NI SHAN, CHINA -- Liu Hong Zhu describes his life's work: "You put the wheat on the road, let the sun dry it, let cars and trucks cross it, the police cars, and it breaks down the wheat. Then you lift the wheat in a basket, shake, and let the wind blow away the grass. What is left, that is what you want."
This fertile stretch of Shandong Province, set between forever and the Yellow Sea, was home some 2,500 years ago to Confucius, a teacher who more than any other shaped Chinese culture. Leaders and locals tore down his ideas and image during much of the last century, in a revolving relationship that is taking another turn.
I had come to farmer Liu's living room to ask about the master, as Confucius is known. He is said to have been born on a forested hillside nearby. I also wanted to know Liu, though, one person among the billion and more in China today. But how to measure the power of old ideas in the soul of a stranger? And how, as an outsider, to use that knowledge to feel the force of modern life in a culture as vast as that of Liu and Confucius?
This journey to meet those living in the long shadow of the Spring and Autumn Period, when Confucius thought and taught, began with a night train from vertical Shanghai; then a morning taxi past flats of factories and fields; then an afternoon walk through the city of Qufu to a sturdy stone gate.
There, Bian Lian, one of several gray-haired men sitting on short stools, stopped his chatting and joking with friends to give my question an honest answer.
"Confucius is very concerned about morals, about being kind to people," Bian said.
Indeed, it was Confucius who uttered, perhaps while wandering between battling states, or while sitting beneath a cypress with students: "He whose heart is in the smallest degree set upon Goodness will dislike no one."
Yet he posited so much more about life, loyalty, and leadership, including this: "The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we in China."
So in the centuries since, monuments were built behind the sturdy stone gate by emperors who counted on Confucius, and on those who advanced his teachings, to control their evolving empires. Within walled grounds, nine courtyards encircle a temple to Confucius, one of the largest of any kind in China. An adjacent complex of mansions stands as memory of the "holy" home for well-positioned members of the family of Kong, as Confucius's descendants are known.
As dusk settled and Bian strapped his stool to the back of a bicycle, I turned from the acres of wood and stone symbols and sat in a rickshaw pedaled by a driver who can recite ideas and epochs dating to 500 BC and before. He began with a story not 40 years old.
"I'd go into the temples to play and into the Confucius cemetery," the driver said, recounting idle teenage days in 1967. "When they cracked apart the tablets, I went every day."
The cracking of tablets and temple walls was done by members of the Red Guards, the rabid student supporters of Mao Zedong who came to Qufu to complete the destruction of Confucius's legacy; it had already been criticized as a foundation of feudalism when China's last emperor fell to revolutionary forces in 1911.
The rickshaw driver, who said he preferred anonymity when I asked his name, kept a lazy pace along a tree-lined street. A woman with wrinkled cheeks sold ripe apricots from a cart she pushed by hand. The driver, his brown skin taut beneath a thin white tank top, shifted the setting for his tale of the Red Guards to the Kong family cemetery, located at the north end of Qufu's old town.
"They dug four meters deep to try to find Confucius's body, to throw it away," the driver said. "They could not find it. There was nothing left."
The Red Guards found fresher earth.
"I remember they dug out the tomb of the 76th generation of the same family," the driver said. "The body was still OK and the clothes were still whole and shiny. The Red Guards put gas on the body and burned it."
We turned onto a two-lane commercial street thick with cars, buses, and the occasional horse. The calm of twilight eased the pace past glass-fronted boutiques catering to tourists and followers of Confucius who have come to visit the temple, mansions, and cemetery since 1979, when the government began to patch up the destruction of a decade.
How had the mania of the Red Guards and their Cultural Revolution, which took down Confucius, but also millions of living Chinese, gotten so out of control? After so many years of royal rule that gave power to so few over so many, was it inevitable?
The driver, steady in recounting ideas and incidents, offered only this:
"There was a movement. It was a crazy movement," he said. "People didn't think so much."
. . .
Liu, the wheat farmer, sits in a battered chair in his brick home.
"I was born in 1942," he says, "and that was really hard."
He remembers the communist takeover of China in 1949.
"It solved some food problems. I can't say we were full," he says. "Half-full only."
Liu served in Mao's army and is still a member of the Communist Party.
"Before liberation, we didn't have this kind of house," he says. "Now even this kind of house is out of fashion. People now are building with concrete."
. . .
Concrete. Steel. Glass.
From Qufu, where dormitory blocks crowd a university campus and commercial buildings frame broad boulevards, a highway runs west toward the regional capital of Jining, home to 400,000 people in a district of 8 million.
The route on a weekday was spiked with alternating extremes: first, layers of wheat thrown on asphalt by harvesting farmers; then roadside clusters of construction where cranes reached 11 stories high.
As scenery shifted, the harder edge of modern China lurked beyond the horizon. In land to the west that Confucius traveled later in his life, renegade blood brokers continued to pay desperate locals for blood infected with HIV. In a southern Shandong district to the east, women had recently suffered forced abortions ordered by officials abusing the nation's evolving one-child policy. To think Confucius said this: "Man's very life is honesty, in that without it he will be lucky indeed if he escapes with his life."
Order returned after an hour's drive with the straight skyscrapers of Jining. In a classroom outfitted with a laptop computer and digital projector, a teacher led 11- and 12-year-old students in high-pitched recitation of the San Zi Jing, or Three Character Classics. The easily memorized scripts were written more than 1,000 years after Confucius died.
The uniformed students' voices rose in unison, sharp and shrill:
"At birth, everyone is morally good."
"Everyone is the same inside, but their habits are different."
"Without proper education, people's characters become bad."
Confucian exams had been a foundation of China's civil service system for centuries. The 1911 revolution and later communist crackdown erased such lessons from the nation's schools.
