Opinion / Raymond Zhou

No need to standardize a saint's look
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-06-24 05:08

I can safely bet that, of the billions of people in the world today, nobody has seen Confucius in person.

I can also bet you everything I have that nobody has seen a photograph of him, either.

You see, Confucius was born in 551 B.C., well before photography came into existence. Yet, some organization wants to standardize his portrait to "give him a single, recognizable identity around the world."

The China Confucius Foundation will create this visual rendering "with advice from Confucian scholars, historians, artists and his descendants," and unveil it during the September celebration of his 2557th birthday.

None of them has seen Confucius or his likeness except the earliest painting of him by Wu Daozi of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), on which the standard portrait will reportedly be based.

But Wu and Confucius lived more than 1,000 years apart. His painting at best incorporated written descriptions from an earlier time, or was most likely a work of his own imagination.

The disturbing thing is not that the foundation wants to issue a portrait that it touts as "standard," but that it wants to stamp out all other images of the Great Sage because it claims they "will severely harm his good aura and personal charisma and will hinder the propagation of his thoughts."

So, how will our benchmark Confucius look? He will be an old man with a long beard, broad mouth and big ears. He will wear a robe and cross his hands on his chest.

Was Confucius never a boy who enjoyed mischief, a young man who frolicked, a curmudgeon who resisted new ideas, an old man who got lonely? He might have gone through those times and moods like everyone else, but if the foundation has its way, he will now be forever embalmed in one particular portrayal. No variations and creativity allowed.

The problem is not whether the "standard portrait" will be authentic -- it does reflect the Confucius in most people's minds -- but whether interpretations will benefit or harm his stature, and by extension, the fabric of our society. Therefore, it does not matter whether portraits from the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods exist or what kind of organization the China Confucius Foundation is.

There is simply no need to standardize such a thing as the image of Confucius.

There are certain things in a civilized society that should be standardized. For example, laws and regulations, and most obviously, measurements. But do we need uniformity when it comes to how people react to a movie or a book, and in this case, a portrayal?

There were times in our history when liking one movie or hating another was identified as "incorrect," as in "politically incorrect." The giant steamroller of conformity would crush any trace of individuality and pulverize it into dust under a paved road.

Now that we realize how ludicrous it was to make everyone feel the same way about something so personal, we may also laugh at the futility and folly of regulating Confucius' visual depiction.

Even if the foundation's claim had authority validity, it would be impossible to enforce it beyond the border. Are they going to tear down the Confucius statue in New York's Chinatown if it does not fit their profile?

The real danger behind the portrait homogenizing scheme is the effort to control how we see Confucius and Confucianism. Thirty years ago, we were force-fed the notion that he represented all the evils of Chinese culture; and now, we are supposed to kneel down and kowtow.

While I believe every Chinese student should study some Confucianism, we should steer clear of the pitfall of blind idolatry. Yes, a lot of his teachings are relevant today, but some are evidently out of date, such as blind obedience to the authorities and father figures and contempt for women.

The important thing is, everyone should have the right to approach Confucianism with independent thinking and critique his theories without the coercion of standard answers.

That is not the same as being disrespectful. If there is one Chinese who should be enshrined, it is probably Confucius. But treating him as an icon of Chinese civilization does not preclude that we read him with our own opinions or portray him from our individual minds' eyes.

Diversity in interpretation will only make Confucianism stronger, not more confusing.

E-mail: raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 06/24/2006 page4)