Rehabilitation of Confucius complete

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Niccolo and Donkey
Rehabilitation of Confucius complete

The Globe and Mail

Mark MacKinnon

January 14, 2011

Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher condemned by Mao Zedong as an enemy of China’s Communist Revolution, is now sharing space with the Chairman on Tiananmen Square.

A 9.5-metre-high stone statue of the sage was unveiled this week in front of the National Museum of China on the eastern edge of Tiananmen. The wizened image of Confucius, emerging from a base of solid rock, is locked in permanent meditation not far from the mausoleum where Mao has lain in waxy state since his death in 1976.

The place of honour on China’s most famous square – just southeast of the Forbidden City gate where Mao’s portrait hangs – caps a remarkable comeback for the philosopher once derided as preacher of “feudal mentality.” At the unveiling, Confucius was hailed by National Museum of China curator Lu Zhangshen as “the symbol of traditional Chinese culture, with a far-reaching impact across the globe.”

Born in 511 BC, Confucius and his teachings weren’t always so popular with Communist Party officials. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, being named as a follower of Confucianism could lead to a death sentence. Statues of the great teacher were torn down and Confucian temples were ransacked by Mao’s Red Guards. A campaign attacking one of Mao’s rivals for his supposed Confucian leanings was dubbed “the most important matter for the whole party, the whole army and the people of the whole country.”

In recent years, however, the Communist Party and many ordinary Chinese have quietly moved to re-embrace Confucius – particularly his emphasis on ethical behaviour and respect for authority – as the country searches desperately for a post-Maoism ideology. “For the government, there's appeal in a philosophy that preaches harmony at a time when a yawning rich-poor gap and anger at corruption have fuelled instability,” the Shanghai Daily wrote on Friday.

The government has opened some 320 Confucius Institutes in 96 countries around the world (including nine in Canada) over the past six years, a soft-power effort aimed at spreading Chinese language and culture around the globe. The slogans of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao – particularly the government’s stated aim of building a “harmonious society” – draw on Confucian sayings rather than the angry class rhetoric of Mao.

Last year, the government backed Confucius , a big-budget movie biography starring Chow Yun-Fat. When the film did poorly at the box office against James Cameron’s Avatar , the official State Administration of Radio, Film and Television cut the number of screens on which Avatar was being shown by nearly half.

“I think the reason that Confucianism is being revived is precisely because there are so many problems in China that need some sort of answer. There’s a need for an increased sense of social responsibility … people sense a kind of moral vacuum,” said Daniel Bell, a Canadian scholar who teaches political philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing and is the author of China’s New Confucianism .

Prof. Bell said the government’s overt embrace of Confucius began in 2004 with the launch of the Confucius Institutes and took on a semi-official nature when quotes from The Analects of Confucius – rather than anything written by Marx or Mao – were used to open the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

The statue is nonetheless a surprising gesture, Prof. Bell said, due to the sanctity of Tiananmen Square, which unlike the rest of Beijing has stood almost frozen in time for decades.

The new addition was immediately popular with tourists and passersby. “The Chinese are a nation without a religion. We believe only in ourselves,” said a 48-year-old businessman and former soldier who gave only his family name, Zhang. “Mao's theories, to speak frankly, are not as tolerant as those of Confucius. It's a lucky thing to see [the statue of Confucius] now in Tiananmen Square.”