Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021

© Jeremy Ferguson

Kong Qiu, aka Confucius, was born and buried in Qufu, a three-hour train ride south of Beijing.

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Confucius was here

Follow in the footsteps of the ancient Chinese scholar being embraced by the modern world

My friend Dechen is a member of the world’s largest and oldest family tree — the Kong family, descendents of the venerable sage born Kong Qiu (family names appear first in Chinese culture), but famously known as Confucius.

A towering moral, social, political and philosophic thinker of the 6th century BCE, Confucius has been revered for more than 2,000 years as China’s “Sacred First Teacher.” Now, after being reviled by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party for a good chunk of the 20th century, Confucius is back.

His values — the family as the building block of civilization, the respect of youth for elders and wives for husbands, the secular obligation to better ourselves, the cultivation of knowledge — still resonate powerfully in 21st century China.

Mao might whirl in his Tiananmen Square tomb at this Confucian revival, but it’s happening across China, where temples are celebrating the Confucian birthday, Confucian schools are blossoming and Confucian travel is staking its claim in the realm of cultural tourism.

And don’t forget the $23-million 2010 film Confucius, with Hong Kong film star Chow Yun-Fat in the title role. Its release was timed to commemorate Confucius’s 2,560th birthday. The movie was funded by the Chinese government, which surreptitiously pushed James Cameron’s blockbusting Avatar out of theatres to assure the film’s success. It didn’t work; the film found little favour with critics and the public.

Simple truths

The current revival sits in stark contrast to Confucius’s life, which had been deemed a failure. The 6th century BCE had been a chaotic time. The scholar’s efforts to achieve social harmony were spurned. His quest to influence the kingdoms that constituted the China of his time had turned to dust.

The sage responded eloquently: “With simple food to eat, water to drink and my arm for a pillow, I still have joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honour acquired by unrighteousness mean no more to me than the floating clouds.”

Confucius returned to his birthplace, Qufu, and spent the remainder of his life refining his ideas and educating disciples who would ultimately succeed in installing his code of behaviour in China’s royal courts and in the minds of the ruling classes.

“Confucius in my mind is a sage living a simple and frugal life,” says Dechen Kong, who belongs to the 77th generation of descendants. “He’s an intelligent person with a strong thirst for knowledge. He’s resourceful with analytical thinking. He’s diligent, resilient and ready to cope with all kinds of hardship. His life is full of setbacks, but he remains upbeat. Even without success in fulfilling his ambition, he shows his greatness by practicing a philosophy based on love and benevolence.”

The Confucian code has been distilled into a gallery of aphorisms (remember “Confucius says...”?):

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

“Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” (An ancient Chinese version of the Golden Rule).

“The superior man is distressed by the limitations of his ability. He is not distressed by the fact that men do not recognize the ability he has.”

“To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it.”

“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

“By three methods, we may learn wisdom: first by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is bitterest.”

Family ties

The Kong family tree was scrupulously maintained from the sage’s own time. My friend doesn’t lack for family: the last edition of the Confucius genealogy was printed in 2009, a small matter of 43,000 pages spread over 80 books. It encompasses 83 generations. It lists two million (not to mention another million unregistered) living Kongs.

The 2009 numbers were bolstered by the inclusion of female descendants for the first time (Confucianism had traditionally assigned a lower status to women). It also allowed for ethnic minorities and descendants living abroad, including 34,000 family members in Korea alone.

“Including female descendants reveals Confucianism as a developing philosophy,” says Dechen. “Modern Confucianism incorporates such concepts as respect for human rights, respect for women, social progress and scientific development.”

Confucius was here

Beijing’s Confucius Temple is quite sensibly the start of the Confucius trail. The original complex was built, apparently, on the orders of Kublai Khan, in the 13th century. Confucius’s wisdoms had impressed even the grandson of the ferocious Genghis Khan.

There’s no religious aspect to the temple, nor is there a portrait of Confucius, only a tablet, a custom that dates to the Ming Dynasty. (The temple in the sage’s hometown of Qufu alone is allowed to display a portrait.) No matter; the Beijing temple is a beauty to behold and a sanctuary for anyone who needs to pause and think apart from the omnipresent throng.

From Beijing, the Confucian traveller makes the three-hour train journey to Qufu, a low-key city of 650,000 in Shandong Province. Confucius was born and buried here, giving Shandong its number one tourist attraction. Dechen was born here, too, one of the roughly 100,000 descendants still living in the area.

“Confucian principles are deeply embedded in family education,” he says. “My parents and grandma set examples in everyday life. They didn’t have much formal education. How they were able to teach me true wisdom and profound insights could only be attributed to the influence of Confucianism.”

Qufu’s attractions are the sprawling, 22-hectare Confucius Temple complex, the Cemetery and Kong Family Mansion, ancestral seat of the clan. All three were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1994. Welcome to Confuciusland.

The mansion begun as the three-room home of the sage’s son and grandson. Thanks to the generosity of reverent emperors over the centuries, it mushroomed to a cluster of 152 buildings and 450 rooms, including guest quarters, libraries, halls and pavilions. Packed with opulence and cultural relics, it could hardly be less Confucian.

Complex matters

The Kong family enjoyed fabulous wealth and power. After the death of Confucius, his descendents were honoured with coveted government posts and titles. They had armies of servants. They had concubines. They ate 180-course meals. They exercised autonomous rule over Qufu, with the right to tax and even execute the local people.

The last of the Kongs to occupy the mansion was Kong Decheng. His title “Yansheng Duke” had endured for 800 years. His standing was such that the Japanese offered him the position of puppet Emperor of China in 1937, an offer he refused.

Now restored as a museum, the mansion dazzles tourists with the opulence of a Chinese Versailles. A Confucius-themed dinner of up to 40 courses can be arranged and includes deep-fried lotus root, steamed gingko nuts, wonderfully delicate river sturgeon and, inevitably, roast duck.

The temple is a short walk away. Its approach includes a lengthy gauntlet of souvenir stands, with the sage’s likeness on everything but Mickey Mouse ears.

Begun in 478 BCE, the year after Confucius’s death, the temple ranks as one of the three largest archeological complexes in all China. It contains nine courtyards, three halls, a pavilion, three ancestral temples, 466 rooms and 54 gateways — not something one “does” in half an hour.

Inside the gates, the complex is even more relaxed than its Beijing counterpart: ancient cypresses, the graceful Jade Water bridge, temple walls in cinnabar hues and yellow roof tiles beguile the eye. The official portrait — based on a Tang Dynasty painting — hangs in the Great Achievement Hall, a solemn affair in which a toothy sage manages to resemble an ingratiating headwaiter.

A little more than a kilometre north of the city walls, a 1000-metre-long walkway leads to the cemetery. Its natural centre of gravity is Confucius’s axe-shaped tomb, but 100,000 male descendants also lie quietly among the cypresses and pines. A steady stream of devotees arrives to pay respects and make offerings of sandalwood, incense and fruit: Confucianism lives.

Dechen will lie here someday, with his wife Yan, and after him, their son, Weichao, the 78th generation.

“I feel proud to be a descendant in every moment of my life,” says Dechen. “I believe the five virtues of respectfulness, generosity, faithfulness, diligence and benevolence. My responsibility is to cherish the great treasure Confucius left to us — and make sure it passes down to the next generation and beyond.”

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