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Exhibition: Confucius. The advent of humanism in China

Barcelona, 26 May 2004

“The Master said: ‘I would prefer not speaking!’ Tsze-kung said: ‘If you, Master, do not speak, what shall we, your disciples, have to record?’ The Master said: ‘Does Heaven speak? The four seasons pursue their courses, and the hundred creatures continue to be born, but does Heaven say anything?’ It is paradoxical that the life and thought of Confucius (551-479 BC) are made up of a profusion of silences, enigmas and voids that have generated a great deal of discussion. His first biography was not published until three centuries later, and the Analects are a compendium of recollections compiled by his disciples after his death, in the form of conversations. Acknowledged as a sage and venerated as a saint throughout history, the words of the Master still resonate powerfully in the form of aphorisms, sayings and maxims. The exhibition: Confucius. The advent of humanism in China unveils at CaixaForum the figure and teachings of a master largely unknown to the general public through 130 priceless works that span over twenty centuries, some of which are being shown for the first time outside China. Archaic ritual bronzes from the 13th to 5th c. BC, the funerary low reliefs of the Han period (1st and 2nd c.); the Sacred vestiges from the life of Confucius; objects used in the six noble arts (charioteering, archery, ritual, music, calligraphy and mathematics), funerary sculptures of civil servants and military officers from the 5th to 12th centuries, and portraits of venerables from the Ming and Qing periods with their headdresses and insignia of rank, in addition to other objects and pieces, are distributed throughout an exhibition space divided into seven ambits. The showing, organized by ”la Caixa” Foundation, la Réunion des Musées nationaux and the Musée des arts asiatiques-Guimet (Paris), with the collaboration of the National Administration for Cultural Heritage of the People’s Republic of China is presented within the framework of Barcelona’s International Forum of Cultures 2004.

The exhibition: Confucius. The advent of humanism in China, curated by Jean-Paul Desroches and Catherine Delacour, can be visited at CaixaForum (Av. Marquès de Comillas, 6-8), from 27 May to 29 August 2004.

The master Kong (Kong Zi), known in the West as Confucius (551-479), lived in a dark period of vengeance and war rocked by the commotion that comes with such a gamut of violence and abuse. With Laozi (570-490?) and Buddha (536-480?), Confucius forms a triad of spiritual masters who in the 6th century BC advocated the need for a new social ethic. Unlike them, Confucius is not a founder of any type of religion or spirituality. Nonetheless, he represents a true cultural phenomenon that is intertwined with the destiny of the entire Chinese civilization. Beyond China, Confucius is a universal figure (like Buddha, Socrates, Christ and Marx) as he represents a decisive beginning: man’s reflection on man. He proposes, for the first time, an ethical vision of man in his integrity and universality.

Throughout his career, he sought to convince rulers to restore former rules and customs, without ever achieving his goal. Despite his failure, he persevered in his desire to remedy political crises and power struggles through teaching. Following his death, his disciples compiled some of their conversations with the Master under the title Lunyu (the Analects).

Biographical information on the life of Confucius is vague. Devoted to his studies from the age of 15, he soon became a teacher at the service of a noble family from the state of Lu. He is also believed to have served as governor of this state. By 30 he had numerous disciples and was consulted by leading figures of society. He began a period of political activism that would lead him to power in the court of the dukes of Lu, to pilgrimage and exile. Confucius preached about cultivating virtue and the duty to aspire to perfection, a higher human quality that he identified with honesty, moderation, justice, loyalty, and respect for nature; in other words, ren, which is reached through continuous personal betterment and moral discipline, not by virtue of birth, as was intended by the feudal nobility. The subversiveness of this thought was exactly what disturbed his more powerful contemporaries.

More than a creator, Confucius presented himself as a conveyor of the teachings from the most ancient Chinese wise men. His doctrines are based on the study, comment and recovery of traditional texts, from which he was able to extract new ideas. Confucius’ life is marked by his fruitless search for a prince willing to put his doctrines for rational organization of society into practice. Three centuries after his death, the Han dynasty turned Confucianism into the official doctrine of state.

