The most popular cinema in China recently was not Avatar, but (due to protectionist rules), a biopic of Confucius. During the Cultural revolution, the Communists were not big on the philosopher; there was a campaign against his ideas. During the 1919 May Fourth anti-imperialist cultural and political movement too Confucianism was regarded as incapable of responding to the challenges of the West: It held China back; it made China vulnerable.
This is quite evident from the 14th century episode of Zheng He when Ming fleets reached Kerala and sailed across the Arabian Sea to the Persian Gulf and the Swahili Coast. These were no ordinary fleets and for perspective we have to compare Vasco da Gama’s and Zheng He’s first voyages. Gama arrived in Calicut on two carracks and a caravel with a crew of 170 people; Zheng He’s first voyage to Cochin and Calicut had between 200 and 317 ships with a crew of 28,000 men.
While China could have monopolized the Indian Ocean trade that did not happen. One of the reasons China withdrew from these voyages was due to Confucianism.
The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. “Barbarian” nations were thought to offer little of value to China. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral]
The attitude towards Confucius has changed in the past three decades. He is popular not just among academics and the business community, but also among ordinary people. Yu Dan’s Confucius from the Heart: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World sold ten million copies in two years and Chow Yun-Fat is playing the philosopher in the latest blockbuster.
Besides Yu Dan’s book, one of the reasons for the surge in interest in Confucianism is due to the interest by parents. Though it was not taught in Government schools, Confucianism became popular in private schools and children can now recite from his books.
Confucianism is big with the Government too; they are setting up institutes named after him around the world to promote language and culture. The popularity of the philosophy works for them since Confucius promoted order, harmony and respect for hierarchy and authority. It can be used to justify authoritarianism.
But with this new found interest in Confucianism are the Chinese going to scale back on their global trade, support for Pakistan and North Korea and investments in Africa? The current administration is not going to commit the blunder of the Ming emperors. They know that this is good for cultural identity, but not for foreign policy.
- The Return of Confucius on NPR