QUFU, China — "Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it" — Confucius.
Despite the passage of more than 2,000 years, wars and political upheavals, memories of China’s greatest sage are alive and well in this town of 650,000, south of Beijing in Shandong province.
For anyone interested in the history of Confucius and the reverence for a philosophy that all men should show respect for others — regardless of status — three historic sites here are well-worth visiting. They are the Temple of Confucius, the Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion of Qufu.
Walking near the main street (on a recent trip with colleagues), we turned from a road lined with cypress and pine trees, then stepped through the front gate of the 152-building temple, China’s second-largest ancient structural complex.
Situated on the other side of a tall stone wall that surrounds the town’s old quarter, it was the first of several decorative gates erected for visits by emperors and other officials who came to pay their respects, or to grant noble titles for descendants of the father of the country’s social code.
Modelled on the capital’s Imperial Palace, the 22-hectare temple grounds and buildings were expanded repeatedly after the main structure was begun in 478 B.C. Following two major fires, plus renovations, the present two-storey Dacheng Hall — or "Hall of Great Achievement" — was completed 282 years ago.
To reach it, visitors walk along paths lined with ancient trees, through nine courtyards containing smaller structures and pavilions. The "First Temple Under Heaven" grounds contain monuments plus stone "steles" inscribed with text dedicated to Confucian thought and memorials to high-ranking visitors.
Stories and legends vary, but he was believed to be born just north of here in 551 B.C. From his given name of Kongqiu and the adult literary name of Zhongni, two million registered descendants — after almost 80 generations — bore the last name Kong.
Considered ugly, with a large protruding forehead, the son of a minor feudal estate owner and soldier was three years old when his father died. As the story goes, his mother raised him after a lion and an eagle who cared for the abandoned boy in a cave on Mount Ni convinced her to take him back. As depicted in a colourful theatre pageant we attended, she performed menial labour to support them.
Educated on ancient rituals and music, Confucius reluctantly left home. Working as a shepherd, cow-tender, clerk and an accountant. He married at age 19 and his wife, Qi Guan, soon bore him a first son.
After serving as justice minister for a duke greatly admired for reforms in the strict feudal society often ravaged by political rivalries and wars, Confucius went into self-imposed exile when the official celebrated with gifts of horses and dancing girls provided by enemies from a neighbouring state.
Surrounded by disciples, the philosopher taught in other provinces that they should use humanity, have moral standards and be courteous, that all men should be educated and promoted based on skills and aptitude, and that children should be devoted to their parents and older siblings.
One of his most oft-quoted sayings, "what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others," reflects the Golden Rule of many societies.
Discouraged after officials rebuffed his teaching, Confucius established a school back in Qufu, then spent his last seven years teaching and collecting songs, documents plus ancient writings that reflected his beliefs.
Over the following century, disciples recorded more of his sayings into what are called Analects.
Duke Ai of the State of Lu ordered his home kept as a place of worship and sacrifices to Confucius, but opposition several centuries later resulted in paintings and statues of him being replaced by spirit tablets.
Today, only temples operated by descendants display his image and sayings, plus devotions to disciples credited with preserving his teachings as a humanist — not a religious standard. Not well-known when he died around 480 B.C., his philosophies spread and became the basis for courtliness and personal decorum for officials and bureaucrats.
The last major threat occurred in 1966, when about 200 students from a Beijing university raided the temple and cemetery grounds during the height of Cultural Revolution opposition to feudalism and capitalism. Before premier Zhou Enlai ordered soldiers to intervene, Red Guard marauders who did not see the beauty of Confucius philosophy smashed gravestones and hoisted the remains of the last duke descended from the philosopher from his grave into a tree.
Family members lived for centuries in the mansion, until the last ones fled during the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s. The last hereditary duke, a title granted to descendants by an emperor almost 1,000 years ago, died in 2008 in Taiwan.
The residence’s decor is retained, as are repaired steles on the temple grounds and gravestones in the 3.6-sq.-km Kong Lín — "Kong’s forest" — cemetery, where about 100,000 descendants are entombed about 2 km north of the mansion. All three locales became UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994.
NEED TO KNOW
Cathay Pacific has 10 non-stop Toronto to Hong Kong flights, and 14 flights weekly non-stop from Vancouver to Hong Kong. Dragon Air, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cathay Pacific Group, operates daily non-stop flights between Hong Kong and Qingdao, China. Together, Cathay Pacific and Dragon Air fly to 20 destinations in China and more than 100 destinations worldwide.
I flew Toronto-Hong Kong in Business Class, which provides comfortable seats that convert to flat beds (some of the largest in the industry) with direct aisle access and privacy screens. The airline recently won the World’s Best Business Class category in the Skytrax World Airline Awards. I returned in Cathay’s Premium Economy class, with wide seats and footrests. Both have individual TV screens and special service. See cathaypacific.com/ca.
Qufu is 150 km from China’s Jinan Yaoqiang Airport; 16 km from the railway station at Yanzhou, with three-hour trips from Beijing, two hours from Shanghai; about two hours by bus from Jinan, the provincial capital.
Admission to the the three sites ranges from 30-to-80 yuan ($5-$12) each. A guidebook or guide is recommended. English is limited. A ceremony is held each Sept. 28 at the Kong Mansion to mark the birthday of Confucius.
I stayed at the comfortable old-style 150-room Qufu Queli Hotel between the Temple and Mansion, near a street packed with souvenir stalls. With several courtyards, a large shop, business centre, nightclub, breakfast and dining rooms, nightly rates range from about $40 single, to $70 for couples, $240 for a suite.
For details on travel in China, visit tourismchina.org or call the China National Tourist Board at 416-599-6636. Canadian travellers need a visa, which can be arranged through the Chinese Embasssy in Ottawa or consulates in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. See ca.china-embassy.org/eng/.