Cultural-Revolution-era book criticizing Confucius

In 1930s Chiang Kai Shek resurrected Confucianism as a guide to proper behavior and morality. After the Communist Party took over China in 1949, Mao Zedong, who was then an advocate for egalitarian values and gained grassroots support for promising equity, lashed out at Confucius for being a champion of the old feudal society and the ruling class. Mao once famously said, according to his nephew Mao Yuanxin, "If the Communist Party has a day when it cannot rule or has met difficulty and needs to invite Confucius back, it means you (note: the Party) are coming to an end."

In the Mao era, Confucianism was labeled backward, counter-revolutionary, reactionary and superstitious. It was linked with feudalism and condemned as a source of evils that plagued traditional China. Confucian temples were made into museums and libraries. Even with ths being the case the Communists borrowed Confucian beliefs such as submission to authority to further their aims. Confucius's philosophy of harmony and respect of social hierarchies was at odds with Marxist ideology of progress through conflict.

During the Cultural Revolution, which aimed in part to tear down what remained of Chinese “feudal” culture, Mao Zedong vehemently denounced the Confucian belief system. The Analects was banned and Confucian scholars were tortured. Red Guards overran Confucian temples, defacing statues of the sage, and chanting "Down with Confucius, down with his wife!" Confucius was branded a class enmey in a “Criticize Confucius “campaign. The graves of the Kong family were trashed and looted. Corpses were once dug up from their graves at the Kong family's cemetery and hung from trees. More than 6,000 artifacts were smashed or burned. Red Guards dug up Confucius' grave to show that it was empty.

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Confucianism ; ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Cult of Confucius / ; Confucian Temple China Vista ; Virtual Temple tour Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Books on Confucianism and Confucius: There is a classic account of Confucius’s biography by Herrlee Creel: Confucius, The Man and the Myth (New York: 1949, also published as Confucius and the Chinese Way), and a recent book by Annping Chin, The Authentic Confucius: A Life in thought and Politics (New York: 2007). According to Dr. Robert Eno: “Among the many translations of the “Analects” , well crafted versions by Arthur Waley (New York: 1938), D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1987, 1998), and Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: 2003) are among the most accessible published. The “Analects” is a terse work with an exceptionally long and varied commentarial tradition; its richness and multiple levels of meaning make it a living document that reads differently to each generation (as true in China as elsewhere). Responsible interpreters vary in specific choices and overall understanding, and no single translation can be viewed as “definitive.”“

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; Articles on Religion in China ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations ; Brooklyn College ; Religion Facts; Religious Tolerance ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ; Academic Info ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies

Confucianism Today and the Communist Party

Confucianism has made comeback as the Communist Party looks for ways to justify its authoritarianism and forge a common Chinese identity. In the 1990s, Confucianism was promoted to provide moral teachings and counteract the decadence and materialism brought about by the Deng reforms. In the early 2000s, a number of schools opened up to teach Confucian values to youngsters and an institute was set up at Renmin University devoted to the study of Confucius and Confucian thought.

Book burning in the Cultural Revolution

"The Communist Party has come to appreciate that they can find new ideas in the old," a descendant of Confucius told the Los Angeles Times. Confucius was rehabilitated in the 1980s, and has been embraced enthusiastically by the current generation of leadership. Some scholars believe former President Hu Jintao is a closet Confucian. "Confucius said, 'Harmony is something to be cherished,'" Hu told the National People's Congress in 2005.

Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom wrote in Time, “Current efforts to treat Confucius as Chinese culture personified---whether via state-funded Confucius Institutes or the not-quite-official Confucius Peace Prize just ginned up to compete with the Nobel---also run into trouble when we get to texts. Yes, generations of Chinese have valued the great sage's Analects. But they have also loved Journey to the West, a popular novel in which the central figure, the Monkey King, is a rebellious trickster. Even Liu's essays that present "Chinese culture" as an obstacle to progress are hardly "un-Chinese." Lu Xun, an iconoclastic figure whose stories were once praised by Mao Zedong and still show up in textbooks, made a similar argument in the 1920s.

Confucianism, whether in service of Beijing's desire to keep political protest in check or as the tool of international observers seeking to discredit China as a nation of automatons, should be put in its proper place. It is not the polestar but just one admittedly important astral body in China's vast intellectual universe.

