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? 
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.

***

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.

Gabrielle Jaffe is a writer based in Beijing.

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