The exhibition: Confucius. The advent of humanism in China outlines a path through over twenty centuries of history for the general public to gain familiarity with the thought and figure of the Master: the importance of ancestor worship, his life, the recovery of his doctrine during the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the practice of the six noble arts, the implementation of an imperial examination system based on Confucian texts (in force in China up to 1911), the worship of Confucius and his later influence on imperial China. His thought reached the West through missionaries, and soon caught the attention of the enlightened elite (Leibniz, for example, attempted to reveal its innermost pillars and Voltaire incorporated Confucian thought into his arsenal of reasoning). Further, the exhibition presents a number of the Master’s phrases projected on the wall in Chinese calligraphy with their translation into Spanish and Catalan, as well as a selection of photographs of pilgrimage sites taken between 1907 and 1914 by three scientific missions and parts of a documentary filmed at the end of 1990 for German television.


Confucius, descendant of the kings of Shang, was raised to respect ancestor worship. These rituals forged his temperament and became the basis for his philosophy. Though poor, he was brought up with the values of the aristocracy. He led a nomadic existence, traveling from court to court, spreading his message of faith in the perfectibility of man. The key value that Confucius attached to education would also become the basis for imperial society: ‘fortune tellers’ were replaced by ‘lawyers’, civil servants who proved their worth through an exam within the framework of a system kept in force until 1911. On another note, popular devotion raised the wise man to the rank of saint. These are the two sides to the figure of Confucius that are illustrated in this exhibition, structured in seven areas.

1. A philosophy based on tradition

According to Confucius’ biographers, his elderly father married a girl of 14 in the hope that she would give birth to a child to perpetuate the family’s ancestor worship. Their lineage was noble, his father being a descendant of the kings of Shang (18th-12th c. BC). Confucius’ mother, who widowed when he was only three, ensured his education in tradition, which probably explains his innate inclination for ritual as a key part of his thought.

This first area shows twenty priceless archaic bronzes that illustrate the important role of rituals in ancient China. The seven bronze receptacles date from the Shang Dynasty. They represent an exceptionally valuable set, having been used in a single family’s ancestor worship from the 13thth to 12th centuries BC, showing the strength of family bonds among members of the Shang aristocracy.

Other bronzes from the Western Zhou Dynasty (9th to 8th c. BC) are also shown, richly decorated with figures and engravings in geometric motifs. Later, the Eastern Han Dynasty, whose reign is known as the Springs and Autumns Period (722-481 BC) and the Warring Kingdoms Period (453-221 BC), were times of ongoing conflict between feudal lords in which royal power was weakened. The decoration of ritual bronzes tended to disappear, while other ornaments (mirrors and jewelry) were enriched with gold, silver and precious stone incrustations (the very splendors that Confucius attempted to rebel against).

2. The life of Confucius

Information on the life of Confucius is vague, as there are hardly any historical documents that tell of his career. It is known that he studied to be a public teacher, and devoted himself to this profession until the age of 50. As of that time, he began a period of political activism, together with princes and lords, unsuccessfully attempting a reform of institutions based on moderation, loyalty and justice. After his death (479 BC) a small Confucian school was established that remained in operation until the founding of the first empire (220 BC). The values that Confucius’ disciples preached fell out of favor under the irascible and all-powerful first emperor. They did, nonetheless, succeed in legitimizing and structuring the next dynasty: the Han (206 BC – 220 AD).

It was precisely in this period that the first biography of Confucius was written by Sima Qian (145 – 86 BC), one of the greatest historians of ancient China. This hagiography was enriched over the centuries with new stories until becoming a sort of illustrated canon on the wise man’s life. The images, accompanied by short texts, were first etched in stone and later printed on scrolls. They make up the Sacred vestiges from the life of Confucius that are exhibited in this area.

3. The advent of humanism in China

Following his death, his students compiled the contents of their conversations with the Master. Later disciples completed and enriched the work, bringing together a selection of texts under the title Lunyu (the Analects or Conversations), made up of 499 passages distributed over 20 books. The influence of the principles expressed by the Master, so deeply rooted in the Han Period, can be viewed in the funerary stellae shown in this area. The ornamental walls of tombs are testimony to filial devotion, and the balance of the family microcosm is reflected in the harmony governing the prince’s relationship with the subjects of Heaven and Earth. The scenes are set in noble residences and appear organized in horizontal records, within a strictly ordered space decorated by serene, hieratic figures. In one of them, Confucius offers a bird as a gift to Laozi, founder of Taoism.

