Fact and fantasy collide at the Penang War Museum in Malaysia.
The Chinese sage known as Confucius is one of the best known philosophers ever to have lived. His legacy is celebrated not only in China – where practice of his teachings has evolved to the level of a pseudo-religion – but also meets with widespread appreciation in the West.
However, there is more to Confucius than his oft-quoted words of wisdom, and some critics have gone so far as to label him a power-hungry misogynist; as I was to find out for myself, on a journey that took me from the philosopher’s one-time home in Qufu to his final resting place: the superbly atmospheric Confucius Cemetery.
Kong Fuzi the Philosopher
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Confucius lived in China between 551 and 479 BC, during an era that is referred to as the ‘Spring and Autumn’ period of Chinese history.
He was born to middle class parents in Lu State – an area surrounding the modern day city of Qufu, in China’s Shandong Province. The sage is best remembered for his philosophical teachings, which, along with the work of his students and fellow philosophers, would go on to form the canon of Confucianism many years after his own death.
While Confucius had many titles, his given name was Kong Qiu. The Latinised title ‘Confucius’ first appeared in the 16th century, adapted from his posthumous honorific of ‘Kong Fuzi’ – meaning ‘Master Kong’.
Confucius also led an active political life. From his appointment as Minister of Crime, he became involved in a campaign to distance Lu from the rule of the state – instead working towards a centralised government under the leadership of a local duke. The plan failed however, and after a brief period of exile Confucius would eventually return to Lu state (supposedly aged 68) to spend the remainder of his life as a humble teacher of philosophy.
Even up to the time of his death, the teachings of Confucius were not widely accepted in China. Little had been recorded, much of it surviving only as an oral tradition through his students; and 200 years later, yet more would be lost when the short-lived Qin Dynasty ordered the burning of Confucius’s written teachings and books.
Nevertheless, the seeds of his philosophy survived; blossoming, finally, under the later Han Dynasty. Inspired by the social and political wisdom of Confucius, the Emperor Han Wudi would declare China a Confucian state – applying his systems of morality everywhere from classrooms to law courts. As a result, this system of philosophy had a key role in shaping the ongoing history of China… and the teachings of Confucius are still adhered to far and wide across China and the Far East.
The Wisdom of Confucius
“There are three methods to gaining wisdom. The first is reflection, which is the highest. The second is imitation, which is the easiest. The third is experience, which is the bitterest.”
Confucianism is considered one of the ‘Three Doctrines’ or ‘San Jiao’ of ancient China – along with Buddhism and Taoism.
While many refer to Confucianism as a religion, academics more correctly identify it as a system of philosophy. Although Confucianism is sometimes adopted as a full worldview, any associated supernatural aspects are not inherent in the teachings of Confucius himself – but rather result from the blending of Confucianism with Taoism, Buddhism, or any of China’s rich tapestry of folk religions and their subsequent mythological worlds.
The sage himself was primarily concerned with morality, ranging from the level of interpersonal and familial relationships through to governmental policy. With limited records of his life and teachings, assigning authorship to the many texts comprising the body of Confucianism can be problematic; although it’s generally acknowledged that Confucius was a firm champion of the Golden Rule: “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”.
However, many of the sage’s critics have argued that the bulk of his teachings, contained in a series of books known as the Analects, boil down to a system detailed who should bow to whom across a range of superficial social situations; moreover, there are strong themes of authoritarianism and gender inequality in his teachings which are less than palatable by modern standards (and particularly in the West).
For example, according to Confucianism parents are not only to be respected, but moreover should be obeyed on all matters. During the Han dynasty this inspired mandatory study from the age of six upwards, in addition to a rigid system of arranged marriages. Gender discrimination is apparent from the moment of birth: for example, one of the sage’s attributed texts recommends that, “if a man has a son, he puts him on the bed, and if he has a daughter, he puts her on the grounds.”
