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.
It’s a religious statement too, to the extent that anything the Chinese do is “religious” in the Western sense of the word.
It’s no secret that Marxism, atheistic though it is, is a secular religion. Virtually every nation that has been commanded by a Marxist-Leninist government has indulged itself in a personality cult of the founder, either living (the succession of Kims in North Korea is the best ongoing example) or deceased (Lenin, Mao are both enshrined in their nation’s respective central square.) The “new atheists” assure us that they won’t do this again, but as Marx used to say, history repeats itself the first time as a tragedy and the second time as a farce.
That being the case, putting up a statue of Confucius in the prominent place in China sends a powerful message. This year is the centenary of the “double tenth:” 10 October 1911, when the Manzhou dynasty was overthrown and China began its succession of governments without the Son of Heaven, whose nation was governed largely on Confucian principles.
This is a sign that the People’s Republic of China, for all of the changes it has wrought in the world’s oldest continuous civilisation, wants peace and continuity with its past in some form. That bodes well both for China’s immediate desires (reunification with Taiwan) and long-term ones.
But what about Christianity, that rapidly growing religion whose divorce from “foreign devils” has sparked the greatest revival in human history? Sisci, the Italian, may have dropped a hint about that:
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.
Readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy will remember that same Virgil (representing human reason) lead Dante through most of the afterworld before handing him off to Beatrice, representing divine wisdom and revelation.
What the Chinese–and the rest of us–need is an Asian Beatrice, and I have no doubt that same–or more than one–is shortly forthcoming.