Emperor Ling Di (168-189) ordered the texts expressing the quintessence of Confucian thought engraved in stone for the first time. During the sacking of the capital in 190, this monumental work (46 stellae engraved in stone on both sides with over 200,000 characters, erected in the library of the Imperial School, in modern day Luoyang) was destroyed. Nonetheless, a few of the surviving fragments are exhibited in this area. These classical texts were also conserved by written means. The canonic version, established and commented on by the most prominent Neoconfucian thinker, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), is presented in four books. One of the oldest versions, printed at the end of the 13th century and discovered in the tomb of prince Zhu Tan, son of the founder of the Ming Dynasty, is on display at the exhibit.

4. The practice of the six arts

Confucius believed that human beings could be perfected through study. Along these lines, the teaching of the six noble arts (ritual, music, calligraphy, mathematics, charioteering and archery) was meant to develop sensitivity and self-control, and thereby re-establish man’s harmony with the Universe. This area offers a number of priceless archaeological pieces that embody the study of the six noble arts (liuyi). By untiring practice, ‘upstanding men’, whatever their condition or origin, could reach the highest offices of State.

– Rituals (li). Ancestor worship and ceremonies mark the passage of seasons and the various stages of life. Dance is represented through statuettes of markedly stylized lines that emphasize their funerary purpose.
– Music (yue). As the main regulator that Heaven and Earth offer men, music is evoked in this exhibition through two instruments that were essential in the typical orchestras of Confucius’ day: two glockenspiel-like instruments, one of bells and the other of hard stones. They sounded when struck them with mallets. The two instruments were generally played together, tuned in superimposed keys and hung from a portico.
– Calligraphy (wen). Like the ritual, it reproduces the world’s dynamics and movement. It is practiced in an atmosphere of meditation with objects laden with symbolism: the stone where the ink is prepared, the weights to fasten the mat and the stamp, all in the shape of a turtle, symbol of the Universe (its image evokes the calm and silence that surround those who write).
– Mathematics (shu). The science of numbers is at the core of exactness in measurements, of wealth and prosperity. Certain measurements are included in this section.
-Charioteering (yu). A lineal vehicle, chariots are related with war, hunting and parades expressing the power of the sovereign. The bow-shaped sail symbolizes the Universe. Charioteering classes began between 15 and 19 years of age. Later, the owner of the chariot delegated to a driver who guided him in accordance with a complex protocol. Along these lines, among other objects a ‘Rong che’ chariot with driver from the Han Dynasty is exhibited.
-Archery (she). This was part of a man’s physical training, like charioteering, and stood as a test of talent through competition.

5. Confucius’ thinking toward public life

Shunned by the powerful during his lifetime, Confucian thought later became state doctrine. Starting in 606, the Empire established a demanding set of examinations (keju) based on Confucian writings and the six noble arts to choose the lawyer/civil servants responsible for public affairs. Under the Sui and the Tang (580-907), the figurines of civil servants grew in number and came to occupy a prominent place in tombs. They represent official power in the afterlife, and are characterized by a frontal and often hieratic canon. Suits, headdresses and other indications of rank helped underscore one’s belonging to this learned elite that administered the State.

From the Song to the Qing (960-1911), the portraits painted on different materials show the permanence of this iconography, such as the portrait of the venerable Qi Jiguang (1528-1587), celebrated strategist of the Ming Period, or the twenty portraits of Liu Family venerables and their wives (who represent the chain of a family clan spanning the Ming and Qing dynasties, which are conserved in a sanctuary erected in honor of the family’s ancestors) as well as a large portrait of four venerables and their wives.

