The case for eliminating Confucius from China's Confucius Institutes

Kerry Brown makes the case that China should find a new cultural figure to represent it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2014, 3:25am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 June, 2014, 8:40pm

For all the controversy surrounding the opening of hundreds of Confucius Institutes across the world in the last decade, one crucial factor has been overlooked: Confucius himself.

The institutes, funded partially by the Chinese government through its Hanban organisation, have been accused of operating as propaganda outfits. They have been criticised for being part of a sinister global campaign by a cash-rich Communist Party to brainwash outsiders and win the Chinese government illicit influence abroad.

But there is a less dramatic interpretation: the proliferation shows Beijing understands the theory of soft power projection but not its implementation and real practice.

The issue here is simple. If you wanted, as a modern Chinese, to promote a deeper understanding and a more favourable attitude towards your country and its culture, why choose a figure as unattractive, remote and contentious as Confucius to represent you? Confucius is well known, for one thing. But then, Goethe is hardly a household word in America or the UK and yet the Germans have named their cultural outfits abroad after him. And the British Council and Alliance Francaise carry names of no one at all, while doing work which has been compared to that of the Confucius Institute.

The very Communist Party now lionising Confucius attacked and vilified him just four decades ago. Surely it would have been better to use someone with a less difficult recent history to represent the culture abroad.

On top of this, there is the question of the values with which Confucius is associated: patriarchal, hierarchical, and conservative. Why celebrate in 21st century China a figure who is linked to these old ideas when you are also promoting your country as innovative, outward-looking and modern?

Add to this the remoteness and elusiveness of Confucius as a historic figure, and the problem is only compounded. In the Analects, he comes across as stuffy and elliptical. His near contemporary Mencius is at least clearer, if less well known. He communicates in paragraphs rather than staccato ambiguous sentences. And as even the best scholar of Confucius would admit, we know almost nothing about him as an individual. Why hang a soft power campaign on a figure so historically vague?

Finally, there is the biggest issue of all. Chinese history teems through its long and diverse course with wonderful, vivid, inspiring figures. Many of these deserve to be better understood and known than Confucius. Some were political figures, such as the sole female empress Wu Zetian from the 7th century, or the great Qing figures of 300 years ago from emperors Kangxi to Qianlong.

American scholar Patricia Ebrey has just written a good biography of Song emperor Huizong from 1100 showing that he was a painter, calligrapher and poet whose work still holds up today. And unlike with Confucius, we can study works that came directly from Huizong's hands. There was, of course, the slight matter of him being a disastrous political leader - but for a cultural institution, should that disqualify him?

Outside the realm of politics, there are the great Tang poets Du Fu and Li Bai. Their works speak of common human emotions and aspirations in a way that Confucius never does. Or artists like the wonderful Han Gan, whose portraits of horses are still so moving after more than 1,000 years.

Scientists such as Bi Sheng might be worth considering to help illustrate the notion of a China now working on its innovation. A figure like this would also reinforce the message that China was a science leader long before the transformative thinkers of Europe appeared on the scene. With such an array of inspiring figures, why on earth would China choose a philosopher from two-and-a-half millennia ago?

I have a modest proposal to make to the Chinese government: it should seriously consider renaming the new institutions, and there is one truly great figure about whom everyone can agree: Sima Qian, the father of Chinese history, who lived in 100BC, produced a body of work which is accessible but also very modern in its concentration on the psychology of its many subjects.

There is a link, too, with Confucius, because Sima is the sole decent source for the biography of the philosopher - even if his portrait of Confucius is a little unflattering.

And unlike Confucius, Qian is someone we can truly know. The tragic story of his castration after he criticised the emperor, combined with the fact he still continued his great work, sends a great message for victory in the face of disaster.

As a human, a historian of genius and a cultural figure, Qian is truly great, and someone who should be celebrated across the world today. And Sima Qian Institutions, in view of the courage of the person they are named after, would be much harder targets for those looking to criticise them.

Kerry Brown is executive director of the China Studies Centre and professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney