School's out in the land of Confucian

A reporter journeys to the cradle of Chinese civilisation - the hometown of the celebrated thinker, philosopher and educator, Confucius - to sample how his legacy lives on.

Like many Chinese cities, in Qufu the sky is blackened with the stain of pollution.
World-weary ponies haul gaudy carriages, vying for road space with squadrons of orange and green pedicabs charging five kwai a ride.

It is as typical a tourist trap as you could hope to find. Yet here in modern-day Shandong province was born a man whose influence has lasted for millennia.

North of the city centre, in a pavilion overlooked by two brooding granite sentinels, rises an underwhelming mound of earth.

Below the shaggy grass, browned by the dry winter, meditates the remains of this man, Confucius, or Kong Zi: educator; philosopher; and founder of a school of thought still at the very centre of Chinese culture.

Confucianism is a practical system based upon hierarchical relationships and working for the common good rather than the individual.

In many ways, it is not so much about beliefs as about respect. Respect your parents, respect your grandparents, respect your teachers and respect your superiors.

Qufu, the contemporary site of the former State of Lu where in 551 BC Confucius was born, retains an ancient charm.

During the summer months it attracts legions of tourists as keen to discover one of the seats of their civilisation as Europeans are to visit the ruins of the seat of modern democracy and colonialism in Athens and Rome.

Back in the Cultural Revolution, however, it was a prime target of the Red Guards’ appetite for destruction.

Though some of the city’s heritage was ultimately destroyed, the significance of the town was not lost on its residents.

Liu Bin, at the time a student at Qufu University, says that upon hearing of the approach of the zealots: “The citizens hastily took up any weapon that came to hand.”

While the mayor contacted Beijing to protest, the people set up a roadblock and prepared to defend Qufu and what it meant.

Dissuaded by this threat, the Red Guards turned back. Whether or not this apocryphal story is entirely true, it is testament to the importance of Confucius and his teachings in Chinese hearts.

The nomenclature of Qufu’s central attraction - the Kong Miao temple - is in a way a paradox.


It is crucial not to confuse Confucianism with religion. “For Confucius,” explains Dr Ann-Ping Chin, lecturer in Chinese history at Yale University, “the most important question that one should ask in life is how to live morally while remaining in the human world.”

“In Chinese history, Confucian thought had broad usage,” she continues.

“It is not just for the everyman but for the counselors and the rulers; and the Confucian tradition played a central role in education and in the civil service examinations.”

Indeed, Confucianism is more a way of life than a spiritual cult, and the temple is rather a place to pay respects than to worship.

Nevertheless, to the ardent culture-vulture, Kong Miao is no disappointment.

With a layout modeled on an imperial palace, it is over half a mile from North to South.

To enter you must first walk through the southernmost of the city's many gates, a double-walled structure insulating the compound from the general populace.

Crossing dainty bridges spanning a series of dried-up moats, you are confronted by a spacious courtyard filled with pines.

This forestation is a feature typical of Qufu, making its temples seem much like parks as places of thought.

There is a sense of nature transcending the banality of urban life.

Passing beyond the trees, some twisted and splintered beyond recognition, the third courtyard is home to a band of gigantic stone turtles.

These “bixi” bear steles (rectangular tablets carved with numerous characters) are mottled with rusty lichen and tipped by ornate carvings of twisting dragons.

The next courtyard is dominated by the first of the main halls, the Kuiwen pavilion.

Like many of China's purportedly ancient buildings, though first constructed a thousand years ago, over the centuries it has repeatedly been burnt down and re-built.

Then, preceded by the Apricot Altar from where Confucius is said to have delivered lectures, is the main building, the Hall of Integration.

Inside, curtained off by a fading gold drape, there sits an effigy three meters tall with lips peeled back in a toothish smile.

On the other side of the temple walls, a confusion of street stalls and hawkers peddle a profusion of artifacts.

It's all here, 'jade', 'bronze', paper cuttings, tea towels and the rest.

