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Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Confucius But Were Afraid To Ask

CONFUCIUS: His Life and Legacy in Art
February 11 – June 13, 2010
China Institute Gallery
125 East 65th Street, New York

February 16, 2010. Growing up, I didn't have much time for Confucius. Among the prominent Asian philosophers, he took second place to Lao Tzu and Taosim, and for obvious reasons. Taoism seemed more laissez-faire, less involved with propriety and property. It embraced a certain ease and modesty, a harmonious accommodation with nature. There was a nonchalance that sat well with my hipster, slacker ideal of "there's a road we're all on, man, but it really leads nowhere except right back to where we all started from, so don't get me uptight, just chill and pass that j."

My rebellious, reductivist streak left no room for the conventional wisdom of the Confucian status quo, for its apotheosis of family, for using the correct ritual and sacrifice on every occasion, for a strict legal code that could deaden spontaneity. I had dabbled in the Analects, and these dialogs were obviously "wise", but my lingering suspicion was that they were wise in the wrong way. There was no escaping their prim orientation towards duty and decorum. They did not just feel stodgy, they exuded a faint but stubborn whiff of "the Establishment", a set of teachings that formed the basis of Chinese government over many dynasties and centuries, fostering a scholastic bureaucracy that could quote Confucius chapter and verse, much like the Talmudic scholars or the Jesuits in their respective domains. Confucianism was a state religion that provided an ideological underpinning for feudal dynasties, that spoke directly for power and enabled "The Man". So it was by definition "uncool".

But now that I'm older and might even be mistaken for The Man, some of the tame procedures and concerns of Confucius seem a bit less uncool. Devotion to the memory of one's ancestors, wisdom through balance, respect for the past, commitment to study, acceptance of change, embrace of the golden rule - “Do not inflict on others what you yourself would not wish done to you.” - these now seem not such terrible ideas after all.

My growing acceptance of Confucius as I journey through middle age is paralleled by an interesting exhibition at the China Institute - CONFUCIUS: His Life and Legacy in Art. A few small, vitrine packed galleries contain a wealth of material never before seen in America, including hanging scrolls, album leaves, bronze vessels, stone carvings, jade ceremonial implements, wood-block prints and textiles. The works are on loan for the first time in the U.S. from the Shandong Provincial Museum in Jinan and the Confucius Museum in his hometown of Qufu.

The exhibition is well worth your attention. None of us will become Confucius experts on the basis of this show. But if you, like me, had previously written Confucius off as a quaint backwater, an historical oddity, then the broad sweep of his story and the story of his followers tells a compelling, 2500 year narrative of the spiritual and material progress of an entire people. Here, in no particular order, are things I have learned recently about the man and his legacy. After seeing the exhibition and perusing its excellent catalog, you will certainly be capable of making your own list.

* His family name was Kong, usually followed by the honorific "zi" (meaning Master). During his life he was generally known as "Kong-zi" (Master Kong) or more simply "Fuzi" (The Master). This was Latinized as "Confucius" by the Portuguese monks who first translated his teachings for the West.
* His years (551-479 BCE) place him in the so-called Spring and Autumn Period, just prior to the Warring States Period. The Eastern Zhou dynasty was starting to dissolve, as the vassal dukes who had been given large fiefdoms asserted their defacto independence even while pledging nominal allegiance to the emperor. It was a period of small conflicts escalating into larger wars, of general political upheaval mirrored by reforms in the social and economic spheres. A new world order was in the wings. Everything was up for grabs.
* During this turbulent era, educated Chinese noted great differences between the old traditions inherited from their ancestors and the diminished circumstances in which they themselves lived. This resulted in the advent of social consciousness, focusing on the study of humanity and the problems of society. It was a moment when "a hundred schools contended". Many learned men preached and attracted schools of disciples.
* The advent of great spiritual/philosophical activity was apparent not just in China but all over the world. Gautama achieved enlightenment in India. Buddhism spread throughout South and East Asia. Greek civilization and philosophy (Socrates, Plato) flowered in the Mediterranean. There is no evidence of direct cross pollination, but something was certainly in the air.

