It was like many other temples I'd visited in the last 16 months. Red pillars held up a multi-tiered roof of orange tiles. Incense burned in giant vats in front of the main worship hall filling the air with that distinct temple fragrance. A few worshippers were dressed in traditional garb like the monks I'd seen in Beijing. But this place was special, a former teaching ground for one of China's most well-known scholars and historic figures – this was Confucius' hometown, Qufu in Shandong Province.
Born 2,500 years ago (551 B.C.), Confucius (Kong Fu Zi in Chinese) was a major contributor to Chinese philosophy and moral standards over the past two millennia. His teachings, known as Confucianism, emphasize social responsibility, justice and education.
People in the West, without knowing the particulars of the philosopher's teachings, are probably more familiar with the almost-mocking phrase "Confucius says …" followed by some random quote about spirituality or wisdom than any of his actual teachings. But what about, "Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." Sound familiar? That's right, it's the Golden Rule, one of the earliest versions that would later be adapted and changed over the centuries.
Or how about, "Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it." Does "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" ring any bells? These and many other fortune cookie-written phrases are corner stones of Chinese philosophies that have even found their way into nations in the West.
As widely known as Confucius and his teachings are, Qufu is small and quaint. Even with the enormous Confucius Temple (Kong Miao) and the grandiose Confucius Family Mansion and surrounding gardens, not to mention the large crowds of Chinese tourists, the town is quiet and remote, yet chock full of history. The nearby Confucius forest, where the great Chinese sage and his descendants are buried, is solemn with trees standing side-by-side ancient burial mounds.
But with the exception of a few smaller Chinese-style pavilions, Confucius never got to see any of it the temple, mansion and monuments were all constructed after he died.
The temple grounds were built in rings, like the rings of a tree, with each ring contributed by a different Chinese emperor. The inner most ring houses a number of important monuments to the philosopher: a pavilion where Confucius taught some of his students and a tree planted by Confucius himself, so said my guide. The tree leans against one of the entrance gates to the temple ground center, held up by a long steel cable.
The Confucius family mansion is somewhat simple, not at all like the Forbidden City or other royal grounds I'd seen in Beijing or Shanghai, although Confucius's descendants were highly regarded and revered by the emperor's family. The mansion property is large, yet largely empty with only a few artifacts on display.
Most of the Kong family (Confucius's family name) has since relocated to Taiwan, following the end of the Chinese Civil War and defeat of Chinese Nationalist forces in 1949, but the lineage continues, now in its 83rd generation.
The tomb of the great philosopher and generations of the Kong family is located in a forest near the city's limits. And much like his teachings, it was simple, yet elegant. A large stele displaying words of remembrance stands proudly above his resting place; a prayer mat in front for people to pay their respects. Some of Confucius' sons are buried nearby.
Large stone statues watch over the sacred grounds. Throughout the wooded area are large mounds the burial sites of other Confucian descendants. The graves look like large turtle shells, shaped somewhat like septic mounds yet containing much more valuable remains. The burial mounds run off into the forest in all directions, for miles and miles.
And the grounds were quiet, much more so than they should have been considering the flux of people who were visiting. It was as if someone had pressed the mute button. The only sound was that of birds and blowing branches as I walked on the paths with burial mounds on either side.
Visiting Qufu helped put a face to a name I'd only ever read about in history books. To walk where Confucius walked and sit where he sat was truly inspiring. I can only hope some of that age-old wisdom rubbed off on me.
Brandon Taylor is a language consultant/foreign expert for the Beijing Review, an English language weekly newsmagazine in Beijing, China. He is a former correspondent for the TIMES NEWS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.