An unmarried woman must show complete obedience to her father. After marriage, she is to obey her husband absolutely while widows are advised to obey their sons. Confucius was also a firm supporter of the ancient Chinese custom of binding women’s feet; a practice considered today as a gross form of ritual disfigurement.
For all his dubious beliefs however, the legacy of Confucius is celebrated far and wide across modern day China – though nowhere more so than in his hometown of Qufu.
The Temple of Confucius
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
In 1994 UNESCO granted World Heritage status to a trio of sites in Qufu associated with the philosopher; the Temple of Confucius, the Cemetery of Confucius and the former home of his first descendants, the Kong Family Mansion.
We came to Qufu by train, travelling overnight in a crowded compartment to arrive at the Sage’s city by mid-morning.
The station was a vast, Spartan affair, with marble pillars, vaulted ceilings and wide, open courtyards; a modern terminal that belied a city so rich in history and tradition. Soon enough though, we’d found a willing rickshaw and left the station far behind, as we rattled our way through the old streets of Qufu itself.
With a population of roughly 60,000 people, Qufu is a small city by Chinese standards. The busy streets were filled with rickshaws and electric bicycles, colourful market stalls spilling over the pavements and into the road. Our driver spat and cursed as he pedalled frantically, weaving in and out of the oncoming traffic.
Ten minutes later we arrived at the Temple of Confucius, crossing an ornate bridge beneath weeping willows and passing through the crowds of tourists gathered about the entrance to the sacred site.
While Qufu is a popular destination for domestic tourism – and particularly amongst those who still adhere to the teachings of the Greatest Sage – we appeared to be the only non-Chinese visitors in attendance. Outside the temple walls we were cornered by a woman selling books of Confucian philosophy; she hounded us persistently until I eventually gave in. As it turned out, despite a cover printed in English the rest of the book was in Chinese.
The Temple itself on the other hand, more than lived up to the hype. In many ways it resembles the Forbidden City in Beijing, with a total of nine courtyards spreading out over an area of 16,000 square metres – making this one of the very largest temples in China. Inside the first gate, the temple grounds opened up into a large walled courtyard. Here and there ancient pines rose from the ground, while ahead of us a series of gates led to the inner temple and pagodas.
Just two years after the Sage’s death, his former house was consecrated as the ‘Temple of Confucius’ by the Prince of Lu. By 205 BC the emperor himself visited to offer sacrifices to the memory of Confucius; setting a precedent for many rulers to follow.
This would continue until 611 AD, when the three-room house was eventually dismantled to make way for an expanding temple complex. During the 11th-century Song Dynasty the temple would be further extended: growing to incorporate four large courtyards surrounded by more than 400 rooms. The temple survived fire and vandalism in 1214 to be rebuilt in the style of an imperial palace during the 14th century Yuan Dynasty.
Further fires would cause large-scale damage to the temple in 1499 and again in 1724, but each time the site was restored it was extended further, and by the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966 the Temple of Confucius had already undergone 15 major renovation projects.
We headed north from the first courtyard, under the Lingxing Gate; named after a distant star in the constellation of the Great Bear, the inference is that Confucius himself descended as a star from heaven.
This sort of deification was common throughout the temple; although there were surprisingly few depictions of the sage on display (being more prominent outside of the temple complex, around the streets of Qufu) here the Sage is remembered with all the reverence usually due to an emperor.
The central courtyards were populated by tour groups, herds of Chinese tourists floating about the more iconic installations; such as the numerous stelae pavilions, where ancient stone likenesses of dragons and turtles peer out between the wooden shutters.
Outside the Dacheng Hall – or ‘Hall of Great Perfection’ – tourists lit incense offerings for the sage. The building rises to a height of 32 metres, supported on grand pillars and columns carved with coiling dragons. The Dacheng Hall has been the temple’s principal venue for sacrificial offerings, ever since it was built under the Qing Dynasty.
Opposite the hall stands the Xing Tan Pavilion, or ‘Apricot Platform’. This pavilion is still used in an annual celebration of the teachings of Confucius, its name a reference to the apricot tree under which the Sage would sit and teach his students.
