Confucius Vs. Avatar: Rethinking Confucian Advocacy in the 21st Century

Antony Ou*


Fei Mu, who is now regarded as one of the all-time favourite directors of China, filmed Confucius in 1940 during the time of the Japanese invasion. He attempted to reconstruct the life of Confucius (551-479BC) during the period of Spring and Autumn (770-476 B.C.). Every copy of the film had supposedly lost and forgotten until 2001, Hong Kong Film Archive has received an anonymous film donation of the long-lost movie. It was restored and shown in 2010. After watching the film twice in 2010, as a scholar of Confucianism, I do not think that the movie carries an exceptionally strong modern political message, although Fei Mu was a patriot who produced several crucial patriotic movies. Instead, Fei Mu tried to provide us a very plain and overall picture of Confucius within his context: A chaotic and divided feudal state of Lu with internal struggles for power. Confucius, at his age of 50, was exiled and travelled to other countries for 14 years in order to pursue his moral and political ideal of ren (benevolence). He had never succeeded and went into many kinds of troubles. Nevertheless, his teachings have subsequently influenced imperial China for more than 2000 years afterward.

A portrait of ConfuciusHu Mei has made another film of Confucius this year in 2010. It has created numbers of controversies at the same time. The film was originally scheduled in 2009, which was the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, the release date was adjourned to January 2010. The new Confucius movie takes a very different approach from the old one by “hollywoodizing” Confucius  Confucius becomes a “nationalist” and an almost derailed lover. One can argue that these were propaganda strategies that could possibly boost the box
-office (Gross revenue of 127 millions RMB). Yet, Chinese people seem to prefer James Cameron’s movie Avatar, which received around $700 millions RMB nationwide (2.7 billion USD worldwide). The film has conquered the Chinese box office for three weeks and received positive re- views. Why do the Chinese people like Avatar, much more than their very own national “avatar” Confucius? Why do the Americanized futuristic freedom fighters won over the “blood and soil-related” ancient Chinese saint?


Avatar and Its Implication to China

The movie Avatar sets the time in 2154, where human beings invade the planet of Pandora, for the sake of unobtanium, a type of precious energy for the Earth. The “hawkish” humans ignore and damage the population, culture, feelings, and rob natural resources of the Na’vi, the human-like in- habitants with blue skins. At the same time, human scientists create Na’vi -human hybrid bodies, namely avatars. The avatars are connected to human controllers’ neurons so that they can remotely control their avatars. The avatars are the “good guys” who attempt to make friends with the Na’vi, and that is how the story begins.

For any educated American public, they can easily associate this with the 2003 Gulf War: American troops, together with supported allies, unilaterally launched an unjust war against Iraq for oil. Consequently, this anti-war movie acts as a catalyst for pacifists and also serves as an education for people who still support the unethical war. As for any green-alert global citizen, this film is a horrific mirror of human beings: in the name of short-term efficiency, effectiveness and economy; and for the pursuit of material happiness, human beings can annihilate any obstacle in front of them. Pollutions of any kind are intractable problems, but they can be delayed to our next generation. Human beings are hopeless when it comes to environmental protection, just like what was portrayed in the film.

‘China is never a “harmonious” place due to its undemocratic and injustice environment. The “haves” are the exploiters and the “have nots” are severely oppressed.’

How does the 3-D Avatar relate to China? If one checks closely the newspapers on Chinese local injustice: corrupted developers from different regions of China force innocent citizens to move out of their homes with minimal compensations. The poor citizens could be raped, murdered and their properties are most probably confiscated by their local officials. In other words, many of these local officials have already violated most of the universal human rights by any global standard. Chinese scholars regard such political atrocity as the “New Enclosure Movement”. Moreover, the eviction law can by no means protect its own citizens. The government can gain lands with minimal costs for government and private projects, infrastructure development, and a rapidly growing economy. Bei- jing Olympics 2008 and Shanghai Expo 2010 are two prime examples illustrating the problems of the New Enclosure Movement. Thousands of homes were literally destroyed for happy tourists from the West. Maybe the advancement of the 3 -D technology can only partly explain the phenomenon of Avatar’s success. Yet, in many Chinese movie viewers’ eyes, the movie Avatar is not about American Imperialism anymore; it actually reflects the present social unfairness of China.

