She makes Confucius cool again

Times Staff Writer

CONFUCIUS famously considered a good woman to be an illiterate woman. The ancient sage might want to eat his words: More than 2 1/2 millenniums after his death, he’s back in vogue, thanks in no small part to a Chinese woman with a PhD.

Confucius, meet Yu Dan.

But make it quick. The professor is so busy these days she barely has time to go home and see her baby daughter.

Since the publication of her enormously popular book on the teachings of Confucius late last year, Yu has been racing from college lectures to book signings, TV appearances and speaking engagements. The public can’t seem to get enough of this overnight sensation who has turned dusty old Confucian teachings into a Chinese version of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”


“I never expected this,” the smartly dressed 42-year-old said in a hurried interview from the back of the black Audi taking her to the airport. “In the 21st century, our value system is changing; people are faced with a lot of confusion and choices. The classics are not just fossils. They are a value system that can help us find answers to modern-day problems.”

For more than 2,500 years, the Confucian doctrines of filial piety, moral righteousness and hierarchical relationships were the guiding principles of life and government in China and most of East Asia. Then the Communists came to power and Chairman Mao declared Confucianism counterrevolutionary and his Red Guards ransacked temples dedicated to the philosopher.

Today, China is charging ahead with dizzying economic growth and breathtaking social change. But many believe the world’s most populous nation has lost its moral and spiritual anchor. Enter the wisdom of Kong Fuzi, or Master Kong, as Confucius is known in China -- interpreted by a woman.

“I’m amazed,” said Hong Huang, a cultural commentator and publisher of fashion magazines in Beijing. “Her success has a lot to do with the fact that modern China has an identity crisis and spiritual crisis. The only value system we have today is money. Everybody is looking for the Chinese meaning of life.”

Confucius’ collected teachings, called “The Analects,” are written in classical Chinese and are nearly as incomprehensible as Latin is to the average English speaker. But Yu’s book, “Insights on the Analects,” is conversational and full of modern-day applications.

When Confucius talks about the qualities of a good ruler, for instance, Yu connects it to the life of the average man. Confucius asks his students about their aspirations. Instead of praising the most ambitious for wanting to run a big country with a vast army, he supports one who merely wants to enjoy a fine spring day with friends.


Yu says everyone has dreams, but too many people are so busy working that they have no time to figure out what they really want out of life. “Just because you have a successful career does not necessarily mean you have made your dreams come true,” she writes.

To illustrate, she tells the story of three field mice preparing for winter. One gathered food, one built shelter and the third did nothing but play. Winter came and there was plenty to eat but nothing to do inside the hideaway. That was when the third mouse made himself valuable by telling stories from his days of fun and games.

Yu’s book has sold more than 3 million copies in four months, making modern Chinese publishing history and beating out the country’s other top seller, the Harry Potter series. Bootleg videos of her television lectures and speeches, an unfortunate sign of popularity, are prominently displayed here next to American hits such as “Desperate Housewives” and “The Devil Wears Prada.”

YU recently completed an 18-city tour during which she autographed 39,000 copies of her book, twice sitting for stretches of 10 hours. “I saw so many people waiting in line,” she said. “Once it was really windy. Another time it was snowing and past midnight. I kept going out of conscience, even if I felt like passing out. They were there not for me. They were there for Confucius.”

Confucius is indeed enjoying a huge revival -- and is even endorsed by the Communist Party that once tried to erase his influence.

“Maybe 99% of Chinese people today never read his writings, but Confucian values are steeped in our culture,” said Miao Di, a professor at Communication University of China. “The worst example might be his views on women, which is believed to be the basis for our patriarchal society, where male chauvinism prevails despite recent improvements on gender inequality.”


Even before the Communists came to power in 1949, Chinese intellectuals had begun to question his teachings, blaming them for keeping China from embracing modern science and Western notions of democracy.

Confucius-bashing reached a peak during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, when schools banned “The Analects” and mobs tortured scholars for teaching a book that for centuries had served as a philosophical primer for this nation.

Today, even President Hu Jintao is preaching a “Harmonious Society,” based on the Confucian values of unity, morality and respect for authority.

