Confucius and Chinese people in eyes of Americans

Confucius has been in the United States for nearly 300 years.

Most of the time, the authoritative, wise old man wears a hat, uses a far-fetched way of speaking, and bows with hands clasped in commercials. A dance performance poster was printed with "Confucius said that women must learn to dance in order to keep up with the latest fashion trends," and a cemetery advertisement reminded people, "He who does not think of the future is certain to have immediate worries." Even some people betting on horse racing wanted to take advantage of the fame of Confucius by saying, "Confucius said that Black Fox will win the race."

Just like contemporary Chinese people who like to quote foreign philosophers, Americans often quote Confucius in many unrelated topics. In 1940 when a congressional seat representing the Harlem neighborhood in New York City was up for re-election, white and black residents of the neighborhood held large-scale demonstrations as both sides wanted the seat. A demonstration banner read, "Confucius said that a black person should not be allowed to represent Harlem in the U.S. Congress."

Zhang Tao, who wrote a book named "Confucius in the United States of America," found that "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself" and "If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant" are both popular Confucius quotes in the United States. However, his most popular quote is "Better to see something once than hear about it a hundred times."

In the early 20th century, the U.S. media had used the quote to prove the necessity of illustrations. The Washington Post once said that it was better to see a news photo than read a news article a hundred times. Photo studios have used the quote to encourage people to enjoy the pleasure of photos. A real estate developer also used the same quote as an advertisement to publicize its new housing project in Beverly Hills.

Few Americans know that the phrase "Confucius said," which they have frequently used, is not from the Analects of Confucius, but from the Book of Han compiled by Ban Gu of the Eastern Han dynasty, nearly 600 years after the time of Confucius.

The image of Confucius has sometimes been deconstructed in a fun way in topics that have nothing to with China. For example, he was depicted in a car rental ad as a rational, calm person who would only rent a car instead of buying one because he did not have to breed a cow just to drink milk.

Sometimes, he was depicted as a nagging old man. "Confucius said" became the most popular phrase in the United States in the early 1940s, when people fabricated Confucius quotes to make up jokes such as "Confucius said that George Washington cut down the cherry tree simply to pick up the cherries."

"Americans have only a vague and superficial understanding of Confucius. In their eyes, Confucius is just an easy-to-remember symbol that can easily trigger the association of ideas," Zhang said.

During his stay in the United States, Zhang’s American friends did not talk with him about Confucius. They were more interested in Chinese food, kung fu, and Yao Ming, and some wanted to play ping pong with him. Only some China-related news reminded him that Confucius has a "complicated image" in the U.S. media.

The American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin, added the Confucius in the United States of America to its collection shortly after the book's publication, and sent Zhang a letter praising his "valuable" and "well-received" study.

However, a comment by a Chinese scholar left the deepest impression on Zhang. The scholar told Zhang that after reading the book, he had this feeling of "looking into the mirror for the first time." "It was the first time that we had the opportunity to clearly see ourselves in the eyes of Americans," the scholar said.


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