For all the tourists in the temple, however, it wasn’t hard to lose oneself; escaping into the network of smaller courtyards and alleys that spread out around the central plazas.
We passed beneath the Hongdao Gate, the Shengshi Gate, the Dazhong Gate, a series of arches each more elaborate than the last, until eventually wandering into a maze of simpler, earth-floored courtyards at the northern end of the complex. In one far corner of the sprawling site, a temple guard was sleeping against a wall – the sounds of tourists and distant traffic muted behind high brick walls.
Suddenly it became easier to see the temple as it had once been; not as a protected tourist attraction, but rather a place of peaceful contemplation. We stayed for a while longer, admiring the bizarre carvings of mythical creatures, exploring elaborate wood panelled corridors and countless scattered shrines… but as the afternoon drew towards a close, it was time to visit the main attraction.
While the Temple of Confucius is certainly impressive in its scale, it offers little in addition to popular temple sites at Beijing or Xi’an. I was far more interested in locating another of Qufu’s famous attractions however, and so we headed off to find the tomb of Confucius himself.
The Cemetery of the Greatest Sage
“If we don’t know life, how can we know death?”
It was late afternoon by the time a second rickshaw dropped us off outside the cemetery gates.
The Confucius Cemetery is recognised as the oldest and largest family cemetery in the world – this immense, sprawling graveyard dedicated solely to the descendants of Confucius himself. Today the Sage has two million known and registered descendants, and I heard it said that one in three people in the city of Qufu can trace their heritage back to Kong Qiu; as a result, this 500-acre plot of land contains more than 4000 ancient monuments.
We paid our driver, and passed beneath a red arch guarded by fierce stone dragons… coming out the other side into a forest. According to a plaque by the entrance, the cemetery features more than 100,000 trees, including over 9000 different species of plant life. Ahead of us an ornate bridge passed over a stream, which disappeared in either direction through the tangle of trees. A mist was setting in, so that the warped shapes of gnarled branches and dead stumps cast eerie silhouettes against the growing gloom.
It wasn’t clear at first where the Sage’s grave was located; either I missed a sign somewhere, or perhaps the directions had been written in Chinese. Instead we simply wandered, following one of the stone paths that wound its way beside the stream, through the chaotic ranks of gravestones and haphazard monuments.
The graves themselves sprouted from the ground at all angles, seemingly without order or pattern. In one direction there would be clean, square stones which bore sharply chiselled characters naming the deceased; then elsewhere, the monuments were faded, cracked and crumbling with age. The grass rose and fell in waves giving the impression of subsidence, of tombs and mausoleums collapsing deep beneath our feet.
Some of the older tombs had broken open; and as we moved deeper into the cemetery we found open graves, burst sarcophagi, fallen stones.
As it turned out the Sage’s own grave was located not far from the entrance, behind a pavilion where tour groups listened to stories of his life and teachings. There were several such groups clustered about the pavilion as we arrived. We followed the path through the buildings, along a stone walkway lined with memorials to Confucius’s most immediate and significant descendants.
A special place was given to the tomb of Kong Ji: a third generation ancestor of the Sage himself, Kong Ji (or ‘Zi Si’) lived from 483-402 BC, and was one of the more prominent Confucian philosophers of the early Warring States Period.
Reaching the end of the path we turned a corner, and entered the burial plaza of Confucius himself.
The monument rose up from a marble dais, as warped, crooked trees leant this way and that to shelter the sleeping sage. Fresh flowers lay all about the site. As we arrived, two tourists were paying their respects with another bouquet.
There was a hushed reverence around the site; as each new group approached the monument their noisy chatter would subside, to be replaced with respectful silence. The significance of this man, even in contemporary Chinese culture, cannot be overstated; even now, almost 2,500 years after his death, the solemn graveside manner of visitors was more akin to a family funeral, than the behaviour you’d expect at an ancient memorial. But then, perhaps it’s unsurprising when so many people today can trace their family tree back to this very cemetery.
