BEIJING – Revered for centuries but reviled in recent decades, Confucius is making a comeback in China — and its dinner plates.
“Confucius cuisine” is a fine-dining trend that reflects how the ruling Communist Party, which long saw the sage as a reactionary force, has drafted him into its modern campaign to boost what President Xi Jinping has called China’s “cultural soft power.”
One of the few ancient Chinese names to have global recognition, the philosopher highlights bonds with overseas Chinese and other Asian nations.
The authorities are “going back and finding certain elements that existed before the 20th century” and “exploiting Confucius as a brand,” said Thomas Wilson, a professor at Hamilton College in New York.
Among restaurants in Qufu in the province of Shandong, where the philosopher lived from 551-479 B.C., the cuisine is an edible symbol of the way Confucius has been reworked.
“Book of Odes and Book of Rites Ginkos,” a dense, mildly sweet dessert named after two Confucius classics, is a yellow pea flour “book” topped with nuts and drizzled with honey. In another dish, radishes carved into exquisite trees reflect his saying that “food can never be too fine and cooking never too delicate.”
The philosopher’s teachings of hierarchy, order and deference had deep resonance in the feudal societies of China and the region. They regularly feted all manner of dignitaries with elaborate banquets, over time developing an exquisite cuisine.
But that privileged world disappeared in the 20th century, as Japan invaded the country and the communists won the civil war. Many of Confucius’ descendants, then in the 77th generation, fled to Taiwan.
With trained chefs having fled mainland China or passed away, piecing together Confucius cuisine has proved difficult.
“The Cultural Revolution cut off nearly four generations,” lamented Wang Xinglan, who was commissioned by the Commerce Ministry to rediscover Confucius cuisine and now heads the Shandong Cuisine Research Association.
Professor Wilson pointed out that “the first motive for reviving any of these things is to make money. The so-called Confucius cuisine is part of the opening up of the tourist industry in China.”
A Qufu resident dismissed what she considers a ploy for free-spending tourists, saying: “They take a carrot and carve it into something pretty. But it doesn’t taste good, it only looks good. It’s for people with money.”