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A New Idol: Worshiping Confucius in Contemporary China

  • Date: October 21, 2016
A New Idol:
Worshiping Confucius in Contemporary China

Professor Emerita of Art History, East Asian Studies, and Religious Studies, University of Wisconsin
Associate in Research, Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University

October 21, 2016 5:30 p.m.
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, Room L150

800 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706 608.263.2340 

For centuries, Confucius (551-479 BCE) was worshiped in government-supported temples all over China by male members of the educated elite. Following a prescribed liturgy, they performed rituals and made offerings in the presence of figural icons, often sculptural. In 1530, the Ming emperor decreed that images were inappropriate and ordered them replaced with inscribed tablets. With the end of dynastic rule in the 20th century, the cult of Confucius lost its intimate connection with governance and also was excluded from the "Five Religions" officially recognized under the Republic. Radical thinkers rejected Confucian ideology as hindering China's modernization, and Confucian rituals were abolished altogether under the People's Republic. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Confucius was a prime target and many temples were destroyed. However, since the 1980s, Confucius has gradually regained official favor on the mainland and is increasingly used abroad to symbolize Chinese culture. In recent years, images of Confucius have also proliferated and are accessible to the entire populace, sometimes even serving as the focus of prayers for personal blessings. Recent portrayals cover a wide range of media, from monumental public statues and paintings to movies, cartoons, and avant-garde installations. This lecture will survey a variety of examples and consider their significance to contemporary Chinese visual culture and popular religious practice.


Sponsored by the departments of Art History, Asian Languages and Cultures, and the Religious Studies Program of UW-Madison