BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - A large statue of ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, controversially erected outside a Communist Party museum in central Beijing, has quietly been removed from its plinth following an online uproar about its location.
The 9.5-meter (30 foot), 17-tonne statue had pride of place in front of the north gate of the recently renovated National Museum Of China, just off Tiananmen Square and not far from the gaze of Chairman Mao's famous portrait over the Forbidden City.
Some Chinese had complained that it was insulting of the Communist Party to so honor Confucius, having vilified him during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s and never apologized for it.
Others said the Party had no right to appropriate Confucius and his ideals. Some even said venerating Confucius smacked of the kind of superstition the Communist revolution was supposed to have banished.
The statue, erected in January, has now disappeared and the site surrounded by blue hoardings.
The museum is not saying why the stern-faced carving has gone -- numerous calls seeking comment went unanswered -- but the move has sparked heated debate online, some joking that Confucius had been banished for lacking a Beijing residence permit.
"Maybe Confucius has been taken away by police for suspected economic crimes?" wrote "criminal" on sina.com.cn's popular microblog, in possible reference to a probe into detained Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.
"Is it because he is not a Communist Party member?" wondered "Yongtandiao MT."
But the website maoflag.net, a popular forum for old-school fans of the Communist Party, celebrated Confucius's removal, showing a picture on its front page of the statue with the character "demolish" superimposed on top.
"The statue of the slave-owning sorcerer Confucius has been driven from Tiananmen Square!" crowed "Jiangxi Li Jianjun."
Museum director Lu Zhangshen had told local media last month that as an important global cultural figure, and a Chinese one at that, Confucius deserved his spot.
"Please do not link the Confucius statue with politics. It has nothing to do with politics," Lu was quoted as saying.
Once denounced as feudalistic by fervent Communist Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in Mao-era China, Confucius's 2,500-year-old ideas of filial piety and respect for education have made a comeback in China since the 1990s -- as both a celebration of traditional Chinese culture, and a message of obedience to those in power.
The party has even co-opted him in its bid to soften the country's image abroad. China began setting up "Confucius Institutes" in 2004 to teach Chinese language and culture and they are now in more than 80 countries.
Reporting by Sally Huang, Zhou Xin, Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ron Popeski