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles, “Party propaganda today is packed with Confucian aphorisms about respect, virtue, righteousness and "harmonious society." For the Communist Party, Confucius' writings about virtuous conduct serve as a warning to those who use cutthroat tactics in the emerging market economy, and his writings about modesty and self-control offer an antidote to Western liberalism.” [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, March 25, 2011]

State- Supported Comeback of Confucianism

Once ridiculed by Mao, Confucianism is making a comeback with state support. Confucian temples and schools have not only been allowed to open up and carry on a wide range of activities they sometimes receive government money and support to do so. Kong Xianglin, deputy director of the state-financed Confucius Research Center in Qufu and 75th-generation descendant of Confucianism told the Washington Post, “If Confucius were alive today he would probably join the Communist Party.” [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, May 18 2010]

In recent years Confucius and Confucianism have been the subject of numerous novels, television dramas and films, including the multimillion dollar bioepic Confucius . The Communist Party has promoted the trend as a way of building national pride and promoting a common heritage and give some credence to the Chinese way of looking at government and offering that as an alternative to foreign ideas such as democracy. [Ibid]

On the campus of Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University there used to be a statue of Chairman Mao. Even as President Hu Jintao's key slogan, Goujian hexie shehui (to build a harmonious society) has its roots in Confucian thought. “Confucius said, 'Harmony is something to be cherished',” Hu said in a speech February 2005. “From Confucius to Sun Yat-sen,” averred premier Wen Jiabao a couple of years later, “the traditional culture of the Chinese nation has numerous precious elements”, among which he mentioned “community, harmony among different viewpoints, and sharing the world in common”. In a book called China's New Confucianism, the political theorist Daniel Bell quips that the Chinese Communist party might one day be renamed the Chinese Confucian party.

Confucius has reappeared in school textbooks. A Confucian quote formed a key part of the lavish opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The government is also investing in Confucius Institutes abroad to promote Chinese culture. Even prison inmates are reportedly being taught Confucian philosophy.

Yu Ying-shih: "Chinese Communists are not Confucianists"

Professor Yu Ying-shih — an advocate of new Confucianism and professor Emeritus at Princeton Universities, told a symposium in November 2014 marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of Hong Kong’s New Asia College: “Confucianism can be taken advantage of 2][by people with ulterior motives]. The traditional Confucianists, namely those whom the emperors honored, the Confucianists of the three rules and the five virtues, the Confucianists who forbade any form of criticism of one’s superiors — this is the Confucianism much beloved by feudal kings and dynasties. Those of us who have done scholarly research on Confucianism in the West often refer to this kind of Confucianism as “institutional Confucianism”. [Source: China Change, July 1, 2015 ==]

“Historically speaking, China has all along had two schools of Confucianism: the Confucianists who were oppressed, and the Confucianists who oppressed others. So from my perspective, for a certain organization (the Chinese Communist Party) on the China mainland to honor Confucianism has similarities to those Confucianists who oppressed others. Previously, this organization (the CCP) harshly criticized Confucianism, and referred to Confucius as “Old Kong Number Two”. This organization stated that Confucius never really made anything of himself. The criticism grew so sharp that some CCP members asked, (not realizing that the criticism was of the historical Confucius): “Who let this fellow Kong into the communist party anyway?” Indeed, the name of Confucius was at that time subjected to all sorts of indignities. ==

“But then in the blink of an eye, Confucius suddenly became popular again and now there are several hundred Confucius Institutes throughout the world. The communist mainland is advocating Confucianism and many mainland scholars are claiming to be “New Confucianists.”...We need to be very clear about those who are real Confucianists and those who borrow the term Confucianist in order to obtain political benefits from so-called Confucian thought. If we are clear about these distinctions, then we need not hesitate to discuss Confucianism, and we can continue to advocate the Confucianist view of culture and the Confucianist critiques of society. We can also continue to discuss how Confucianism combines with Western concepts of human rights, democracy, and freedom. ==

There is one thing I want to raise here in passing. How were Western concepts such as freedom, democracy, human rights, equality that make up the West’s universal values transmitted to China? If you are doing historical research and tracing back to the period just after the mid-19th century, you would find that these Western concepts were brought to China by Confucianists. For this reason, I feel that the issues Confucianism faces on the Chinese mainland are in fact simple, crude issues. Just because Confucianism has a good reputation, people want to exploit it. Once they exploit Confucianism, it seems that Confucianism belongs only to them. In fact, we need to look at the actions of these self-proclaimed Confucianists. This is exactly what Confucius said: look at the person, look at their behavior, and then you will see whether or not they are Confucianists. ==

“Confucianists are considerate of others, and the Confucian Way consists of these two words: honesty and consideration. Honesty is simply doing one’s best, while consideration means treating others with a considerate attitude; as Confucius said, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do to you.” This is the basic teaching of Confucianism. If a political party or a government sends to jail anyone who dares to utter even a minor criticism of their policies, can they be Confucianists? That’s why I think it is very simple to identify real Confucianists. We definitely do not want to be deceived by terminology, and become the slaves to linguistic labels.” ===

