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Cradle of Confucianism

The entrance to the Confucius Temple
The entrance to the Confucius Temple.

Shanghai Daily (October 17, 2011): Everyone knows Confucius. The philosopher/teacher/sage is pre-eminent among China's ancient thinkers, and his teachings have profoundly impacted the development of Chinese history and left a deep imprint on the national psyche.

To really get to know Confucius, one should make a pilgrimage to Qufu, Shandong Province. For it is here that the master was born, died and spent most of his 73 years, including the decisive period when he preached to his disciples, who then carried forward his ideas.

To honor its former resident, Qufu boasts three main sites - the Confucius Temple, Kong Family Mansion and Confucius Cemetery - which together take most of a day to see. In 1994 they were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites for their outstanding historical, cultural, scientific and artistic value.

Beyond these, vestiges left by Confucius can be found all over Qufu. He was born about 20 kilometers away in Nishan, grew up in the area, preached his philosophies at the Xingtan Pavilion, also known as the Alter of Apricot (part of today's temple), got involved politically and became an official in the ancient state of Lu, and was buried by the Zhu River. Lining the roads in the old city are shops and stalls selling Confucius trinkets and replicas - wooden statues, fans, screens, coins, vases, boxes, canisters, paintings, stones, tablets and more. If you want any kind of souvenir related to Confucius, you will find it here.

Confucius Temple

The temple, the oldest and grandest of more than 2,000 Confucian temples worldwide, is really the heart of Qufu. Lying within the impressive old city wall, it started as a humble establishment two years after Confucius' death in 471 BC. Though the master's ideas were not so grandly received in his day, Confucius' many disciples were committed to his ideals and built the temple not far from where he was buried.

Over the dynasties, it was expanded by succeeding rulers, gradually mushrooming into the second-largest historical building complex in China. Only Beijing's Forbidden City is bigger. In fact, the temple's appearance is not unlike that of the Forbidden City, as its last major revision took place during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) after a fire in 1499. The temple has 466 rooms aligned along a north-south axis that is more than a kilometer long, and contains nine courtyards.

Within are countless trees, beautiful halls containing paintings, tablets and sculptures, and stone bridges crossing tiny waterways and gardens. Historic tablets, numbering some 1,000 of various kinds - small ones, towering ones, oddly shaped ones, some crumbling, some in remarkably good condition - lie throughout the temple complex. These tablets, along with manuscripts, contain much written information about ancient China and are still used by scholars today.

Going through the temple from the entrance, one gets the feeling of going backward in time. That's because the entrance is near the "youngest" part of the temple complex, and as you go further in, you head through the dynasties. Thus you enter through Qing (1644-1911) and Ming dynasty stone gates, find Ming architecture everywhere, come upon Song Dynasty (960-1279) halls such as Tong Wen Gate and Kuiwen Pavilion, then hit the huge Hall of Integration, built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), before coming to the oldest, ancient areas of the complex. Most buildings have been built and rebuilt over the ages because of fires or deterioration.

Many halls in the temple commemorate visits by Chinese emperors, who throughout history have come to Qufu to honor Confucius. These visits have taken place since the Western Han Dynasty (206-25 BC) , when Emperor Wu recanted previous schools of thought and declared that Confucianism would become the set of principles to underlie all Chinese education, effectively becoming the national orthodoxy. This cemented Confucius' role as China's great sage to the present day.

Adjacent to the Confucius Temple lies the Kong Family Mansion, also known as the Confucius Mansion and which houses many of the Master's descendants. (Confucius is known as Kong Fuzi in Chinese). Kong, in fact, is the most common surname in Qufu, and it is said that more than 10 percent of the city's residents are descendants of Confucius.

One is Kong Qian, an affable tour guide who takes Chinese- and English-speaking foreign visitors through Qufu's main sites. When asked what it means to him to be a descendant of Confucius, Kong says: "I feel very special and proud to have such a famous ancestor. I think the feelings I have are a little different from others."

And does he try to live by his great forefather's ideals? "When I do something or act on something, I will do it in a way that Confucius would. Confucius tells us how to deal with a situation."

Kong Qian enthusiastically points the way through the temple, adding tidbits of information to that written on the signs, many of which contain only Chinese characters. The main signposts are written in both Chinese and English. English-language guidebooks can be purchased in the stores around town or in the ticket-purchasing area.

Among the temple's sites, it is humbling to come across the Xingtan Pavilion, where Confucius is believed to have preached to his disciples. You can imagine the master's conversations with the likes of Yan Hui, said to be his favorite student, or Zeng Cen, who became known as Master Zeng to Confucius' later disciples and who stressed filial piety and had a big influence on spreading Confucian thought. Confucius is credited with having taught about 3,000 disciples, although some consider that figure exaggerated. Seventy-two main disciples were responsible for imparting his belief system throughout the land.

