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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 October 2007, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Growth behind China's identity crisis
By Jill McGivering
BBC News, Wuhan

Ruan Zhi Tong is three-and-a-half years old, a chubby-faced boy with cheeky brown eyes.

The 2558th birthday of Confucius is celebrated in Changchun - 28/09/2007
The study of Confucianism has seen an upsurge in recent years
When I met him, he was struggling to be solemn. His hands were placed together carefully and he was bowing low to a portrait of the ancient sage, Confucius.

He was dressed up in a grey cotton tunic with flowing sleeves, a playgroup copy of a traditional Chinese robe. A square black hat kept slipping down over his eyes.

After paying his respects to the great teacher, he and the rest of the class of a dozen children perched on velvet cushions.

An earnest young teacher, also wearing cotton robes, urged them to recite some of the wise sayings of Confucius.

"Learning without thought is labour lost," they intoned in classical Chinese. "Thought without learning is perilous." The teacher held up large cards showing Chinese characters as prompts.

Plenty of people are busy finding out for themselves that to get rich is indeed glorious

Ruan Zhi Tong's mother was waiting quietly outside, sitting between a framed text of more sayings of Confucius and another portrait of him.

The joss sticks beneath it gave it the look of a small shrine. Through the window, I could see the glistening towers of Wuhan's skyscrapers and nodding construction cranes.

Why, I asked her, was she sending her son to these special classes, focusing on the past when everything else in Wuhan seemed obsessed with the future?

Traditional culture has many advantages, she said. The emphasis on virtue, kindness and self-discipline is good for my son. Confucius was a very wise man.

This is all the more remarkable because until recently Confucius was vilified by the Communist authorities.

In the 1960s, he and his followers came under vicious attack. His teaching, with its emphasis on filial piety, seemed to represent the old feudal culture which Communism was determined to replace.

Even today, the Party's leaders are wary. Some new Confucian schools have already been closed down.

But they are meeting a need. As China freewheels through the chaos of rapid economic change, many are searching for meaning.

The old Communist structures are collapsing. The new society is fluid and confusing. The strong values of tradition, hierarchy and harmony which Confucius represents provide a comforting order.

Flood of money

This part of central China is on the cusp of change. I visited a village, hailed as a model community, where collective farming has been swept away and each family owns its strip of land.

I found them busy with the wheat and rice harvest, scything and bundling by hand, their square straw hats set against a stunning backdrop of lush fields and rising hills, studded with trees.

Construction worker walks past Communist Party poster in Beijing - 19/10/2007
Communist Party slogans are less important to some people now
The village leader is elected nowadays - although the same man has been in office for the last 16 years.

He showed me around, beaming proudly as he explained the mix of private enterprise and joint projects which support a shared fund.

That common pot pays for the public facilities - from the tiny clinic and schoolrooms to the karaoke machine.

Giant billboards, provided by the Communist Party, detail targets for the villagers. Another board names every adult in the village and publicly rates their performance on a range of categories - from domestic harmony and family planning to hard work and love of the collective.

But if the Party's way of thinking persists in some villages, its hold on the hearts and minds of the new generation of business men is definitely weakening.

Wuhan is not yet a Shanghai or Hongkong - but I am writing this under constant assault from the drilling and banging of construction and the growl of traffic.

Money is flooding in on all sides with a mighty roar. Here, plenty of people are busy finding out for themselves that to get rich is indeed glorious - and they do not need Communist Party slogans to remind them.

Important connections

In a gleaming modern office, I met Mr Mae, a genial middle-aged businessman, dressed in a creased polo shirt and slip on shoes.

Wuhan - 15/10/2007
China's economic boom has created dislocations for many
Glossy boards propped against the wall showed his latest housing developments.

His parents spent their lives working for the Communist-run state railway. But Mr Mae has not even joined the Party.

He started off allocating housing units to state enterprises. Within a few decades, he has progressed to building and selling luxury apartments to rich professionals. As for the Party, he is just not interested.

Connections are very important in business, he said, including connections in government.

But they are personal connections. Being in the Communist Party would not help me. Ordinary people, he went on, just do not care about the Party - it makes no difference to them.

I asked what his now elderly mother thought about his career in real estate.

The very concept was unimaginable in China when she was a young woman, working the railways. His face lit up. She was very proud, he said.

As I left him, I thought back to that small boy, bowing to Confucius.

If the ancient sage were here today, I wondered, what wise counsel would he offer to help his people steady themselves in a crazy whirlwind of change.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 20 October, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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