The stone, it should be noted, is no more than a memorial – with the actual body of Confucius lain to rest elsewhere. While the earliest graves in the cemetery date back to the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), gravestones did not come into widespread use in China until the later Han period (206 BC – 220 AD). Originally, the Great Sage had an axe-shaped memorial raised in his honour beside the Sishui River that flows through the cemetery… and as many as 2000 years ago, it was used as a place for sacrifice and worship. This was later replaced by the current stone and its pavilion.
The Cemetery of the Greatest Sage has not always enjoyed the deep respect with which it is now held; Chairman Mao’s communist regime was opposed to the practice of Confucianism, and in 1966, during China’s Cultural Revolution, a troop of the Red Guard entered the cemetery at Qufu to damage and defile graves. Most notably, the Duke Yansheng, a 76th-generation descendant of Confucius was exhumed, his naked body hung up from a tree before the temple. Many of the disturbed graves I’d spotted on the walk through the cemetery were similarly affected during the Cultural Revolution.
We didn’t leave the cemetery immediately, but rather walked deeper into the forest. The site covers a total area of 500 acres, after all – there was plenty more to explore. However, with the afternoon light fading and a heavy mist setting in, it proved remarkably easy to get lost in the place.
By this point, we appeared to be alone in the cemetery. The large tour groups we had seen earlier in the day had been packed back onto buses, and shipped off home. I wandered from the path at one point to inspect a series of ancient stones. Beside these, a broken tomb revealed the entrance to a subterranean vault. I shone a torch inside – the grave was a deep, hollow chamber, stone-lined and littered with dead leaves. Beneath these I was able to make out the shape of a withered limb; but whether it was human bone or a petrified branch from one of the overhanging trees, I couldn’t say.
We tried to find our way back to the path, but it proved more challenging than expected. A shifting landscape of trees, graves and burial mounds spread out in all directions, making it very hard to keep one’s bearings in the cemetery. The road didn’t seem to be where we’d left it.
We spiralled out from the graves, walker in wider and wider circles in our attempt to rejoin with the path, but it was fruitless: we were lost.
Working by the theory that the cemetery – despite appearances – was not endless, and with darkness fast approaching, we resolved to pick a direction and simply keep walking straight. Eventually we would have to hit one of the 12th century boundary walls, which if necessary we could climb to make our escape from the necropolis.
It was perhaps thirty minutes later that we entered a clearing, where strange animal figures reared out of the mist towards us; lions, turtles, horses and dragons, arranged in pairs to form a long corridor through the leafy gloom. It was a ‘Spirit Way’: a sacred path denoting the tomb of an important dignitary, an emperor or official. Most of these date back to the Han Dynasty, making these curious stone faces at least 2,200 years old… and though I couldn’t tell if we’d found the Kong Zhengan Spirit Way, or those attending the tomb of Kong Shangxian or of Kong Shangtan, by following the trail of mythical creatures away from the great stone tomb, we finally found our way back to the main path.
Thankfully, the journey became easier from this point. We managed to pick the right direction and soon enough, as sunset came in earnest, we were back at the red archway that marked the entrance to the Confucius Cemetery.
After all I had learned about Confucius – Kong Fuzi, the Greatest Sage, the Crownless King of Qufu – I’ll admit I found myself beginning to think less of him as a man. His authoritarian and sexist beliefs, for example, hardly set the same precedent as figures such as, say, the Buddha or Gandhi. Then again, as Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It could be argued then that the positive reforms Confucius invited (if perhaps limited in their scope) were nevertheless valuable – crucial, even – for the age he lived in.
Whatever your take on the man though, it’s a remarkable credit to think that Confucius’s teachings – or at the very least, teachings inspired by the spirit of his teachings – should have outlived him by so long; to think that now, 2,492 years after his death, ideas he once shared beneath a humble apricot tree in China’s Lu Province would be echoing about the entire planet.
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