One for the vault: the Houston Public Library’s Confucius

Ever in the pursuit of cultural touchstones that might offer a glimpse into our civic values, collective yearnings and virtues, and not having anything to do the other day, we decided to take a comprehensive look at the city’s public and semi-public statuary.  Who are the people we’ve chosen to memorialize in marble and bronze? The real people, that is, not abstractions like Luis Jimenez’s Vaquero, and not saints or various mainstays of the cemetery circuit.  

Anyway, there are at least 80 statues of real people, or so we claim. Some observations:

  • Sculptor David Adickes is responsible for more than half our statues (47—all 43 presidents and all four Beatles, the only musicians so honored).
  • The honorees hail from 17 nations, with the international contingent tending to hang out in Hermann Park’s under-reconstruction rose garden, home to Gandhi and a gallery of South American libertadores. 
  • There are sports heroes (Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Hakeem Olajuwon), but thanks to our fractured football history, no Earl Campbell or Bum Phillips. 
  • There are authors (Mark Twain, Robert Burns) and one fictional creation (Oliver Twist—and no, we didn’t include him as an actual person). 
  • Everyone’s favorite agit-prop duo, The Art Guys, have immortalized themselves twice now, in fiberglass on North Shepherd and in bronze at UH.
  • Olajuwon, Mickey Leland, and MLK are the only African Americans, Benito Juarez and Miguel Hidalgo the only Mexicans. Strangely, Houston has at least two statues of Confucius, which reminds us of a story regarding a third:

In 1976, the government of Taiwan donated a Confucius sculpture that the City Council wanted to install on the ground floor of the then-new downtown library. This despite its inscription: “Men have their respective occupations and women their homes.” That drew the ire of Nikki Van Hightower, the city’s official “Women’s Advocate,” who pointed out that Confucius’s China was a place where child brides were bought and sold and women bound their feet. The statue belonged in a museum, she said, not a city-owned facility. 

Claiming offense on behalf of the Chinese community, Councilman Frank Mancuso growled that if Hightower wanted to run Houston she should run for mayor.  Eventually, a less offensive translation of the inscription was found, into the library Confucius went, and Hightower lost her job soon thereafter, in part because of the Confucius kerfuffle.  And at some point Chauvi-Fucius lost his job, too—his likeness has been removed from public view and wheeled off to the library’s “art vault.”

Which is not to say his sexist sentiment went with him. There are exactly as many Confuciuses on public display in the Bayou City as there are women—two. One, a statue of Peggy MacGregor in the eponymous park, bears an inscription too. It reads in part, “Man is not at his best until he has a wife and a home, and so much depends upon the wife.”

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