Encounters With Confucius

Meyer is an American freelance writer based in Beijing who has been teaching in China for three years

A misty, quiet calm enveloped the cart bearing me and a handful of Chinese tourists to the last resting place of Confucius. As the horse clip-clopped along the straight, wide, car-less road, we were mesmerized by the illusion of the roadside trees passing us like sentries. We glided to a stop in front of the red double door gate that announced "Kong Lin," or Confucian Forest. We five chipped in for the $5 fare for the 30-minute ride from town and climbed down to join the queue outside the gate. Tipping his hat, our driver bid us to enjoy ourselves. Then he turned to buy a treat for his horse fromvendors selling roasted sweet potatoes.

I thought of a story about the Master (as Confucius is known to the Chinese) in the "Collection of Confucius' Sayings" book I had bought at my hotel: "When the stables were burnt down, on returning from Court, the Master said, 'Was anyone hurt?' He did not ask about the horses."

Watching our driver tenderly feed his partner, I wondered just how smart this Confucius was, anyway.

But that's why I was here in this city-as-museum 350 miles south of Beijing. Thousands of tourists a year--mostly Chinese--make the journey to this less-than-convenient corner of coastal Shandong province. This is where the Master, who lived from 551 to 479 BC, developed his rules for social order and happiness, conjuring up enough aphorisms to endear him to fortune-cookie copywriters the world over.

If there's one place to study, contemplate and appreciate Confucian thought, this must be it, I reckoned. So I bundled 22 of my students from a private international school in Beijing onto a train to study the teachings of Confucius at the source.

It was a good idea and a bad idea. Unless you can read Chinese characters, you won't pick up much in the way of Confucius' philosophy, save for the handy little English paperback I toted in my back pocket. Some of the signs of the major sights are translated into English, but even these explain more history than thought.

What Qufu will impart to the visitor is a tranquillity that Confucius himself never enjoyed. Denied the status-raising government post he so desired, he and his exhortations for reforms were ignored.

Confucianism, the moral code based on the Master's Analects, didn't take root in China until about 200 years after his death. Lacking a deity, it is not, strictly speaking, a religion, though there are temples all over China where people go to revere the memory of the man and contemplate his teachings. Confucianism emphasizes five virtues: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness. If practiced by a state leader, Confucius theorized, then social stability, prosperity and personal happiness would follow.

Confucianism endured for almost two millenniums as the bedrock of Chinese society until the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

"My aspiration is that the aged live an easy life, friends have faith in me and the youth cherish the memory of me," said the Master, and in Qufu, he's cherished even if his teachings are not. This sleepy town has forged a tourism balance rare in China. Park benches outnumber karaoke clubs, and the gray-and-white masonry of most public buildings is consistent with that of the three major historical sights: the Confucius temple, the mansion and the forest.

I loved the city's outdoor snack tables serving beer and noodles by candlelight for less than a dollar; my elementary students loved the big stone steles inscribed with calligraphy, which made for fun climbing. After a day of badgering them to keep off the artifacts, I loved the snack tables and beer and noodles even more.

While another teacher took the kids for a study break, I went ahead to the Confucian Forest, where I rented a mountain bike for a dollar, a must for exploring the 500 acres. There lie the remains of Confucius and 77 generations of his descendants, who lived there until 1948. A packed-earth trail wound through the forest, and I rode for an hour without seeing another person, another rarity in China. Headstones, grave mounds and the opposing statues of Wen (Culture) and Wu (War) hugged the path. Eventually the road took me to Confucius' grave, a simple hill of raised earth with a five-character inscription carved onto a stone marker in front of it, reading, loosely, "Sacred Father." In front of the monument stood a simple incense burner, and in front of that crouched a man spreading cherry blossoms with a paintbrush onto rice paper.

How romantic, I thought. And it was, even after he said he wasn't there to be inspired but to sell his work. Ah, but out came my pocket sayings book, and I read:

"The Master visited a town. 'What a large population!' he said. A student asked, 'Since the people are already numerous, what more would you do next?' Confucius said, 'Enrich them.' The student continued, 'And then what comes after they have become rich?' The Master said, 'Educate them.' " Maybe there was hope for the painter yet.

