Confucianism: How Secular is the Chinese State?

China Daily, January 13, 2011

China Daily, January 13, 2011

A Confucius statue was unveiled outside the National Museum of China in January [now broken link, May 2, 2014]. It has since become the source of a debate.

[Update, May 2, 2014: the article by Zhang Qianfan was apparently removed from the Caijing website. This appears to be the same article, republished elsewhere.]

Zhang Qianfan (张千帆) of Beida Law School and of the university’s Constitutional and Administrative Law Research Center, wrote an opinion for Caijing:

For several thousands of years, China hasn’t managed to understand a simple difference: that a teaching is valuable or even great doesn’t mean that respect for it must be decreed by state power, or be forced upon people to be believed in. This should go without saying. Article 35 of the constitution stipulates freedom of speech, that citizens are free to accept or not to accept specific ideas, and that the state shall not apply force in these matters. Article 36*) stipulates freedom of religion and implies a secular state – that the state must not help, enhance, or glorify any religion or school.  During the Spring Festival holidays, the National Museum erected a Confucius statue at its northern gate, which led to quite some controversy. Thirteen scholars have now issued a Joint Statement: some Views about the Confucius Statue”. This led to an even bigger debate, which seems to suggest that subconsciously, we still haven’t understood this truth.

Zhang points out that certain “elites” had advocated ideological and cultural despotism (or tyranny, 专制).

It is said that most people who oppose the statue aren’t against Confucius or Confucianism, but exactly against the Confucianists who for thousands of years advocated cultural despotism, or in other words, their reaction now is the natural reaction to that kind of despotism. Much of what is said in the online debate is hardly disputable, concerning the values of and the trouble with Confucianism (那就是儒学既有精华也有糟粕), or that, with contemporary annotations, some of the core ideas would still be useful. But what does it mean when a Confucius statue is put next to Tian An Men Square, a place with strong political meaning? If it is meant to say that we respect Confucian teaching, and don’t blanketly reject it as was done in the May-Fourth movement or during the Criticize-Lin-(Biao)-and-Confucius activities, the statue is unnecessary, because New Confucianism (新儒学) has been hot in mainland China since the 1980s, and there is no tendency to reject Confucianism altogether. If it means that we want to use state power to promote Confucianism, then there’s a big problem.

In the thirteen scholars’ joint statement, this problem is highlighted particularly clearly – almost every point they make contains arbitrary and authoritarian [or despotic, again – JR] language. The first point says that “erecting a Confucius statue corresponds with the wishes of the Chinese people, is in line with the epochal tides”, and even “corresponds with the Chinese people of the world’s wishes and the tide of cultural development”.

I’ll try to continue translating in the coming days – as usual when it comes to Confucianism, I need to get the terms and definitions straight. For example, the revival of Confucianism as an everyday tradition since the 1980s demands a correct translation – neo-Confucianism was my first idea for translating, but that seems to refer to Confucianism several centuries ago.

If someone of you is faster and completes the translation before I do, please notify me, and I’ll link to your translation.


Update: Part 2 is here.


There are five comments to Zhang’s article so far. The first is skeptical of the statue, the second is one I don’t understand, and the third points out that while no social and economic changes in the West had led to bible burnings, such ruptures had happened to Confucianist tradition – one couldn’t just restart Confucianism. The fourth comment suggests that to build a Confucius statue is still better than to build a Marx statue, and the fifth suggests that “you are probably born from an American” (not sure if that’s aimed at the author or at a commenter).


*) PRC constitution, chapter 2, article 36.
Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities. No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.


Does Confucius matter outside Asia, December 12, 2010


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