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China, UK have much more in common than you'd think

By Chris Peterson in Beijing (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2016-04-20 14:31

At first glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there are few similarities between China, a Socialist People's Republic of 1.38 billion people with a history stretching back 2,100 years BCE, and the United Kingdom, home to 64.5 million souls living in a mere 243,000 square kilometres, against China's giant landmass of 9.6 million square kilometres.

But you'd be wrong.

The common denominator is the philosophy of the bearded Chinese scholar, editor, politician and philosopher, Confuscius, who lived from 551 to 479 BCE. At that time the inhabitants of the British Isles were living in huts, painting themselves blue and trying to keep warm.

But as Britain celebrates the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, the country's longest-serving monarch, it's her devotion to her duty and her family that is taking center stage amidst all the pomp and pageantry.

In other words, she is a living example of filial piety, one of the principles propounded by Confuscius in his writings and his teachings.

Let me explain by way of looking at how she came to be queen, a story that stretches back to 1936. Next in line to the throne was the then Prince of Wales, who was to be King Edward VIII.

Scandalously, he was heavily involved with an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and in order to marry her he abdicated in 1936 without being formally crowned king.

Under the law of succession, the crown passed to his younger brother, a career Royal Navy officer who suddenly found himself King at the age of 41. Father of two daughters, he was painfully shy and had a debilitating speech defect. (For more on this I recommend the brilliant UK movie, The King's Speech)

His wife, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was appalled, because she knew the pressure this would have on him. But like most other members of the Royal Family, she and her husband had an extreme sense of duty to the nation and family loyalty.

And this is where filial piety, the oft-cited ethic of Confuscius, kicks in.

King George VI died in 1952, relatively young and worn out by the cares of leading his country through World War II and the cancer which killed him. Like many at that time, he was a heavy smoker.

Princess Elizabeth, who adored her father, was appalled. She immediately pledged her life as Queen to country and family, sentiments which surely will echo in Chinese people who are both proud of their country and strongly attached to family and ancestors.

The Queen, who rarely if ever expresses an opinion in public, and doesn't give interviews, is nevertheless fascinated by Asian traditions and religions.

As titular head of the Church of England – one of her titles is Defender of the Faith – she is known to be a devout Christian and as Queen has met leaders of virtually all the world's faiths.

The Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh have both shown enormous interests in Chinese religion, especially Taoism, according to Martin Palmer, who has worked with the Taoists of China over the 20 years. He is an adviser to Prince Philip.

"I remember taking a group of Chinese for a meeting with the Queen and she was just very intrigued with how these different traditions: Taoism, less so Buddhism, and Confucianism, how did they work side by side? How is it that China has never had a religious war?"

Palmer also mentioned that once he took Master Zhang Jiyu, who is the 65th direct ascendant of Zhang Daoling, a well-known Taoist figure in Eastern Han Dynasty, to meet the Queen and Prince Philip. She was fascinated that there was someone who could trace their family back further to the 2nd Century AD, further than she could trace her family back, which is to 700 AD.

"So that sense of lineage, that sense of knowing where your family has come from and what they did, good, bad and indifferent, is also an interesting point," Palmer said.

And there you have it. No wonder the Queen and President Xi Jinping got on so well during his state visit in October last year. They had a lot in common.

The writer is Managing Editor, Europe for China Daily. Contact him on chris@mail.chinadailyuk.com

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