The Golden Rule
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block
unto others as you would have others do unto you." It's a basic
precept taught to almost every American child, but how many know that
the renowned "Golden Rule" originated with Confucius more
than 2500 years ago?
And perhaps equally surprising to many Americans? What
did not originate with him are the many proverbs and prognostications
attributed to him through fortune cookies distributed in Chinese restaurants
nationwide. Just as an aside, not a single fortune cookie exists in
China. They were first introduced to the world at Chinese-American restaurants
in San Francisco. And needless to say, those who follow Confucius worldwide
celebrate a philosophy that extends well beyond the Golden Rule. A recent
visit to Qufu, Confucius's hometown in Shandong Province, China, immersed
me in his life, his teachings and his legacy in a very personal way.
First, a little background. Born Qiu Kong in 551 B.C.
and raised by his poor, unwed single mother, Confucius early on immersed
himself in studies and sought to distinguish himself by mastering the
arts usually reserved to those of noble birth: riding chariots, archery,
music, mathematics, calligraphy and the rituals of living well. These
will become important later on in our story.
Among the principles espoused by Confucius was an emphasis
on loyalty, benevolence, wisdom, bravery, simplicity and a basic respect
for others that stretched from family relationships to interpersonal
ones to those between subjects and rulers. Though they seem like very
basic ideas today, during feudal times they were revolutionary.
And throughout his life, he sought to convince local
warlords and later emperors (mostly posthumously) that ruling in a just
and fair way would reap greater loyalty among their subjects than the
totalitarian methods most adopted at the time. He found very few takers.
It is one of the many ironies of Confucius's life that the very emperors
whose practices he would have disavowed later came to pay great homage
Near the end of his life, he returned to Qufu disillusioned
and depressed, where he continued to teach until he died poor and unrecognized
at the age of 73. Although his students numbered around 3000, 72 of
them became actual disciples, gathered his teachings into a book called
the Analects, and continued to spread his word until be
eventually became renowned as the "Sage of China."
Traveling through the city of Qufu traces his life from
birth to death and well beyond. Enroute to the Temple of Confucius,
the second largest ancient building complex in China, we walked the
streets where he played as child. A simple man who emphasized balance
and harmony in all things, he probably would be appalled by all the
souvenir stands lining both sides.
First built in 479 B.C., two years after his death,
the temple started out as a small abode for his clothes, books, instruments,
etc. and was expanded by every dynasty that followed until it reached
466 rooms by the mid-16th century. Every gate, sculpture and stile in
some way celebrates his teachings or praises his thinking, whether a
commemoration of harmony in relationships or benevolence or respect.
Not to be outdone, every emperor in China's history came to the temple
and built a pavilion in his honor - whether that of Confucius
or the emperor himself is unclear.
Confucius was an only child but being the over-achiever
that he was, there are now 120,000 descendants with the last name of
Kong currently living in Qufu, population 600,000. Not much happens
there that doesnt involve a living relative. And historically,
his relatives - or more specifically, the oldest male descendant
of each generation - lived a life of ease that far surpassed that
enjoyed by Confucius.
The Kong Family Mansion was originally built during
the Song Dynasty over 1000 years ago and was first occupied by the oldest
direct male descendant of the 46th generation. Displays throughout the
mansion, which served as home for the Kong family for over 800 years,
are reminiscent of his teachings: one illustrates his views on dispensing
justice emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment; others display symbols
of peace and happiness or warn against greed or disobeying laws.
One of my favorite rooms is the reception hall in which
the 77th descendant, the last to live there, got married in 1937. Chiang
Kai-Shek was supposed to host the festivities but unfortunately was
arrested enroute by one of his opposing generals. One of the visible
wedding presents is a sofa given the couple by American diplomat George
Marshall, whose name later became synonymous with the post-WW ll recovery
plan. How fitting that men of political influence continued to honor
Confucius throughout the centuries.
As renowned as the Kong family was and continues to
be in life, so too are they honored in death. The family cemetery, which
is more than 2500 years old, houses Confucius as well as 100,000 of
his relatives. Since its the largest family graveyard in the world,
presumably there will be room for the other 120,000 still wandering
In addition to the historically accurate representations
of Confuciuss life and death Six Arts City, an educational
theme park, has been created to replicate the experience of Confucius
teachings. Each art that Confucius mastered in his early years has its
own exhibit area: archery, music, charioteering, calligraphy, ritual
and mathematics. And although I felt it strange to have the high-minded
philosophy of Confucius reduced to a theme park ride, still it is well-done
for what it is.
In response to a query I made to Kong Xiang Sheng, a
75th-generation descendant and Director of Confuciuss Archive
Museum, as to the pressure descendants feel based on the importance
of their ancestry, he replied: We all feel a sense of strict responsibility
to follow a path of righteousness as much in our daily lives as possible,
to set a good example for our families. A Kong family member would never
disobey any laws because they would be banned from burial in the family
And as for those ubiquitous fortune cookies
in America? Would Confucius be insulted by them? Well, surmised
Kong, although they may not be an accurate reflection of Confucianism,
they are still a way to let people know about him as a dispenser of
wisdom even if not originally in the form of fortune cookie quotes.
For more information about Qufu and other parts of Shandong Province,
visit travelshandong.com or email Maggie Zhang at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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