Mao, Confucius, and Louis Vuitton in Tiananmen Square

July 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Setting: Tiananmen Square

The Time: January 2011-June 2011

The Players: Mao Zedong, Confucius, Louis Vuitton

Sounds almost like a Tom Stoppard play.  But, no, Mao, Confucius, and Louis Vuitton have been mixing it up lately on China’s most renowned stage.

For decades now, Mao’s portrait has hung over the Tiananmen Gate at the far north of the Square, even as his embalmed body lies in the mausoleum built immediately after his death in the center of the Square.  Mao, the Great Helmsman, founder of the People’s Republic of China, looms mightily over the Square reminding the Chinese people of the Party’s achievement in raising the country out of its “feudal” and impoverished past and restoring it to prosperity and global influence.

On January 13, Mao was joined in the Square by a figure of at least equal repute in China: Confucius.

Born in 551 B.C.E., the Sage, as he is known, left behind a set of teachings as influential as any the world has known.  These teachings became the basis of state ideology by the second century B.C.E., and remained so, with some ups and downs, for more than two millennia.  But with the opening decades of the 20th century, prominent intellectuals and political figures took aim at Confucian teachings, arguing that they were in large part responsible for China’s backwardness and weakness relative to the West.

Mao especially disliked what he believed to be the enduring effects of Confucius’ “feudal” practices on the people and, during the cultural revolution of 1967-1976, called on the Red Guards to destroy all texts, temples, sites, and statues associated with Confucius throughout China.  No small irony then that, suddenly, in early January, a humongous 17-ton statue of the Sage appeared at the north gate of the newly renovated National Museum of China on the east side of the Square—facing, almost directly, Mao’s 15’ x 25’ visage hanging above the Tiananmen Gate.

Now, if Mao himself wasn’t agitated, loyal supporters apparently were.  Confucius, after all, was an affront to all that Mao had stood—and fought—for.  Consequently, Confucius, all 17 tons of him, disappeared on April 20, as suddenly and mysteriously as he had appeared 3 months earlier.   No one has yet come forward with a formal explanation of the statue’s comings and goings, but pundits assume, no doubt rightly, that Confucius’ appearance and disappearance represent behind-the-scenes political jockeying between different camps within the leadership.

So, Confucius has exited the square.  Enter Louis Vuitton.  Louis Vuitton has taken up a perch almost exactly where the bronze Confucius had been set down.  But rather than outside the north entrance of the National Museum, Louis Vuitton is inside the National Museum.  What’s he doing there next to rare porcelain vases and bronzes vessels.  He is displaying, in a 4-room exhibition, LV luggage and handbags dating back to the 1860s, reminding museum-goers of all the luxury they missed out on since the country’s fall from power in the mid-19th century.  Clever marketing, especially in a country where the world’s high-end brands are all competing for visibility among a newly consumerist population.

The question that comes to mind is this: Confucius has been chased from Mao’s square, but can Louis Vuitton, the representative of capitalist luxury and wasteful consumption, be any more palatable to the Chairman?  Is Louis’ presence there preferable to the Sage’s?  Some Chinese, among them no doubt Mao’s followers, have expressed displeasure with a Louis Vuitton show in a Chinese historical museum, of all places.  Stores are one thing—there are now 27 Louis Vuitton stores in China—but a spot in the fabulously renovated National Museum of China in one of the world’s most historically rich squares?

Don’t assume, however, that Confucius has entirely left the stage.  Having lost his much coveted spot outside the National Museum in Tiananmen Square, he’s moved on to Shanghai.  For reasons that are not at all clear, the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum decided that the great Sage, with his renewed popularity, deserved a show at the very same time the museum had planned to display “Albert Einstein (1879-1955),” an exhibition owned by the Historical Museum of Bern, Switzerland (currently on view at the Hong Kong Science Museum).

The Shanghai museum’s motive here is unclear.  Did it see a comparative-sage exhibition as a potential blockbuster?  Or was it a nationalistic decision?  That is, we have our Eastern Sage too?  Or maybe it was simply to fill gallery space.  In any event, unhappy with the Shanghai’s proposal to merge the Einstein exhibition with a Confucius exhibition, the Bern Museum announced on Tuesday (June 7) that it had shelved plans to bring its show to Shanghai.

Confucius thus seems to have fared better against Einstein in Shanghai than against Mao in Beijing.  Whether Confucius will have a solo show in the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum remains to be seen.  And the meaning of the showdown between Confucius and Einstein is, if possible, less clear, at least at the moment, than that between Confucius and the Chairman.

What is clear, though, is that Confucius, however aged, is getting around these days.

A version of this post first appeared as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on June 29.


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