At 12, James Kong surprised his teacher by talking about the merits of self-cultivation and righteousness at a school camp in Barnes, London. At 15 he was lecturing fellow students aged 8 to 18 about Confucian values at a community event. Now, aged 17, Kong, a second-generation immigrant to Britain, is back in China, playing a key role in the play, Then They Came for Me, whose message ties up with the core Confucian idea of a peaceful and harmonious society.
It's not a coincidence that Confucius (551-479 BC) seems to be a reference point in the life of this serene-faced London-bred teenager. Kong is the 79th direct descendent of the philosopher whose influence on Chinese social life has been sustained across 2,500 years.
Like many young men his age, Kong plays the guitar, writes songs and is crazy about soccer. He also dreams of writing a book about The Analects, recording his personal discovery of this seminal Confucian text, as a young Londoner.
He thinks Confucius could be the key for a wayward young generation in Britain. The experiment worked when he interpreted Confucius for the students of state-run schools in southwest London.
"A lot of the kids told me that it changed their lives," he says, like a natural-born leader, referring to people his own age with tenderness and compassion.
His father, Richard, has seen a few dramatic reversals in his life, having lived through the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when Confucianism was seen as retrogressive and anti-modern. He was a movie star in Hong Kong, then a fur supplier to Hugo in England. Richard is now back in Shanghai, running the family's pharmaceuticals business.
As a major sponsor of Then They Came for Me in China, Richard shares his son's conviction about disseminating the Confucian message of live and let live.
"Countries keep invading each other, they do not respect each other's culture or religion," he says. "I would say introduce your culture to others but don't make war, don't try to control other's resources. It's totally against humanity."
Updating the Confucian family tree has been one of Richard's major occupations in the recent past. Research and compilation took 12 years, cost $6.16 million and was formally launched in September 2009, showing the location of 2 million descendants of Confucius across 17 countries.
The project marked a dramatic turnaround in his life, he says. As he delved deeper into the family history, discovered relatives and had in-depth conversations with experts in Confucian philosophy, Richard could visualize the evolution of traditional Chinese culture and Confucian values and "how these might be used for the betterment of today's society".
It changed him personally too. Finally, he was practicing the philosophy he had studied as a text. "I felt more peaceful, secure and happier than before."
His son, who has proof that talking about Confucius can stem hatred and erase differences, says Confucius transcends national identities. "Maybe it's time we replaced religion with philosophy."