January 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Confucius is back again and, at 10 meters tall, is bigger than ever. Why the continued preoccupation with the ancient Sage (551 B.C.E.-479 B.C.E.) in today’s China is still unclear (see here and here). Only time will tell whether the current interest in him has real staying power. In this particular incarnation, Confucius is a statue constructed of silicone and steel, complete with pulsating heart, submerged from the waist down in a pool of water.
Q Confucius No. 2, as it is called, is but one piece in Zhang Huan’s solo show, Q Confucius, now on display at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. I haven’t seen it–but wish I could. (It runs through January 29.) Zhang Huan, who works out of Beijing, Shanghai, and New York, explains that the images in the show have their origins in a series of questions he’s been pondering:
Faced with rapid economic and societal changes and energy and climate challenges, how can we achieve sustainable development? What responsibilities come along with China’s rise in international importance? Where is the sense of spiritual belonging for contemporary Chinese?
Where indeed? Confucius No. 2, half submerged, half emerged, invites us to consider whether the iconic Sage has a sustained, moral-spiritual role to play in China today. How fully will his age-old teachings and ideals connect with the needs of a country undergoing sweeping social, economic, and cultural changes? Will an updated, vital Confucius emerge from his relative insignificance in the 20th century–from the pummeling of the May 4th movement and then Mao’s cultural revolution–to serve as spiritual guide to the Chinese people in the 21st century?
Zhang Huan offers no answers. But that he, one of China’s edgiest avant-garde artists, feels compelled to ask the questions, to contemplate the meaning of Confucius in China today, is sure indication that Chinese today are searching for meaning.
July 5, 2011 § 2 Comments
The Setting: Tiananmen Square
The Time: January 2011-June 2011
The Players: Mao Zedong, Confucius, Louis Vuitton
Sounds almost like a Tom Stoppard play. But, no, Mao, Confucius, and Louis Vuitton have been mixing it up lately on China’s most renowned stage.
For decades now, Mao’s portrait has hung over the Tiananmen Gate at the far north of the Square, even as his embalmed body lies in the mausoleum built immediately after his death in the center of the Square. Mao, the Great Helmsman, founder of the People’s Republic of China, looms mightily over the Square reminding the Chinese people of the Party’s achievement in raising the country out of its “feudal” and impoverished past and restoring it to prosperity and global influence.
On January 13, Mao was joined in the Square by a figure of at least equal repute in China: Confucius.
Born in 551 B.C.E., the Sage, as he is known, left behind a set of teachings as influential as any the world has known. These teachings became the basis of state ideology by the second century B.C.E., and remained so, with some ups and downs, for more than two millennia. But with the opening decades of the 20th century, prominent intellectuals and political figures took aim at Confucian teachings, arguing that they were in large part responsible for China’s backwardness and weakness relative to the West.
Mao especially disliked what he believed to be the enduring effects of Confucius’ “feudal” practices on the people and, during the cultural revolution of 1967-1976, called on the Red Guards to destroy all texts, temples, sites, and statues associated with Confucius throughout China. No small irony then that, suddenly, in early January, a humongous 17-ton statue of the Sage appeared at the north gate of the newly renovated National Museum of China on the east side of the Square—facing, almost directly, Mao’s 15’ x 25’ visage hanging above the Tiananmen Gate.
Now, if Mao himself wasn’t agitated, loyal supporters apparently were. Confucius, after all, was an affront to all that Mao had stood—and fought—for. Consequently, Confucius, all 17 tons of him, disappeared on April 20, as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared 3 months earlier. No one has yet come forward with a formal explanation of the statue’s comings and goings, but pundits assume, no doubt rightly, that Confucius’ appearance and disappearance represent behind-the-scenes political jockeying between different camps within the leadership.
So, Confucius has exited the square. Enter Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton has taken up a perch almost exactly where the bronze Confucius had been set down. But rather than outside the north entrance of the National Museum, Louis Vuitton is inside the National Museum. What’s he doing there next to rare porcelain vases and bronzes vessels. He is displaying, in a 4-room exhibition, LV luggage and handbags dating back to the 1860s, reminding museum-goers of all the luxury they missed out on since the country’s fall from power in the mid-19th century. Clever marketing, especially in a country where the world’s high-end brands are all competing for visibility among a newly consumerist population.
The question that comes to mind is this: Confucius has been chased from Mao’s square, but can Louis Vuitton, the representative of capitalist luxury and wasteful consumption, be any more palatable to the Chairman? Is Louis’ presence there preferable to the Sage’s? Some Chinese, among them no doubt Mao’s followers, have expressed displeasure with a Louis Vuitton show in a Chinese historical museum, of all places. Stores are one thing—there are now 27 Louis Vuitton stores in China—but a spot in the fabulously renovated National Museum of China in one of the world’s most historically rich squares?
