Honoring an Ancient Thinker

Temple of Confucius, China

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Traditional ceremonies to mark the birthday of Confucius.

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Every fall, thousands of pilgrims and tourists descend on Qufu, in China's Shandong province, to celebrate the birth of the famed philosopher Confucius. It's a ritual that has been repeated for 2,500 years at one of the largest historic building sites in China, second only to the once imperial Forbidden City in Beijing.

One of the central courtyards in the 4-acre complex features the Apricot Platform, commemorating the master's practice of teaching his students under an apricot tree. What did he teach? Precepts about thought, social relationships, behavior, and ethics that in time would have an impact throughout China, Japan, Korea, and beyond. The complex of gates and temples has been destroyed by fire, vandals, and the like over the centuries; each time, it's been rebuilt. In 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, staff and students from Beijing Normal University destroyed thousands of artifacts at the site.

Ceremonies. Confucius, and the Qufu site, have experienced a recent resurgence since the ruling Communist Party rehabilitated the fifth-century-B.C. thinker whom Chairman Mao had denounced for spreading "slave ideology." This year was the first time that birthday ceremonies received official approval.

The shift has more to do with political expedience than philosophical merits. As emerging capitalism breeds cynicism toward Marxism, China's leaders find it expedient to embrace Confucian teachings on virtue, righteousness, and—above all—subservience to benevolent authority. Said Confucius: "Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son."