What the New Confucius Statue in Tiananmen Square Means for China's Cultural Rebranding

What the New Confucius Statue in Tiananmen Square Means for China's Cultural Rebranding

China's campaign to use the soft power of culture to present an appealing face to the world seems to have found an official mascot: Confucius. The 2,500-year-old Chinese theorist, who preached devotion to tradition, has become the first non-revolutionary figure to be honored in Tiananmen Square with a new monumental statue — the latest symbolic gesture to harness the universal appeal of the philosopher whose name also graces a chain of state-sponsored pro-China language schools, with some 70 outlets in the United States alone. 

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The 31-foot bronze statue of the robed thinker, unveiled this month, is the work of sculptor Wu Weishan, who told the AP that "the rise of a big country requires a cultural foundation, and Chinese culture upholds the spirit of harmony." Weishan's previous commissions include a 21-figure sculptural installation depicting victims of the 1937 massacre at Nanjing to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the attack, which remains a controversial episode in Japanese-Chinese relations. "Harmony," incidentally, is also Chinese slang for the censorship imposed by the state on artists and dissident bloggers — a decidedly unfriendly aspect of Chinese culture that the new statue and other initiatives can be seen as aiming to gloss over.  

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The officially sanctioned sculpture's location is deeply significant. It shares space on Tiananmen Square with a mausoleum and giant portrait of Mao Zedong. For his part, Mao dedicated his Cultural Revolution to eradicating Confucianism, with eager followers denouncing the ancient wise man as a "feudal mummy" in the People's Daily in 1967. (The China Musings blog remarked drolly that the placement of the new Confucius sculpture "ranks pretty high on the irony scale.") 

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Meanwhile, the Economist describes Wu Weishan's sculptural statement as part of a "global rebranding" effort on the part of the Chinese government, linking it to the official push that has led to the opening of some 320 Confucius Institutes — Chinese language schools along the lines of Germany's Goethe Institutes — as well as a linked opening of some 200 Confucius Classrooms in the U.S. The institutes, in fact, have little to do with the philosophy of Confucianism, instead using the philosopher as "a Father-Christmas-like symbol of avuncular Chineseness." President Hu Jintao visited a Confucius Institute in Chicago on his recent U.S. trip.

Many observers point out that the traditional philosophy of Confucianism can serve a reassuring function during a time of rapid change. Daniel A. Bell, a philosophy professor at Tsinghua University, told the AP that the flip side of economic development is "increased individualism and an increased sense of competition and anxiety." Confucius's ethical thinking emphasized care and respect for others as well as fulfilling one's duty to family and state. As there are no surviving texts authored by Confucius himself, his philosophy has been subject to a variety of interpretations, and its message of deference to authority and the maintenance of societal harmony clearly suits the current Chinese regime.