Large Confucius Statue Erected in Tiananmen Square

Confucian statue in Tiananmen Square

In January 2011, a huge statue of Confucius was unveiled in Tiananmen Square on the north end of the National Museum of China within sight of the huge portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Gate at the entrance of the Forbidden City. According to the People’s Daily, “The 9.5-meter bronze statue, outside the National Museum of China, is the latest sign of the philosopher's comeback amid the country's efforts to promote him as a symbol of traditional Chinese culture.” [Source: Zhu Linyong, People's Daily, January 13, 2011]

"Confucius was respected and even worshiped as a sage in most of the dynastic eras," said museum dean Lu Zhangshen at an unveiling ceremony. The statue was made by Wu Weishan, a famed sculptor from Nanjing, Jiangsu province. Since 1994, Wu has created more than 20 statues of Confucius of different sizes and styles. They have been placed on university campuses and international museums such as the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge in the United Kingdom. "I created this statue with my whole heart my finger imprints are on each square inch of it," said Wu who began materializing the lofty image of Confucius last March. [Ibid]

"I meant to present Confucius as a peak in the history of Chinese philosophy and culture," Wu explained. "When passers-by look at his eyes, they may feel a kind of spiritual communication with the ancient wise man.” "In my opinion, Confucius was a loser in his lifetime, but he was a respectful loser because he stuck to his ideals despite all sorts of setbacks," said Cui Xiaozhan, a technician from Qingdao, Shandong province, as he passed by the statue. "Confucian wisdom transcends time and space. In my opinion, Confucianism is at the core of Chinese values It can still guide us in daily life.” [Ibid]

But in the eyes of some erecting a prominent statue of Confucius on one side of Tiananmen Square was a slap in the face to Mao, a fervent anti-Confucian, whose embalmed body lies right at center of the square inside a mausoleum.

Large Confucius Statue at Tiananmen Square Taken Down

In April 2011, the Ministry of Tofu blog reported: the "mammoth sculpture of the ancient philosopher Confucius was unveiled in early January off one side of highly symbolic Tiananmen Square. China watchers and media home and abroad paid much attention to it as it could signal that the authorities is preaching Confucianism. However, Wednesday night, the sculpture was gone. The sudden disappearance once against led to widespread speculation as to what that means to the political prospect of the country.” [Source: Ministry of Tofu, April 22, 2011]

Li Yanhui wrote in the Global Times, ‘speculation has been rife over the reasons for the overnight disappearance of a 9.5-meter-high bronze statue of Confucius located in front of the National Museum of China near Tiananmen Square. Th next day a Global Times reporter found only a deep pit surrounded by construction screens where the statue had stood. "It was still there Thursday evening when I got off duty," a security guard at the museum told the Global Times Thursday on condition of anonymity. "But it was gone this morning." Another guard said the same thing, but neither was able to say why the 17-ton bronze sculpture had been removed or to where. [Source: Li Yanhui, Global Times, April 22, 2011]

Many ordinary Chinese were against the presence of the statue. reported on January 17 that about 70 percent of 220,000 people who took part in an online poll were against the idea of the Confucius statue. The statue's sudden disappearance also led to widespread speculation among Web users as to the reasons behind the move. "It's said this statue was not a legally registered building," a microblogger named Qin Lei posted on According to a post on the official microblog of the Southern Metropolis Daily on Thursday, a worker told the newspaper that the statue had been moved for repairs, and may be brought back at a later date. The Tiananmen area administrative committee refused to comment on the removal. "(The disappearance) cannot be explained for the time being," a committee employee told the Global Times on condition of anonymity. [Ibid]

The statue of Confucius is believed to have been removed by hard-line Maoists who disparage the ancient sage as a relic of a feudal past.