Beside the tomb sits a small house where Confucius' students kept watch over his grave for three years after his death. One student remained six years more. Such devoted protection could have been used during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards bent on smashing the "four olds"-- old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits--made a shambles of the cemetery. Though extensively restored, the monuments and statues bear scars of patches and cracks.

The impulse to destroy Confucius' legacy is an old one, dating back to the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who united China in 221 BC. He was big on book-burning and against any thought opposed to his own. Naturally, Confucius' teachings and students had to be put down. Nestled inside the Confucius Temple today is the Lu Wall, a hollow structure in which one of the Master's descendants successfully hid books recording his words.

Confucius Temple isn't one building but a maze of large halls, bell towers, steles (inscribed stone posts), dragon-carved columns and rickety old cypresses propped up by metal joists. It needs at least a full afternoon and a patient guide to be fully appreciated. Constructed by later generations, it was added on to by succeeding emperors to show their piety and respect. The grassy, spacious grounds make for a pleasant place to stroll or picnic, while the cavernous halls feel hauntingly empty without the incense, music, silk robes and offerings they were designed for.

Dotting the complex are large stone turtles bearing steles on their backs--turtles being the ancient Chinese equivalent of the myth of Atlas bearing the world upon his shoulders.

To my students' chagrin, my book of sayings didn't have any observations on turtles. I silenced their moans with this one, however: "In the presence of Goodness, one need not avoid competing with his teacher."

Our second and last day was spent touring the Confucius Mansions, where Confucius' descendants, the Kongs, enjoyed the fruits of the sage's labor for 2,500 years.

Most of the 466 rooms and myriad courtyards are off-limits to tourists, though enough are open to correct a first impression that this is another Graceland. This both relieved and disappointed me. Confucius the Master is as much a cult figure in China as Elvis the King is in the U.S., but this mansion is a serious, reflective place. Still, without kitsch, it was hard to relate to. I went to the gift shop for guidance.

Kitsch? Nestled among the Confucius cigarettes, Confucius wine, Confucius calendars and Confucius medallions hung a T-shirt that read in English "Confucius Mansion" on the front and "Zedillo este bien para tu familia" on the back, punctuated by the word "ZEDILLO" in sweeping block letters. I motioned for the seller, a middle-age woman with a huge grin and eager demeanor. Pointing at the T-shirt, I explained that Ernesto Zedillo is the president of Mexico and this appeared to be a political slogan ("Zedillo is good for your family"). I translated it from Spanish to Chinese and chuckled to show her the incongruity of it all. "Yes," she replied, quite seriously, "and when there's heat, like when you sweat, Confucius' house here turns color." She rubbed the decal between her hands. She was right, and we oohed together.

"The Master said, 'He who does not understand words cannot understand people.' " Maybe so, but this shopkeeper knew my nature better than any philosopher. I handed over my two bucks and bought the shirt.

* ON A BUDGET: Affordable packages to China in late fall and winter. L17

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: Pilgrimage to Qufu

Getting there: China Eastern Airline and Air China International have nonstop service from LAX to Beijing; Northwest offers direct service (one stop, no change of plane). Fares start at $1,050 round-trip; advance purchase and other restrictions apply.

The easiest access to Qufu is via the Beijing-Shanghai train, which stops at Yanzhou, 10 miles away. Minibuses operate from there to Qufu until 10 or 11 p.m. A round-trip sleeper ticket for the nine-hour trip from Beijing costs about $50.

Where to stay: The main hotel for Western tourists is the Queli, telephone 011-86-537-441-1300, fax 011-86-537-441-2022. Doubles with full bath, minibar and CNN cost about $60.

Tucked up against Confucius Temple, the hotel greets visitors with the Master's quote: "It is wonderful to have friends from afar!" So wonderful, most of the staff speaks English. This is good because the only tourist information office is in a hotel south of town that mostly handles package tours.

A bowling alley a block from the Queli offers respite from the ponderings of philosophy, and if that doesn't empty your head, nearby restaurants specialize in "Confucius family wine" (140 proof) and scorpions (yes, as food).

For more information: China National Tourist Office, 333 W. Broadway, Glendale, CA 91204; tel. (818) 545-7505 or (818) 545-7506.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°