China's Enthusiastic Re-Embrace of Confucius

Once denigrated by Communist officials, the sage's hometown of Qufu has become a major tourist attraction. But does this respect the wishes of his descendants? 
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People dressed in traditional costumes open a gate before a ceremony to worship ancient philosopher and educator Confucius at the Confucian temple in Qufu, Shandong province. (Reuters)

QUFU, CHINA—Confucius is quoted as saying, “How delightful it is to have friends come from afar.” But what would the sage have made of the hordes of tourists now descending on his hometown?

Visitors to Qufu—the Shandong town where Confucius grew up over 2,500 years ago—reached 4.4 million in 2012, and have been accompanied in recent years by other tourist trappings: a 3,000-seater theatre, a Confucius-themed educational park, and a flurry of hotel openings, including the five-star Shangri-La.

As in elsewhere in China, Qufu’s investment is government-driven. In 2010, officials spent $3.8 million on a six-month renovation of the Confucius Temple, Mansion and Cemetery, and a museum showcasing cultural relics related to the sage, due to open in 2015, will cost an additional $79.4 million. Officials have also spent significant money marketing Qufu as the must-visit “Holy City of the Orient,” with ads and promotions shown in places like New York’s Times Square.

More importantly, China’s central authorities chose Qufu as a stop on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway line—even though Qufu’s metropolitan population of 60,000 is far less than that of every other stop. To facilitate the stop, officials constructed a new train station in Qufu. Now, the once-10 hour visit from Shanghai or Beijing has been cut to 2-3 hours.

Beijing’s favor of Confucius’ hometown has great symbolic importance, too. Beginning with the Song dynasty (960–1279), Chinese emperors and other high-ranking officials would visit Qufu’s Confucius Temple to bestow titles on the dead sage, support the temple financially, and grant privileges to the Kong family, Confucius’ descendants still living in the town. This attention had a political purpose, too: Officials hoped that Confucius’ moral integrity would rub off on them, thereby shoring up their legitimacy.

As the 1911 Xinhai Revolution brought China’s imperial era to an end, the newly-empowered republicans began to question the value of Confucianism, and some even blamed the sage for China’s backwardness. But it wasn't until the Mao Zedong-led Cultural Revolution that China rejected Confucius completely. In November 1966, Mao-supporting red guards gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and swore to “annihilate the Kong family business.” A few days later, they descended on Qufu, where they smashed statues of Confucius as well as commemorative stele in the temple and the family mansion. Then, with the help of local workers, the red guards began a frenzy of destruction in the Kong family cemetery. The youths dug up over 2,000 graves, looted their contents, and hung the naked corpses from trees.

Confucius’ grave itself was reportedly empty—the contents perhaps removed during an earlier outburst of anti-Confucianism that occurred during the Qin dynasty (221 to 206 BC). But Mao’s red guards used dynamite to blow up his final resting place anyway, enabling them to report to their leader that, “We have rebelled … we have leveled Confucius’ grave.

Today, the cracks in the broken tombstones in Kong Family Cemetery are still visible, but the anti-Confucian frenzy is long over: Almost three decades ago, the Communist Party reversed course and re-instated rituals honoring the sage. Since 1984, an official ceremony has been held each year on his birthday, September 28, at Qufu’s Temple of Confucius. This year’s ceremony saw formally dressed officials don yellow scarfs with an embroidered image of the sage and solemnly file into the temple to place flower wreaths at Confucius’ shrine. Sun Wei, the Vice-Governor of Shandong Province, even read a poem eulogizing the Chinese philosopher.

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Nowadays, venerating Confucius is no longer just a domestic issue, and the sage and his hometown have become a tool in promoting China’s “soft power” overseas. When China decided to establish hundreds of Mandarin learning centers abroad, it named them Confucius Institutes, and why not? As a champion of education and a noted wise man, Confucius is an even better symbol for the country than the beloved panda.

In Qufu, the annual ceremony celebrating Confucius’ birth has become a week-long festival, where the town hosts government-sponsored award ceremonies such as the Confucius Culture Prize and the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, both of which attract delegations from around the world. At the latter ceremony, government officials hand winners golden statuettes of Confucius, which, from a distance, resemble Oscars. And at this year’s ceremony, Ji Xiangqi, another vice-governor of Shandong, gave a speech linking Confucian principles with the new Communist Party philosophy of a “Chinese dream.”

Diplomats and Confucian scholars from across the world attended the ceremony in the Confucius Temple itself, joining international students bussed in from Shanghai’s East China Normal University. After placing flowers on Confucius’ shrine, Abdirahman Farah, a Leadership and Policy student from Ethiopia, admitted, “I don’t really know anything about Confucius or his philosophy. But this celebration has been interesting. I’m happy my university invited me to take part.” Farah was part of a sea of international faces seen at the podiums, young men and women taking in traditional dances by performers in Ming Dynasty-era costumes.

But amid the spectacle, one key element was notably absent: the principal members of the Kong family themselves.

As the government-organized ceremony proceeded in the main courtyard of Qufu’s Confucius Temple, heads of 400 different Kong families (who today are thought to number over 2 million people worldwide) gathered in a different courtyard in the eastern wing of the temple to conduct their own ceremony. And in Taipei, Kung Tsui-chang, the titular head of the entire Kong clan, led a separate honoring ritual that was even attended by the Taiwanese president.

Traditionally in China, the family of the main line of descent guided all rituals in the Confucius Temple in Qufu. But during the civil war from 1945-1949, they fled with Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Party to Taiwan, where Kung Te-cheng (Kung Tsui-chang’s grandfather and then the head of the clan) played an important role in establishing the government in Taiwan.

After the desecration of the Confucius sites during the Cultural Revolution, many members of the main branch of the Kong family refused to have anything to do with mainland China. And while in the last few years relations have thawed, with family members beginning to visit Qufu, the Confucian rituals in Taiwan still continue to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the celebrations in Qufu today.

For the extended Kong family members in Qufu, who comprise one-fifth of the town’s population, views on the Chinese government’s re-embrace of their ancestor are mixed. Kong Wenlong, a student at Qufu Normal University who attended the government ceremony, said, “In my lifetime, Chinese people have come to outwardly respect Confucius more, but they don't really understand him. He was very modest and would have been against all this fanfare."

Many of Qufu’s Kong residents know that the re-championing of Confucius and Qufu is essential to their livelihood, a fact that further complicates their relationship to the government. “These buildings belong to the Kong family, not the government, and there needs to be some privacy for the family,” says Kong Xiangqiang. But, working as a local guide, he recognizes that complete privacy wouldn’t be good for him either. “I like more visitors coming here. Without tourism, I wouldn’t have my job and so I’m thankful. It’s good for the local economy.”

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Gabrielle Jaffe is a writer based in Beijing.

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