Tales from Confucius
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan () - November 20, 2002 - 12:00am
QINGDAO, Shandong – Nearly a century ago a Chinese duke took a bride but could not live happily ever after because they could not have a son. So he took a second, and then a third wife, but still no heir arrived.

In those feudal days a woman who bore the lord of the manor a son rose in status. Now the second wife was the wiliest of the three. She told the duke he could take his pick from among her nubile maids and get a concubine to beget a son. The duke, naturally pleased, picked a 17-year-old girl. It took nearly four years by the time the girl conceived, and the 60-year-old duke did not live long enough to see his son finally born. Seventeen days after the birth, the second wife poisoned her maid the concubine.

The year was 1920, and this is a true story. The son of the concubine, orphaned shortly after birth, was the 77th and last duke of the House of Kong, direct descendants of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius.

People in Qufu, where 120,000 people out of a population of 600,000 trace their lineage to Confucius and are surnamed Kong, say the 77th duke lives in Taiwan. The tombs of his father’s three wives and concubine in the Cemetery of Confucius were opened by rampaging Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. The four corpses were dragged out and strung up on trees, together with the remains of other members of the Kong clan.

The Red Guards also destroyed most of the massive ancient stone tablets in the sprawling palace compound built for the descendants of Confucius.
* * *
Most Chinese now consider Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution a big mistake. Our tour guide in Qufu, Confucius’ birthplace, told us many of those who ransacked the tombs and destroyed the stone tablets later regretted being responsible for the irretrievable loss of their priceless national treasures.

Qufu is a quaint little county 150 kilometers from Jinan, capital of Shandong, one of the eastern provinces south of Beijing. It’s only about two hours by bus from Jinan on the smoothly paved new road system that connects all of Shandong’s 17 municipalities. Jinan is an hour and 20 minutes by plane from Shanghai. That Beijing is aggressively promoting Shandong as a major tourist destination – and proudly showing off the Buddhist and Confucian heritage that communism had sought to destroy – is yet another manifestation of the dizzying changes in the work in progress that is the People’s Republic of China.

The expressway in Shandong is dotted with farmlands. Winter has set in – the temperature dropped to four degrees below zero in some areas during our tour – and most of the far-mers are now planted to winter wheat and cabbage. Much of the countryside seems deserted. Jinan, called the City of Springs, is drying up from overextraction of ground water. In the cities coal-fired factories and diesel-run vehicles leave a pall of smog so dense that, combined with the winter fog, leaves visibility only up to about two kilometers. Our guide, Jiang Jin, assured me that China is moving to reduce its dependence on coal and minimize pollution.
* * *
You can leave the pollution when you go up to Mt. Taishan, 1,545 meters above sea level. The air is so thin you need to catch your breath and move slowly as you climb part of the 6,666 steps leading to the Taoist temple at the top of the mountain.

As the Chinese have identified one of their villages as the real Shangri-la, they have also christened the main strip on Mt. Taishan the Street of Heaven. That won’t seem as cheeky as it sounds when you have seen the breathtaking scenery from the peaceful community that is similar to villages in the Himalayas.

The tiny village is 2,000 years old, and the main temple dates back to the Soong Dynasty 1,000 years ago. Mao’s Red Guards also raided the village during the Cultural Revolution, but the damage they wreaked was fortunately minimal.

Under Jiang Zemin, Mt. Taishan was promoted as a tourist spot. A modern cable car system was built in 2,000 by an Austrian company, and the city government that has jurisdiction over the village now has snazzy brochures and books in English about the mountain. Chinese have been flocking to the mountain to rediscover their Taoist roots. Last year some five million tourists walked the Heavenly Street, about 70,000 of them foreigners mostly from Asia.
* * *
It may be hard to reconcile this aggressive promotion of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism with communism and a central government that cracks down on the religious sect Falun Gong. But since the late Deng Xiaoping started undoing the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, China has pursued a brand of communism that neither Mao nor Lenin would recognize.

It is an ad hoc communist system innovated by the central government, which tells its people that to get rich is glorious but discourages dissent and independent thought. Jiang Zemin followed Deng’s lead, and Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao has vowed to do the same.

You have to admire Jiang for last week’smooth transition of power and his 13-year legacy, which is turning China into an economic powerhouse. Beijing has mandated an emphasis on education, with special focus on science and technology, plus defense modernization. With Jiang retaining control of the military, the modernization is bound to be rapid.

China a superpower? Why not, one of these days? The growing economic and military clout of the awakening dragon is starting to scare its neighbors.

The question is how long China can sustain its rapid growth without triggering a major social upheaval and upsetting its hybrid communist system. Will the nation go the way of the Soviet Union? With the Chinese following their government’s admonition to get rich, the divide between rich and poor is widening. What is happening to the egalitarian society?

As people get rich, they also become better educated. They want to enjoy their money and have more individual freedoms. Will the government in Beijing oblige?
* * *
My guess is that the freedoms will come gradually with economic development. And my guess is that – except for the occasional Falun Gong protest and student actionsin Beijing’s Tiananmen Square – most Chinese will go along with their government. For all those years under communist rule and brutal repression, this is still a Confucian society, where people are willing to make personal sacrifices for what they think is the common good. Asia’s strongmen have cited Confucian teachings for their benevolent authoritarianism. Respect for authority and a ruler’s responsibility to his people were regarded as pillars in the rise of Asia’s so-called economic tigers.

I’m no big fan of Confucius the chauvinist and misogynist, who declared that women aren’t fit to be educated. The feudal dynasties that ruled China for thousands of years were nourished by his teachings. Reliving China’s history you can see why the masses rose against their rulers, turned their last emperor into a pauper and embraced communism. These days ordinary Chinese can even be buried in the Confucius Forest – the cemetery of Confucius’ clan– for a fee.

But communism turned out to be one of the most repressive systems in the world. China’s rapid progress started only when it started opening up to the free market of goods and, on a much more limited basis, of ideas.

This port city of Qingdao, where the famous Tsingtao beer is made, was put on the path of modernization only in 1991 by Deng. The city is now a bustling, picturesque port. In the name of progress, how far is China willing to change?

BEIJING CENTER CHINA CHINESE CONFUCIUS CULTURAL REVOLUTION FALUN GONG JINAN RED GUARDS SHANDONG
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