NEW YORK— Initially, Zhu Ying began co-producing her documentary on a Confucian book club in China through the eyes of a cynic. “China: From Cartier to Confucius” opens with dark scenes of urban China and ominous music that resembles a horror film more than a documentary.
During the three years she worked on the film, however, Zhu discovered hope in a corner where she never thought she would, the living room of a professor who leads a small group of Fudan University students to read ancient Chinese philosophy every Friday evening.
Zhu, Chair of the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island, and a leading scholar on Chinese cinema and media studies, came across the book club as she was researching the surge of nationalism amongst Chinese youth in the mainland.
As China’s wealth gap widens at an unprecedented rate while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rules with incessant corruption, a group of young people are turning towards Confucianism for answers.
As an intellectual who came of age during the 1970’s, Zhu had spent most of her life with the notion that Confucianism is backwards; it’s the enemy of modernization.
“I grew up from a different era…This was a very interesting discovery for me, reading the original texts,” Zhu said at a screening of her film at the Asian American Research Institute on March 8.
“This notion of benevolent ruler, there might be something said about it,” she said. “Let’s not be quick to pass judgment…I’m moved by this kind of search [for answers].”
The film revolves around a group of students who attend Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of the oldest and most selective universities in China.
Several of the subjects in the documentary are young people from rural China, who made it to Shanghai based on merit rather than money. Yet upon arriving at the university, they found the environment in the long-anticipated urban life to be cold and empty.
“We may have more money and have opened up, but Chinese people feel lost, we lack direction,” said a PhD philosophy student in the film. “We’re missing something.”
“There is nothing spiritual to fall back on,” another student said.
Zhu said she was intrigued by this book club for the questions it raised—why the revival of Confucianism at this particular juncture? And is this revival a state-orchestrated effort or a grass roots effort?
“I don’t think the Confucian Institutes all over the world even study Confucian texts,” said Russell Leong, UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center Director.
The credibility of the book club was shown through the students’ perseverance in tackling ancient Chinese texts.
The students in the book club majored in comparative literature, Western philosophy, and sociology. None specialized in Chinese philosophy, and many had very little experience with reading ancient Chinese texts.
“It is difficult to read Chinese Confucian texts. I couldn’t understand what was going on many [sic] of the times,” Zhu said.
“It was a very moving, personal experience for me. “They were sincerely looking for answers to a cluster of social ills plaguing China today. Their tenacity moved me.”
“I went into China feeling cynical, but I left China feeling moved by these students,” she said. “As you can tell [from] glimpses of bits and pieces of interviews, it seems that there is a dynamic grass roots movement that really confronts this overwhelming wealth gap.”
“Marxism and ancient Chinese philosophical texts are two texts at odds with one another. The CCP does not emphasize good government when they train their officials, while Confucian philosophy does have that focus,” said a student in the documentary. “According to Confucian texts, the [CCP’s] power is not sufficiently limited. The Confucian text stresses justice: The government shouldn’t overburden the Chinese like they are now; economic development shouldn’t kick so many people out of their homes.”
“Reading isn’t enough, people need to put it in practice,” said another student.
“I see rural people doing that. Although they can’t read, they treat each other with love, filial piety, and compassion. These are things from Confucian texts, not from the CCP. It prompts us to re-evaluate our values.”
The documentary showed a clip from a Western philosophy lecture in China. The class opened with Book I of “The Republic” by Plato.
In Book I, Socrates and Thrasymachus argue over the definition of justice. Thrasymachus mocks Socrates and claims that Socrates’ arguments are naïve, since Thrasymachus believes that just behavior works to the advantage of other people, but never for person who behaves justly.
The professor spoke of how the students’ initial reaction to this reading, due to their education and affluent lives in China, will be one that parallels with Thrasymachus.
If everyone lived according to Socrates’ philosophy, the world would be in a sad state where countries would not be able to make economic progress, the professor said.
“But the true tragedy is that there are many Thrasymachuses in the world today, but no Socrates to refute him,” he said.
“People are confronting their reality and looking for solutions,” Zhu said at the screening. “This turn to Confucianism reflects the bottom up anxiety and fear of Chinese society’s loss of moral grounding.”