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September 25, 2017

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Confucius rises as Communist Party revives tradition

QUFU, China--"Comrade Kong Xiangguo tragically died in the line of duty and sacrificed his life for the nation," reads an epitaph in the ancient Chinese town of Qufu.

Kong, 25, was one of 70 crew who died inside the People's Liberation Navy's No. 361 submarine during a training exercise off northeastern China in 2003.

The young Communist Party member was a Qufu-born "75th-generation descendant of Confucius," according to his gravestone in the Confucius Forest, a picturesque burial park that forms one the of three main tourist attractions in the town.

Confucius, known in China as Kong Zi, is widely believed to have been born near Qufu in 551 BC and died in 479 BC. Like Socrates in ancient Greece, Confucius is a semi-mythical figure in Chinese history. The widely accepted details of his life date from texts written after his death.

Several of his disciples promoted Confucian ideas and later scholars reinterpreted them to suit changing socio-political conditions or their own conceptual frameworks.

Some two million people worldwide are now called Kong, although the ancestors of most of them adopted the sage's surname long after his death.

Confucius has risen and fallen in popularity several times in the two and half millennia since he tried to inspire the rulers of ancient Chinese states to embrace his ideas of virtuous conduct and benevolent governance.

The Han Dynasty (206 B.C. — A.D. 220) elevated him to god-like status, and Qufu grew to a pilgrimage site that rivaled Mecca. Most major cities in China have maintained Confucius Temples for hundreds of years.

The ruling Nationalists adopted Confucianism as a tool for demanding obedience in the early 20th century, and the sage's place at the heart of Chinese moral philosophy had seemed secure until China's first Communist ruler, Mao Zedong, attacked him at the height of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. Statues of Confucius were smashed in Qufu and graves in the Confucius Forest were desecrated.

"As a descendant [of Confucius], I don't have words to express the humiliation I felt," Kong Lingshao, who was a teenager in the Cultural Revolution, told state media in January.

Mao promoted himself as a prospective philosopher-king and attempted to dispatch Confucius and a major party rival in one stroke, in the "Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius" campaign.

Yet less than a decade after Mao's death in 1976, Confucius was already making a comeback. His rehabilitation by the Communist Party was confirmed at a 1984 symposium in Qufu, where he was again accepted as "one of the glorious figures of China."

As nationalism and patriotism flourish again, the Communist Party has promoted Confucianism as part of a broad revival of traditional Chinese culture. The "spiritual civilization" campaign, which began in the mid-1990s in response to fears that consumers were becoming too materialistic, promoted both Maoist and Confucian ethics.

The party seems to be banking on its new ideology to help prolong its rule of China under the banner of stability, through which the government claims justification for its continued suppression of dissent.

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