The Communist Party’s legitimacy is at stake as it tries to contain the dark side of the economic miracle that has led to a dangerous income divide, rampant corruption and rising social unrest. Rehabilitating Confucianism allows the government to show it cares about resolving these social conflicts in a benevolent way without ceding too much ground in terms of political freedom and institutional reforms.

Beijing also has seized on the sage’s good name in foreign policy initiatives designed to soften the perception of a rising China threat. It has set up Confucius Institutes in more than 50 countries and regions to promote Chinese language and culture, much like France’s Alliance Francaise of France and Germany’s Goethe Institute.

But none of this official promotion compares with the grass-roots Confucian fever Yu has ignited.


Yu is a sometimes imperious woman who wears her hair short and her fitted coats buttoned to the neck. The media studies professor likes jazz and soccer and can quote passages of classical Chinese poetry and proverbs.

Her best-selling book is a compilation of the seven lectures she gave over a week last fall on CCTV, the state-run network, which reaches every corner of this vast country. The scheduling of her show couldn’t have been better -- lunch hours during a weeklong national holiday when most Chinese are home eating meals in front of the television.

IN the beginning, the choice of a little-known professor from Beijing Normal University who studied ancient Chinese literature as an undergraduate was considered a risky proposition.

“Not many people knew who she was. We worried she didn’t have enough star power to attract a wide audience,” said Song Zhijun, one of her editors at the China Publishing House.

But the media-savvy Yu knew what she was doing. She leavened her lectures with stories about interpersonal relationships, self-awareness and the pursuit of happiness.

Yu’s TV performance was so refreshing that the lectures were published as a book, which has become a self-help bible.


The country’s swelling prisons were among the first to hire her as a speaker. Businesses bought her books in bulk to distribute to employees. One county ordered more than 10,000 copies and made the book required reading for each official, said Zhu Anshun, another of Yu’s editors.

“We live in a world with a lot of headaches, and she provides some answers,” said Gong Fan, a 26-year-old graduate student who was waiting outside Yu’s classroom with a couple of friends hoping to get autographs. But Yu breezed by without stopping.

Yu has become such a phenomenon that she has drawn the scorn of some scholars who say her pop psychology has little to do with real Confucianism.

One group of professors called on her to resign and apologize for reducing the classics to fast food. During a book signing in Beijing, a man wore a T-shirt reading “Confucius would be annoyed.”

“Chinese people live in a high-pressure society. Her message is, ‘Don’t worry what others think about you. It matters how you feel in your heart,’ ” said Daniel Bell, a professor of political philosophy at Qinghua University. “Not only is this simplifying Confucius, it is very misleading interpretation. Confucius is about social and political commitment. She provides a feel-good, apolitical version that goes against the main message of ‘The Analects.’ ”

In her defense, Yu has said she doesn’t claim to be an expert on Confucianism. She is merely sharing some of her personal thoughts, and people are entitled to agree or disagree.


“Confucius emphasizes the cultivation of inner self not for the purpose of abandoning social responsibilities but rather so one can be of better service to society,” Yu writes in her book.

Yu discovered “The Analects” as a child when the classics were considered forbidden fruit.

“I grew up during the Cultural Revolution in a cultural desert with nothing to do,” Yu said. “I’m grateful to my parents, who sheltered me behind our family courtyard and taught me calligraphy, poetry and the classics.”

This traditional upbringing, however, did not keep Yu from pursuing a life brimming with contradictions. She switches with ease between teaching ancient wisdoms glorifying nonmaterial wealth and coaching commercial television on how to produce hit shows. She talks with the authority and formality of a Communist Party official, yet she engages her listeners with personal anecdotes about how her daughter might learn more about the world playing with a bottle and cap than from all the expensive toys in the house.

Yu credits her early classical education with giving her the confidence to believe in herself. She acknowledges that not everything about Confucius is relevant today, but she doesn’t think it’s fair to dwell on the negative.

“There is a lot of prejudice against Confucius for being too conservative or backward,” Yu said.

“He teaches love and tolerance, for example, and don’t force others to do what you would not want to do yourself, how to develop harmonious interpersonal relationships. Are these ideas really that out of date? Are these not useful to our lives today?”