Revered again in Mainland China, the allure of the ancient philosopher is a cause for connections – and healthy competition – with rival Taiwan.

Confucius temple, Kongzi (Ivan Walsh)


Geopolitics aside, there is still plenty that unites the Chinese-speaking people in Mainland China and Taiwan. High on that list is the great philosopher Confucius. The installation last week of a three-story tall statue of the legendary thinker in Beijing "s Tiananmen Square prompted consternation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The People's Republic of China has come a long way from its official denunciations of Confucianism two generations ago to embracing it today. In the last six years, the Chinese government has established 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius classes, in 96 countries around the world. Chinese officials have been encouraging teachers and students to see the recent "Confucius' film by director Hu Me. Last year, the country even launched the "Confucius Peace Prize" aimed at "promoting peace from an Eastern perspective," though it was seen by many as a response to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

This rehabilitation of Confucius is not without a fair share of historical irony. Placing the statue, for example, so close to where the mummified body of Mao Zedong lies in state seems to ignore that the Communist leader was an ardent critic of Confucius, whose political and social philosophy he viewed as a symbol of ancient feudalism and slavery. The Confucius Temple, which had existed for 2,500 years, and the Confucius family tombs in his hometown of Qufu in Shangdong province, were largely destroyed and the corpses defiled.

Generations of Chinese who grew up in the People's Republic in the latter half of the 20th century knew Confucius only by name, and were not taught to admire him as a great thinker. Elsewhere, ethnic Chinese in Taiwan, Singapore and South East Asia, as well as the Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese remained enthusiastic followers of Confucianism.

The Chinese government's recent championing of Confucius has prompted a mixed response. One Chinese blogger asked whether "socialism with Chinese characteristics' should now be called "Confucius Communism." Another toed the old party line, questioning the appropriateness of erecting a statue of a historical figure "who was responsible for China's past weakness and wane."

In Taiwan, meanwhile, Confucius never went out of fashion. The Taiwanese, from the poorly educated to intellectuals, have consistently revered Confucius as the "greatest sage", and have proudly proclaimed to be the defenders of a traditional Chinese heritage. Taiwanese school students spend three years reading the Confucian "Analects'.

In response to the rapid spread of the Mainland China-backed Confucius Institutes all over the world, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou stated in his 2008 presidential campaign white paper that Taiwan should come up with measures to "counter the Confucius Institute of mainland China" and in a recent address reiterated that " Taiwan is where the Confucianism is practiced most thoroughly." Certain pro-Nationalist Taiwanese have also expressed unease about China "s resurrection of Confucius and worriedly question how Taiwan should react to defend " Taiwan "s superior right of interpretation which is now facing a great challenge from Mainland China."

Taiwanese links with Confucius run deep. Some of his descendants followed nationalist, military leader Chiang Kai-Shek and his army to Taiwan in the late 1940s. These direct descendants were officially entitled, generation after generation, to be a part of "Enshrining Ceremony Officer" annual celebrations marking the philosopher's birth. This day is also "Teacher's Day". Taiwanese teachers of all categories have always enjoyed much respect from all levels of society, thanks to the Confucian veneration of scholarship. "One day your teacher shall be treated as your father for your whole life," reads the Confucian maxim.

Although some criticize the use of Confucianism by the Nationalist party, it is nonetheless largely recognized that Taiwan was able to create its "economic miracle" within a space of less than 20 years in the late 20th century due to its promotion of obligatory education. Pretty much the same could be said about the other so-called small Asian dragons - Singapore , Hong Kong and Korea , all of them greatly shaped by the Confucian doctrine.

A survey of people's saving habits in seven Asian countries published last week in Shanghai also echoes this theory: 88% of Chinese parents claimed to be actively saving for their children's education, 57% of them making regular deposits.

So is "Confucian Communism" really in the making? Some Chinese watchers look at it suspiciously. "The Chinese Communist Party officials use Confucius as a Father Christmas-like symbol of avuncular Chinese-ness rather than as the proponent of a philosophical outlook", "The Economist" wrote in a recent issue. The same piece noted that in an online poll conducted by the "People's Daily," 62% of Chinese people oppose the appearance of the Confucius statue.

But the Chinese Communist Party has so far certainly not promoted the Confucian ideology in an overt way. So what does all this Confucius fever mean? As China has surpassed Japan as the second biggest world economy and asserted its position among the great powers, it is commonly viewed that China is seeking to remold its image. The Chinese leaders champion a "harmonious society" and the "peaceful rise" of China . Confucius's fundamental philosophy, aimed at shaping better individuals, of humanity, politeness, propriety, righteousness, and in turn, nurturing a more harmonious society, is very much in accord with that.

But as the popular Chinese blogger Han Han said while panning Hu Me's recent Confucius film: "Politicians in every place and time have always either criticized or praised Confucius, according to their needs." And so it goes with the brothers and sisters on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Laura Lin


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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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