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Wise Words

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Wise words

MacMillan has announced that it will publish an English translation of Yu Dan’s Confucius from the Heart in May next year.  The author is a professor at Beijing Normal University and is famous for her television lecture series, Yu Dan's Insights into the Analects of Confucius.  In the two years since its publication, the book of the series has sold over 10 million, reportedly including sales of six million pirated copies. 

    

  But not everyone has been cheering her on.  Some of the “old school” scholars at China’s most prestigious academic institutions quickly joined forces to register their disdain.  Horror of horrors,  the 42 year-old media studies professor has been accused of "dumbing down" (among other things). 

 

  Some pundits have suggested, however, that the attacks were provoked by snobbery and jealousy: Not only is Ms Yu from a "lesser" university than her detractors, she has also earned the respect of millions of young people by making Confucius relevant to their daily lives.  Not to mention the matter of the US$1 million in royalties she has reportedly earned.

 

  The Lun Yu (Analects or “sayings”) are no stranger to controversy.  They were most likely compiled after The Master’s death by his disciples and, over the ages, their interpretation has been hotly debated.  Nevertheless, they have been one of Chinese culture’s guiding lights for more than two-thousand years. 

 

  During that time, Confucius’s occasional fall from grace has been associated with culturally fallow periods such as the early days of the Yuan dynasty (Genghis wasn’t a big fan apparently); and of course during the Cultural Revolution, when the campaign to smash the Si Jiu (the Four Olds: old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas) made Confucius – and anything and anyone associated with his doctrine – the Red Guards’ number one enemy.   

 

  Since China “opened-up” in 1979, The Sage has been working his way back into favour with the establishment.  In the past few years his popularity has sky-rocketed.  The Confucian ideals of peace, balance and harmony are, of course, highly relevant (and useful) to the present administration’s theme of a harmonious society.  The state apparatus is, it seems, going out of its way to dial-up Confucius and his teachings. 

 

  As well as the lecture series and best selling book, there have been statues erected, commemorative events, Internet chatroom discussions, and not forgetting the Olympic Games opening ceremony, when 2008 drummers yelled out Confucius’s immortal words: “You pengzi yuanfang lai, buyi yue hu?” (What could be happier than receiving friends from afar?) to the beat of Xia dynasty drums.

 

  A publicity campaign promoting Confucius would not be successful, however, without a large and receptive audience.  There’s no doubt that the doctrine strikes an empathetic chord with a large number of China’s young people – many of whom are finding it very difficult to achieve “spiritual balance” in an increasingly materialistic society.

 

  So, if you find yourself in a Starbucks in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dalian, or wherever, don't be surprised to see a cool-looking twenty-something reading the Analects.  Confucius may have been  2559 years old a few weeks ago, but his thoughts and ideas are being read by more people today than at any time during China's recent history.