Teach your children

As I continue my journey down the list of Beijing sights, I find myself at Kong Miao (孔庙), the Confucius Temple. It’s actually pretty close to my old office in the Gehua building, just a couple blocks from the Lama Temple (which I’ve been to twice but apparently never written about), but I never got around to it until last week.

I went with a Chinese friend who was very surprised that an American knew anything about Kongzi (孔子 551 BC – 479 BC ) at all. But I told her that while we don’t really study his teachings, we know his name and the cliché “Confucius says...” And since I’m interested in China, I know that Kongzi was a very practical philosopher who concerned himself almost entirely with down-to-earth things like how to get along in society, ethics, and how a country should be governed, not with supernatural things like gods and demons.
Anyway, Kong Miao is a relatively small complex originally built in 1306. It has been renovated recently, and has many exhibits about the man’s life, teachings and legacy, though they are not anything like the impressive museum at Jinsha in Chengdu.
Each of these structure contains a carved stele commemorating some event, like an emperor expanding the temple or rebuilding part of it.

The temple grounds are home to many old trees.
I think they are more than 300 years old.
And the vines hanging from some of them work as swings.

There are many exhibits covering the Master’s life.
This one illustrates his travels from kingdom to kingdom trying to spread his ideas.

Music is very important in Kongzi’s philosophy.
The smaller instruments in the front are guqin (古琴), the larger ones are a fancy version of either se (瑟) or guzheng (古箏) (without the bridges that tune the strings), and the tuned bells hanging behind are called bianzhong (編鐘) – I think, the ancient names of the instruments are sometimes not the same as very similar looking modern ones. There is also another instrument arranged like the bells, only with tuned slabs of stone that are struck with mallets.

That covers the photographic highlights of Kong Miao. Most of the exhibits didn’t lend themselves to picture taking. Although Kongzi’s teachings fell into disfavor – violent suppression, even – during the Cultural Revolution, there’s been a resurgence lately, with modern Chinese seeking to restore some of the traditional values they find lacking in modern society. And honestly, if you look more at the actual writings rather than some of the religious trappings that were later grafted onto Confucianism, it’s pretty hard to fault the values contained in the Analects. One of the things it is widely known for is respect for authority, both within families and in government, but that is tempered by two additional teachings. First, underlings are obligated to speak up when they feel leaders are going astray, even to the point of justified rebellion in the case of tyranny. And second, authority must be earned, not inherited, so leaders have their positions due to virtue, not just lucky birth or force of arms. It is these caveats that caused the kings he spoke to to reject his teachings. And in later centuries, when his teachings did become orthodoxy, the focus was often more on submission than virtue.

One of Kongzi’s prime teachings is the same as other philosophers around the world have come up with, though it is stated differently:

己所 不欲、勿施於人
jǐ suǒ bù yù, wù shī wū rén
Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.

That’s the translation of David Hinton. It should sound familiar to everyone, I think. And stating it as a negative, rather than the positive statement we’re familiar with as the Golden Rule, has the advantage of avoiding some of the problems that more modern thinkers have found with it. To divert into philosophy, the problem with “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is that it leads to silly things like, “I would love for someone to give me some bacon, so I should give my neighbor some bacon,” when the neighbor is a vegetarian. To be fair, Kongzi actually does encourage proactive reciprocity in other places as a means of enhancing the public good.

And the other thing we have to remember is that Kongzi himself never wrote down his teachings. Much as with other ancient religious and philosophical teachers, the writings we have were compiled after his death by his followers, and there’s no way to know what Kongzi himself actually said.

Anyway, back to ancient Beijing.

Next to Kong Miao is Guozijian (国子监), which was the Imperial College, and the same ticket (Ұ20) gets you into both.
In the center of the main yard is this lovely building:
If I understood correctly, it was only used when the Emperor visited the school. He would sit at the elaborate desk inside...
...and lecture the students who stood outside all around. The water was drained from the circular pool around it while one of the bridges was being repaired, but I can see it would be really pretty when it is filled.

There’s another statue of Kongzi.
And a mock-up of what an Imperial classroom looked like.
The professor is at the center desk, and the students would have been at tables on the two sides of him, outside the area of the picture.

The College’s main function was to prepare civil servants for the massive Imperial bureaucracy, which theoretically (by Confucian ideals) was open to students from all social strata, though in practice it catered to the aristocracy. Sons of poor families were needed to support their households and couldn’t afford to spend time on such things as studying.

The whole system started to decline a bit before the end of the last dynasty, and the College fell into disrepair until its recent renovation.

This is another of those Beijing locations I would not recommend unless you’re a Confucius buff or really into history. Or are small in stature and like to swing from trees.

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