Don’t assume, however, that Confucius has entirely left the stage. Having lost his much coveted spot outside the National Museum in Tiananmen Square, he’s moved on to Shanghai. For reasons that are not at all clear, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum decided that the great Sage, with his renewed popularity, deserved a show at the very same time the museum had planned to display “Albert Einstein (1879-1955),” an exhibition owned by the Historical Museum of Bern, Switzerland (currently on view at the Hong Kong Science Museum).
The Shanghai museum’s motive here is unclear. Did it see a comparative-sage exhibition as a potential blockbuster? Or was it a nationalistic decision? That is, we have our Eastern Sage too? Or maybe it was simply to fill gallery space. In any event, unhappy with the Shanghai’s proposal to merge the Einstein exhibition with a Confucius exhibition, the Bern Museum announced on Tuesday (June 7) that it had shelved plans to bring its show to Shanghai.
Confucius thus seems to have fared better against Einstein in Shanghai than against Mao in Beijing. Whether Confucius will have a solo show in the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum remains to be seen. And the meaning of the showdown between Confucius and Einstein is, if possible, less clear, at least at the moment, than that between Confucius and the Chairman.
What is clear, though, is that Confucius, however aged, is getting around these days.
A version of this post first appeared as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on June 29.
May 17, 2011 § Leave a Comment
One of China’s great philosophers, Mencius (4th c. B.C.E.), a follower of Confucius, told the story of a man from the state of Song in central China:
There was a man from Song who was distressed that his shoots of corn were not growing and so he tugged at them. Wearily, he returned home and said, ‘I have exhausted myself today; I have been helping the sprouts to grow.’ His son hurried out to take a look; the sprouts had all withered. Under heaven, there are but a few a few who do not help the sprouts to grow. Some feel that they can be of no benefit at all and thus neglect the sprouts entirely; they are the ones who don’t even bother to weed. Some actively help in the growing process; these are the ones who pull at the sprouts. It is not just that they are of no benefit—they even do harm. (Mencius 2A.2)
In telling this story, Mencius had a moral purpose, not an agronomic one. Still, it’s rather a shame that farmers today in the eastern province of Jiangsu didn’t take the agronomic lesson to be learned from Mencius more seriously.
In early May, farmers there, wanting to increase the size of their watermelons, sprayed about 115 acres of the crop with the chemical fertilizer forchlorfenuron, a growth accelerator. The chemical is legal, but, apparently, not particularly safe, especially when used in excessive quantity and in overly wet conditions. Beginning on May 7, watermelons in Jiangsu began, on their own, splitting open and exploding, sending rinds, seeds, and shrapnel of red flesh into the air.
No casualties yet, but one women in Jiangsu had a close call as the watermelon she was cutting up exploded in her hands.
Farmer Liu Mingsuo, the owner of eight of the landmined acres, has told China Central Television (CCTV) that he can no longer sleep at night, as he’s haunted by the vision of exploding watermelons. He told China Central Television, “On May 7, I came out and counted 80 (bursting watermelons) but by the afternoon it was 100. Two days later I didn’t bother to count anymore.”
The moral here for the Chinese is: listen to environmental advocates urging that the country reduce its use of toxic fertilizers and pesticides (China Global Times).
Also: read your Mencius!
January 14, 2011 § 9 Comments
In an historical twist that ranks pretty high on the irony scale, Confucius and Mao Zedong are now going mano a mano in Tian’anmen Square.
In this Square, atop the Tian’anmen Gate, Mao in 1949 proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China to to the Chinese people and the rest of the world. And in this Square hangs the iconic 15-by-20-foot oil painting of Mao—the one that has long been beamed into our living rooms by the nightly news.
In this Square, too, Mao launched the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s, a key part of which was an anti-Confucius campaign calling for the total obliteration of the “feudal” thinking and feudal social practices associated with the Confucian tradition. Loyal Red Guards, heeding Mao’s call, wrote in the People’s Daily (1/10/67): “To struggle against Confucius, the feudal mummy, and thoroughly eradicate …reactionary Confucianism is one of our important tasks in the Great Cultural Revolution.” And then, to make their point, they went on a nation-wide rampage, destroying temples, statues, historical landmarks, texts, and anything at all to do with the ancient Sage.
But now, just two days ago (on Wednesday January 12), in this same Square, an imposing, 30-foot bronze statue of Mao’s old enemy–and China’s ancient Sage–Confucius, was erected.
It stands at the northern gate of the National Museum of China, facing Mao’s dimpled portrait.
It’s safe to assume that the Great Helmsman would not be happy sharing his space with the ancient Sage. But what’s this statuary-portraiture showdown at Tian’anmen about?
It’s certainly not one that could easily have been imagined even a few short years ago. But Confucianism is now enjoying a revival. Government officials quote from the Analects of Confucius, the publication of books about Confucius and his teachings is flourishing, and the study of Confucian thought and writings has taken hold in universities—as well as in primary and secondary schools.
How sincere and how enduring is this so-called Confucian revival? We can’t know–yet.
But what we can know is that by placing the 17-ton bronze statue in such a favored, almost sacred, space, the Chinese government is lending its unambiguous endorsement to the Sage’s resuscitation.