Xi Jinping Embraces Confucius and the Classics

Xi Jinping

In October 2014, Chris Buckley of the New York Times wrote: “Seeking to decipher Mr. Xi, who rarely gives interviews or off-the-cuff comments, China watchers have focused on whether he has the traits of a new Mao, the ruthless revolutionary, or a new Deng Xiaoping, the economic reformer. But an overlooked key to his boldly authoritarian agenda can be found in his many admiring references to Chinese sages and statesmen from millenniums past. Most often, he has embraced Confucius, the sage born around 551 B.C. who advocated a paternalistic hierarchy, to argue that the party should command obedience because it represents “core values” reaching back thousands of years. “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star,” he said at a meeting of officials last year, quoting Confucius. “It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage.” [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, October 11, 2014 <+>]

“ By reviving tradition, Mr. Xi is riding China’s nostalgic zeitgeist. Its people have increasingly turned to pre-Communist values while they navigate giddying, contentious changes driven by expanding commerce and inequality. With Mr. Xi likely to be China’s top leader for a decade, officials have been emulating him, and propaganda outlets have exhorted people to imitate his reverence for the ancient past. In May 2014, the overseas edition of the state-run newspaper People’s Daily published a selection of 76 of Mr. Xi’s quotes from Chinese ancients, most often Confucius and Mencius, but also relatively obscure works that suggest a deeper knowledge of the classics. <+>

“When Xi is putting on a political performance, he uses Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and even Mao’s words,” said Kang Xiaoguang, a professor of public administration at Renmin University in Beijing. “But in his bones, what really influences him is not those things but intellectual resources from the traditional classics.” This restoration of tradition has been encouraged by the party, eager to inoculate citizens against Western liberal ideas, which are deemed a decadent recipe for chaos. The Ministry of Education authorized guidelines in March to strengthen instruction in China’s “outstanding traditional culture,” and the party propaganda department has said traditional values are part of “socialist core values.” <+>

“As China grows stronger, this force for restoring tradition will also grow stronger,” said Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing and author of “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.” “Where can China’s leaders find their ideas?” he said. “They can’t possibly find them nowadays from Western liberal thought, and so the only source they can look to is ancient Chinese political thinking.” <+>

“Where Mr. Xi absorbed his enthusiasm for the classics is not so clear. He entered adulthood during the Cultural Revolution, when ancient tradition was under assault. But Mr. Xi has said he always liked to read, including Chinese classics, even as a teenager sent to labor in the countryside. Professor Yan of Tsinghua, who also came of age in the Cultural Revolution, said Mao’s campaigns against Confucius helped introduce those very ideas to the young. Visiting a university in Beijing last month, Mr. Xi said he lamented proposals that could reduce mandatory study of Chinese classical literature in school. He said, “The classics should be set in students’ minds so they become the genes of Chinese national culture.” <+>

“Confucius has not always figured in the party’s pantheon. At the height of Mao’s radicalism, Confucius was attacked as an embodiment of poisonous conservatism. Under recent party leaders, Confucius has regained favor — recast as an inoffensively paternal defender of hierarchy, order and discipline. China’s state-backed language-training centers abroad are called Confucius Institutes. But even so, the party has sometimes appeared worried that appealing to an ancient sage might erode its own claims to singular authority. In 2011, the government unveiled a 31-foot bronze statue of Confucius near Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, and then four months later quietly took the statue down.” [Source: Chris Buckley, Sinosphere Blog, New York Times, November 26, 2013 ><]

Xi Jinping Pays Homage to Confucius

In November 2013, Xi Jinping visited Qufu, the hometown of Confucius. Chris Buckley of the New York Times wrote: “Xi Jinping, likes venerating his forebears. Mr. Xi has made a reverential visit to a statue of Deng Xiaoping” and “also paid respects to Mao Zedong, and to his own father, a revolutionary who served under Mao.” A year after being named China’s leader, “Xi took political ancestor worship back 25 centuries. He visited Qufu, in Shandong Province, which claims to be the hometown of Confucius, the sage who has been both reviled and honored by the Communist Party as a symbol of traditional values. Mr. Xi made clear that he likes those Confucian traditions — or at least a version of them that can sit easily next to party doctrines and control. [Source: Chris Buckley, Sinosphere Blog, New York Times, November 26, 2013 ><]

“Mr. Xi visited the Temple of Confucius in Qufu and called together experts to discuss the right way to study Confucius’ teachings on ethics, government and virtuous living, according to China’s official news agency, Xinhua, and other state media. “I want to read these two books carefully,” Mr. Xi said, as he fingered through an annotated copy of The Analects, the collected sayings and dialogues of Confucius, and another book collecting stories and thoughts ascribed to the thinker, who was born about 551 B.C. ><

“Mr. Xi seems to believe that imposing change demands even greater fealty to the party’s version of tradition.“The Chinese nation possesses a traditional culture that reaches far back in time and can certainly create new glories for Chinese culture,” Mr. Xi said at the meeting with Confucius scholars. But he told them that Confucius should be interpreted through the party’s prism, “using the past to serve the present” so that the sage’s thoughts “can be made to play a positive role in the conditions of the new era.” ><