This area also offers examples of the dress, ornaments and insignia that the civil servant-lawyers wore to indicate their social status, emblems that evolved over history. Traditionally, the corps and rank of civil servants were recognized through the ‘Mandarin square’ patterns embroidered on their chest. Military functionaries wore different birds, whereas officers wore wild beasts, and mythical animals were the distinctive emblems of judicial officials. Thus, the exhibit includes a hat with a long pin, a crown decorated with semiprecious stones, a gold buckle and jade belt from the excavations of the tomb of Zhu Tan (1371-1390), prince of Lu, the very state in which Confucius was born. Parallel to these, three suits belonging to descendants of the Master, from his Qufu residence are on display. Two of these robes, of broad body and sleeves, are from the Ming Period, whereas the third, with its tighter sleeves, is from the Qing Period.

6. Confucianism, official religion

Though he always declared himself agnostic, Confucius is venerated as the founder of a religion. This paradox is the result of a long historical process, in which Taoism and Buddhism have also had an influence. Although his thought was based on secular teachings of rational nature and social order, over the centuries, his home city, Qufu, became the center of a religion that extended throughout China. Depending on their interests, the successive dynasties bestowed all types of honorary titles upon Confucius, elevating him to the pantheon of Chinese deities. This area includes three icons inspired by ancient images from Qufu showing Confucius with the markings of the Lu Province Minister of Justice, in a teaching pose and surrounded by two of his disciples.

The ten bronze sacrificial goblets dating from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties that are also shown in this section were a gift from the Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) to the temple of Qufu, who donated the oldest, most valuable items from his palace to show the veneration he felt for the figure of the wise man. Indeed, over the years Qufu became a holy city, the heart of religious confucianism. Pilgrims frequent three sites: the tomb, the temple (depicted in a water color painting) and the residence of the descendants.

7. The influence of confucianism

Starting from their taking power and throughout the following century, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), of Manchu descent, strove to put the Confucian ideal of good government into practice. With this aim, they recovered old imperial religions that had been abandoned from the time of the Han. The altars of Heaven, Earth and Agriculture, and Moon and Sun were restored during this period. Located at the four cardinal points of Manchu Beijing in a space imbued with symbolic character, the emperor regularly visited them to celebrate ostentatious sacrifices. To meet the requirements of the ritual, he commissioned creation of a specific crockery set. Four receptacles of yellow porcelain are testimony to the ceremonies celebrated at the altar of the Earth and Agriculture under the influence of Confucianism. A long horizontal scroll-mounted silk is also on display. In it, Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1735) is depicted plowing the ‘first row’ in the sacred field adjacent to the altar of Agriculture.

This symbolism is not alien to the Europeans of the Enlightenment, especially the physiocrats. In 1786 engraver Stanislas Helmann reproduced this official ceremony in an educational album. In another engraving from the period Monseigneur le Dauphin, the future king Louis XVI, is shown as a farm worker. Thanks to the works of the Jesuits that flooded the West, 17th and 18th century Europe developed a fondness for all things Chinese. But the European “intelligentsia” (particularly Leibniz and Voltaire) were especially attracted by the Confucian thinking that sustained the Chinese Empire, which Voltaire considered the example of a State grounded in reason.

Confucius. The advent of humanism in China
From 27 May to 29 August, 2004

Opening: Wednesday, 26 May, 8 pm

Place: CaixaForum
Av. Marquès de Comillas, 6-8

Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 8 pm

”la Caixa” Foundation Information Service:
Tel.: 902 22 30 40


– Guided tours for the general public
Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays, at 12:30 and 7 pm
Tuesdays at 10 am and Saturdays at 12:30 pm, tour in Spanish
No tours will be given on holidays

– Pre-arranged group visits
Tuesday to Friday, 10 am to 7 pm (reservations required)
Group: minimum 10, maximum 30 persons
Admission: 12.00 € per group
Prior registration: 93 476 86 00

Free admission


Confucius: the wise man of the Springs and Autumns

Confucius (551-479 BC) was born at the end of the historical period known as Springs and Autumns. The influence he had over the lifestyle and thought of China was so decisive that the next two thousand years can be defined as simply Confucian. Likewise, the figure and work of Confucius the wise man are multifaceted, as in practically all of the historical periods of China, those who have studied him have rendered diverse, even antagonizing, interpretations of his philosophy.