* Lao Tzu was in fact a contemporary of Confucius, although somewhat older and more established. There is a silk scroll in the show depicting a famous encounter, in which the young Confucius was allowed an audience with Master Lao, hoping to learn protocols of sacrifice (of sheep, pigs and oxen) for particular ceremonial functions. In addition to founding Taoism, Master Lao was apparently a repository of such arcane details.
* When he died, Confucius left over 3000 disciples, although he considered only 72 to be worthy of fully understanding and executing according to his teachings.
* He was born to a military family. His father died when he was just three, his mother when he was 16. So his early life was hard. The young Confucius had to undertake many lowly jobs, including management of a warehouse and supervisor of animal reproduction. But he had decided early on to devote himself to studies and learning, and as he advanced up the civil service ladder - manager, magistrate, chief justice, minister, vice premier - members of the local Lu nobility became his pupils as well as his patrons.
* A pinnacle of his political influence came at the Jiagu Conference (c. 500 BCE), between the Duke of Lu and the more powerful Duke of Qi, during which Confucius, on the basis of legal precedent and the citing of certain ancient rites and protocols, was able to shame the Qi; they not only renounced their territorial claims, they even gave back land and tendered an apology. It was a great diplomatic triumph.
* Still, Confucius' position was compromised some years later, and he was obliged to take to the road for 14 years, accompanied by his disciples, traveling through the neighboring states of Wei, Chen, Cao, Song, Zheng and Cai, spreading the gospel (as it were) and "seeking office" - attempting to secure an official position. Many of the silk scrolls depict famous incidents from this extended journey. In one, Confucius and his retinue are attacked by locals in a case of mistaken identity. Although generally received with all due protocol and respect by the local nobility, his campaign to achieve office was never rewarded. [Right click on the map below for a more legible view of the world of his travels.]

* At the age of 68, and at the invitation of the Duke of Lu, Confucius returned home, was honored as a "Grand Master of the State", and spent his last years in study, teaching, and compilation of his many books of learning. This work continued after his death.
* As his posthumous reputation grew, Confucius' descendants were repeatedly identified and honored by successive imperial governments with titles of nobility and official posts. The Kong family found it advantageous to trace their lineage assiduously. There are now over 76 Generations of the Dukes of Kong (no, not a doo-wop group) "for Perpetuating the Sage", and several portraits in the exhibition are presented on painted silk scrolls that date from the Ming (1368-1644 AD) or Qing dynasty (1644-1911 AD) - in other words, two millennia after the death of Confucius.

* Perhaps my favorite piece in the exhibition is a wooden votive figure of Confucius from the Sung dynasty (960-1279 AD) that has miraculously survived, and just as miraculously (according to curator Julia K. Murray) been loaned to the show. It's a bit over a foot tall, and is paired with the companion figure of his wife, Madame Qiguan (although the image below is just of Confucius). Somewhat the worse for wear, with all the original paint long worn off and certain areas reinforced with binding fabric, the piece was reportedly evacuated from Qufu and brought to the southern capital of Quzhou when the 48th generation Duke was fleeing an invading army (c. 1120 AD). The effigy has a funerary aspect, and was probably once used to legitimize the ancestral claims of the "Southern Kong" branch of the family.

* A good portion of the exhibition is devoted to ceremonial objects and household tools of the nobility - urns, flasks, wine vessels, food containers, trays, disks, a finial for a staff, bells, blades and ornaments - that give an inkling of the material reality of Confucius as he presided over sacrifices and other state rituals. Generally fashioned from stone and bronze, these objects have greater durability and often come from his own period or even earlier. The bronze food container pictured below dates from the Western Zhou (1100 - 771 BCE) and was excavated in 1978 from the tomb of the Earl of Lu in Qufu.

* From the ancient to the present. The People's Republic of China has often maintained an antagonistic attitude to Confucianism for what was deemed its perpetuation of feudalism, its enabling the nobility, and its essential resistance to modernization. This was especially true during the Cultural Revolution, when many temples and antiquities were despoiled. Taiwan can probably lay claim to a "purer", uninterrupted strain, as the Kuomintang never encouraged such rigorous chastisement. But more recently, even the mainland government has seen the wisdom of cultivating the cult of the Master, perhaps as much for the sake of cultural tourism as for national pride. Temples and historical sites have been reconstructed. Shrines have been reconsecrated, and no doubt augmented with audio tours and souvenir stands. The cultural arm of the government has even produced a biopic starring action superstar Chow Yun-Fat, made to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic and Confucius' 2560th birthday.

Confucius the movie has not yet been released, but a trailer is attached below. As with any broadly drawn historical epic, the emphasis seems to be on battle sequences, a cast of thousands, choreographed spectacle, saccharine love scenes, blazing fires, swirling snow, sweeping camera movements and a reverently elegiac, emotive, "uplifting" score.

Does the film's central casting reveal a potential problem? Will it be a bit jarring to find a face like Chow's, familiar from contemporary gangster melodramas and John Woo shoot-em-ups, cast as the venerable old philosopher? Is there the danger of simplifying a contemplative type into an action hero? Of burying intellectual concerns under a shiny veneer of martial arts? If these contradictions seem to loom risibly, we should remember that film as a medium favors action, while thoughts often cannot be expressed without a certain degree of difficulty and ambiguity. So if the film re-imagines Confucius with a "Crouching Scholar, Hidden Wisdom" treatment, as a hero of swordplay and sorcery, we can still bow apologetically towards him and offer a quotation from the Analects: "Kong-Fuzi. Honorable Sir. By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart."