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.
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.”