Confucius on Tiananmen Square – UPDATED

(AP photo)

UPDATED and moved to top: As Steve Angle reported in comments a couple of days ago, apparently the statue has been moved inside the museum! Confucianism revivalists are up in arms. Information about why this was done — whether long-planned, or not -– is contradictory. The English-language press is now reporting this, though they don’t have much information, either!

Here’s a New York Times piece about it from yesterday:

If you hover over the Times picture, it shows you a dramatic(?) before and after shot. Note this interesting quote from the piece:

Guo Qijia, a professor at Beijing Normal University who helps run the China Confucius Institute, said that only Confucian teachings could rescue China from what he described as a moral crisis.

“Students come home from school and tell their parents, ‘One of my classmates got run over by a car today — now I have one less person to compete against,’ ” he said. “We have lost our humanity, our kindness and our spirit. Confucianism is our only hope for becoming a great nation.”

The originally posted Associated Press news story is here. A snippet from that piece:

Placing the statue at China’s political heart is the authoritarian government’s most visible endorsement yet of the 2,500-year-old sage and, selectively, his teachings.

Confucius is enjoying a revival, in books and films, on TV and in classrooms. His message of harmonious social order and deference to authority is unthreatening to the party, while his emphasis on ethics resonates among Chinese coping with fast-paced social change on the back of torrid economic growth.

The government is increasingly marshaling his popularity to bolster national identity. “The rise of a big country requires a cultural foundation, and Chinese culture upholds the spirit of harmony,” said Wu Weishan, the sculptor, who has made more than 200 statues of the philosopher. “The essential thoughts of Confucius are love, kindness, wisdom and generosity. And peace and prosperity are what the people are striving for.”

Comments welcome.

29 replies on “Confucius on Tiananmen Square – UPDATED”

  1. Interesting scene.

    I guess one needs to understand the accurate meanings of Confucius’s teaching before promoting it.

    For one thing: “deference to authority?” is it a Confucian teaching at all? or is it a misconception/misinterpretation?

    At least for me, the so called “obedience of individuals to the state” was hardly a value proposed by Confucius. (after all, these terms ring with a great deal of Western ideologies on individual and state and somehow remote with the social and political situations in ancient China that organized their nations after the model of family)

    Would appreciate people’s opinions and views on this central issue…

  2. It’s seemed to me in recent years (and this is an example) that the government has tried to promote a very one-dimensional picture of Confucius’ teaching. I think there is a strain of “deference to authority” that can be found in Confucianism, but this deference to authority does not come without the duty to remonstrate with authority and attempt to help achieve the right way. It seems to me that the government wants to emphasize the obedience aspects of Confucianism while ignoring the the morally exhortatory aspects. Ultimately, perhaps, one should defer to authority even when one disagrees with superiors (Analects 4.18, etc.). But it is also clear that one has a duty to challenge and help to reform one’s superiors when they stray from the way (Analects 2.24, etc.).

    The Tiananmen Square demonstration, although the government likes to spin it this way, was clearly not an attempt to undermine the authority of the government–the protesters were not in revolt or calling for the fall of the present regime. Rather, it appeared to be more in the exhortatory mode. This is the kind of thing Confucius would not only have endorsed, but would have thought of as the *responsibility* of a citizen.

    Perhaps a Confucius statue in Tiananmen Square is appropriate after all–just not for the reasons the government thinks it is,,,

  3. that is, as representative of remonstration with superiors (a symbol of the 1989 demonstration) rather than as representative of government power. It seems to me that even if one concludes that the demonstration was wrong in its aims (which is an open question), it was still the Confucian thing to do. One has the duty to remonstrate and exhort their superiors to follow the right way, but one cannot always be expected to be correct about what that way is. I think this is part of the reasoning behind the deference to authority called for by Confucianism.

  4. That’s an interesting thought, Alexus. Do you know of any precedents for thinking of mass demonstrations as examples of Confucian remonstrance?

    • Good question, Dan. One thing that comes to mind is the 1895 protests by the assembled jinshi candidates in Beijing; the lengthy reform memorial they submitted to the throne was a key factor in the eventual 100 Days Reform. Right now I can’t remember the details–i.e., how much this was a “mass demonstration.” I also recall the discussion in Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance of some mass-demonstration-like events from Confucians opposed to ritual violations perpetrated by the emperor, though I can’t find my copy just at the moment. We need a historian to help us out here!

