SINOGRAPH Confucius takes a stand
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - In a ritual equal only to that of the church, last week China placed
a statue of Confucius in its political heart, Tiananmen Square, before Mao
Zedong's portrait and near the modern obelisk to the People's Heroes, two
symbols that materially defined China's national identity for 60 years.
This is a political statement, not a celebration of art, and it reshapes the
country's ideological mission. The removal of images of saints from churches
was the pronouncement of the Protestant Reformation and unleashed a wave of
radical development in European and world history with the rapid spread
of modern capitalism.
In this case, it is not rebellion against the seat of the popes, but to give
new meaning to the People's Republic which, last October 1, began a new phase
by celebrating its 61st anniversary. The Chinese traditional astral/political
cycles are 60 years long and a new one started last year.
Beijing has decided to stop the old Maoist paraphernalia of great speeches and
huge gatherings in the square and instead preferred a sad ceremony where the
whole top echelons of the state, followed by a crowd of officials and ordinary
people, offered flowers and tributes to the obelisk.
The Confucius monument is the seal of this change, but also a powerful signal
to a separate part of the country - the nationalists expelled from the mainland
in 1949 and perched on the island of Taiwan. Here, in these 60 years, Confucius
was the cultural beacon.
Yet, as the last great sign in this symbolic labyrinth, it makes a gesture of
historical unity. This year is the centenary of the revolution that overthrew
the Manchu Dynasty and did not establish, for the first time in Chinese
millennia, an imperial system but a republican one. Mao is only one of the
children of that revolution, though no doubt the most important one.
It is a theological change from the past, like day and night, even if cloaked
in the courtesy and mannerisms that once seemed esoteric in the West, and thus
were called "Oriental".
So now, before these large ideological shifts, militants of various factions
are already up and grumbling.
The last ultra-Maoists emphasize that the great helmsman had spent all his
energies against Confucius and his intellectual legacy in an attempt to
eradicate his influence across the country.
The ultra "Confucianists" joined the chorus, by saying that the 25-century-old
prudent and conservative philosopher has nothing to do with the "lawless and
godless" rebel (mei fa mei tian), as Mao called himself.
Academics in between weave a web of connections by trying to connect the dots.
They pluck Confucian quotes from Mao's lucid and poisonous prose and argue that
basically he did not escape the ancient philosopher's influence.
Perhaps there is more than the alleged true or false Confucianism in Mao; it's
something at the basis of the Chinese tradition.
Confucianism became the official ideology of the Chinese state around the time
Augustus set up his empire and called on Virgil to sing his praises linking the
Roman people to those of very ancient Troy. At the same time, the Han Dynasty
heaped countless virtues on Confucius by attributing to him a deluge of works
that certainly he could not have written.
Later adjustments of the Confucian ideology are perhaps larger and stronger
than those of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West. Confucianism absorbed
Buddhism, a completely foreign religion because of its Indian origin, and even
former enemies like the philosopher Mozi, who in the 4th century BC devoted at
least two chapters of his work to proving the folly of Confucius thought.
This is the strong trend of syncretic sentiment that even Matteo Ricci, the
Jesuit with the mission to convert the Chinese in 1600s, took on when he, too,
donned the Confucian robes. Everything has to be first Chinese (Confucian) and
then something else: Buddhist, communist, Christian.
It is also a kind of pity for the culturally vanquished. That's what happened
with the Mongols or the Manchus who invaded and conquered China, they were not
Chinese but today are regarded as such because their heritage has been
basically totally absorbed into the Chinese culture.
Yet, in the present century, there has been something different and deeper than
all the dramatic revolutions in the past. Westernization, that in China took
the forms of communism or capitalism, broke thousands of ancient fine balances
and systems, but these have not been totally destroyed.
The Confucius monument before Mao marks the end of a clear ideological
separation between imperial and modern history. It is the recognition that
today's China is and can only be a kind of sandwich: on one hand, the ancient
past, on the other, the fierce and radical jerks and upheavals of the first 60
years of the People's Republic. Since this year, it's a new China that has
really stood up, one that is shaping, how shall we call it? A new Confucian
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org