China and East Asia

Confucius and his Institutes

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Kongzi, “Confucius,” has experienced a roller-coaster-like career during the past half-century – which is quite an achievement for a philosopher who has been dead for over 2,500 years. During the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, he was reviled as an “enemy of the people” in the People’s Republic, but for Chinese people elsewhere this was often only another reason to respect him. In the 1980s, Lee Kuan Yew, the prime-minister of Singapore, turned to Confucianism as an ideology which could help unify his multi-ethnic city-state. Confucianism, Lee decided, was an expression of time-honored “Asian values,” a series of moral precepts which included respect for one’s elders, the importance of family and deference to authority. However, since little knowledge of Confucius was to be gained from China at the time, Lee turned instead to Tu Weiming, a Sinologist at Harvard, for guidance. Tu designed an educational curriculum for Singaporean schools based on Confucian teachings, but the program was cut short due to resistance from the country’s Malay and Indian minorities. Apparently, they had a different notion of what “Asian values” might be.

Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has radically changed its view of Kongzi. At a time when philosophers such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels no longer find many adherent, the Chinese authorities have begun to worry about the lack of moral direction in Chinese society. The obvious person to turn to for guidance is Kongzi, and for the Chinese authorities his teachings have the added attraction that they, much as Lee Kuan Yew argued, can help promote deference to authority. Moreover, by associating themselves with Kongzi, the Chinese government has appropriated a symbol with which all Chinese people everywhere can identify.

Since 2004, the Chinese government has established over 300 educational institutions around the world named after the old philosopher. Modeled on the German Goethe Institute, the “Confucius Institutes” offer courses in Chinese language and organize seminars, cultural events and sponsor research on China. However, in contrast to the cultural institutes of other countries, the Confucius Institutes have located themselves on university campuses and integrated themselves with the teaching and research that go on there. Tempted by large grants from the Chinese government, a number of smaller universities first agreed to accept the institutes, but now they exist also at prestigious universities such as Stanford, Chicago, Columbia and the London School of Economics. This tight connection has been condemned by critics who have pointed out that there are far too many topics the Communist government prefers not to discuss: independence for Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, for example, or the Party’s monopoly on political power. The Confucius Institutes should not be allowed to influence how China is discussed at foreign universities.

There are indications, however, that the Chinese leadership is not entirely united in its Confucian convictions. In early 2011 a ten meter tall bronze statue of Kongzi was unveiled with much fanfare near Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. Yet four months later, the statue suddenly vanished overnight. A descendant of the philosopher blamed “leftists” within the government. Meanwhile a contributer to a Maoist discussion forum insisted: “The witch doctor who has been poisoning people for thousands of years has finally been kicked off Tiananmen Square!”