Here’s a recent article from the Washington Post on a resurgence of Confucianism in contemporary China.
I find the new interest in Confucius a positive sign for the most part, as Confucianism may be able to temper some of the newfound materialist individualism China is beginning to experience, and which my own culture has been steeped in for some time. However, I am a little skeptical that Confucianism will have the power to transform the society, steering it from greed to morality and human flourishing. My own culture, again, can serve as a historical example here. The mainline Christian churches in the United States and in Europe (especially the Roman Catholic Church) have, for many years, railed against what they see as the increasing individualism and materialism of western culture in general. This, however, has done nothing to stem the tide. As people have become wealthier and more in control of their own lives, they have simply chosen to either leave the churches, or ignore the message. This has led to the decline of the mainline churches and the rise of new churches preaching the “gospel of material success”, often megachurches whose sermons appear as seminars on how accepting Jesus can gain one a raise, a better job, and worldly success.
This is to show that public greed and individualism is not so easily tempered through moral teaching, even teaching as radical (in some sense of the word) as Confucianism or Christianity. People with control who are convinced that what they are doing is correct will simply listen to the message and take what they want from it. This is what is happening to Christianity in the west (where one often hears certain Christians make indignant speeches denouncing homosexuality and abortion, while at the same time praising the making of money, opposing social services, and supporting wars), and it is what will inevitably happen to Confucianism in China, as can already be seen though the work of Yu Dan, who herself claims that she has left certain features of Confucius’ teaching aside, as they do not fit well with Modern China.
Of course, this is not meant to be a criticism of Yu Dan–I think her work is useful for bringing large numbers of people to some understanding of Confucianism. Her interpretation is not perfect, but this is a sacrifice that must be made in any popularization. It is impossible to retain the full substance of the complicated work of a philosopher such as Confucius when one is trying to present an easy to understand overview of this work. However, there is always a great danger when one begins to stray from the historical, because there is always the temptation (even when attempting to remain historically accurate!) to interpret a tradition as lending support to those motivations one already has and as prizing those things one already wants. However, an ethical tradition interpreted thus loses all its power to transform us. Ethical theories show us the way to be better people–point out for us the path from where we are to where we ought to be. Thus to transform a tradition into a validation of whatever it is we do (unless we’re already morally perfect) is to eviscerate it. Anyone who wishes to bring Confucianism into the modern world should keep this in mind.