The Cult of Confucius
Images of the Temple of Culture
Thomas A. Wilson
History and Asian Studies
Hamilton College

Version of this web page with Chinese characters

"Confucianism" is a tradition that traces its beginnings to an educated elite called shi of late antiquity that advised royal and regional feudal authorities during the Zhou dynasty (1134-250 B.C.) on governing, which emphasized the importance of virtuous rule through benevolence and proper conduct called ritual (li). The most prominent figure of this educated elite was a man named Kong Qiu (551 to 479 B.C.), usually referred to as Master Kong (Kong-fu zi or Kongzi). In the West, Kongzi is called Confucius, a name given him by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century. Kongzi was born in the Watch Tower (Queli) district of Qufu, then the capital of the state of Lu of the Zhou kingdom. Kongzi was the son of Shuliang He, who, according to some sources, was a descendant of a prestigious lessor branch of a ducal lineage of the neighboring state of Song. Kongzi was raised by his mother, Yan Zhengzai after his father died before he was three.

During much of the imperial era of Chinese history, the teachings and ritual practices of Confucianism occupied a privileged status in the education and training of the men who served in the civil bureaucracy. The precise ways in which the government expressed its preference for Confucianism over competing schools, and the extent to which the state actually adhered to Confucian doctrine, waxed and waned significantly during the course of the last two thousand years. Although Confucius enjoyed a certain notoriety during his own lifetime, it was not until the Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) that rulers began to distinguish his teachings from those of other thinkers of the Zhou dynasty by canonizing Confucianism as an officially favored teaching. The canonization of Confucianism was a gradual and complex process that involved several different types of official acts and proclamations that were not always consistently applied. Perhaps the most signal act that effected this canonization was in 136 B.C., when the Han emperor Wu (r. 141-87 B.C.), acting on the advice of Dong Zhongshu (ca. 179-104 B.C.), eliminated all court positions of canonical scholars called Erudites who taught non-Confucian books, in effect establishing Confucianism as the sole teaching of the imperial court. The court's privileging of the "Confucian canon" became a critical part of the establishment of Confucianism as orthodoxy in the Song (960-1279), with the emergence of the civil service examination system as the most important means of appointment to positions in the bureaucracy.

Besides promoting a specific curriculum in the examination halls, the court also articulated its understanding of Confucian orthodoxy in a temple called the Kong temple, or the Temple of Culture. Here the spirits of Kongzi, his disciples, and later canonical exegetes and "transmitters of the Way" were enshrined and received sacrifices from representatives of the emperor. The question of which Confucians of later ages would be enshrined in the temple was controversial because it raised such issues as which commentaries on the Confucian canon were acceptable and, by the Song, who was believed to have received the true transmission of the Dao from Kongzi and Mengzi (Mencius). A basic chronology of enshrinement shows the gradual canonization of the Dao School version of the Confucian tradition, beginning in the 1240s and particularly by Ming times.

The imperial court promoted Confucianism by posthumously ennobling Kongzi, first as duke and later as king. In addition to elevating the figure of Kongzi to ever greater status, emperors also conferred hereditary titles of nobility upon his descendants, initially as marquises, and by Song times as dukes; a position Kongzi's descendants held until the 1940s. Critical to this careful attention to the person of Kongzi as the embodiment of the literati tradition was the state cult, which centered upon offering sacrifices to Kongzi's spirit in the Kong temple.

The sacrifices to the spirit of Kongzi was part of a larger system of cult sacrifices to other gods and spirits. This pantheon was headed by Heaven, to which only the emperor offered sacrifices at an altar in the southern suburbs of the imperial city, followed by Earth, which received sacrifices at an altar in the northern suburbs.

An important event in the canonizing process occurred in 195 B.C., when the founding emperor of the Han dynasty, Han Gaozu (r. 206-195 B.C.), offered a Great Sacrifice to the spirit of Confucius at his tomb in Qufu. As early as 241, sacrfices to the spirits of Kongzi and his most prominent disciple, Yan Hui, were offered in the Imperial University (Biyong). The first state temple devoted to Kongzi was built in the Liu-Song, which ruled over south China from 420 to 479. The Confucius temple in Beijing was first built in 1302, and was periodically repaired and rebuilt during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Beginning in the Tang era, and particularly from Song times on, the state sacrifices to Confucius in the capital became increasingly complex and closely regulated by an official liturgy.

