China Beat Archive



Alec Ash

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February 4, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright February 4, 2010 Alec Ash. Used by permission.


The film Confucius premiered in Beijing last month, to a backdrop of controversyover Avatar being dropped from cinemas to make way for more patriotic fare. I saw the film last weekend with Chinese student friends, and we couldn’t hold back the occasional open snigger: in a word, Confucius is cornier than maize. It also raises interesting questions about the selective interpretation and political uses that modern China makes of its ancient Confucian tradition.

I put some of these questions to Daniel A. Bell, Professor of Philosophy at Tsinghua University, who has written widely on Confucianism (including pieces for The China Beat), and is author of China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton, 2008; new edition 2010).

I’ll preface with one comment of my own. As well as being an entertainment and commercial beast (though if it will be a successful one remains in doubt), I would say that Confucius serves a clear political agenda. Namely, presenting an appealing humanitarian philosophy and nudging audiences to link that with the CCP’s modern China. Within China, there’s an added emphasis on the “put your country before everything” side of Confucianism (the film reminded me in its style and hyperbole to The Founding of a Republic). And overseas, it’s a weapon of China’s ‘soft power’.

Finally, a spoiler alert for what follows – for whatever it’s worth, the ‘ending’ of Confucius’ life story is given away. And Professor Bell has confirmed that no new academic information has come to light to support the film’s idea that Confucius’ fabled meeting with Laozi happened not in an inn, but atop a mountain shrouded romantically in clouds at sunset.