Another of the temple's many key landmarks is the Chenghua Tablet, which was erected during the Ming Dynasty and towers 6.2 meters high. It's known for the dignified manner of its calligraphy written by Ming Emperor Xiangzong.

Kong Family Mansion

Just to the east of the temple sits the Kong Family Mansion, which houses many descendants of Confucius. Like the temple, the mansion was renovated and expanded many times during the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. Today it contains 480 rooms in nine compounds, and is considered the largest and grandest feudal noble mansion in China.

A highlight is the Wall of Mirroring Tan, a brilliantly colored painting that depicts a unicorn-like animal said to be so insatiable that it possessed every treasure in the world yet even wanted to devour the sun. It was hung on a wall of the inner residence along a path that was the only way out - a warning to people not to take bribes or break any other laws.

Confucius Cemetery

At the north end of Qufu sits the Confucius Cemetery, where one can spend hours getting lost in time and space. It has expanded to an area so large that its perimeter wall goes on for seven kilometers, it houses more than 100,000 graves and contains the longest time line of descendants of any cemetery in the world.

The facility is also renowned as a botanical paradise. After Confucius' death, his disciples planted rare trees from all over China, but the cataloguing was suspect. Some of the 1,000-plus trees are now so rare that their proper names are not even known.

With the cemetery so vast, it's pleasing to know it is not a terribly long walk to reach the grave of Confucius from the entrance. After walking through a huge stone gateway into the cemetery, you just veer off on a path slightly to the left and follow the signs. First you come to the burial site for his grandson, then his son and then the Great Sage himself. The triangular configuration of the sites for the three generations is deliberate - considered an auspicious alignment in Chinese philosophy.

The grave for Confucius is surprisingly modest for a man of his stature - although this seems consistent with his many edicts about not overly promoting oneself and instead doing deeds for the common good.

After visiting Confucius for a few minutes, it's an experience to walk off the paved walkways and into the grasslands, woodlands and footpaths of the cemetery, encountering ancient gravestones, some in various states of decay, amid gnarled old trees. You can walk into the Ming Dynasty area of the cemetery, where 600-year-old animal sculptures sit among the many grave sites, providing a whimsical touch to the solemn scene.

As if the temple, cemetery and mansion weren't enough, UNESCO's World Heritage Convention is preparing to add more Confucian sites surrounding Qufu to its official list, according to its website. "There are heritages which are closely related to Confucius - which are kept in good condition and also have very high protection value," the site says. It cites the Confucius Temple and Academy in Hill Ni, Yan Temple, San Meng and Zenius Temple for likely inclusion.

"They constitute an organic whole of historical heritage representing the hometown of Confucius and the influence of Confucianism," it says.

Confucius, it would seem, is well-served going into the future, and Qufu seems destined to launch into one of China's major tourist sites as a cradle of Chinese history and culture.

Confucius quotes

"The Analects," a compilation of Confucius' teachings and experiences, were organized by his disciples during the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

It consists of 20 "books" and a total of 492 passages. Though many are short, the passages provide insights into the profound moral ideas that Confucius brought to the world.

Here are 10 passages. After each quotation is the book and passage number.

  • "A man of honor associates with many but does not form a clique; the petty-minded man does the opposite." (2:14)
  • "Do not worry about not having an official position. Worry about whether you are qualified for such a position. Do not worry when others don't appreciate your work. Rather, try to be worthy of being appreciated." (4:14)
  • "When you meet a man of virtue, think how you can become his equal; when you meet a man without virtue, examine yourself to see if you are the same." (4:17)
  • "Walking in the company of others, there is bound to be something I can learn from them. Their good traits I follow; their bad ones I try to avoid." (7:22)
  • "Going too far is just as bad as not going far enough." (11:16)
  • "A man of honor helps others to realize their best aims, but not their worst desires. A petty-minded man does the opposite." (12:16)
  • "To fail to advise a person who can benefit from it is to let that person go to waste. To advise a person who cannot benefit from it is to let your words go to waste. A wise man will waste neither man nor words." (15:8)
  • "Learning without reflection will end up in confusion; reflection without learning will end up in peril." (2:15)
  • "A man of honor does not approve of a person because he expresses an opinion to his liking, nor does he reject an opinion because it is held by a person he dislikes." (15:23)
  • "The young should be regarded with awe. How do we know the next generation will not surpass the present? However, those who have reached the age of 40 or 50, yet still haven't achieved anything to distinguish themselves, need not be taken seriously." (9:23)

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