Lijiao: The Return of Ceremonies Honouring Confucius in Mainland China

By Billioud, Sébastien; Thoraval, Joël | China Perspectives, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Lijiao: The Return of Ceremonies Honouring Confucius in Mainland China


Billioud, Sébastien, Thoraval, Joël, China Perspectives


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

Since the start of the new century it is possible to observe in Mainland China a growing interest in the remnants of Confucian tradition. Whereas such an interest was previously confined within the academy, now it is in society that forms of Confucianism (with their sideline dreams and reinventions) have become meaningful once more. The most tangible manifestations of this popular phenomenon can be seen throughout a continuum of education, self-cultivation, and religion. However, obvious historical factors (the relationship between Confucianism and so-called "imperial ideology") as well as vague references to Confucianism and "cultural tradition" by the current regime naturally raise the question of the relationship between Confucianism and politics today.

The issue of rites and ceremonies is pivotal for Confucianism. Traditionally, they have been the nexus of what one could describe as the theologico-political dimension of power in China. In that context, what significance should be ascribed to the many ceremonies carried out today to honour tutelary figures of Chinese civilisation? This article explores the particular case of the Confucius ceremonies performed at the end of September each year in the city of Qufu, Shandong Province. In order to put things into perspective, the article first traces back the history of the cult at different periods of time. This is followed by a factual description of the events taking place during the so-called "Confucius festival," which provides insight into the complexity of the issue and the variety of situations encountered. The contrast between the authorities and minjian Confucian revivalists, as well as their necessary interactions, ultimately illustrates the complex use and abuse of Confucius in post-Maoist China. In that respect, the cult of Confucius in Qufu today perpetuates an ancient tension that can be traced back to the imperial era and that is often encountered in the religious realm between the "orthodox" discourse of the authorities on the one hand, and local practices and discourses on the other hand.

Historical background

Understanding the significance of contemporary ceremonies in honour of Confucius requires first delving back into history. The following section provides a brief overview of the history of the cult and of the special circumstances of the city of Qufu across three periods: the Empire; Republican and Maoist China; and the period that commenced with China's reform and opening in the early 1980s.

The cult of Confucius during the Imperial period: A few elements

During the imperial era, the importance of the state cult of Confucius changed considerably from one period to the other, reflected in the range of titles historically ascribed to him.(l)

Among the titles ascribed to Confucius, an emblematic one is the title of Sage (sheng) with all its derivatives: Supreme Sage (zhisheng), Dark Sage (xuansheng), Sage of Culture (wensheng).(2) In the same vein, one also finds the figure of the Master (shi - or first of the Masters - xianshi) with the idea that Confucius is the Master of kings, of "myriads of generations," or "of all that is under Heaven." But at some specific periods of time throughout history, Confucius was also celebrated as King or "King of the propagation of culture" (wenxuan wang), and some specialists of ritual even attempted to bestow upon him the title of Emperor.(3) At the end of the Empire it was common to refer to Confucius as "Supreme Sage and First of the Masters" (zhisheng xianshi). To all these titles, the choice of which had some impact on the liturgy, one could also add that of Ancestor for the members of his lineage who honoured him in Qufu.(4)

It is here neither possible nor in fact necessary to enter into all the debates that historically brought people or the court to favour one title or the other or to combine them. One would merely seek to link these three figures by emphasising that the Way (the Dao) is embodied by the Sage, taught by the Master, and implemented, across the country, by the King (by the Sage King). …

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