Confucius Temple

sights / Religious

Lonely Planet review

China’s largest imperial building complex after the Forbidden City began as Confucius’ three-room house. After his death in 478 BC, the Duke of the Lu state consecrated his simple house as a temple. Everything in it, including his clothing, books, musical instruments and a carriage, was perfectly preserved. The house was rebuilt for the first time in AD 153, kicking off a series of repairs, expansions and renovations in subsequent centuries. By 1012, it had four courtyards and over 300 rooms. An imperial palace-style wall was added. After a fire in 1499, it was rebuilt to its present scale.

Like shrines to Confucius throughout Asia, this is more museum than altar. Over 1000 stelae documenting imperial gifts and sacrifices from the Han dynasty onwards as well as treasured examples of calligraphy and stone reliefs are preserved on the grounds. Look for a bìxì, mythical tortoise, bearing the Chéng Huà stele (成化碑), dedicated by the Ming emperor in 1468, which praises Confucius in a particularly bold, formal hand. The characters are so perfect that copies were made to teach script. The Shèngjì temple (圣迹殿) houses 120 famed Tang-dynasty paintings depicting Confucius’ life immortalised as carvings.

The temple has nine courtyards arranged on a central axis. Halfway along rises the triple-eaved Great Pavilion of the Constellation of Scholars (奎文阁; Kuíwén Gé), an imposing Song-dynasty wooden structure. A series of gates and colossal, twin-eaved stele pavilions lead to the Apricot Altar (杏坛; Xìng Tán), which marks the spot where Confucius taught his students under an apricot tree.

The core of the complex is the huge yellow-eaved Dàchéng Hall (大成殿; Dàchéng Diàn), which in its present form dates from 1724. Craftspeople carved the 10 dragon-coiled columns so expertly that they were covered with red silk when Emperor Qianlong visited, lest he feel that the Forbidden City’s Hall of Supreme Harmony paled in comparison. Inside is a huge statue of Confucius resplendent on a throne. Above him are the characters for ‘wànshì shībiǎo’, meaning ‘model teacher for all ages’.

South of Chóngshèng Hall (崇圣祠; Chóngshèng Cí), which was once the site of the original, modest family temple, the Lǔ Wall (鲁壁; Lǔ Bì) stands where Confucius’ ninth descendant hid Confucius’ writings in the walls of his house during Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s book-burning campaign around 213 BC. The texts were uncovered during an attempt to raze the grounds in 154 BC, spurring new schools of Confucian scholarship and long debates over what Confucius really said.