  5. Alexus,
    Great points. And I would add that a right-thinking contemporary Confucian would also want to remember the Great Leap Forward as a horrible example of inhumanity. But the current Party leadership does not have much patience for that, either….

  6. Given the objections already filling up this comment-thread, why do you all think Confucius is so tempting as a spokesman for authoritarianism? My persistent feeling has been that, while Confucianism insists that government authority be morally good, it is also been deeply invested in authoritarian institutions – hereditary monarchy, stark class divisions (even if these are supposedly expressed more in level of education than in level of wealth or temporal power), patriarchal family metaphors projected into other domains, and so on. The classical writers develop a rich and at times insightful ethical perspective that is premised not so much on the equal value of diverse opinions as on the importance of a certain kind of education. The pedagogical focus renders debate among equals distinctly less important than submission to properly qualified sources of authority, particularly individuals and traditions. When the debate concerns fundamental questions about the good life, it is positively suspect – if not outright criminal, as at points in Xunzi. (Note again that I am speaking only of the Warring States Confucians.)

  7. Confucianism is seen to work for authoritarians now because it has worked for authoritarians in the past. Not just in the manner Stephen suggests above, but also in its subordination (is that too strong a characterization?) to Legalist political practice in the Han and after. It’s not clear to me that Confucius’s thinking itself was sufficiently attentive to political practice. He strikes me as something of an optimist: we don’t have to rely too much on law and punishment (though law and punishment certainly are a part of Confucian politics) because if enough families get their duty-ritual-humanity thing together, order will naturally emerge from the bottom up. The exemplary ruler ideal seems to underplay the dynamics of political power. Thus, when the Han looked to pick up the pieces after Qin, they stuck with the Qin legal code and grafted Confucian ideology on to it… Perhaps that is what the Party now has in mind: keep its single party authoritarianism and overlay it with some Confucian happy talk…
    More specially, Confucianism works for the CCP now because it is a central element in the neo-traditionalism that distracts attention away from the Maoist disasters of the Great Leap and the Cultural Revolution, thus, the leadership hopes, bolstering state legitimacy. There was no Mao to be found in the Olympic opening ceremonies, but plenty of Confucius…

  8. Sam – is it the case that, in Lunyu or Mengzi, “if enough families get their duty-ritual-humanity thing together, order will naturally emerge from the bottom up”? I read the dynamic in precisely the opposite direction. Confucian gentlemen need to get the ear of rulers so that they and the high-ranking elites around them can become exemplars for their subordinates to emulate.

  9. Stephen,
    Yes, exemplary rulership is required. But the expectation, I believe, is for the grass to bend, as it were – i.e. for others to follow, and follow in a way that a son is a son, a father a father, etc. It has to work from the bottom up, or else one would just have to fall back upon law and punishment and government. Thus, a straight up, top-down authoritarianism, in the manner of Legalism, really missed a key part of the Confucian dynamic….

  10. Sam, it’s not clear to me which part of your picture is supposed to be bottom-up. All the important work seems to be getting done by the wind bending the grass, and that’s top-down.

  11. Nice points, Sam, Stephen, Steve, and Alexus

    Thanks and I really learned a lot!

    In my view, one trickiest point in this discussion is the very word “authority.”

    I don’t find a ancient Chinese word that translate this English concept perfectly.

    The modern Chinese 權威 quanwei – like many modern Chinese terms – could be a Japanese invention. But if we take the term literally, then the order to defer to a quanwei – power/authoritative master sounds more like legalism/mohism than Confucianism.

    To put it in another way – we may want to think what is the essential function of a governor or leader in Confucian understanding. For me, certainly not an authoritative master who imposed his selfish interests and unrelenting orders upon his subjects.

    This is why I think Sam and Stephen may both be right – for deference may be required for both the father and the son, both the monarch and the subjects. Only that the monarch is to revere for the way of heaven, whose meaning consists in the welfare of the people. While the individual subjects were to defer to the monarch as a representative of the benevolent and graceful way of heaven…there appears to be a circle/hierarchy of deference in Confucian way of government so that in time everybody shall defer to the miraculous cosmic movements that generated and nurtured all lives.

