The modern Confucius

An advertisement from the 20’s or 30’s, reprinted in上海广告. 上海:上海画报出版社, 1995.

This ad is for Golden Arrow cigarettes, and it announces a special contest. If you collect 72 of the trading cards in the packs you can trade them in for one of the cool modern commodities on the lower left: a cigarette case, a “stylish” raincoat, a watch, or a suitcase (perfect for your next train trip.) For 72 regular cards and one special card you can get a gold cigarette case, a radio, a pair of gold rings, or your own rickshaw. One assumes the smoker is going to hire someone to pull the thing for them, rather than going into business themselves.

The thing that really surprises me is that the cards all have pictures of Confucians. I realize that Confucius and co. had a much more varied history in the 20th century than one would think from reading May 4th polemics, but still the juxtaposition between the Big C and this cornucopia of commercial modernity is a little jarring for me. The students found it that way too, which is good, I guess, in that they have reached the point of not being able to explain the same things I can’t explain. Plus they are very forgiving of my being able to point things out but not explain them.

I seem to be blogging a lot about teaching of late, and this is something I used in class last night. Both I and the textbook (Schoppa) talk a lot about creating modernity and modern identities and such. Most of this focuses on state attempts to reform people, or at least the attempts of intellectuals. Like a lot of other people I also like to get away, when I can, from the political/revolutionary narrative, which is always hard to do in part because everything in 20th century China ends up getting reflected through the revolution. Unfortunately we (meaning I) are still at the stage of pointing at things that are outside the revolutionary narrative but not being able to name them.


  1. I wonder if what is going on here is this: in the 20’s and 30’s consumerism – perhaps even mass consumerism in large East Coast cities – was just begining to be become more socially significant. But its newness still made it culturally problematic. Was it OK to go for such conspicuous symbols of material excess (a gold cigarette case!)? Maybe not. So, an older symbol of moral rigteousness – the Old Sage himself – was being mobilized here to reassure people that the move toward personal expression through consumption (fetishism of commodities?) was really all right. Perhaps some (small, but obvious to Westerners) section of the intellectual elite had gotten to the point of no remorse for giving up on the “feudal” past. But for many city dwellers ambivalence may have been more prevalent. Or, that, at least was the calucation of the marketing strategists.

    Just a thought.

  2. Sam,

    I would agree that one thing that might be happening here is an attempt to assuage guilt over one’s new-found wealth. I am a little suspicious of that however, because it can’t work the same way it did in the West. Western anxiety about affluence comes, I think, out of the old Protestant idea that frugality leads to success, an idea that all educated people were exposed to repeatedly in their education. Valuing frugality is of course not alien to Confucianism, but I’m not sure how that would translate into this ad. I assume the ad is aimed at the Shanghai-type bourgeois, (probably the bottom part of it, those who can’t just buy a raincoat). These do not seem to me to be the obvious heirs to the old cult of Confucius, who as far as I know was a very elite figure in popular culture. You looked to him for success on the exams or whatever, but he does not turn up much in the New Years prints and stuff like that, at least as far as I know. Actually, I have seen him turn up a fair number of times as a pop culture figure after 1900, but not before that.
    One thing he might be doing here is serving as a fairly empty symbol of “Chinese tradition” sort of like George Washington in the U.S. I think that is what Chiang Kai-shek used him for when he was reviving the sacrifices to him. Maybe he is an early version of the panda bear.

  3. Quite a fascinating poster. The fine print suggests that while the card with Confucius on it was the rarest specimen, the one with Confucius’ best disciple Yan Hui was that pesky 72nd card keeping many a smoker from the fine raincoat. That Yan is so-honored shows a certain classical acumen on the part of the contest-maker – perhaps a sheng-yuan trying to make it in the business world?
    Good thing they’re out of business, or I would be tempted to take up smoking and collect them all. Fortunately, the tourist vendors of Beijing sell playing cards of famous people in dynastic history for a mere 10 yuan, saving my wallet and my lungs. I’m willing to take orders.

  4. Alan, perhaps you are right: by this point in time the sign and what it had previously singalled (not really the signifier) had become hopelessly detatched. Confucius had become as culturally empty as a panda. But Matthew’s point is intriguing. If Yan Hui is mentioned, then maybe there still was some connection to the Analects. After all, Yan Hui died young – maybe he was a smoker?

  5. Sam,

    Yan Hui may have been a smoker, but after reading E. Bruce Brooks I speculated that he may have been beaten to death by his fellow students who were sick of hearing about how wonderful he was. I’m not sure I agree with myself when I say that he was as meaningless as a panda. He turns up a lot. There was a fad for dating things from the death of Confucius in the early 20th century, which would make him the Chinese Jesus. He turns up in Christian/patriotic hymns like this one from Dunch’s Fuzhou Protestants book.

    China my native land,
    Rich in treasures of old,
    I sing aloud;
    Land of my ancestors,
    Where Confucius and Mencius once walked,
    Since ancient Yao and Shun
    Never without true hearts…. (etc.)
    Dunch p.132

    So here he is more of a Chinese George Washington, or maybe a pilgrim.

    He turns up on Japanese puppet government money, and there are at least ritual vessels on Nationalist money occasionally. He was still potent enough to be denounced along with Lin Biao in the 1970s. So he may have a range of meanings. I am not sure what they are, however. I suppose this is a topic that needs more study.

  6. hi. I just need to know what “Confucius and Co.” means. It’s in an article I am reading and I need to know that. Please help. Thank you very much.

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