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 Confucianismin 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 social-capitalism, perhaps.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org