Too many cooks spoil the broth, but too many bureaucratic double takes may end the long Chinese tradition of paying material homage to Confucius, the founder of its state religion until the birth of the Chinese republic. The Ministry of the Interior is now concluding a revision of the 1935 decree authorizing the remuneration of the lineal descendent of Confucius, which the Democratic Progressive Party first demanded more than two decades ago to kick off its de-Sinicization campaign.
Mao Zedong tried in vain to de-Confucianize China. Taiwan's politicians picked up where Mao had left off, insisting that Kung Teh-cheng, the seventy-seventh lineal descendent of the sage, be deprived of his remuneration for serving as Sacrificial Official to Confucius. A number of DPP heavyweight lawmakers, including Shih Ming-teh and Yu Ching, proposed in 1988 the cutting of all budgeted funds for the then-president of the Examination Yuan who doubled as sacerdotalist. Shih, incidentally, led the March of One Million Redshirts in 2006 in an attempt to topple Chen Shui-bian as president. The move was symbolic, for Kung refused to accept any remuneration for the homage he was required to pay on the birthday of his great ancestor.
DPP leaders continued proposing a repeal of the decree for years, but their motion was turned down at the Kuomintang-controlled Legislative Yuan each time it was made. To halt this annual harassment, the administration stopped compiling the budget for the Office of Sacerdotalists in accordance with the executive order Chiang Kai-shek issued in Nanjing as president of the Republic of China. An end run was made in 1999; the remuneration for all five "high priests," including Kung, is earmarked as part of the personnel expense of the interior ministry. The other four sacerdotalists are the lineal descendants of Mencius, Yen Tzu , Tseng Tzu , and Tzu Shih . They have to take part in the ceremonies where the lineal descendent of Confucius presides, held on September 28. Currently, the descendant of Confucius is entitled to an annuity of NT1.8 million, with the four minor high priests each receiving an annual salary of NT$1.56 million.
The salaries for all four will be abolished, according to the decree to be amended after a score years' delay, albeit no DPP leaders are demanding the change. But there has been change in the four families. Kung Teh-cheng died in October last year. His eldest son, the seventy-eighth lineal descendent, had died before him, and primogeniture requires his eldest grandson, Kung Tsu-chang, to succeed to the vacant sinecure. The younger Kung does not want to inherit the once-a-year ceremonial job, though he paid homage to Confucius as the sage's seventy-ninth lineal descendent at last year's birthday ceremonies, deferred by one month by a typhoon on September 28. Meng Hsiang-hsieh, the seventy-ninth lineal descendent of Mencius, attended the delayed rites as a paid sacerdotalist. Tseng Hsien-wei, the seventy-fifth lineal descendent and paid sacerdotalist, had to have his eldest son attend as a proxy. No lineal descendants of Yen Tzu have come from China to Taiwan, while the descendant of Tzu Shih, Kung Wei-ning, was present at the simple, solemn rites but declined to accept any pay.
The change the ministry wants to make is just to keep the post of Sacrificial Official to Confucius and abolish the four sinecures. Officials of the home office are willing to continue to pay the seventy-ninth descendent of Confucius for life and let his successor perform sacerdotal rites without pay. Moreover, they want to amend the decree so as to make it possible for a female to assume the ceremonial office in line with the gender equality act.That makes it not altogether impossible that a high priestess may officiate at Confucian birthday rites in the not too remote future, if the decree were overhauled as the officials of the ministry wished. But the chances are that the decree won't be adopted as amended. Well, even Huang Li-hsing, director-general of internal affairs at the home office and an architect for the amendment, has to admit there's going to be a hot public debate on the proposed changes in the old decree. Remember what transpired in Japan over the succession to the chrysanthemum throne while Junichiro Koizumi was still prime minister? The crown prince has no son, but the law of succession forbids a princess from ascending the throne. A heated public debate then continued for a couple of years over a revision of that law to "create" an empress until a son was born to the wife of the younger brother of the crown prince.
Just like in Japan with the birth of the imperial heir, the debate over succession in Taiwan will end when it is started on the floor of Taipei's legislative chamber, where the Kuomintang enjoys a virtual three-fourths majority. The conservative party, that takes pride in Taiwan keeping China's traditional Confucian heritage, won't let the bureaucrats tinker with the decree the way they like.
The question is why they should try to tinker after so many double takes and without provocation. Do they claim to be heirs to those revolutionary Peking University students shouting "Down with Confucius and Company" during the May 5 Movement of 1919? One reason for abolishing the sinecures is to save money for the national treasury, but that is a lie. The most the government can save is a mere NT$8 million a year, not enough to build a small sick bay on one of the conventional submarine Taiwan hopes to buy from abroad though the underwater craft may never be of any use, when a war breaks out. The Ministry of Education is squandering more than NT$100 million to buy video games and other teaching aids to improve traditional Confucian moral instructions in school.
One thing has to be clearly understood. It is symbolism that is upheld by the nation paying homage to Confucius. The Chinese sweep their ancestral tombs at least once a year. The tomb-sweeping is an act symbolic of their respect and gratitude to their even unknown forebear. The Japanese consider their emperor the symbol of the nation; and they mark his birthday and were seriously concerned when Akihito seemed unlikely to have a grandson.
Confucius is the symbol of Chinese civilization. The grateful nation has paid tribute to its greatest sage for close to two millennia. Why not leave President Chiang Kai-shek's decree of 1935 alone?