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China's ancestor day leads Confucian revival

BEIJING (Reuters) - China officially marked the traditional Qingming Festival of ancestor worship on Friday in a revival of Confucian ways that some scholars hope will eventually elevate the traditional doctrine into a “state religion.”

A woman cleans the tomb of a relative at Babao Cemetery in Beijing, on the eve of Tomb-Sweeping Day April 3, 2008. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

Chinese for centuries commemorated the day, falling in early April, by sweeping the graves of forebearers and leaving symbolic tributes, an act reflecting Confucius’ teachings of loyalty to family and tradition.

After 1949, China’s revolutionary Communists, hostile to old ways, let the day pass officially unmarked and dismissed Confucius as a deadening “reactionary” influence.

But the government last year made the Qingming Festival a public holiday when citizens will be encouraged to revive some old practices, as the Communist Party seeks to make traditional virtues an anchor of order during feverish social change.

In cemeteries across China, people marked the first revived Qingming holiday with offerings of flowers, fruit and incense. Trains and buses in Beijing were crowded with residents heading to cemeteries on the city outskirts.

“This should have been done long ago, it’s already well overdue,” Cui Hengjie, an English-language teacher visiting a family gravestone, said of the revived holiday.

In the northwest province of Shaanxi, senior government officials attended a flamboyant ceremony at the supposed grave site of the mythical “Yellow Emperor”, honoured as the first ancestor of all Han Chinese, state television reported.

A crowd of 10,000 bowed to honour the mythical emperor and men in red robes beat drums and bells as a choir trilled.

For some, China’s restoration of Qingming, the Dragon Boat Festival and other traditional holidays is just one step in a restoration of traditional values that could one day make Confucius the ruling Party’s wellspring of ideology.

The most vocal proponent of this traditionalism, political scientist Kang Xiaoguang, has just published a 398-page study that he said shows Confucianism, not Marxism or Western liberal democracy, is the way forward for China.

“I hope that Confucian thought can win back its central status as a political philosophy, can become the ideology guiding China’s development,” Kang said in his office at the People’s University of China.

“Put bluntly, use Confucian things to replace Marxism-Leninism.”

Confucius is said to have lived between 551 BC and 479 BC, and his teachings became ruling doctrine for China’s emperors, stressing obedience to a benevolent authority reflecting broader cosmic order.

While not a religion focused on a god, Confucianism grew the trappings of a religion, with ritual, classic texts and temples used to embody its beliefs.

China should stay a one-party state, but one ruled by clean-living, rigorously vetted officials steeped in Confucius, not Marx, Kang argues.

That goal seems fanciful for now, he admits.


But China’s leaders are certainly restoring some traditional beliefs to redefine their claims on power as the country sheds socialism and embraces capitalism.

President Hu Jintao has vowed a “harmonious society” free of conflict, wielding Confucian phrases to explain his ideas. Premier Wen Jiabao often laces his speeches with references from classical Chinese poets and thinkers.

Last year, ceremonies celebrating Confucius’ traditional birthday at his birthplace in Qufu, in the eastern province of Shangdong, were broadcast live on state television, with central government ministers in attendance for the first time, Kang said.

“It’s extraordinary for the Party to worship Confucius like this,” said Kang, who attends gatherings of enthusiasts who dress in traditional gowns to pay homage at Qufu.

“Crucially, too, China wants to use Confucian culture to repackage itself internationally.”