In 1989, Jiang Zemin, then head of the national Communist Party, said it was time again to promote "good elements" within Confucianism, the broad system of social and political beliefs that evolved from the master's early words. President Hu Jintao has talked of a "harmonious society" and in March kicked off a publicity campaign for his list of "eight prides" and "eight shames," a social code reminiscent of Confucian ideals.
Is it all just another effort to use Confucius to keep control in a nation of 1.3 billion citizens? Or is it a natural attempt to find new wisdom in old teachings in order to strengthen Chinese character against global influences?
The chanting students were among 900 at the Qiao Yu School, a joint venture between Chinese investors and the government. Principal Wang Yu Jun criticized Confucius's teachings about obedience of wife to husband and other forms of strict social and political hierarchy; he praised the master's ideas about personal accountability and education. The Three Character Classics were added to the Qiao Yu curriculum only last semester.
"The Chinese population is 20 percent of the whole world," Wang told me. "We should rebuild the best of Chinese culture."
It was Confucius who said: "He who by reanimating the old can gain knowledge of the new is fit to be a teacher."
After the chanting students had quieted, two girls told simple stories about Mencius, a follower who elaborated on Confucius's ideas two centuries after the master's death. A straight-backed boy stood alone to relate a tale involving Kong Rong, a prominent descendant of Confucius who lived 700 years after the master. When given a choice as a child, Kong Rong is said to have chosen the smallest pear. Why?
"Because I am the youngest," the student, as Kong Rong, said. "I should leave the bigger pears for my elders."
Afterward, I sat with three 11-year-old boys. They were patient and serious. I asked what they liked about Confucius.
"He has a very high education, and we want to learn," said Boy One.
"When you learn something, you have to keep at it," said Boy Two.
"We are different, because we are learning something," said Boy Three.
But learning what? Even Wang, the principal, doubted the lessons would resonate until the students were older.
How to measure theoretical instruction in the character of a child? They waited silently for me.
I asked what they do for fun.
Boy Two perked up:
. . .
A photo of Hu Jintao looms on Liu's living room wall. A Konka TV set stands quiet.
"Courtesy, even now, is very strong," Liu says.
He learned Confucian respect for ceremony and for his elders around the hearth as a child.
"It's not easy for me to throw it away," Liu says.
He recalls the Red Guards' attacks on the Qufu temple,20 miles northwest of his wheat fields. It is unclear what Liu means, exactly, when he adds:
"These things pass down from our history, so we should keep them."
. . .
What to keep is a big question. But also, how to keep it?
In another of Shandong's sudden cities, this one called Linzi, the effort swirled in a riot of color in the central plaza on a balmy Sunday evening: Groups of women, members of Communist Party neighborhood committees, spun fans and feathers onstage during traditional dances performed for a crowd of a thousand or more to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the national party.
Early in the evening, Teng Yue Ping, 50, practiced opening and closing a folding fan backstage.
"I'm still not very fluent with this dance," she told me. "We watch the tape and learn."
Confucius is said to have traveled more than 100 miles to get to this region, which then was part of a state known for its fierce chariot warriors. Its leaders declined his counsel.
Today, Linzi emerges from the Yellow River plain in smokestacks and sprawl. Petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals processed in the city are sent throughout China and the world. Much of the traffic travels west to Zibo, a larger city of which Linzi is a part, on an eight-lane boulevard. In one stretch, the highway separates the Yun Hai Flour factory from two rows of market stalls.
The morning after the dance performance, Si Lei , a fresh-faced woman wearing a hooded "Miss Army" sweatshirt with a cell phone zipped in the pocket, sat at her stand behind baskets of fresh eggs, bottles of soy sauce, and a small scale for measuring spices. Passing cement mixers and cargo trucks delivered dust and grinding gears.
"I worked in a restaurant, a bakery, and then I did my own business," Si said. "I sold seafood in markets. I had a rickshaw, so it was hard. I'd go and buy, and sell to other markets. Then I met my husband, so I came here."
Dry heat smothered smog, burning eyes, and scratching throats.
"It's not good here," Si said. "A lot of people have cancer."
A nearby stand was stacked with beans and crackers. A bicycle cart held apples and apricots.
I complimented Si's hip sense of style: blue-tinted sunglasses and bobbed hair with streaks of red.
"I'm 31," she said with a joyous scoff. "Look at my trousers. So dirty!"
As the daughter of a coal miner, she needed to support her siblings too soon.
"I left school more than 10 years ago," she said. "I used to have more dreams. I even took the exams and got certificates."
She laughed, as though undaunted.
"You can't care anymore, so you forget it," she said. "It's OK, it's a hard world."
A comment Si made earlier explained her reality: "In China, there are too many people."
How to find personal success in a place that does not have enough opportunity for all to share?
Confucius said this: "If any means of escaping poverty presented itself, that did not involve doing wrong, I would adopt it. . . . But so long as it is a question of illegitimate means, I will continue to pursue the quests that I love."
Si described visits to care for her parents and efforts to help less fortunate friends and neighbors: Confucian values. She beamed brightest when talking about her only child. She hoped her 6-year-old daughter would study at a university.
"When she was 2, I taught her the English word 'apple,' " Si said. "And she can remember it still!"
. . .
Liu has slept and stands at the edge of a flat field.
A breeze bends poplar leaves as the sun climbs hot. Liu's wife digs nearby to irrigate corn growing in place of wheat. Liu lifts a shovel of dirt and patches the mud wall of a narrow canal.
"I'm not in good health," he says. "Next year, I will not plant."
A butterfly perches on a stalk of wheat riding the canal's rush of water. Liu talks of his two sons, who moved to the city.
"I will stay here," he says.
The butterfly's wings, black and white and spotted with red, flutter.
Contact Tom Haines at email@example.com.