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  Confucian studies return, hailed as relevant  



Using a flashy mobile phone and enjoying the music of the Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chow, short-haired and soft-spoken Gao Yuanxiang looks like a typical contemporary Chinese college student.

But his field of study dates back more than 2,000 years Confucianism, an ancient Chinese philosophy and an official ideology.

Even Gao, 24, who majored history as an undergraduate, admits Confucianism can be boring sometimes. "But once you get into it, you find it's interesting and meaningful to modern life," he said.

Gao's school, the Confucianism School at Qufu Normal University in Qufu of East China's Shandong Province, is the hometown of Confucius, known in Chinese as Kong Fuzi.

The university's historical and culture background makes it the natural place for the first Confucianism study institute in China.

Gao's courses include reading and reciting Confucianism's "bibles" known as Four Books and Five Classics. These books were once the basis for a required course in China's universities.

"Some say Confucianism is irrelevant to modern society," Gao said. "But its ideology still influences every Chinese. It's still deep in our blood and flesh. Many people just don't always realize it."

Gao's enthusiasm for this ancient Chinese doctrine is just part of a rising awareness in the study of Confucianism in China since the 1980s.

Today whenever the word "harmony" the core of Confucianism is emphasized by the central government, its philosophy goes back to that of Kong Fuzi.

"It has become hot in recent years," Gao said. "My tutors have travelled abroad for academic seminars many times a year, and others from overseas have come here. Clearly, the research has a bright future."

Last month, Gao's teacher, Yang Chaoming, 44, hosted an international conference on campus in honour of the 2,557th anniversary of Confucius' birth, which was on September 28. The conference invited scholars, researchers and believers from home and abroad to exchange their latest achievements and express their points of view.

The study of Confucianism has mushroomed in recent years at other universities, as well. Last year, the philosophy department at Renmin University in Beijing launched its school of "guoxue" (literally, national studies), referring to traditional Chinese thought and culture.

The study of Confucianism is a major part of that curriculum. The school offers a six-year series of undergraduate and graduate courses and recruits 20 to 30 students a year.


Death and rebirth

It's almost hard to imagine that the study of the ancient Chinese sage and his philosophies had stopped for more than 100 years. In fact, throughout Chinese history, there had never been an interruption before, Yang said.

"After the Opium Wars, Western ideology had a great impact on Chinese society," Yang said. "When scholars of that time lashed out at traditional culture and ideology, Confucianism was their first target."

It was during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), Yang said, that the study of Confucianism hit rock bottom.

"At that time, everything about Confucius seemed like a dirty word, and academic study was frozen," Yang said.

But the halt couldn't alter basic role of Confucius' philosophy in China's roots for 25 centuries. In the 1980s, the study reawakened, and with more than two decades of economic development and the rise of social ills that inevitably come with it, the ancient wisdom of Confucius has become a solution for many thousands of people today.

"As people became richer, they started to want something to fill up inside," said Simone de la Tour, researcher at the Centre for the Higher Studies of Conscientiology in Iguassu Falls, Brazil, who is also the academic director of the Sino-Brazilian Academic Exchange Centre in Beijing. "Confucius' doctrine is what their hearts and minds are looking for."

Shinichi Yanaka, professor of humanities at the Japan Women's University in Tokyo, said the rebirth of Confucian study is necessary for China and the world.

In the 1970s and '80s, the depths of the Chinese research in Confucianism was considered lacking in the eyes of their Japanese counterparts.

"We didn't think highly of the Chinese scholars," said Yanaka, 58. "Today things have changed. The academic society is very progressive, and the level of Confucianism study is high, as well."

Scholars from Japan, South Korea and the United States have been involved in a programme of exchange trips with their Chinese counterparts, Yanaka said, and "we've gained a lot from it."

South Korean scholar Oh Suk-won agreed, saying significant progress has been achieved in Confucian studies in China since the '80s.

"The improvement reflects particularly in the treatment of the scholars," said Oh, who is the director of the Institute of Confucian Cultural Studies at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, considered the top Confucianism institution in the country. "It's encouraging."

Even so, Oh added there is still a long way to go to fully understand the essence of Confucianism and put it into practice.

"It all comes down to the essence of Confucianism, which calls for love and tolerance," he said. "That's the best recipe for sound communication among people."


Taking the lead

Other Asian countries have been influenced by Confucianism in the past 1,000 years, but Yang says China should seize on its advantages in the study of the sage and his theories.

Confucian studies in China are no worse than those of any other country, he said, particularly in researching the original documents.

"Confucius is not someone from a legend," Yang said. "The fact that he was a real person and lived in one of the most prosperous periods in history with an advanced culture has made the study of his origin meaningful."

One of the Yang's current projects is to reread Confucius' writings. A course in his major works will be offered at Qufu Normal next semester.

Reciting ancient verses and poems is required in Yang's classes, he said, because "being able to recite some chapters of the classics helps students understand the theories. I told them: 'If you don't want to recite the books, please don't register for my class.' "

Yang argues it is vital that China rediscover its cultural traditions, including Confucian values, to rebuild the country's moral and social standards.

To encourage the younger generation to learn the ancient Chinese philosophy, the professor has called upon the government to add traditional culture into the modern educational system.

"It's not about asking students to dress in ancient costumes or read ancient books," Yang said. "It is vital for this country to have its younger generation know that benevolence and trust are the foundation of a harmonious society."

He disagrees with the practice of parents' sending their children to study abroad.

"They think the West stands for advancement," he said. "It shows we have no confidence in ourselves. We should know the essence of our own culture and be proud of it."

But that doesn't mean everyone needs to learn and grasp Confucianism, Yang said.

"It takes a long time to truly understand Confucianism," he said, "but that shouldn't stop us from respecting it, studying it and spreading it."





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