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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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July 17, 2008 3:43 AM

Harmonious but not the same

Posted by Daniel Beekman

There's an old Confucian saying, 'he er bu tong.' Literally, it means 'harmonious but not the same.'

According to Yan Xin, a doctoral candidate in Chinese philosophy at Beijing Normal University, 'he er bu tong' could also mean 'a successful 2008 Olympic Games.'

"Confucius taught that we can all learn from one another," Yan said. "He believed in solving problems through dialogue. That's what the Olympic are all about - international dialogue. We compete, yet preserve mutual respect."

(Note: Confucius was a scholar who lived during the 5th century B.C. His conservative, moral, pragmatic lessons on life, relationships and society are basic to traditional Chinese culture.)

China's government has spent billions of yuan on its athletes, transformed Beijing and risked 'face' for these Games. Why? Ask any Beijinger or Olympic volunteer. 'So that the rest of the world may better understand our China,' they'll answer.

It's important to set goals, and Beijing's goals are crystal clear.

But how, I asked a trio of student-volunteers, will China gain the world's understanding - aside from Tang dynasty floor shows, lavish Peking Duck banquets and giant panda sightings.

"Umm," they answered.

Beijing's gorgeous Confucian Temple (Kong Miao) might be a good place to start. Located in north-central Beijing, the leafy complex has been painstakingly renovated ahead of the 2008 Olympics.

Beijing's Confucius Temple and Imperial College

Qufu, a medium-sized city in Shandong province and Confucius' birthplace, boasts China's largest and most magnificent Kong Miao. Kong was Confucius' surname; miao translates as temple. Duke Ai of the state of Lu converted the Kong family home for worship in 478 B.C.

But Confucius, who many Chinese still refer to as the country's first or greatest teacher, was a traveling man. He bounced from ancient fiefdom to fiefdom (there was no unified 'China' in the fifth century B.C.), tutoring monarchs wise and weak in the fine points of benevolent rule.

Confucian temples - usually associated with learning or scholarship - eventually sprouted in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia. When the Mongols made Beijing their Yuan dynasty capital in the 14th century, they erected a Kong Miao as well - a version of which remains today.

For centuries, Beijing's visited the temple's sweeping Dachengdian ('Hall of Great Achievement') to offer sacrifices in the name of Confucius.

"Although Confucius did not advocate revolution," Yan explained. "He argued that an emperor is like a boat, and the people like the water. The water may support the boat, or toss it over."

These days, Yonghegong - known to foreign visitors as the 'Beijing Lama Temple' - attracts more foot traffic than Kong Miao. Yonghegong, the capital's largest Tibetan Buddhist structure, sits at the corner of Yonghegong Street and North 2nd Ring Road.

Stroll a few blocks south of Yonghegong's mighty red walls and hang a right. You'll pass under the a gilded gate onto Guozijian alley or hutong. The Kong Miao complex is enormous and clean; sage cypress trees afford some shade.

If you're into history, follow a tour group through the temple's many pavilions. If you prefer peace and quiet, arrive early and claim a wooden bench. Watch out for Chujian Bai, Kong Miao's legendary mind-reading tree. A treacherous Ming dynasty official lost his hat to its branches.

If China had saints, Confucius would be the patron saint of Chinese students and scholars. It was he who advised the land's monarchs to dispense with nepotism. Officials, Confucius asserted, ought to be selected on merit. And to determine merit...tests, tests, tests.

In 2008, 10.5 million high-schoolers sweated out the gaokao, China's university entrance examination. Millions of college graduates took the national examination for officials, our century's answer to the tests Confucius championed.

"It's a well-established fact that Chinese people do well on exams," said Zhang Xinmin, 25, who's seeking a job in Beijing. "Our whole education system is test-oriented. We're accustomed to exams."

Next door to Beijing's Confucius Temple is the Imperial College, where would-be officials tested into China’s substantial bureaucracy. Candidates completed their exams locked in small, stone cubicles designed to prevent cheating; often they wrote and revised for days.

"Confucius was the first person to teach not only emperors, but common people as well," Yan said. "That's why we revere him."

The Imperial College also played host to emperors, however. Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty rulers worshiped Confucius there. Tradition called for each emperor to compose a work of calligraphy in honor of Kongzi.

The Qianglong emperor and Kangxi emperor left their mark, as did Guomindang (Kuomintang) leaders after 1911. Emperors delivered Confucian-themed lessons from the Imperial College annually.

After 1949 and China's communist liberation, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, Confucian values came under fire here. China's economic surge and participation in a global market economy has further opened country to competing philosophies.

One important facet of Confucianism is filial piety - respect for and devotion to one's mother and father. Some social critics now bemoan a lack of filial piety among young people. Every day, millions of rural Chinese wave their parents goodbye, then board trains for the country's booming cities.

"How is China Confucian or not Confucian today," Yan pondered. "Confucianism is still present in the structure of our government hierarchy.

"But Confucius instructed people to act morally - to do the right thing, regardless of personal loss or gain. Today many Chinese act according to personal benefit."

And the 2008 Olympic Games - if he were alive to attend Beijing's Opening Ceremonies, what might Confucius think?

"If Confucius could see these Olympics, he'd be very happy," said Yan. "Confucius always encouraged his disciples to 'welcome guests from afar.'"

Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:



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'China bans patriotic banners during Beijing Games'

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