Back to my trip to Qufu, the hometown of one of China’s greatest philosophers, Confucius. Confucius was a philosopher in the Spring and Autumn Period in China. I first heard about Confucius at the age of 12 when my parents returned from a trip to China, having spent two days in Qufu studying Confucian thought. Until I went to Qufu, I figured pretty much everyone in the world had at least heard of Confucius, being one of the most famous Chinese philosophers and all. As it turns out, westerners either haven’t heard of him, or just aren’t that interested in visiting his hometown. In Qufu I got as many stares from people, on account of being a foreigner, as I normally get in small villages in China.
In Qufu there are three major sites: the Confucian temple; the family mansion occupied by his descendants after Confucian thought became the basis of Chinese society and the basis on which emperors maintained power. There’s also the wooded graveyard where Confucius and many of his descendants are buried. I got a part-English, part-Mandarin tour of the Confucian temple, from a 76th generation descendant of the man himself. That was good Mandarin practice for me, and my guide’s English competence meant that I could get clarification on anything I didn’t understand. It seems Confucius has provided well for his descendants. They have a whole city to themselves with an endless supply of domestic tourists. Who says studying philosophy doesn’t pay? Bill Gates will never be able to provide this kind of endless economic opportunity to his descendants.
Though Confucian thought originated in China, I don’t think there’s much of it left here. It was exported from China a long time ago, to neighbouring countries such as Korea and Japan. It still remains strong in those countries, but as a result of the Cultural Revolution in China, it’s just not that strong anymore. My tour guide at the temple told me of how the majority of the temple was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. One of the tablets that was not destroyed had a red mark on it, placed there by a student, indicating that this particular tablet should not be destroyed. The reason he marked it as such, was because that tablet was written by an emperor who had grown up as a farmer. During the communist days, farmers and labourers were held up as the most important members of society. That that one tablet was not destroyed seemed a bit random to me. Why save it, just because it was written by a former farmer turned emperor? Sounds like typical ideologically-driven thinking to me and also sounds like it could have gone either way, as mobs roamed through the Confucian temple.
Then I started to wonder. How did that student, in the middle of all the destruction, come to mark that tablet and save it from destruction? He or she was obviously educated enough to know what the tablet meant. As someone who was educated, he risked being a target of the mobs destroying things during the Cultural Revolution, not a participant. Who was this person? Did he agree with what was going on, but also think this tablet deserved to be saved? Or was he participating because he had no choice, but when he saw the opportunity to save a piece of history, he took it? Was there a debate among the students at the time about the merits of saving something written by a feudal emperor praising Confucius, given that they were trying to destroy both feudalism and Confucian thought? Did that student get denounced as a counter-revolutionary because of his suggestion? Did he survive the Cultural Revolution? I bet there are a lot of stories like this, with anonymous actors and unanswered questions, throughout China and throughout history.
Among the notable sights at the Confucian temple are the ten dragon pillars. In imperial China nobody except the emperor could claim to have any affiliation with dragons. Not only were there ten dragon pillars in the Confucian temple, but they were considered to be even more elaborate than anything in the Forbidden City. Any time an emperor came to visit (and several did, some of them several times) the pillars were covered up, so that nobody would wind up losing their heads.
In the evening, back at my hostel, I found they stocked a bottle of fine French liquor called Pernod. I’ve rarely seen good liquor in hostel bars, and I never seen Pernod anywhere. I guess the Confucians have good taste. However, I had to teach the bar tender how to serve it. I sat there that evening, in the hometown of Confucius, who lived 2,500 years ago, drinking French liquor and talking to my friends online. The next morning I took a bus to Jinan, and then the bullet train back to Beijing.