Yesterday was celebrated as the 2,561st birthday of Confucius. Happy birthday to you...
And that's just about as far as I think it should go. Of course, in China there are big shows of respect and deference to the Master in Qufu and, for the first time in many decades, Beijing. Ultimately, however, these kinds of public ceremonies undermine the spirit and practice of Confucian values. Institutionalizing a day of glorification trivializes the message of The Analects, reducing what should be a consistent, daily effort to enact proper behavior to a momentary formality, quickly done and forgotten in the din of materialist competitiveness that is contemporary China.
I am thinking of the Christian critique of what has become of Christmas. What for some is a solemn observance of the birth of a prophet has been overwhelmed in the popular culture by a tidal wave of conspicuous consumption. That simple social fact reminds us each year that the United States is not a Christian country (and just for the record, given the politics of this issue, I personally am happy with the generally secular quality of American society, though the extreme materialism dismays me....and, yes, it is possible to be secular and non-materiaist...). In a similar manner, the more ostentatious the public ceremonies for Confucius in China, the less depth Confucianism really has in Chinese society.
It is simply not adequate, by the standards of Confucianism, to observe Ritual only ocassionally, on certain ceremonial dates or only when personal circumstance allow. Ritual is an every-minute-of-your-life imperative:
Yen Hui asked about Humanity, and the Master said: "Giving yourself over to Ritual - that is Humanity. If a ruler gave himself over to Ritual for even a single day, all beneath Heaven would return to Humanity. For doesn't the practice of Humanity find its source first in the self, and only then in others?"
"Could you explain how giving yourself over to Ritual works?" asked Yen Hui.
"Never look without Ritual. Never listen without Ritual. Never speak without Ritual. Never move without Ritual."
"I'm not terribly clever," said Yen Hui, "but I'll try to serve these words." 12.1
You can't just go to church on Sunday, or go to a Confucian birthday celebration, to live up to the standard that Confucius sets here. Never look, listen or speak without Ritual. Never. That means always. Every day, not just September 28th.
And think about that line about leaders. They are important. What they do, from a Confucian perspective, sets the moral tone of society. Things were so bad during the Warring States period that it was hard to expect a leader to do the right thing even for one day. But, in that context, if a leader did turn toward the conscientious performance of Duty (which is what I understand Ritual to be) for even just one day, as ethically inadequate as that would be, it could have had a powerful social-moral effect.
But we don't even have that in China today. When top leaders, such as Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, actually do something (since Ritual is about performance, action) about the corruption and injustice that permeates the political system atop which they sit,or when they effectively act against the growing inequality in the country (which prevents many people from carrying out their social and family Duties), then we might say they have given themselves over to Ritual. But they do not. Instead we get empty rehearsals of easy rhetoric and catchy symbols, whether it emanates from Zhongnanhai or Qufu, and then every one leaves and goes about their daily work, focusing on the un-Confucian exigencies of profit and wealth and personal interest and power-mongering.
That may sound harsh, but, hey, Confucius himself could bring the snark when he was calling out insincere "ritual:"
As they cleared sacrificial vessels from the temple, the Three Families sang the Yung hymn. The Master mimicked its words:
the great lords in attenance, the Emperor august and majestic,
then asked: "What has this to do with the temple of these Three Families?" 3.2
To a committed Confucian (and I would not place myself in that category: I appreciate Confucianism but I do not live up to it) few things are worse than appropriating Ritual in a manner that undermines Ritual....