Like shrines to Confucius throughout China and Asia, this is more museum than altar. The heart of the complex is the huge yellow-eaved Dacheng 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 萬世師表 (wànshì shībiǎo), meaning ‘model teacher for all ages’.
The temple has nine courtyards arranged on a central axis. China’s largest imperial building complex after the Forbidden City began as Confucius’ three-room house, but after his death in 478 BC the Duke of the Lu (鲁, Lǔ) state consecrated his simple abode 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 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.
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 bearing the Cheng Hua stele (成化碑, Chénghuà bēi), dedicated by the Ming emperor in 1468, which praises Confucius in a particularly bold, formal hand. The characters are so perfect that copies were used to teach penmanship. The Shengji Hall (圣迹殿, Shèngjī Diàn) houses 120 famed Tang-dynasty paintings depicting Confucius’ life immortalised as carvings.
Halfway through the complex 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.
South of Chongsheng Hall (崇圣祠, Chóngshèng Cí), which was once the site of the original family temple, the Lu Wall (鲁壁, Lǔ Bì) stands where Confucius’ ninth-generation 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.