get obsessed with making money and living in the fast lane," she said. "I'm learning to slow down and remember the things that are really important in this life."

*Originally published November 20, 2009. 

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