Cradle of Confucianism
Everyone knows Confucius. The philosopher/teacher/sage is pre-eminent among China's ancient thinkers, and his teachings have profoundly impacted the development of Chinese history and left a deep imprint on the national psyche.
To really get to know Confucius, one should make a pilgrimage to Qufu, Shandong Province. For it is here that the master was born, died and spent most of his 73 years, including the decisive period when he preached to his disciples, who then carried forward his ideas.
To honor its former resident, Qufu boasts three main sites - the Confucius Temple, Kong Family Mansion and Confucius Cemetery - which together take most of a day to see. In 1994 they were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites for their outstanding historical, cultural, scientific and artistic value.
Beyond these, vestiges left by Confucius can be found all over Qufu. He was born about 20 kilometers away in Nishan, grew up in the area, preached his philosophies at the Xingtan Pavilion, also known as the Alter of Apricot (part of today's temple), got involved politically and became an official in the ancient state of Lu, and was buried by the Zhu River. Lining the roads in the old city are shops and stalls selling Confucius trinkets and replicas - wooden statues, fans, screens, coins, vases, boxes, canisters, paintings, stones, tablets and more. If you want any kind of souvenir related to Confucius, you will find it here.
The temple, the oldest and grandest of more than 2,000 Confucian temples worldwide, is really the heart of Qufu. Lying within the impressive old city wall, it started as a humble establishment two years after Confucius' death in 471 BC. Though the master's ideas were not so grandly received in his day, Confucius' many disciples were committed to his ideals and built the temple not far from where he was buried.
Over the dynasties, it was expanded by succeeding rulers, gradually mushrooming into the second-largest historical building complex in China. Only Beijing's Forbidden City is bigger. In fact, the temple's appearance is not unlike that of the Forbidden City, as its last major revision took place during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) after a fire in 1499. The temple has 466 rooms aligned along a north-south axis that is more than a kilometer long, and contains nine courtyards.
Within are countless trees, beautiful halls containing paintings, tablets and sculptures, and stone bridges crossing tiny waterways and gardens. Historic tablets, numbering some 1,000 of various kinds - small ones, towering ones, oddly shaped ones, some crumbling, some in remarkably good condition - lie throughout the temple complex. These tablets, along with manuscripts, contain much written information about ancient China and are still used by scholars today.
Going through the temple from the entrance, one gets the feeling of going backward in time. That's because the entrance is near the "youngest" part of the temple complex, and as you go further in, you head through the dynasties. Thus you enter through Qing (1644-1911) and Ming dynasty stone gates, find Ming architecture everywhere, come upon Song Dynasty (960-1279) halls such as Tong Wen Gate and Kuiwen Pavilion, then hit the huge Hall of Integration, built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), before coming to the oldest, ancient areas of the complex. Most buildings have been built and rebuilt over the ages because of fires or deterioration.