When the founder of the Southern Song dynasty reestablished the capital in Lin'an (modern Hangzhou), an imperial Confucius Temple was constructed. Kongzi's forty-eighth generation descendant, Duke Kong Duanyou, followed the Song emperor, and established the southern Kong lineage. By 1136 the Kongs settled in Quzhou, Quzhou, Zhejiang, where they converted the local school temple into a temple operated by Kongzi's descendants. Later a family temple honoring Kongzi was established at a nearby lake. Around 1279, when the Southern Song fell, this temple was destroyed by fire, and was not rebuilt until 1407. The present day Quzhou Confucius temple was moved to its current location in 1520.

According to most accounts, a temple honoring Kongzi was built in his hometown in 478 B.C. (17th year of Duke Ai of Lu), a year after his death. The sources suggest that, since the early years of this temple, the spirits of Kongzi and his disciples were represented with wall paintings and clay or wooden statues. After years of court debate, it was decided in 1530 that these spirits would not be represented by an iconic image of his likeness in the imperial temples in the capital and other bureaucratic locations. Opponents of iconic representations of Kongzi argued that such statues copied Buddhist practices of temple worship and also tended to confuse ritual ideas in ancestral sacrifice. They argued that imperial temples were constructed to honor Kongzi's teachings, not just the spirit of the flesh-and-blood man. The statues of Kongzi were removed from official temples, but they remained in the temples operated by Kongzi's family descendants, such as this statue of Kongzi in the Main Hall of Great Completion of the Confucius Temple in Qufu.

Evidence suggests that as early as the eleventh century, Confucius temples had rooms to pay sacrifices to Confucius' father Shuliang He, and in 1048, a hall was built for this purpose. During the Yuan and Ming dynasties, ritualists explored the connection between the family cult of Confucius' descendants and the state cult of Confucius. When Shuliang He was posthumously honored as Duke who Gave Birth to the Sage, shrines called the Shrine for the Duke who Gave Birth to the Sage (Qisheng ci) were constructed to honor Confucius' father. The shrine in Qufu pictured here, was located immediately west of the Hall of Great Completion in 1729. The Qufu shrine has fallen into disrepair and is currently undergoing renovation; pictured here is the spirit statue of Shuliang He.
Bibliography of sources on Confucius, his cult, and the intellectual traditions that trace their origins to him

Appendix A. "Confucianism"
The word "Confucianism" is a sixteenth-century Jesuit conceit that purports to be a translation of a Chinese term. The most common Chinese term for what Westerners call Confucianism, however, is more felicitously rendered the "School of the Learned" (Ru jia). This educated Ru group may have emerged within lower echelons of the aristocracy as early as the Shang (1766-1027 B.C.), but it was apparently not understood as a distinctive school of thought until relatively late. The three most prominent figures of the early "School of the Learned" -- viz., Confucius (Kongzi), Mencius (Mengzi), and Xunzi -- did not use it to name their tradition. They tended to speak, instead, of the "Way of the Gentleman," not so much as a name for a philosophical tradition than as a paragon of one who embodied virute in his conduct. In one of the earliest histories of ancient Chinese philosophy, Sima Tan (d. 110 B.C.) names the "School of the Learned" (or Ru jia) among other competing philosophical schools in order to demonstrate that only the School of the Way and Potency (usually referred to as Daoism) can encompass the strengths of all schools. The division of the philosophical masters and their followers of the late Zhou into discrete schools gained greater currency in the Han when Sima Tan's essay appeared in the Historical Records, begun under his editorship and completed by his son, Sima Qian. Even in Liu Xiang's (77-6 B.C.) more "Confucian" essay summarizing seven schools of the late Zhou, one is struck by a concern that Kongzi's followers had splintered rather than unified this school. Liu distinguishes among 103 schools of Kongzi's followers, divided according to different exegetical traditions of the Confucian canon. Two other terms to refer to this school were coined in Sima Qian's Historical Records: the "forest of the learned" (ru lin), which became the standard term in most subsequent dynastic histories, and Ru Learning, which, along with Ru jia, is commonly used today to refer to Confucianism.

