Confucius on Tiananmen Square

Chinese authorities press a formerly reviled cultural figure into service as a symbol of social harmony.

2011.01.14
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confuciusstatue305.jpg Chinese tourists pose in front of the Confucius statue on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Jan. 11, 2011.
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Authorities in Beijing have unveiled a huge statue of Confucius at the heart of communist China on the hallowed ground of Tiananmen Square.

The sculpture comes on the crest of a wave of Confuciana to sweep mainland China, where the 2,500 year-old sage was once reviled as a tyrant during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

Analysts say his message of harmonious social order and deference to authority is once more resonating with a government facing a widening gap between rich and poor and growing social unrest.

Beijing has also used Confucius to bolster a sense of national identity, analysts say.

Sculptor Wu Weishan, who has made more than 200 statues of the philosopher, said he sees Confucius as part of China's "cultural foundation."

"Chinese culture upholds the spirit of harmony," Wu said in a recent media interview, in an apparent reference to the emphasis of President Hu Jintao on a "harmonious society."

"The essential thoughts of Confucius are love, kindness, wisdom, and generosity," he added. "And peace and prosperity are what the people are striving for."

The bronze sculpture stands at 9.5 meters in height and shows a robed Confucius with a serious expression facing in the direction of Mao's portrait, which dominates the Square.

Confucian ethics lay heavy emphasis on good governance, obedience to authority, correct social and family relationships, and restrained behavior.

Mixed reaction

Online reaction to the sculpture was mixed, including plenty of satirical humor.

Some reports suggested that the government might be using Confucius to lend itself an air of respectability.

"The statue has been modeled on Confucius and faces Chang'an Avenue, expressing gentle strength, an awe-inspiring but kindly force, strength without aggression, and quiet respectability," according to an official media description of the sculpture.

Others were less reverential.

"Confucius' butt is facing the Museum of History, as if to say that history is nonsense," wrote user Wang Sixiang.

Netizen Liu Junning added, in an apparent reference to Beijing's claim over Taiwan: "Confucius has now been formally 'reunified'."

"I suggest he be appointed as honorary chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in perpetuity," Liu added.

Sichuan-based Internet commentator Pu Fei said many have commented on the irony of the sculpture's position on the Square.

"Before, the campaigns to root out Confucianism were very successful," Pu said. "Now, the positioning of Confucius just to the side of the Mao Zedong Mausoleum makes it look as if he's protecting the spirit of Mao."

"It's funny, whichever way you look at it," he said.

'Pressed into service'

Others said that Confucius' respect for the intellect was being pressed into service to endorse existing divisions in Chinese society.

"They want people to believe that it's their fate to have a tough life," wrote online author Cheng Chaofu. "In this respect, they have already succeeded."

Some university students said they had already been taught about Confucian values in political study classes emphasizing social harmony.

The aim seemed to be to lend historical authenticity to President Hu Jintao's emphasis on harmony and social stability, they said.

But the ruling Communist Party described Confucius in 1973 as "pierced by 1,000 cuts, as a typical counterrevolutionary and stiff-necked protector of the slave society," according to Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper.

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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