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Destination: China

Encounters With Confucius

Visiting the town where 'the Master' lived, died and was buried 2,500 years ago

June 14, 1998|MIKE MEYER | Meyer is an American freelance writer based in Beijing who has been teaching in China for three years

QUFU, China — 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.

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