FOR MUCH of its history, Chinese society has been built upon the pillars of Confucianism. Confucius is thought to have been born in 551BC in what is now Shandong province, on China’s east coast. The most famous work associated with him, “The Analects”, is a collection of his aphorisms, taken down by his disciples and published after his death in 479BC. Over time his principles became associated with traditional Chinese values, such as an orderly society, deference towards elders and respect for (and by) benevolent rulers. For centuries, civil servants had to pass a gruelling exam based on the sishu, the four Confucian texts. His ideas fell out of favour during the 20th century. But they are enjoying a resurgence under Xi Jinping, China’s leader since 2012. What accounts for Confucianism’s fall and rise under China’s Communist rule?

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Confucianism had become unfashionable even before Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution. At the turn of the 1900s, under the fading Qing dynasty, China was struggling to modernise. The country’s technological development was being stymied by its reverence for tradition and a suspicion of new foreign thinking. Confucianism came to be viewed as one block to progress. But it was under the Communists, who seized power in 1949, that it became anathema. Mao considered the Confucian belief system to be bourgeois and reactionary, a philosophy that had too long kept the people in check. Communism, to Mao, meant sweeping away all that had gone before. During the early years of the Cultural Revolution, in the mid-1960s, this manifested itself in violence against anything that predated the party’s ascendancy. “The Analects” was banned and Confucian texts burned. In Qufu Confucius’s (probably empty) tomb was blown up. Meanwhile schoolchildren formed Red Guards that were allowed to tyrannise their teachers. Many educators were beaten, some were murdered, laying waste to any vestige of Confucian order. Even in the 1970s, when the destructive early fervour of the Cultural Revolution had dampened, Mao continued to wage war on the sage. Party bigwigs who fell out of favour were accused of trying to revive Confucius’s ideas.

After Mao’s death in 1976, the party began to make slow peace with Confucius. In part this was a way to move on from the doctrinal era of Mao. In 1984, with Deng Xiaoping leading the country, a ceremony in Qufu to honour Confucius’s birthday was begun. Under Hu Jintao, president from 2003 to 2013, the philosopher enjoyed further rehabilitation. In 2004 China opened its first Confucius Institute, in South Korea (where Confucianism has become a political punchbag recently). There are now around 550 of these centres, often attached to foreign universities, that are dedicated to promoting traditional Chinese culture, from language to cooking. (Hawks in the West accuse them of being propaganda mills and spy factories.)

But it is Xi Jinping who has found the Confucian tenets most useful. After 72 years’ rule, today’s Communist Party is no longer the engine of revolution, but of power retention. Preaching the virtues of a harmonious society and respect for authority now suits it very well. And as Mr Xi pushes Chinese political culture as an alternative to Western democracy, anchoring its ideology to a two-millennia-old tradition is a handy way of conferring legitimacy upon it—particularly as it is, unlike Marxism, a homegrown philosophy. Indeed, Mr Xi calls Confucianism “the cultural soil that nourishes the Chinese people”. It is telling that today China’s all-powerful leader is wont to invoke the thinking of a 2,500-year old philosopher as well as that of Mao.