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China Institute Gallery, New York
February 11 through June 13, 2010


A landmark exhibition on the extraordinary philosopher, statesman and teacher known as Confucius (551- 479 BCE) will be on view at China Institute Gallery from February 11 through June 13, 2010.  CONFUCIUS: His Life and Legacy in Art will focus on the teachings and continuing influence of Confucius, who has become increasingly synonymous with Chinese culture.  Nearly 100 objects from the world of Confucius and his ennobled descendants will be on exhibition, including hanging scrolls, album leaves, bronze vessels, stone carvings, jade ceremonial implements, wood-block prints and textiles.  The works are on loan for the first time in the U.S. from the Shandong Provincial Museum in Jinan and the Confucius Museum in his hometown of Qufu.  CONFUCIUS: His Life and Legacy in Art is the first exhibition in the U.S. to explore the culture of Confucius.  The show incorporates images and artifacts that were created to venerate the man himself, as well as the ideas associated with him, loosely called Confucianism.  A fully illustrated scholarly catalogue will accompany the exhibition.

Probably no one has influenced more people over the centuries than Confucius.  His family name was Kong, and the suffix “zi,” an ancient term of respect, was added to it so that in Chinese, he is called Kongzi (“Master Kong”) or simply Fuzi (“The Master”).  The Latinized name “Confucius” was created when Jesuit missionaries translated Chinese texts for European audiences.  Notes Willow Hai Chang, Director, China Institute Gallery, “Although he has come to symbolize Chinese civilization throughout the world, little is known about the man Confucius, who was a thinker, teacher and statesman more than 2,500 years ago.  This exhibition seeks to create a greater understanding of his role in Chinese culture and to examine why his extraordinary influence continues even today.”

In order to address the many facets of his life, teachings and belief system, CONFUCIUS: His Life and Legacy in Art is organized in three parts The Life and Images of Confucius; Confucius as Teacher and Ritual Expert;and Venerating Confucius: The Official Cult and the Kong Family Ancestral Cult.


The first section of the exhibition, The Life and Images of Confucius, includes portraits and illustrations of significant events from his life.  Created mostly during the Ming (1368- 1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, long after his lifetime, the images reveal multiple, and sometimes surprising, conceptions of Confucius.  Traces of the Sage (Pictorial Biography of Confucius), a Ming dynasty album, illustrates events in Confucius’s life; it attributes supernatural qualities to him, including an ability to communicate with cosmic forces.  Bust Portrait of Confucius as a Minister of Justice, a hanging scroll from the Ming dynasty, is one of the best-known representations of him as an official.  A wood-block print from a Qing dynasty book depicts a large sculptural icon from the great temple at Qufu, portraying Confucius as emperor.  The exhibition includes a pair of charming Song dynasty (960-1279) votive statues of Confucius and his wife; such statues were worshipped by his descendants.

The second section, Confucius as Teacher and Ritual Expert, gives an overview of Confucius as a teacher who stressed the importance of proper rituals and music, as well as the moral cultivation of the individual.  As Julia K. Murray, Professor of Art History, University of Wisconsin, writes in the catalogue essay, “He believed that ancient sages had created a system of harmonious governance through proper ritual…However, rulers of more recent times had lost their moral authority and abandoned these sagely institutions.  Instead of leading by example and governing with benevolence, unprincipled local strongmen of his own day sought control through force…To restore order and harmony, Confucius believed, the ancient rituals had to be revived, and he devoted much effort to studying and codifying them.”  To give context to this system of ancient rites, the exhibition includes a number of bronze vessels, jade ceremonial implements and musical instruments.

Among the other highlights of the second section is a funerary slab from the Eastern Han dynasty (25 BCE -220 CE) bearing the earliest known images of Confucius and his disciples.  A limestone carving from the second century depicts Confucius meeting Laozi, a ritual expert and Daoist master, together with the child-sage Xiang Tuo.  Also surviving from the Eastern Han period are fragments of the Xiping Stone Classics, the first official edition of Confucian texts to be carved on stone tablets under imperial auspices.

The “Five Classics” and the “Four Books” became the core curriculum in the education of Chinese literati throughout the imperial period.  Among the many examples of these widely published Confucian texts is a sumptuous woodblock-printed edition of the “Four Books,” a text known as The Analects (or Sayings) of Confucius, which offers the most revealing glimpses of the man himself.  Twenty sections provide accounts of his activities; document his dialogues with rulers, disciples and acquaintances; and record his remarks and appraisals, along with the comments of men who knew him.