    My two cents 🙂

    • In Warring States terms, the epistemological problem of authority is essentially the problem of 法 “standards” – who or what are we to model ourselves on? On my reading of Lunyu and Mengzi, modeling is fundamentally an external process wherein one becomes aware of exemplary men and exemplary deeds, and proceeds to model oneself and one’s actions on these. This can be a thoughtful and personally engaging process, but the fitness of the external standards is more or less unquestioned within the tradition.

      (That is why it is so refreshing to read texts, say in Zhuangzi or LSCQ, that defy and ridicule the standard lineup of sages. It seems to me that a characteristically Warring States way of rejecting somebody else’s moral teaching is to reject its founders or historical exemplars.)

      Now arguably “modeling” of this kind goes on whenever a literary or pedagogical tradition gets enough steam to become culturally important – Socrates is an object of imitation just like the Duke of Zhou. But I do think the classical Ru tradition made emulation distinctly more important to moral improvement than, say, the Western philosophical tradition. I tend to pay lots of attention to the “turn back the clock” aspects of early Ru teachings, which make an imagined past authoritative over the chaotic present.

      To summarize many lurking thoughts, the classical Ru writers score relatively high on “epistemic” authoritarianism. As for political authoritarianism, they accept most of the external features of the hierarchical and exploitative society in which they lived. I am unsure how much traction Ru teachings could have gotten in a political environment that was less monarchical. But whatever the nature of the political context, I think Ru moral ideals, reasoning, and training are so deeply pedagogical rather than dialectical that they will tend to introduce epistemic authoritarianism into any environment in which they find themselves.

      To the extent that a moral community conducts itself with a respect for debate on fundamental issues, it will be something foreign to the classical Ru ethos.

  12. Perhaps the grass metaphor doesn’t quite get it – though we could imagine some grass-like substances (I’m thinking reeds that might be rigid and hard) that do not bend so easily…but let’s try another illustration.
    Analects 1.2. Taking care of business at home – being a good son and a solid brother – is the root of humanity. And when that is done, or we should say when that is done by enough people, then the country will not be pitched into chaos.
    The regulatory mechanism here is not simply the ruler, it is the family. Parents (I think we be expand beyond simply fathers) must raise their children properly, and children must respect their parents properly. Yes, the ruler models this behavior but it has to be enacted at the micro level, in myriad individual households, from the bottom up. Otherwise there is only law and punishment from the top down.

    • Good points, Sam.

      I wonder if for Analects 1.2: to be a filial son and a respectful brother should apply not only to the ordinary peoples, but to the monarch himself. – If so, then we can spot a common ground for you and Stephen’s arguments.

    • Mengzi would tell us that filiality should apply to the monarch himself – that is, at least, what I get from Shun being willing to give up all under heaven to remove his father from the jurisdiction of the justice minister (&A35)

  13. A while ago I posted some thoughts here on the blog about “rethinking Confucian sovereignty.” I’ve since been pursuaded that the category I’m interested in is “authority,” not “sovereignty.” An essay-version of these thoughts, titled Rethinking Confucian Authority and Rejecting Confucian Authoritarianism, will soon be published by the Hong Kong-based journal 《中國哲學與文化》 [Chinese Philosophy and Culture]. The abstract goes as follows:

    Early Confucianism saw “Tian” 天 or Heaven as the source of authority, as kings ruled in accord with its “mandate.” The clearest communication of Tian’s intentions comes through the actions of the “people” (min 民), whose well-being thus forms the bedrock of Confucian politics. The essay begins by rehearsing both the strengths and the limitations of such a framework, as well as pointing to a tension concerning the status of “the people” that runs throughout traditional Confucianism. Next, I analyze Kang Xiaoguang’s 康晓光 contemporary Chinese effort to justify an authoritarian state by means of an only modestly revised version of the early Confucian view. Having found fault with this approach, I then articulate an alternative approach to Confucian authority, drawing in significant ways on the political thought of Mou Zongsan 牟宗三. Very roughly, on this model something like Tian remains the source of authority, but a re-conceptualized “people” themselves are the holders of authority. This authority is delegated through democratic processes to a government, and its exercise is constrained and influenced in two ways: by a constitution and by a particular kind of state moral education. This essay’s project is intended as a contribution to contemporary Confucian political philosophy. It is “Confucian” in several ways: It is motivated by concerns that have lain at the heart of the Confucian tradition throughout its long history; it builds from and comments on critical Confucian texts; some of the key terms in which the essay’s ideas are developed are distinctive of the Confucian tradition; and it is addressed in part to those in the contemporary world who consider themselves to be (or are sympathetic to) Confucians. This project is “contemporary” in two senses: It engages with current and recent philosophers—and in so doing, takes the Confucian tradition to be a live, on-going enterprise—and it takes seriously the concerns of our contemporary world, including the values and institutions of societies around the globe today.

