Temple: Confucian Temple Compounds

views updated


The architecture of Confucianism is built in honor of men. It is dedicated to Confucius (551479 bce), sage, moral leader, and philosopher of the ancient state of Lü in Shandong province, or his disciples and their teachings. Confucian monuments are distinct from other Chinese religious structures in their avoidance of images. Images may be enshrined in a Confucian temple, and over time, the influence of other religions in which deities are worshiped has led to limited use of Confucian statues as icons. In the purest form of the religion, however, tablets on which the name of the Confucian is inscribed serve as the focus of veneration and Confucius, his relatives, or other Confucians are honored by a visit to the site or by participation in a ceremony. Confucian temple compounds can be dedicated to civil (in contrast to military) officials in general, as well as to individual paragons of moral or state virtue.

During his lifetime, Confucius (Kongzi [Master Kong] or Kong Qiu [family name Kong, personal name Qiu] in Chinese) established a school for the teaching of his principles of good government in Qufu, capital of his home state of Lü. In 478 bce, a year after his death, disciples built a temple in Qufu to honor their teacher. The few records about this temple inform us that it was a three-part structure containing Confucius's clothes, instruments, carriage, and books. For the next 2,500 years, Qufu would be the location of many of China's most important Confucian temple compounds. Even today, it is difficult to walk down a street of Qufu without coming upon architecture dedicated to Confucius or his disciples, or commemorating an important spot in Confucian history.

By traditional Chinese calculation, Qufu traces its association with the principles of Confucianism to the so-called Yellow Emperor who lived in the twenty-seventh century bce. Legend records that the Yellow Emperor was born about four kilometers east of Qufu. In the twenty-sixth century bce, the son of the Yellow Emperor made Qufu his capital. In the twelfth century bce, the duke of Zhou, brother of the emperor and the highest-ranking state official, was considered a paragon of governance by moral virtue. His principles of good government were highly regarded by Confucius. A temple dedicated to the duke of Zhou has stood in Qufu since the first millennium bce.

In the second century bce, the Chinese emperor offered animal sacrifices at the temple built by Confucius's disciples when passing through the state of Lü. The following century, the emperor conferred posthumous titles on Confucius. In the second century ce, the relation between emperor and temple was further strengthened when government officials were appointed to maintain it.

By the Tang dynasty (618907), imperial rites were conducted at a memorial service for Confucius. This extraordinary reverence for someone who was not a member of the imperial family was unprecedented in Chinese history. Beginning in the late fourteenth century, after the Mongol regime fell and China was returned to native hands, memorial services to Confucius were conducted biannually at Qufu's Confucian temple compound. As had been the case in ancient times, the fortunes of the empire were linked to recognition of the ideal relation between ruler and subject described in Confucian texts. Thus until the rule of the Manchus beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, a Confucian temple could be erected only through explicit imperial decree. During the Manchu (Qing) dynasty (16441911), temples honoring Confucius, his teachings, and civil officials came to be built in every province and in most major cities.

The first statue of Confucius is said to have been placed in a hall of the Qufu temple compound during repairs of 539. The date is logical, for the sixth century in China was one of widespread patronage of Buddhist architecture and its accompanying imagery. Still, until the ninth century the Confucian Temple was modest in comparison to Buddhist temple compounds or the emperor's palace. The ninth-century temple complex in Qufu consisted of a front gate, main hall, two side halls, and a residential hall behind them.

The most major changes in the status of the temple compound in Qufu were coincident with the further elevated status of the Kong family in the Song dynasty (9601279). Already in the first century bce, a descendant of Confucius had received the title of marquis and a fief at Qufu. In 1055, amid a wave of renewed interest in Confucius's writings known as neo-Confucianism, the emperor enfeoffed a forty-sixth-generation descendant of Confucius as the duke of Yansheng and awarded him and his descendants fourteen hectares of land. Like honors bestowed on the temple, this hereditary succession of a duke has no parallel in Chinese history. Before the end of the Song dynasty, the Confucian temple compound consisted of three courtyards of buildings enclosed by a covered arcade of 316 bays.

