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Messages of Hope amid Tragedy

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day on Monday found America grief-stricken by the recent shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people.

King has been America’s social conscience since 1955, when he heard news of police brutality against a black seamstress who was ticketed for not giving up her seat to a white male on a bus. King was only 26. Until his assassination in 1968, King led America toward a sunny path where everyone will be equal regardless of their skin color, sex or age. America will always remember Martin Luther King, the way people of India will remember Mahatma Gandhi.

A week earlier, on Jan. 11, a mammoth statue of Confucius was moved into Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where Mao Zedong’s giant portrait still hangs and his body rests in a mausoleum. From an Asian point of view, the Chinese government bringing the 2,500-year-old sage and his teachings back to life is a powerful gesture of “Let’s forgive and forget, and move on.”

But how does Chairman Mao feel about Confucius invading his space and facing him from the east side of the square? As a peasant’s son, Mao profoundly disliked anything that reminded him of feudal China, which was built upon Confucian ideals of man’s virtues, including his duties to his family, to society, to his elders and to the emperor, who was considered to be the son of Heaven.

During the Cultural Revolution, which began in May 1966 and continued until his death in September 1976, Chairman Mao methodically eliminated intellectuals, religious leaders, wealthy landlords, anyone who didn’t agree with his revolutionary ideas. Books on Confucian teachings and Buddhism were burned, ancient artworks revealing traditional Chinese cultural values were ripped, and professors, religious leaders and landlords were dragged to public squares, condemned and executed by Red Guards who mindlessly followed Mao’s instructions.

How could Confucius tolerate the sight of Mao, who condemned his teachings and was responsible for more than 50 million deaths during his 27 years of ruling China?

While I lived in China last spring for a month, at the International Ceramic Institute in Jingdezhen, known as a Porcelain City, I was surprised to learn that Chinese folks still worshipped Chairman Mao in spite of his inhuman treatment of his people. His portraits were posted on every wall of the institute, with his slogans printed on them.

Every Chinese person I talked to said that Mao was a great leader who made “a few mistakes” during his time, as if they were taught to say it. I wondered whether their attitudes toward their late leader was due to the long period of living in a communist state where individual thoughts and feelings were sacrificed under the logo of a sickle and a hammer — a sickle representing farm workers and a hammer the industrial laborers.

One day I met a young Chinese art student named Zhu who happened to join our table, which was designated for foreigners. Someone asked “Why are portraits of Mao still hanging on every wall after his death 30-some years ago?”

He answered in his halting English: “We Chinese don’t see things black and white like Americans do in the issue of justice. We believe that what was right yesterday could be wrong today, and what’s great today can be foolish tomorrow. Men are basically the same: We all make mistakes one time or another.”

What he was saying was, no matter how many leaders we condemn for their wrongdoings, the cycle of evil deeds will continue as long as humans exist on earth and that the only way we can move onto the future is by forgiving those who wronged us and forgetting the past.

I hope Confucius’ teachings of virtues, harmony and kindness, and King’s message of the promised land will reverberate throughout the world over and over until the injured and violated will be healed and those with evil intentions will see the light of life.