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Religion Library: Confucianism

Sacred Space

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Dancers outside Confucian temple, Qufu, China: Public Domain

Confucian academies often were established on the grounds of Kongmiao (temples to Kongzi), first erected by government decree during the Han dynasty (202 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) and sporadically thereafter by subsequent dynasties. Between the Han and the Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the alleged home of Kongzi in Qufu, Shandong province, was renovated on several occasions to serve as a temple in his honor, and today the building is second in size only to Beijing's "Forbidden City" (the former Ming and Qing dynastes' imperial palace) among China's historical properties. At this and other Confucian temples, members of the Kong family -- descendants of Kongzi (the foremost of which fled mainland China in the 1940s to settle in Taiwan) -- enjoyed the hereditary privilege of maintaining temple grounds and presiding over temple rituals.

Temples featured a collection of sculptures or paintings depicting Kongzi and various other Confucian saints, as well as altars at which Kongzi, other members of the Kong family, and notables such as Mengzi (372-289 B.C.E.) and Zhu Xi (1130-1200 C.E.), were offered sacrifices, much as in ancestor worship. Apart from China (including Taiwan), the country with the largest number of Confucian temples is South Korea, although several still exist in Vietnam and Japan as well as in Indonesia and Malaysia. These are the preeminent sites on which Kongzi's birthday (September 28) is commemorated, but most function as community libraries, venues for traditional arts, and gathering places for the elderly when not in formal ritual use.

Sacrifices to Kongzi and other Confucian saints were only part of a nationwide ritual system, at the pinnacle of which was the worship of Tian (Heaven) carried out by the Chinese emperor (who traditionally called himself Tianzi, "son of Heaven"). During the Ming and Qing dynasties, imperial sacrifices to Tian for the sake of assuring good harvests were performed at the Tiantan (Altar of Heaven) in southeastern Beijing, which is quite possibly the most dramatic Confucian sacred space in China apart from the Confucian temple in Qufu. Originally constructed in the 15th century by the Ming emperors, it later became the site of the former Qing dynasty general Yuan Shikai's dramatic attempt to claim imperial power by worshipping Tian in a Ming dynasty-style ritual there.


Study Questions:
    1.    What private spaces are most sacred to Confucians?
    2.    What public spaces are most sacred to Confucians?
    3.    What might one encounter in a Confucian temple?


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