– Thursday 27 May, at 7:30 pm
Confucius or man as eternity
Jean-Paul Desroches, curator of the exhibition

– Tuesday, 1 June, at 7:30 pm
Confucius and the empire of texts
Anne Cheng, professor of Chinese Philosophy (INALCO, Paris)

– Thursday 3 June, at 7:30 pm
The ‘Book of Rituals’ and the Chinese way of being
Laureano Ramírez, professor and coordinator of the Asian Studies Degree Program (Autonomous University of Barcelona)

– Tuesday 8 June, at 7:30 pm
Is Chinese art Confucian?
Lucia Caterina, professor of Archaeology and Chinese Art History (L’Orientale, University of Naples)

– Thursday 10 June, at 7:30 pm
Maoism and confucianism: Confucius’ shop
Pedro San Ginés, professor of Chinese Thought (University of Granada)

– Tuesday 15 June, at 7:30 pm
The devil’s invention: European discovery of the Chinese language
Alicia Relinque, professor and director of the Asian Studies Seminar (University of Granada)


Letters, brushes and ghosts

This cycle, which will alternate between presentations and a selection of documentaries from the series China, millenary dragon, offers a kaleidoscopic outlook on Chinese civilization. The conferences will discuss the various Chinese brush arts, such as painting and calligraphy, as well as some of the more popular modern and contemporary literary genres. The documentaries give an outlook on the new China by means of an entertaining tour through some of its leading cities.

– Thursday 27 May, at 11:30 am
Travelers between forests and mountains: An approach to Chinese landscape painting
Isabel Cervera, professor of Asian Art (Autonomous University of Madrid)

– Tuesday, 1 June, at 11:30 am
Documentary: China, the millenary dragon
The legacy of Confucius: music, pictorial arts and university entrance exams. Presentation and discussion: Raffaella Salierno

– Thursday 3 June, at 11:30 am
Fluid energy in silence. The art of calligraphy
Hsiao-Lin Liu, Fine Arts graduate and professor of Chinese Calligraphy

– Tuesday 8 June, at 11:30 am
Documentary: China, the millenary dragon
Silk, pearls and tea: production that remains unchanged over the millennia. Presentation and discussion: Raffaella Salierno

– Thursday 10 June, at 11:30 am
Chinese stories: what Confucius never talked about
Gabriel García-Noblejas, professor of Chinese – Spanish Translation (University of Granada)

– Tuesday 15 June, at 11:30 am
Documentary: China, the millenary dragon
Family and society: what’s left of tradition
Presentation and discussion: Raffaella Salierno

– Thursday 17 June, at 11:30 am
The relationship between culture, writing and politics at the end of the Qing Period
Juan José Ciruela, professor of Chinese Language and Civilization (University of Granada)

– Tuesday 22 June, at 11:30 am
Documentary: China, the millenary dragon
Beijing and Shanghai: the political and economic capitals, face to face
Presentation and discussion: Raffaella Salierno


The Chinese screen

The millenary roots of Chinese civilization are apparent in all the manners and circumstances of this people’s daily life. Deeply human stories that portray the lives of peasants during the Maoist Cultural Revolution, the marginalization of women in traditional society and family relations in the great urban areas.

– Tuesday 22 June, at 8 pm
Shower (Xizhao), by Zhang Yang, 1999. 92 min. OV, subtitles in Spanish
Presentation and final discussion: Raffaella Salierno, graduate in Sinology

– Tuesday 29 June, at 8 pm
The King of Masks (Bian lian), by Wu Tianming, 1996. 101 min. OV, subtitles in Spanish
Presentation and final discussion: Antoni Prevosti, professor of Philosophy from the University of Barcelona and sinologist

– Thursday 1 July, at 8 pm
Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (Tian yu), by Joan Chen, 1998. 99 min. OV, subtitles in Spanish.
Presentation and final discussion: Ramon N. Prats, doctor of Asian Studies

Parallel activities
Administration and coordination
Raffaella Salierno and Ramon N. Prats

”la Caixa” Foundation Information Service:
Tel.: 902 22 30 40


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