A mammoth sculpture of the ancient philosopher Confucius was unveiled this week off one side of the vast plaza. It’s a jarring juxtaposition for a square the ruling Communist Party treats as politically hallowed ground: a mausoleum holding revolutionary leader Mao Zedong’s body sits in the middle and his giant portrait hangs at one end.
Placing the statue at China’s political heart is the authoritarian government’s most visible endorsement yet of the 2,500-year-old sage and, selectively, his teachings.
Confucius is enjoying a revival, in books and films, on TV and in classrooms. His message of harmonious social order and deference to authority is unthreatening to the party, while his emphasis on ethics resonates among Chinese coping with fast-paced social change on the back of torrid economic growth.
The government is increasingly marshaling his popularity to bolster national identity. “The rise of a big country requires a cultural foundation, and Chinese culture upholds the spirit of harmony,” said Wu Weishan, the sculptor, who has made more than 200 statues of the philosopher. “The essential thoughts of Confucius are love, kindness, wisdom and generosity. And peace and prosperity are what the people are striving for.”