Opinion: Can Confucius Survive the Toppling Statue Movement?

A statue of Confucius in front of the Confucius Plaza Apartments in Chinatown (Photo by Doug Kerr, Creative Commons license)

Before I wrote this piece, I had to go take a look at two statues in Chinatown. It’s not that I miss them. The statue of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher, and the statue of Lin Zexu, a Qing dynasty government official known for his iron fist approach in banning opium, have been there long before I arrived in New York. In the past 15 years I have been working in Chinatown, I’ve seen the statues hundreds of times. Normally, there is little chance these statues make it to my sightseeing list. But this is not a normal time. When more and more statues all over town – the bigger “town” of New York that is – are under attack, I just want to make sure they are OK.

The movement that aims to topple statues has been brewing for years. After the 2015 massacre at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist who had draped himself in a Confederate flag in earlier photos, shot and killed nine people and injured one, some Southern states started to take down Confederate flags in public places. And statues that honor the Confederacy were questioned too.

The movement quickly picked up momentum after the collision between white supremacists and their anti-racist opponents during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to one death and many injuries.

The tragedy happened during a demonstration of the so-called “alt-right” to protest against the removal of a statue of Confederate icon Gen. Robert E. Lee. A white supremacist protester, apparently agitated by those on the other side, drove a car into the crowd.

After the tragedy, President Trump put the blame on “many sides” at a press conference and wrote on Twitter:

The question proved to be legitimate. Since then, statues, monuments and name plaques around the country have come down one after another. Most of the symbols represented the Confederate side in the Civil War,  from Gen. Lee and Gen. Jackson to anonymous soldiers. But the arrows are aimed at a broader range of candidates now: Christopher Columbus, the Italian voyager who initiated the European colonization of the Americas, for the suppression he brought to the continent’s indigenous people; J. Marion Sims, a 19th century physician known as the “father of modern gynecology,” for having conducted experimental surgeries on slaves without anesthesia; and Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor who ruled New York before it was named New York, for being anti-Semitic.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that a task force will review all the statues and monuments in the city and remove those that are considered “symbols of hate.”

A statue of Lin Zexu in Kimlau Square in Manhattan’s Chinatown (Photo by V.T. Polywoda, Creative Commons license)

No one has mentioned the statues of Confucius and Lin in Chinatown yet. But if the fervor grows, who know what’s going to happen. The philosopher, whose statue was erected in 1976 as a donation of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of U.S. independence, is known for his wisdom and high moral standards. But he called for people to be absolutely submissive to their emperors and women to their husbands. He was a die-hard defender of a vicious feudal system.

And Lin, whose statue was erected in 1997 through donations from many individuals and associations to send a message to Chinese immigrants to stay away from drugs, is touted as a hero in China. But he is blamed for blocking international trade and caused the Opium Wars between Britain and China according to some historians.

Of course, to topple the statues based on such statements sounds absurd. And indeed, these two statues are safer than many other statues because they are located in Chinatown where most people think the statue-toppling activities have reached a ridiculous pitch. And people outside of Chinatown normally don’t care what’s going on inside the insular area.

But, hey, who knows? Given that ESPN decided that it couldn’t afford to have an Asian-American sportscaster called Robert Lee as its commentator for a college football game in Virginia after the Charlottesville incident, it won’t be a surprise that any absurdity would occur in this brouhaha. After all, many statues of Confucius in China had been smashed during similar absurdities in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The fact is that history always has its dark periods, and no one can behave out of the context of the historical period in which he or she lives. The key for reasonable criteria for the hall of fame is to see whether the dark side of a person defines his or her whole life. By this standard, some of the figures listed above are not defensible while others can certainly be forgiven.

In normal times, this article would have served its mission by coming to a sensible conclusion like this. But again, this is not a normal time. This is a time when the president is considered a friend by white supremacists, hate groups are increasingly active, and racial tension is boiling and boiling. Just in the past weekend, a synagogue in Chinatown was vandalized with graffiti that read “KKK.”

So let me wrap up with this note: Toppling statues without boundaries may sound meaningless and even laughable. But the message it sends out is critically important — racism, no matter who, when, where and how, won’t be tolerated.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for your measured and intellectually honest article.

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