    Contact me via email if you’d like to see the whole paper.

  14. In one sense, I guess, an “authority” (or a true authority) is by definition one who merits deference (in our decisions about what to think or do). As a non-chemist I ought to let my views on chemistry be shaped by the real authorities, and in civic life I ought to obey the (real or legitimate) authorities. That’s what it means to call them “authorities.” In that sense, Confucianism, like everybody else, has to favor deference to the authorities.

    But we also use the term to refer more broadly to people who are putatively or supposedly in that sort of position, such as rulers and professors. It’s this latter sort of sense of “authority” in which any non-empty advocacy of “deference to authorities” has to be cast; but this latter sort of sense is open-ended. It may be easy enough to apply to cases in particular stable milieus, but hard to clarify for more general or theoretical purposes.


    “if enough families get their duty-ritual-humanity thing together, order will naturally emerge from the bottom up” –

    Sam, I would have thought that for a Confucian, social order would just be enough families getting their duty-ritual-humanity thing together, not be something else caused by that. Or maybe social order would be duty, caused by ritual-humanity? Or maybe your thought was that virtue by the majority will sway the rest?

    Here are the passages that seem to me to claim most directly the ordering power of civilians’ virtue:

    Some one addressed Confucius, saying, “Sir, why are you not engaged in the government?” The Master said, “What does the Shu Jing say of filial piety? – ‘You are final, you discharge your brotherly duties. These qualities are displayed in government.’ This then also constitutes the exercise of government. Why must there be THAT – making one be in the government?”

    The Master was wishing to go and live among the nine wild tribes of the east. Some one said, “They are rude. How can you do such a thing?” The Master said, “If a superior man dwelt among them, what rudeness would there be?”

  15. Bill, yes, thank you: when I used the word “emerge” I did not mean to imply anything more than order would just be enough families doing their duty-ritual-humanity thing; and of those three I understand yi and li to be more more immediate guides to action, while ren is something more like a standard of excellence which the noble-minded strive to achieve…

  16. Party members have Confucius’ lesson about uprightness down pat:
    1. The Duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, “Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.”
    2. Confucius said, “Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.”

  17. Nice points, Patrick – I do hope your voice could be heard by the authorities – might not be an easy thing for today’s China though.

    Steve, For the idea of authority, I believe your article has some excellent points. on the other hand, I do have some reservations as I perceive the word “authority” is quite WESTERN and its forthright application for interpreting Chinese (esp. Confucian) political thoughts could be misleading if done without qualification. For one thing, “heaven” could indeed be regarded as a source of authority, but it may be more appropriate to consider it as a life granting principle that has no authority at all (Analects 17.19)

    In my opinion, there may be at least two basic senses of “authority” that appear to be alien to the Confucian sense of “deference.”

    1) authority as associated with “authorship” and creator. For Confucius clearly states that his mission was not to create but to pass down the the messages from heaven – which may holds no “authorship” either as it simply “let” beings be.

    2) authority as the source of certain political power. It is clear that Confucius does not ask one to respect the ones simply because they have power instead of virtue – “Might is Right” could be anything be a Confucian doctrine…

  18. Thinking about the significance of the critical “Confucian” reaction to the statue’s being moved, I guess my main reaction is being struck by the degree to which a loose group of people understanding themselves as Confucians is emerging and finding a voice. First it was the Qufu church, and now the statue: they use classical language and allusion to ancient texts, but their criticism of the government can be very sharp. See this page, which has been up for a few days now. For example, this is pretty harsh: “人而无信且不知其可,况一国之政府乎?” The point about lack of “xin” is clever, since while Analects 2:22, from which this is directly drawing, is about a person, this also alludes to Analects 12.7, which says that a government without the “xin” (trust, confidence) of its people cannot stand.

    In the case of the Qufu church, it was clear that different individuals and groups felt differently about what a “Confucian” should say about the controversy. There certainly is no single Confucian voice. But we have now seen signs of Confucian voices, making arguments that are rooted in ancient values but aimed at contemporary realities.

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