In premodern times, the main south gate of the temple was the south gate of the city of Qufu. The temple complex today consists of nine courtyards of architecture. Among them are three main halls, one main pavilion, an altar, three shrines, two side halls, two minor halls, and two studies, for a total of 446 bays of buildings. Stretching more than a kilometer from south to north, the space is punctuated by fifty-two archways. The names of structures often are references to Confucius or Confucian writings. Striking Metal and Vibrating Jade Gate, built in 1538, recalls a line in Mencius's writings comparing the completion of a musical performance to the view that Confucius's thought is a summation of all philosophies of sages that came before him. The Gate of the Great Mean, in the fourth courtyard and surviving in its Qing dynasty form, is named for the Confuciuan text, Doctrine of the Mean. Lingxing Gate is a reference to a star in the constellation Ursa Major and thus a symbol that Confucius was a star who had come down to earth. Other gates are named Augmenting Truth and Harmony of the Written Language.

The two most impressive halls of the Confucian temple compound in Qufu stand near the center of the main building axis. Star of Literature Pavilion, a name intended to link Confucius with the constellation of the god of literature. The 23-meter high, multistory library with three sets of roof eaves towers above the rest of the temple compound in the fifth courtyard. When the emperor visited Qufu, he fasted and bathed in courtyards east and west of Star of Literature Pavilion in preparation for sacrifices to honor the sage. Behind Star of Literature Pavilion is a wide courtyard with thirteen stele pavilions arranged in two rows. They were built to house fifty-three tablets presented to the temple compound by emperors from each period from Tang through Qing.

The second focal building, Dacheng (Great Achievement) Hall, dominates the seventh courtyard. Measuring 45.8 by 24.9 meters at the base and 24.8 meters in height, the size, double set of yellow ceramic tile roof eaves, and dragons entwined on the front columns compare only with the Hall of Great Harmony of the Beijing Forbidden City or the Hall of Heavenly Favors at the tomb of the first Ming emperor. East of the Great Achievement Hall courtyard is a building where offerings were made to five generations of Confucius's ancestors; to the west is a hall for paying homage to Confucius's parents. Also in this courtyard is the Apricot Altar, erected in 1018 at a spot where Confucius is said to have taught.

Directly behind the Great Achievement courtyard is a smaller but similar building dedicated to Confucius's wife Qiguan. At one time she was revered together with her husband in the same building, but in 1018 a Song emperor erected a separate shrine for her. The position of the husband's hall in front of his wife's follows the pattern for imperial residential architecture in the Forbidden City. The focus of the last courtyard is the Hall of Relics of the Sage. It contains 120 stone stelae depicting events in Confucius's life.

From the exterior, the individual buildings and their arrangement around courtyards are difficult to distinguish from the architecture of other prominent imperial and religious complexes. Names of gates and halls, the prevalence of tablets with names of those revered in contrast to statues, and associations with literate Chinese culture or remembered events are signs that the temple compound is Confucian. An unobtrusive wall, for example, is a revered spot because in the third century bce when the ninth generation of Confucius's descendants lived in Qufu, books were hidden inside the wall when troops of the First Emperor came to the city to burn classical writings.

In one important way, architecture of the Qufu Confucian temple is unique. Since the ninth-generation descendants of Confucius, the temple has been adjacent to the mansion of the Kong family. Descendants of Confucius resided in the mansion for seventy-seven generations, until the founding of the People's Republic of China. Through the centuries, the rank and influence of the chief resident of the Kong family mansion rose to the equivalent of prime minister. He was the leader of all wen, or civil officials, and was allowed to ride his horse inside the Forbidden City. He owned tax-exempt "sacred fields" from which income was used in Confucian ceremonies. He was even allowed to sell official titles.

Confucius's tomb and those of his parents are also in Qufu. So is the academy where Confucius taught and temples to Confucius's disciples Mencius, Yanzi, and Zengzi. Mencius's residence and tomb, and his parents' tomb, are there as well.