In the last issue of Political Reflection (PR), in the article named “Hong Kong Democracy: A Pessimistic Review”, I contend that

The concept of a “harmonious society” has become an overarching theme campaigning over the years in China. The Chinese central government advocates that it is necessary to construct a “harmonious society” while enjoying the economic prosperity. The term has been repeatedly criticized as a strategy that underplays the democratic reform of China. 

China is never a “harmonious” place due to its undemocratic and injustice environment. The “haves” are the exploiters and the “have -nots” are severely oppressed. The Gini coefficient is alarming (0.45 in 2009). There are plenty of demonstrations and social conflict every single day, which for the majority of them would never occupy a tiny corner of both the national and international newspapers. As I have mentioned in the last issue of PR, “the only reason for a government to promote harmony is because the society of which it governs lacks harmony.”

Government Propaganda and Historical Distortion

The movies Avatar and Confucius were shown more or less the same time in China. For the latter, it did not enjoy a high box-office like the former. Cinemas were then allowed only to show the 2-D version of Avatar. Some of the movies were even banned to show any version of Avatar so as to pave way for the movie Confucius. In addition, government units and state enterprises had been “block-booking” the tickets of Confucius for members of staff. For some of the theatres, in order to boost the figures of Confucius tickets, they were sending the tickets as free gifts for people who purchased Avatar tickets. The Chinese web -users were infuriated by the unnecessary actions of their government and some of them actually advocated to boycott the film, Confucius. The government “marketing” of the movie was a complete failure and it never gains sympathy from the media and the general public. However, for people who would like to know more about Confucius do not know much about his life and philosophy, the government might successfully provide an alternative but distorted image of Confucius. These distorted contents of distorted content of Confucius indeed convey strong political modern message for modern Chinese.

As Yao Dali, a prominent Chinese historian, pro- claims, “If I were Confucius and watch the new film, I would never wish to be Confucius!” To Yao, Confucius depicted in the film is a highly distorted image, which is not following strictly to historical evidence. Such a statement is a fierce challenge to the historical accuracy of the “Hollywoodized” film. Anyone who reads The Analects and The Book of Records (Shiji), the two most reliable historical sources for Confucius’ life and philosophy, would realise immediately one of these historical manufacturing below:

“If I were Confucius and watch the new film, I would never wish to beConfucius!”

Confucius in 2010

1) Yan Yuan, the most appreciated disciple of Confucius, died at his age of thirty-one. According to historical evidence, he died because of sickness, and probably due to malnutrition. However, the movie director Hu Mei manufactures history by arranging Yan Yuan as a tragic hero: He rode a horse carrier, loaded with piles of bamboo strips (texts for teaching), following Confucius and other students. It was a day of snowstorm and they needed to go across a frozen lake. Accidentally, the ice cracked and Yan Yuan fell into the water. Instead of saving himself, he sacrificed himself by diving into the frozen water repeatedly and saving the bamboo strips. Some might relate him to James Cameron’s Titanic’s self-sacrificed Jack. Others relate him to Lei Feng, a selfless and model soldier during the Maoist period.

2) Confucius once had a private meeting with Nan Zi, who was the favourite mistress of the Duke of Wei. According to historical texts, by ancient standard, she was an immoral person by having affairs with the Prince of Song. However, it is hard to argue whether Nan Zi seduced Confucius in any sense. Interestingly, the role was presented as a Chinese version of Cleopatra who tempted Confucius with captivating clothing and seductive music. As the sage of Chinese people for more than 2000 years, Confucius resisted firmly with propriety against the temptation.

3) In an interstate meeting (the conference of Jiagu) between Lu and Qi, as a representative of Lu, Confucius never applied any surprise military move to deter the strong force of Qi. Instead, during the meeting, Confucius killed the midget armed dancers of Qi, whom Confucius accused them as the ones who did not act according to Li (the Rite of the central authority Zhou), and they were also a security threat to the Duke of Lu. By modern standard, such killing might be classified as “handicapped discrimination”.