“Job done in five minutes”, proclaim the banners dangling from the chop-carvers' tables, and by golly, you too can have a mini-Confucius with your name engraved on its base quicker than you can say… "Rotten wood cannot be carved!"

Bearded and benevolent, the smiling souvenirs belay the man’s iconic status here. Immortalised in soapstone Confucius seems more like a latter-day Colonel Sanders.

Beside the temple is Kong Fu, the complex of dwellings from where Confucius’ descendants, the Kongs, watched over the county.

Inside, calligraphic wall hangings and old-style furniture nestle comfortably among more modern grandfather clocks. It is a window on a long-gone lifestyle.

Wandering around the maze of courtyards and peering inside to view the museum displays, it is easy to feel that the mansions have only recently been vacated.

Some parts, such as the Hall of Loyalty and Forbearance (named after two of Confucius' guiding principles) have a distinctly weathered look, the paint flaking away from the wood in shabby strips.

Oddments are left lying around by the staff, including a pair of gloves and a face-cloth incongruously hanging in the centre of one of the quadrangles.

Qufu is not just about Confucius and the Kong dynasty.

Elsewhere in the city are the Yan and Zhou temples, each predating even Kong Miao. It was in the original Zhou temple (since rebuilt) that the young Confucius developed the interest in rites and rituals that coloured much of his teaching.

Grab a cab and you can reach the mausoleum of Shao Hao, one of China’s five legendary emperors.

Making your way past two enormous “bixi” with their stone tablets, you come to his tomb, a six-metre-high pyramid topped by a shrine the size of a telephone box.

If it floats your boat you can also visit the “Ancient Lu State”.

In reality, this is the ultimate tourist tack-fest where you will likely be accosted by kung-fu obsessed monks (possibly tour guides in disguise) and cajoled into taking part in “an authentic Confucian ceremony”.

The minor theme park, for that it what it is, does have some educational aspirations in illustrating how Qufu people used to live, but it is most memorable for its comedy value.

The polystyrene pig. The jousting sheep. The broom room. And in the section devoted to bygone pastimes, a final dénouement in the practiced art of Chinglish: "Play dice, guess cock". By heck, those ancient Chinese knew how to have fun.

The more sober and contemplative visitor turns instead to one of the biggest artificial parks in China, the Kong Lin burial ground.

To reach it one must first pass through a series of city gates not to mention another praetorian guard of hawkers.

Yet the ambience in the burial ground, also known as the Confucian Forest, is not of the sterility and sanctity one would expect of a graveyard but of a sprawling, unkempt and untended tangle.

Wild, wooded and atmospheric, it reminds a Londoner of Highgate Cemetery (where among others you would find Karl Marx.)

Here and there rise altogether 100,000 barrows, the domes of earth under which the members of the Kong family are buried, alongside numerous (4,000) steles and stone statues of horses, goats and grinning tigers.

Confucianism is grounded in family values and relationships, and beside the tomb of the philosopher (who died in 479 BC, aged 73) lies his son, Kong Li. Nearby is his grandson, Kong Ji.

Moreover, though Confucius barely gained recognition during his lifetime, the forest is now the final resting place for all who claim to be his descendents, which more or less includes any former Shandong resident with the surname Kong.

As you depart, you may witness a cavalcade of pick-up trucks, minibuses and tractors with earth-filled trailers squeezing through the Second Saint's Gate.

Many of their passengers may be wearing a white headdress of sorts, and in the back of one of the vehicles there could be a band playing on pipes and drums.

This is a funeral procession, Qufu-style, settling another of the Kongs in their tomb.

“The teachings of Confucius are still relevant in contemporary Chinese society,” affirms Ann-Ping Chin.

According to the philosophy, she explains, a natural place to start in the quest for a moral structure to life “is in the everyday, in the family, in one's conduct with one's parents and siblings.”

Yet today, these ideas may be fading into their own graves.

A way of life based on ritual, loyalty, benevolence and the common good at the expense of individual desires is making way for a more self-obsessed society, bent on the pursuit of career, wealth and status.

Perhaps it is only in Qufu that Confucius will live on.