October 1, 2010 § 2 Comments
This post reproduces an op-ed piece from today’s LA Times (October 1) on the so-called revival of Confucianism in China today–especially in government circles.
What Confucius says is useful to China’s rulers
The venerable sage’s teachings have enjoyed a revival in 21st century China because they serve the communist regime well politically.
Confucius, the venerable sage who lived in the 6th century BC, is enjoying a 21st century revival. His rehabilitators? The Chinese Communist Party. Yes, that party, the one celebrating the 61st anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1. The same party whose chairman, Mao Tse-tung, vilified Confucius’ “stinking corpse” during the Cultural Revolution and ordered the Red Guards to destroy all temples, statues, historical landmarks and texts associated with the sage. But, as China turns 61, the Great Helmsman is out and Confucius, who would have turned 2,561 on Sept. 28, is in.
As early as February 2005, the Beijing leadership began endorsing the sage’s teachings again, citing him approvingly in a speech delivered to the National Congress by President Hu Jintao: “Confucius said, ‘Harmony is something to be cherished.’ ” Since then the terms “harmonious society” and “harmonious world” have become mantras of the party leaders and the basis of their domestic and foreign policies. During the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, the world was greeted not by quotations from Mao’s Little Red Book but by warm homilies from the teachings of Confucius.
What explains this redemption? Confucius gave attention to two overarching matters: what makes for good government, and what makes for a morally good individual. His answers were elegant — and compelling — in their simplicity. Good government rules not by physical force but through moral force. The ideal ruler embodies virtue, which is expressed in his unfailingly benevolent treatment of the people. In turn, the people voluntarily, even eagerly, choose to follow him.
Because government, to be good, requires a good ruler — and good officials — Confucius also characterizes what makes for a good person: someone who possesses a love of learning; strives to achieve benevolence, righteousness, propriety and wisdom; treats others as he would wish to be treated; is trustworthy and loyal as a friend, filial as a son and obedient as a subject; and, reciprocally, is affectionate and caring as a parent or an official.
What in this millenniums-old vision resonates with Beijing today?
With the proclamation “to get rich is glorious,” Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader for two decades beginning in the late 1970s, ushered in the post-Mao era. An ideology of socialist revolution through class warfare gave way to an ideology of getting rich. And, of course, the Chinese — or at least some — have since become very wealthy indeed. But unbridled economic growth has spawned a host of problems: a widening gulf between rich and poor, urban and rural; heightened social tensions; increasing unemployment; rising crime; rampant corruption, especially among government officials and local business leaders; environmental degradation; healthcare and elderly care that is out of the reach of vast numbers of people; and a skyrocketing incidence of public protests (tens of thousands annually).
The Communist Party is neither unaware of nor insensitive to these problems. But it is determined to confront them without surrendering any of its political control or authority; it has shown little inclination to make substantive changes to the prevailing political system or institutions of government.
In the ideology of Confucianism, party leadership has rediscovered a potent language for addressing the challenges China now faces. The teachings of the sage, after all, offer the promise of social harmony. The crux of the Confucian agenda is that individuals, whatever their social or economic status, are to treat their fellow human beings empathetically and with proper respect. A philanthropic, communal spirit imbues humanity, creating a society in which “all within the four seas are brothers.” Here the Beijing leadership sees an opportunity to lessen the wealth gap and ease social tensions — and at little financial cost to the government.
And if official corruption is one of the most serious grievances among the people — frequently capable of sparking social unrest — traditional Confucian teachings again provide authorities with the language to show the people that they are attacking it head-on. The official China Daily observed in 2007: “In traditional Confucianism, the cultivation of personal moral integrity is considered the most basic quality for an honest official. The qualities of uprightness, modesty, hard work, frugality and honesty that President Hu encourages officials to incorporate into their work and lifestyle are exactly the same as the moral integrity of a decent person in traditional culture.”
Confucius promises a government that cares for the people, that makes their well-being its primary concern. This is to govern by virtue. And virtue creates its own legitimacy: paternalistic, affectionate care of the people by the rulers is sure to be reciprocated by the people’s trust and obedience. Hu Jintao’s appropriation of the language of Confucianism not only fills the ideological void left by Marxist-Leninism’s demise but also suggests to the governed that, in seeking to create a harmonious society and a harmonious world, he and other officials take their “Confucian” responsibility of moral leadership to heart. Their expectation is that the people, in turn, will place trust in the government and be obedient to it, with minimal dissent.
China’s government appears determined to address the fissures and tensions born of almost three decades of unrestrained economic development. But it seems equally determined to bring about such change without reforming the prevailing one-party system of governance. The regime in Beijing, eager to keep its power intact, to maintain the political status quo, has chosen, for the time being, to goad the Chinese toward social harmony through traditional ideological and moral exhortations.
Resuscitating the sage today thus serves the party’s political aims. But to conclude that cherry-picking soothing phrases from Confucian writings is the same as a genuine and enduring commitment to the vision of Confucius would be a mistake.
Daniel K. Gardner is a professor of history and the director of the program in East Asian studies at Smith College.
Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times