The list is not exhaustive. However, a question follows: what’s wrong with Hollywoodized Chinese movies like Confucius? Arguably, Hollywood elements make films enjoyable and entertaining. Also, this is how arts should work (both high and pop arts). The means and functions of movie are very different from philosophy and history, that the former is quite similar to literature, which emphasizes arbitrary selection, exaggerations, and distortion; entertainment, creativity, and ambiguity. Blockbusters such as The Gladiator, Robinhood, and 300, all involve historical distortion and artificial creation. In this sense, historical distortion and art creation of movies are inevitable and sometimes desirable. For instance, in 1928, Lin Yutang, the so-called “Master of Humour”, produced an one-act play named “Confucius visited Nan Zi”. In the play, Nan Zi was portrayed as a feminist who argued strongly for gender equality, while Confucius was embarrassed and confused by such progressive thought. The purpose of the play was to present a strong political message of feminism in the early 20th century. In this sense, unlike many Chinese historians and philosophers’ negative views on the recent movie Confucius, I cannot find anything wrong by “manufacturing Confucius”.

What I would like to focus in this essay is the moral-political lesson of the movie. Films are deeds. There could be quite a number of political conjectures of the film Confucius, yet, one of the most obvious motives of the film is — Confucius is a nationalist. The state -promoted movie emphasises ancient concepts such as social harmony, respect of hierarchy, and individual conformity within a society. These ancient virtues, according to the movie, can all contribute to modern Chinese nationalism. In my reading of the 2010 movie Confucius, it is a much more intense nationalistic product than the film Confucius in 1940. One must be noted that these modern applications of ancient concepts are dubious

“Confucius once warned Yan Yuan that “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.”

it could be a straw man fallacy without acknowledging particular contexts and authorial intentions. As a result, the modern manufacturing product of Confucius in any form is merely a political tool for “social-reengineering”. (For details, see What is Living and What is Dead in Confucius: A Question for Rising China, Political Reflection Issue No.1).

Can anyone possibly imagine during the Cultural Revolution (1966 -1976), Chinese people condemned their “own heritage” by smashing the majority of Confucius and related temples? There were tens of thousands of books about Anti-Confucius Movement. However, since the early 80s, Sinology was “liberated” and became a hot subject for generations of scholars. The public celebrates its revival. Therefore, the movie Confucius is actually just a part of the unfinished project of the boom of sinology since the 1980s. There are other prime examples, including Yu Dan’s lectures in Chinese Central Television (CCTV).

Rethinking Confucianism Advocacy in the 21st Century

Confucius, an ancient person who was born 2560 years ago, can never tell whether we are obliged to watch his biographic movie of the 21 st century. It is even not a wise thing to do to check The Analects for quotes that can mildly justify the government’s propaganda. However, if we really have to use his words out of context, then according to The Analects, Chapter 12 of Yan Yuan, “Not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself.” I believe that no one likes to be limited their choices of movies, either the officials or the citizens. Good paternalism does not apply to such a case. During the Cultural Revolution, revolutionary model operas were the only legal movies and dramas for general public. Of course, any pro – Confucian movies and literature were banned and Anti-Confucius Movement prevailed. Citizens, for most of them, were disciplined, bored, and became apathetic to politics. The Confucianism advocacy in the 21st century might, ironically, share some of the features of the propaganda of that particular tragic period, since they are both one-sided, selective, and manipulated. Confucius once warned Yan Yuan that “Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.” However, for any modern Chinese people in the 21st century, they must be aware and realise that they are still not entitled to have the universal rights to “look, listen, speak and make movements”.


* Antony Ou is a PhD Researcher of University of Sheffield, the China Review editor of Political Reflection Magazine, and the China Representative of CESRAN. His monograph, Just War and the Confucian Classics: A Gongyangzhuan Analysis, has been published and is available at
Twitter: https:// ouantony Douban: http:// people/ ouantony/

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