Xi visited Qufu to “send a signal that we must vigorously promote China’s traditional culture.” He told scholars that while the West was suffering a “crisis of confidence,” the Communist Party had been “the loyal inheritor and promoter of China’s outstanding traditional culture.” In October 2014, Xi reiterated his reverence for the past at a forum marking 2,564 years since Confucius’ birth. Ancient tradition “can offer beneficial insights for governance and wise rule,” he said in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where leaders hold congresses and legislative sessions, according to Xinhua. “This is about finding some kind of traditionalist basis of legitimacy for the regime,” Sam Crane, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts who studies ancient Chinese thought and its contemporary uses, told the New York Times. “It says, ‘We don’t need Western models.’ Ultimately, it is all filtered through the exigencies of maintaining party power.” [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, October 11, 2014]

Duke of Zhou, Confucius and Modern China

Duke of Zhou statue

Carrie Gracie of BBC News wrote: “In 1949, a revolution occurred. A political culture built around venerating ancestors and learning lessons from their perfect rule was turned on its head. "Political power comes out of the barrel of a gun," said Mao. You could try teaching those who disagreed with you, but if that failed you should destroy them.For a century, China had been haemorrhaging territory to Western and Japanese colonialists. For the first time in history, a self-consciously mighty civilisation felt poor and backward. To many Chinese, their ancient philosophy seemed like part of the problem. And when the communists took power in 1949, Confucius and the Duke of Zhou were thrown off their pedestals. The Duke of Zhou is also credited with the creation of imperial rituals - a process reinforced by Confucius, who helped make China a nation of ritual. These rituals, many of which persist today, often express someone's position in society, or within the family. "Confucianism is particularly strong on [ideas such as] that a son must obey his father, a wife must obey her husband," says Wood. "The ritual within the family, the pecking order, all of those things are established by ritual." [Source: Carrie Gracie BBC News, October 9, 2012 \=\]

"The Chinese past was the enemy! It was held responsible," says Peter Bol of Harvard University. "If China had once been the great power in the world, if it had once been the source of models for the rest of east Asia, the Chinese past was used to explain why it no longer was, and it had to be destroyed." Mao's Cultural Revolution set out to destroy the Four Olds - Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. In 1966, 11 million Red Guards, Mao's young shock troops, flooded Beijing and destroyed thousands of relics and temples - all of China's history that they could find. \=\

“But when Chairman Mao died 10 years later, the Cultural Revolution and the assault on history died with him. It was time for China to go back to the beginning. "After the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government, people, desperately want a new ideology, because Mao's philosophy or thought has caused so much damage to the country, to the people. So Confucianism came in conveniently, to fill the gap," says Wang Tao. "And the Duke of Zhou has also regained his popularity, and a lot of people now talk about the Duke of Zhou, the ancestral worship, or the old order cosmos mandate of heaven, in much more favourable way now. And I think it does reflect the change of the society." So the Duke of Zhou and Confucius are back on their pedestals. Politically fashionable again. \=\

Zhu Xi in Communist China

Zhu Xi

It can be argued that the Chinese Communist Party embrace of Confucianism is more of an embrace of Zhu Xi and Neo-Confucianism. Aya Igarashi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “A fundamental shift occurred after the Communist Party of China seized the reins of the government in China. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) launched by Mao Zedong, the Cheng-Zhu school was criticized as a symbol of feudalism, which Mao demanded be brought to an end. Zhu Meizhen, 60, a 27th-generation descendant of Zhu Xi, recalled the hardship she experienced, saying, “At the time, I resented the fact that my family name was Zhu.” [Source: Aya Igarashi, Yomiuri Shimbun August 12, 2014]

In November 2012, Zhu Meizhen noticed a phrase in the speech Xi Jinping made upon his assumption of the post of general secretary of the Communist Party of China. When promoting “The Chinese Dream” as a slogan, Xi quoted a line from Zhu Xi’s writings, “Succeed the work of your ancestors and pave a way to the future.” Compared with the situation during the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Meizhen said, “A good era, in which we can take pride in our traditional culture, has arrived.” “But Zhu Meizhen, who majored in philosophy in university, sees things differently. “Compared with Western philosophers, Zhu Xi was more tolerant and open-minded,” she said.

“In the present-day Wufuzhen area of Wuyishan is China’s one and only primary and middle school named after the philosopher. It is a public school named Wuyishan Shi Zhuzi School. As officials of the school said its students are obliged to recite Zhu Xi’s Family Instructions, I asked a male student heading home, “Can you do it?” His face instantly turned red, and he shook his head and ran away like a scared rabbit. No problem, kid. I think if he keeps studying hard, Zhu Xi will gaze upon him warmly.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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