Last week, China named Cuban strongman Fidel Castro the latest recipient of the Confucius Peace Prize, the country’s answer to the Nobel Prize in the same category.
The award was created hastily in 2010 when dissident and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in spite of threats and histrionics on the part of the Chinese government. The Confucius Prize has been awarded five times, most notably to the peace-loving Vladimir Putin. Castro, who in 1962 arguably brought the world closer to nuclear holocaust than at any time before or since, is nonetheless praised for “important contributions on eliminating nuclear war.”
But the Peace Prize isn’t China’s only wholesale commandeering of her most famous sage, known for his philosophy of ethics and morals. His imprimatur has also been pressed into service since 2004 in the government’s “Confucius Institutes,” a soft-power initiative devoted ostensibly to promoting Chinese language and culture abroad. As scholar Perry Link recently told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, however, the Institutes also constitute a not-so-subtle and distinctly non-scholarly effort by China to offer “a false image of itself and of Chinese history.” Only the Party’s version of the past is presented, and discussion of troublesome topics is highly discouraged.
For anyone whose memory goes back to the 1970s, what may be most difficult to swallow about all this is the colossal cheek involved in appropriating Confucius’ good name. It wasn’t so long ago that China’s best-known teacher and philosopher was the last person on earth the communists would have chosen as a proxy. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, he was shamelessly maligned by the very Party that hoists his banner today. Although dead for two millennia, he was singled out for his own personal smear campaign.
The “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius Campaign” (批林批孔运动, Pilin Pikong Yundong) was launched in 1973 by Mao and his wife Jiang Qing as a re-examination of Chinese history through a Maoist prism. It incorporated the denunciation of Vice Premier Lin Biao, who two years earlier had allegedly launched a coup against the Chairman. Used by the leftist Gang of Four as a weapon against “modern-day Confucians” – moderates like Premier Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping – it ushered in one of the most violent periods of the Cultural Revolution, lasting until its end in 1976.
Confucius, whose principles had enjoyed a coveted place in Chinese history, was suddenly held up as a symbol of all that was bad about the old society. Although he was a stand-in for enemies then very much alive, he took a severe drubbing in his own right. He was denounced as China’s “number one bastard” (头号大混蛋, touhao dahundan) and his writings were parsed and criticized. Temples built in his honor were pillaged and his statues decapitated. His grave was leveled and the corpses of his descendants defiled. And in comic books and posters he was depicted as a wizened old geezer, flailed mercilessly by righteous workers, peasants and soldiers.
In the 21st century, China’s premier teacher and scholar has once again become useful to the Party, this time as hero rather than villain. His reconstructed tomb is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And in a September speech long on Confucius and notably short on Karl Marx, President Xi Jinping praised the sage’s teachings as “the historical roots of the spiritual world of the present-day Chinese.” He added that “Confucianism has morphed with the times, and evolved in accordance with corresponding conditions.”
What has actually evolved is not Confucius, but rather the Party’s stormy, on-again, off-again relationship with him. The real question is when the next change in his fortunes is likely to occur. When it does, it will probably find China’s “number one bastard” braced for the next spin around the merry-go-round – if he hasn’t succumbed to a severe case of whiplash by then.