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The mystery of Confucius' disappearance from Tiananmen Square

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Andy Wong/AP

(Read caption) In this Jan. file photo, Chinese policemen stand guard in front of a sculpture of Confucius near the Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The mysterious removal of the statue has left many Chinese looking for an explanation.

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As politically significant tea leaves go, a 31-foot statue of the Chinese sage Confucius is an unusually large tea leaf. But scholars, political analysts, and bloggers are reading a lot into its sudden disappearance from Tiananmen Square.

Four months ago, when the gleaming bronze was unveiled just across the road from the famous portrait of Mao Zedong, it was widely interpreted as a dramatic sign of the Chinese government’s embrace of traditional values.

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Perhaps not. In the dead of night last Thursday, the statue was dismantled. Workers left some ugly blue corrugated iron fencing in its place.

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“This may mean the left wing is growing more powerful in China,” speculates Kong Weidong, spokesman for the International Reunion Association of Confucius’ Descendants. “This was definitely a government decision.”

Confucius is a controversial figure in China. For centuries his philosophy guided the country’s rulers, but Mao branded him a feudal and backward influence. During the Cultural Revolution young radicals destroyed and defaced Confucian temples and artifacts.

More recently, though, the Communist authorities have rehabilitated Confucius, who lived more than 2,500 years ago. His teachings, which stress respect for ones elders and for authority and the importance of social harmony, bolster the government’s message very satisfactorily.

Beijing has adopted Confucius as a national brand, attaching his name to hundreds of official institutes around the world teaching Chinese language and culture.

This has not gone down well with everybody here. An online survey by the ruling Communist party’s official organ, the People’s Daily, found earlier this year that 70 percent of respondents opposed the erection of Confucius’ statue on the edge of Tiananmen Square, the politically symbolic heart of the country.

“Does anyone still want China to go back to feudal autocracy?” asked “Jidushan Houjue” in a comment on an article about the statue’s fate on the website of Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV. “Should we promote science and rationality or stupidity and ancient fashions?”

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Mr. Kong says he is disappointed but not entirely surprised by the fate meted out to the statue of his famous ancestor. “Confucius is not yet firmly enough established in the mainstream of Chinese society to have a place in Tiananmen Square,” he says. “It happened five years too soon.”

Although “the left wing has won the debate for now,” Kong believes, the statue has not gone far. It has been moved into a statuary garden in the newly re-opened National Museum.

Well out of Mao’s sight.