Statue marks a major rethink in China's attitude to Confucius

Confucius is back – and raised on a pedestal. The Chinese Communist leadership, which once criticised the ancient philosopher as part of official policy, has sanctioned a huge sculpture of the sage on Tiananmen Square.

In a sign of the increasing importance of the 2,500-year-old teachings in thrusting, modern China, the scholar follows Chairman Mao Zedong and several other leading figures of the Communist movement to be displayed prominently on the square considered hallowed political ground by the Party.

The sculpture marks a remarkable revival for the scholar, statesman and educator, whose philosophy dominated Chinese society for centuries before spreading to Europe in the late 16th century. Chairman Mao once condemned Confucius as a feudal thinker and Red Guards smashed evidence that he ever lived during the ideological frenzy of the Cultural Revolution.

But now, the 31-foot statue shares the square with the mausoleum of Chairman Mao and where his giant picture hangs. "Now the party leaders have resurrected Confucius and have practically put Mao and Confucius side by side. Mao must be turning in his grave," Minxin Pei, a China expert at Claremont McKenna College, told the Associated Press.

The rehabilitation of Confucius, who lived from 551-479 BC, comes amid new leadership concerns about China's increasingly materialist society. Burgeoning wealth and the rise of consumerism has seen many traditional Confucian values of honour and decency slip away in favour of self-serving, money-grabbing behaviour, the leadership believes.

President Hu Jintao relies heavily on the teachings of Confucius when he urges the masses to learn a "socialist sense of honour and shame". Confucian thinking stresses harmony and obedience, but all this without any reference to God, which sits easily with Marxist-Leninism.

But it is not just the leadership that is turning to Confucius for inspiration. He is enjoying a revival, in books and films, on television and in the classrooms. A movie about the figure last year featured Chow Yun-fat, a veteran actor known for starring in stylish gangster thrillers.

"The rise of a big country requires a cultural foundation and Chinese culture upholds the spirit of harmony," said the sculptor Wu Weishan.

"Confucianism has been governing the lives and ethics of Chinese for thousands of years," said 25-year-old engineer Cui Xiaozhan , who was on a business trip from Qingdao.

"We should study it. But everyone is too busy and tired."