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Looking back to the future on Shanghai’s Street of Eternal Happiness

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When you take a stroll among the steel and glass towers of downtown Shanghai, you could be anywhere. Sometimes in this city, it’s easy to forget you’re in China. And then suddenly, China finds you. 

A beggar sits on a curb of the Street of Eternal Happiness playing the bamboo flute. The skyscraper behind him releases a stream of office workers in black suits; they pass by on their way to the subway. Today’s rush hour soundtrack is brought to you by the Ming Dynasty, a tune from five hundred years ago. It’s a reminder that China has thousands of years of history. And more and more of these office workers want to reconnect with it.   

In a converted apartment in a quiet lane just off the Street of Eternal Happiness, young urban professionals are packed in, drinking tea and taking notes from a professor who’s teaching them how to write classical poetry. 

Each week they come here to discuss the teachings from the era of Confucius, 2500 years ago. Liu Xun helps run this club.  

“Now, society is going at a very fast pace,” Liu says. “Some people like it. Some people cope with it, but they really don’t like it.”  

China’s breakneck economic growth is bewildering to outsiders. Even if you’re an insider, it can make your head spin.   Liu says many young professionals are desperately seeking ways to cope with the pressures of 21st Century China.   

“It’s always a good thing to go back and check what your ancestors have done,” Liu says. “Maybe they have thought all of these things over and over again, and they already have very good answers for you.”  

On this day, ten members have dressed up in traditional bright colored silk robes that were hip more than two thousand years ago during the Qin dynasty. They walk as a group along the Street of Eternal Happiness…people just stare. Shen Zefeng and Zhu Jiaqing say they do this from time to time to remind other Chinese about their traditional culture.

Shen says, “The problem is many Chinese think we’re wearing Japanese or Korean clothes!” 

“They have no idea,” Zhu agrees. “Each time we go out, we always have to remind people that this is OUR traditional clothing.” 

The club’s co-founder, Xu Yuan, says many Chinese suffer from this type of cultural amnesia because of decades of revolution and economic transformation.

“Many Chinese have forgotten about what it means to be Chinese,” Xu says. “Yet their habits and behavior reflect an ancient tradition. Rediscovering who they are is really important.”  

In just two years, this small club has attracted more than fifty thousand people to its events. It’s part of a larger movement in China to revive Confucian thought-from thousands of cultural centers like this one to hundreds of Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes all over the world. Cultural critic Zhu Dake is skeptical about the Confucian revival.  

“The government is rich, but the people are not,” says Zhu, a professor at Shanghai’s Tongji University. “They’re in a constant state of anxiety, so they seek out traditional philosophies from the time of Confucius that encourage you to not worry so much about material gains and instead focus on the bright side of life. I think it’s a way to hypnotize yourself rather than to proactively change the circumstances that cause your anxiety in the first place.”

Zhu says China’s Communist Party is promoting a Confucian revival because the party’s original ideology is wearing thin. Zhu would rather see Chinese people embrace non-Confucian aspects of Chinese history such as Taoism, which place a greater emphasis on a harmonious relationship with nature. Zhu points out that with China’s terrible environmental record, it’s a tenant his country should follow.

Back on the Street of Eternal Happiness, Zheng Jianfei, dressed in a black silk robe from the Qin dynasty, says there’s a big debate in China about which parts of its cultural tradition the country should embrace going forward.  

“Some say we should develop Chinese society with unique Chinese characteristics, others say we should continue to embrace Western culture,” Zheng says. “Some even say we should step back to feudal society with an emperor. Who knows?”

But tonight, there’s a more pressing matter to figure out. On their walk in their traditional Chinese costumes, the group gets lost on a winding road, unsure of where they are. No need to worry, Zheng tells the others. If we just keep walking, he says, we’ll find our destination.

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