Lonely Planet review
With over 30 Confucius Institutes worldwide, the Shāndōng sage is currently enjoying yet another upswing after bouts of anti-Confucian violence (the last one erupted in August 1966) singled him out for Chinese spleen. An incense stick’s toss away from the Lama Temple, China’s second-largest Confucian temple has had a recent refit, but the almost otherworldly sense of detachment is seemingly impossible to shift. Antediluvian bìxì (mythical tortoise-like dragons) glare from repainted pavilions while lumpy and ossified ancient cypresses claw stiffly at the dusty Běijīng air. A mood of impassiveness reigns and the lack of worship reinforces a sensation that time has stood still. This is made all the more palpable by the mute forest of 190 stelae recording the 13 Confucian classics in 630,000 Chinese characters at the temple rear. Also inscribed on stelae are the names of successful candidates of the highest level of the official Confucian examination system. It was the ambition of every scholar to see his name engraved here, but it wasn’t easy. Each candidate was locked in one of about 8000 cubicles, measuring roughly 1.5 sq m, for a period of three days. Many died or went insane during their incarceration.
Like everywhere in town, skeletons lurk in the temple cupboard and a distasteful footnote lurks unrecorded behind the tourist blurb. Běijīng writer Lao She was dragged here in August 1966, forced to his knees in front of a bonfire of Peking opera costumes to confess his anti-Revolutionary crimes, and beaten. The much-loved writer drowned himself the next day in Taiping Lake (one of the thousands of Běijīng deaths in August and September of ’66).
But in its tranquillity and reserve, the temple is a lovely sanctuary from Běijīng’s often congested streets and is a true haven of peace and quiet. Some of Běijīng’s last remaining páilou (decorated archways) bravely survive in the hútòng outside (Guozijian Jie) and the entire area of hútòng now swarms with small cafes, cutesy restaurants and boutique shops, making it an ideal place to browse in low gear. At the western end of Guozijian Jie stands a diminutive Fire God Temple , built in 1802 and now occupied by Běijīng residents. Only the first hall – the Mountain Gate (Shān Mén) – remains recognisable and the remaining temple halls have been greatly adapted.
Next to the Confucius Temple, but within the same grounds, stands the Imperial College, where the emperor expounded the Confucian classics to an audience of thousands of kneeling students, professors and court officials – an annual rite. Built by the grandson of Kublai Khan in 1306, the former college was the supreme academy during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. On the site is a marvellous, glazed, three-gate, single-eaved decorative archway called a liúli páifāng (glazed archway). The Biyong Hall beyond is a twin-roofed structure with yellow tiles surrounded by a moat and topped with a gold knob, its stupendous interior housing a vermillion and gold lectern.