Different people give Confucius different meanings
After years of study, Zhang Tao, who wrote a book named "Confucius in the United States of America," found that there was no simple description to best illustrate "the image of Confucius in the eyes of the U.S. media".
But one thing is certain: in many cases, the image that the U.S. media has sculptured is very different with Confucius' own opinion.
In the face of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration introduced a series of policies to intervene in the economy and used the teachings of Confucius to demonstrate the feasibility and effectiveness of the policies.
At the time, Americans no longer saw Confucius as a pedantic, stubborn old man. Perceptive politicians realized that the Confucian theory of great harmony was strikingly similar to the welfare thoughts in U.S. society. Certain politicians said that Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean were different in approach, but produced equally satisfactory outcome.
Confucius, who reiterated "restraining oneself and returning to the rites," thus became a "spokesperson" for the reform in a foreign country. The then chairperson of the board of the University of Puerto Rico even hailed Confucius as the first advocate of New Deal.
Zhang said that Americans stressed freedom and the dominant role of market forces, and thought that Confucius called on the ruler to play a more active role in governance. In fact, the opponents of the New Deal also used the teachings of Confucius to express their discontent. Henry A. Wallace, the then secretary of agriculture who controlled grain prices, was given the nickname "Confucius" by the opponents because they thought that only the Chinese government deeply influenced by Confucianism would recklessly intervene in market prices.
In a letter sent to the Washington Post, a reader wrote that Confucius said, "Tyranny is fiercer than the tiger." Americans would rather live with a tiger than accepting Roosevelt's highly centralized government.
The influence of Confucius in the United States during the Roosevelt era can still be felt today. Some oak trees reportedly from the tomb of Confucius are still growing in the National Mall in Washington established during the Roosevelt administration.
The U.S. media have made some absurd mistakes when quoting Confucius. An exhibition of China's terracotta warriors was held in Atlanta in 2008. Most Chinese people are familiar with the story of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who ordered to build a life-sized terracotta army, burn many books and bury scholars to ban Confucian and other philosophical teachings. However, the U.S. media mistook Emperor Qin Shi Huang for an advocate of Confucianism because they thought the terracotta warriors reflected the Confucian principle of collectivism.
"In fact, Confucius is just a symbol in the eyes of Americans. Different people give different meanings to the symbol, and then take what they need," Zhang said.
Confucius has appeared in a wide variety of U.S. news articles. He has said, "The mind of a mean man is conversant with gain," to criticize illegal alcohol sellers, and "If you do not understand lives, you will not understand death," to lament that Civil War veterans had difficulty in getting pensions. He also expressed his discontent over tax increases because it could not "satisfy people near and far."
However, Americans have shown enough respect for Confucius in most of the times. In an article published in 1938, the Washington Post called Confucius, Moses, and Abraham Lincoln great peacemakers, and said that they led human beings in the pursuit of peace, wisdom, and common well-being.
A portrait of Confucius wearing a robe with a long beard is engraved on the white exterior wall of the Supreme Court of the United States. The other two are the portraits of Moses, who introduced the Ten Commandments, and Athenian lawgiver Solon.
In an official statement, the Supreme Court hailed them as the greatest legislators in human history.