The Economist has an article up about the revival of Confucianism in China. There has been a lot of talk about Christianity & Christianesque cults in China over the past 15 years (see Jesus in Beijing). It seems plausible that ~5% of the citizens of the People’s Republic of China are now Christian or Christianesque, and this number is likely to go somewhat higher. But, it is important to remember that the number of Christians in Taiwan has long been stabilized at 5%, and in the 5-10% range in Hong Kong, both jurisdictions where Christianity was somewhat favored by the powers that be for decades. Meanwhile, South Korean Christianity seems to have plateaued at about 25% of the population after decades of rapid growth. The point is that one would probably bet against China becoming a Christian nation anytime soon, and without that Christianity being able to assume center stage as a unifying ideology seems unlikely.1
So Confucianism is an interesting alternative. Below I talked about the fact that even in a post-Christian continent the basic raw material of Christian belief is still abundant amongst the population which remains as a reservoir of older practices and outlooks. Is the same true of China? Though State Confucianism fell in the first decades of the 20th century as the organizing principle of the Chinese polity, the the idea of Confucianism as central to the Han Chinese identity did not really suffer major body blows until the Communist take over of the mid-20th century. While most Europeans remember a time when Christianity was ascendant as the central motivating belief structure of their culture, and some European nations still have Christianity embedded in their organizing political documents, the same is not true of Confucianism. Rather, Confucian ideas floated outside of the power structure and passed from generation to generation informally. Outside of China (e.g., Taiwan) Confucianism did not go through the gauntlet of the Cultural Revolution, so even if there was not within China some memory of this ideology it could conceivably be re-planted from without.
But what exactly is “Confucianism”? The “original” Confucianism, as elaborated by Confucius himself and preserved in The Analects, was basically an elaboration of the ideals of Zhou Dynasty China. Its core, family values and traditionalism, are not particular controversial. Later on thinkers such as Mencius and Xun Zi added layers of philosophy on top of the original system, and the rise of Buddhism, and the counter reaction religious Daoism, gave birth to synthetic ideas of Neo-Confucianism, exposited effectively by intellectuals such as Zhu Xi. Some have also asserted that State Confucianism, as promulgated first by the Han Dynasty, had more in common substantively with Legalism (though Legalism was strongly influenced by one of the three fathers of Confucianism, Xun Xi), the bete noire of early Confucianism, with only stylistic flourishes being carried over from the original ideas of Confucius. Whatever the exact truth is, I think the critical overall point is that it is less important what Confucianism is, then that it served as a common anchor for the Chinese bureaucratic elite. Until recently the common anchor for the modern Chinese mandarinate were the texts of Marx & Engels, the policies of Lenin and later the thoughts of Mao (the Little Red Book was actually modeled on the Christian pocket pamphlets ubiquitous in the China of Mao’s youth). For obvious reasons that is now less appealing, and attempting to reconstruct them to be congenial to nationalist capitalism is a difficult project. Confucianism is also in some ways an odd fit, especially with its historical contempt for the merchant classes and non-primary producers in general, but at least most Chinese can accede to the fundamental value of Confucian ideas and perhaps make them relevant to the modern age.2 Just as the Constitution of the United States serves as a unifying document for the American nation, so a reconstructed Confucianism might serve as the hub around which the various spokes of Han Chinese culture revolve.
1 – I use the word “Christianesque” because many of the new Christian inspired “cults” are really pretty strange, and mix a lot of folk beliefs within Christian orthodoxy. Since so much of the growth is outside conventional channels and uncoordinated from above it tends to span a lot of “idea space.”
2 – One could observe that the synthesis of Christianity and capitalism which is the norm in much of modern Western culture is also rather unexpected.