Revered again in Mainland China, the allure of the ancient philosopher is a cause for connections – and healthy competition – with rival Taiwan.
Confucius temple, Kongzi (Ivan Walsh)
EYES INSIDE - ASIA
Geopolitics aside, there is still plenty that unites the Chinese-speaking people in Mainland China and Taiwan. High on that list is the great philosopher Confucius. The installation last week of a three-story tall statue of the legendary thinker in Beijing ’s Tiananmen Square prompted consternation on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
The People’s Republic of China has come a long way from its official denunciations of Confucianism two generations ago to embracing it today. In the last six years, the Chinese government has established 322 Confucius Institutes and 369 Confucius classes, in 96 countries around the world. Chinese officials have been encouraging teachers and students to see the recent “Confucius” film by director Hu Me. Last year, the country even launched the “Confucius Peace Prize” aimed at “promoting peace from an Eastern perspective,” though it was seen by many as a response to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.
This rehabilitation of Confucius is not without a fair share of historical irony. Placing the statue, for example, so close to where the mummified body of Mao Zedong lies in state seems to ignore that the Communist leader was an ardent critic of Confucius, whose political and social philosophy he viewed as a symbol of ancient feudalism and slavery. The Confucius Temple, which had existed for 2,500 years, and the Confucius family tombs in his hometown of Qufu in Shangdong province, were largely destroyed and the corpses defiled.
Generations of Chinese who grew up in the People’s Republic in the latter half of the 20th century knew Confucius only by name, and were not taught to admire him as a great thinker. Elsewhere, ethnic Chinese in Taiwan, Singapore and South East Asia, as well as the Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese remained enthusiastic followers of Confucianism.
The Chinese government’s recent championing of Confucius has prompted a mixed response. One Chinese blogger asked whether “socialism with Chinese characteristics” should now be called “Confucius Communism.” Another toed the old party line, questioning the appropriateness of erecting a statue of a historical figure “who was responsible for China’s past weakness and wane.”
In Taiwan, meanwhile, Confucius never went out of fashion. The Taiwanese, from the poorly educated to intellectuals, have consistently revered Confucius as the “greatest sage”, and have proudly proclaimed to be the defenders of a traditional Chinese heritage. Taiwanese school students spend three years reading the Confucian “Analects”.
In response to the rapid spread of the Mainland China-backed Confucius Institutes all over the world, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou stated in his 2008 presidential campaign white paper that Taiwan should come up with measures to “counter the Confucius Institute of mainland China” and in a recent address reiterated that “ Taiwan is where the Confucianism is practiced most thoroughly.” Certain pro-Nationalist Taiwanese have also expressed unease about China ’s resurrection of Confucius and worriedly question how Taiwan should react to defend “ Taiwan 's superior right of interpretation which is now facing a great challenge from Mainland China.”
Taiwanese links with Confucius run deep. Some of his descendants followed nationalist, military leader Chiang Kai-Shek and his army to Taiwan in the late 1940s. These direct descendants were officially entitled, generation after generation, to be a part of “Enshrining Ceremony Officer” annual celebrations marking the philosopher’s birth. This day is also “Teacher’s Day”. Taiwanese teachers of all categories have always enjoyed much respect from all levels of society, thanks to the Confucian veneration of scholarship. “One day your teacher shall be treated as your father for your whole life,” reads the Confucian maxim.
Although some criticize the use of Confucianism by the Nationalist party, it is nonetheless largely recognized that Taiwan was able to create its “economic miracle” within a space of less than 20 years in the late 20th century due to its promotion of obligatory education. Pretty much the same could be said about the other so-called small Asian dragons - Singapore , Hong Kong and Korea , all of them greatly shaped by the Confucian doctrine.
A survey of people’s saving habits in seven Asian countries published last week in Shanghai also echoes this theory: 88% of Chinese parents claimed to be actively saving for their children’s education, 57% of them making regular deposits.
So is “Confucian Communism” really in the making? Some Chinese watchers look at it suspiciously. “The Chinese Communist Party officials use Confucius as a Father Christmas-like symbol of avuncular Chinese-ness rather than as the proponent of a philosophical outlook”, “The Economist” wrote in a recent issue. The same piece noted that in an online poll conducted by the “People’s Daily,” 62% of Chinese people oppose the appearance of the Confucius statue.
But the Chinese Communist Party has so far certainly not promoted the Confucian ideology in an overt way. So what does all this Confucius fever mean? As China has surpassed Japan as the second biggest world economy and asserted its position among the great powers, it is commonly viewed that China is seeking to remold its image. The Chinese leaders champion a “harmonious society” and the “peaceful rise” of China . Confucius’s fundamental philosophy, aimed at shaping better individuals, of humanity, politeness, propriety, righteousness, and in turn, nurturing a more harmonious society, is very much in accord with that.
But as the popular Chinese blogger Han Han said while panning Hu Me's recent Confucius film: “Politicians in every place and time have always either criticized or praised Confucius, according to their needs.” And so it goes with the brothers and sisters on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.