The most famous Confucian temple compound outside Qufu is in Beijing. One of the few Confucian temples constructed during the period of Mongolian rule in China, in the late thirteenth century, the majority of buildings date from the Qing dynasty. A stone tablet at the entrance orders civil and military officials to descend from their horses or sedan chairs as a sign of respect for the sage. Consisting of two parallel building lines, passage through the central gate was a privilege allowed only to the Chinese emperor. The eastern side of the compound is occupied by six successive courtyards, the back two parallel, which contain a shrine to Confucius; tablets recounting the 700-year history of scholars who achieved success in the national exams; the Great Achievement Gate; the multi-roofed Great Achievement Hall containing a central wooden tablet whose Chinese and Manchu inscriptions glorify Confucius, a pair of flanking tablets on either side of it dedicated to Confucius's four most important disciples, and eight more tablets for less eminent sages lower and behind them; the Hall for Reverence to Confucius's Ancestors with tablets for members of five generations who preceded him; a library; and a shrine to officials. The western sector has only three courtyards, all focused on the central one that houses the imperial academy. Built by the Mongols for the education of imperial and other select children, in the eighteenth century the structure was rebuilt and named Biyong Palace to recall the name of the place where princes and official sons were educated in the Chinese capital at the time of Confucius. The multi-eaved, elevated structure is enclosed by a circular moat and further surrounded by a marble balustrade, following the pattern of the imperial academy in Confucius's day and of the Temple to Heaven complex where the emperor performed annual sacrifices in the name of the state in Ming and Qing times. Originally all structures had gray roof tiles but they were replaced with golden ones in the eighteenth century.

Today, some of the most active Confucian temple compounds are in Taiwan. The best-known one is in the capital, Taipei, but two others have older buildings of greater architectural importance. The Confucian temple compound in the southern city of Tainan was built by the son of Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga, 16241662), a Japanese-born, anti-Manchu commander who retreated to the southern island after the Manchus overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644 and who subsequently led the resistance that chased the Dutch away in 1661. Its most important building, Great Achievement Hall, contains a wooden tablet honoring Confucius and sixteen tablets dedicated to famous sages. The Confucian Temple in Zhanghua, in central Taiwan, first built in 1716, was carefully restored in the 1970s and is today a premier example of eighteenth-century southeastern Chinese architecture.

The most important event at a Confucian temple is the celebration of Confucius's birthday, which usually occurs on September 28. Wearing the costumes of civil officials, attendants carrying ax-shaped weapons, fans, umbrellas, and instruments in the style of those from Confucius's day perform music and dances

Confucian temples survive in many other major Chinese cities. Many have been used as schools throughout history and a few are educational institutions today. Some towns have a corresponding temple complex for military officials, or wu, the most famous of which is in Yuncheng, Shanxi province.

See Also

Chinese Religion, overview article; Confucianism, overview article.


Han Baode. Zhanghua Kongmiao de yanjiu yu xiufu jihua. Taizhong, Taiwan, 1976. Detailed account of the restoration of the Confucian temple in Zhanghua, including a general discussion of Confucian temples and excellent drawings of the Zhanghua buildings.

Kang Yuancuo. Kongshi zuting guangji (1311). Taipei, 1970. The most important text about the Confucian shrine at Qufu, including drawings of the site and building plans.

Kong Xiangmin and Wei Jiang. Qufu. Shandong, 1982. Guidebook to Qufu and its Confucian monuments, largely pictorial, prepared by a descendant of Confucius.

Pan Guxi, ed. Qufu Kongmiao jianzhu. Beijing, 1987. The most thorough architectural analysis of every structure in the Confucian temple compound of Qufu.

Shryock, John K. The Origin and Development of the State Cult of Confucius. New York, 1932. A history of Confucianism in China that makes reference to Confucian architecture.

Wilson, Thomas A. On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics, and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius. Cambridge, Mass., 2003. Nine essays that seek to understand the role of Confucius and Confucianism through Chinese history.

Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt (1987 and 2005)

About this article

Temple: Confucian Temple Compounds

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article