For hundreds of years after Confucius’s death, emperors of many dynasties came to his hometown of Qufu to offer sacrifices and show their commitment to Confucian ideals of governance and learning.  In 1771, on one of several visits, the Qianlong emperor (r.1735-1796) bestowed on the Qufu temple a set of ten ancient bronze ritual vessels, which will be on view in the exhibition.  Dating to the Shang (c.1500-1050 BCE) and Zhou dynasties (c.1027-256 BCE), they were precious objects to be displayed in Confucius’s honor, representing an idealized antiquity.  One vessel is in the shape of a four-legged animal with an opening on its back suggesting its use as a wine container.

The final section of the exhibition, Venerating Confucius: The Official Cult and the Kong Family Ancestral Cult, illuminates the important role of Confucius’s descendants in maintaining ceremonial sacrifices and preserving images, biographies, genealogical records, ritual utensils and other important objects.  Ming and Qing portraits of ennobled male descendants who held the title Duke for Perpetuating the Sage are included in the exhibition, along with their clothing and other elegant accessories.  Many emperors conferred gifts on the honored lineage.  A seal probably bestowed by an emperor of the Ming dynasty is inscribed: “Poetry, Documents [or Books], Ritual [and] Music,” referring to four of the Classics that Confucius edited, which an educated person would know by heart.  The Yongzheng emperor (r.1723-1735) presented a set of five altar vessels – exceptional examples of painted enamelware from the imperial Qing workshop – to use in celebrating Confucius’s birthday (now observed on September 28).


Confucius was born into humble circumstances in 551 BCE in Qufu, capital of the feudal state of Lu, which now forms part of the province of Shandong.  Although he held a series of minor offices in his home state and for a brief period served as minister of justice (with the responsibilities of a prime minister), he eventually became frustrated with conditions in Lu.  In middle age, Confucius left home to travel among the contending feudal states of North China, searching for an ideal ruler who would govern with benevolence and according to proper ritual.  After 14 years, he returned to Lu and from the age of 65, devoted himself to teaching and scholarship.  After his death at age 73, his most devoted disciples observed three years of mourning for him, as if for a father.  Confucius’s own house became a memorial shrine, the precursor to the great Confucius Temple in Qufu today.

Pithy remarks attributed to Confucius have been transmitted from one generation to the next, and his advice still resonates today. “Study as if you will never learn, as if you were afraid of losing what you wish to learn, the great teacher once said.  He believed in the moral purpose of humanity and in the individual’s duty to strive to improve: “The only ones who do not change are sages and idiots.”  Confucius’s practical approach to moral cultivation and his reflections on the personal and social basis of ethics and politics are exemplified in such sayings as “Do not inflict on others what you yourself would not wish done to you,”  “Anyone who does not know the value of words will never understand men,” and “The full life seeks what is in itself; the empty life seeks what appears in others.”  The humanity of his ideas and their ability to adapt to a great variety of needs and contexts have made Confucianism an enduring force in the cultural heritage of China and the world.

The exhibition is curated by Lu Wensheng, Director, Shandong Provincial Museum, and Julia K. Murray, Professor of Art History and East Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin, under the directorship of Willow Hai Chang, Director, China Institute Gallery.

Special Events

A lecture series will held in conjunction with CONFUCIUS: His Life and Legacy in Art .  The Curator’s Lecture with Julia K. Murray will be held on Thursday, February 11, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.  Two Early Authoritative Accounts of the Life of Confucius with Michael Nyla will be discussed on Tuesday, February 16 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.  The final lecture in the series, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism: China’s Three Religions with John S. Major will take place on Tuesday, March 9 from 6:30 to 8 p.m.  Each lecture is $10 for members.  For more information, visit

Additional Information

China Institute Gallery is located at 125 East 65th Street (between Park and Lexington Avenues).  Gallery hours are daily Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.  Admission is $7, $4 for students and seniors, and free for children under 12.  Admission is free on Tuesday and Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.  For more information, the public can call 212-744-8181 or visit

About China Institute

China Institute advances a deeper understanding of China through programs in education, culture, business and art in the belief that cross-cultural understanding strengthens our global community.

Founded in 1926 by a group of American and Chinese educators, China Institute in America is the oldest bicultural non-profit organization in the U.S. to focus exclusively on China.  The organization promotes the appreciation of Chinese heritage and provides the historical context for understanding contemporary China.  Programs, activities, courses and seminars are offered on the visual and performing arts, culture, history, music, philosophy, language and literature for the general public, children, and teachers, as well as for business.

China Institute Gallery, established in 1966, is distinct among the museums of New York City.  It was the first in the United States to exclusively showcase Chinese art on a regular basis. Today, China Institute Gallery is New York's only non-commercial exhibition space solely dedicated to Chinese art and is known for its innovative thematic and scholarly exhibitions, publications and related art education programs.

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