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Appendix B. Posthumous noble titles conferred upon Kongzi

  • 478 BCE (Jingwang 42): Duke Ai of Lu posthumously confers title of Venerable Ni

  • 1 CE (Western Han dynasty: Emperor Ping, 1st year/6th month/10th day of the Yuanshi era): Exalted Ni Duke of Consummate Perfection (Baocheng xuan Ni gong; Ni is a reference to Mt. Ni, southeast of Qufu, where Kongzi's mother prayed for a child before he was born.)

  • 492 (Latter Wei: Emperor Xiaowen, Taihe 16/2/21): Sage of Culture Venerable Ni (Wensheng Nifu)

  • 580 (Latter Zhou: Emperor Jing, Daxiang 2/3/1): Duke of the state of Zou (Zouguo gong)

  • 608 (Sui: Emperor Yang, forth year of the Daye era): First Teacher Venerable Ni (Xianshi Nifu)

  • 628 (Tang: Emperor Taizong, Zhenguan 2/12): First Sage (Xiansheng)

  • 637 (Tang: Emperor Taizong, Zhenguan 11): Exalted and Venerable (Xuanfu)

  • 657 (Tang Emperor Gaozong, Xianqing 2): restored to First Sage (Xiansheng)

  • 739 (Tang: Emperor Xuanzong, Kaiyuan 27/8/23): Exalted King of Culture (Wenxuan wang)

  • 1008 (Song: Emperor Zhenzong, Dazhong xiangfu 1/10/1): Dark Sage and Exalted King of Culture (Xuansheng wenxuan wang)

  • 1013 (Song: Emperor Zhenzong, Dazhong xiangfu 5/12/29): Ultimate Sage and Exalted King of Culture (Zhisheng wenxuan wang)

  • 1307 (Yuan: Emperor Wu, Dade 11/7/18): Great Completer, Ultimate Sage and Exalted King of Culture (Dacheng zhisheng wenxuan wang)

  • 1370 (Ming: Hongwu 3/6/6): noble titles for all gods and spirits of the imperial pantheon eliminated (e.g., 5 sacred peaks, the 4 seas); only Kongzi's (and other figures enshrined in the Kong temple) title is retained.

  • 1530 (Jiajing emperor 9): Ultimate Sage, First Teacher Master Kong (Zhisheng xianshi Kongzi)

  • 1645 (Qing: Shunzhi emperor, 2/1/23): Great Completer, Ultimate Sage, Exalted First Teacher of Culture (Dacheng zhisheng xianshi Kongzi)

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    Appendix C. Chronology of Sacrifices to Kongzi and others in the Kongzi Temple

  • 169/170 CE (Lingdi jianning 2/3): beginning of regular spring and autumn sacrifices to Kongzi in Qufu (based on liturgy of gods of soils and grains)

  • 271 (Jin dynasty, Emperor Wu, Taishi 7): the imperial heir apparent personally offers sacrifices to Kongzi in the National University

  • 445 (Liu-Song dynasty, Emperor Wen yuanjia 22): sacrifices use six rows of dancers, three racks of hanging instruments, and the offerings and vessels used appropriate for an upper lord

  • 454 (Xiaowudi xiaojian 1/10/15): First temple built outside of Lu, four years after the loss of Lu to Northern Wei

  • 489 CE (Northern Wei dynasty, Emperor Xiaowen taihe 13/7/25): a Kongzi temple constructed in capital, first temple outside of Qufu built in the north

  • 630 (Tang dynasty, Taizong zhen�guan 4): temples established in prefectural and county state schools

  • Kongzi received the main offering as sage in the temple of the Tang era and Yan Hui received offerings as correlate. For a short time in the seventh century the Duke of Zhou was placed in the primary position facing south as sage. In 657 the Duke of Zhou was removed and enshrined in the temple for kings of the Zhou dynasty. Also ten of Kongzi's disciples were enshrined as savants for their surpassing virtue in conduct, speech, governance, culture and learning (see Analects 11.3).

  • 647: enshrinement of twenty-two canonical commentators and exegetes from the Zhou to the Han

  • 720: seventy of Kongzi's disciples formally enshrined

  • 739 (kaiyuan 27/8/23): Kongzi elevated to Exalted King of Culture (previously known as Exalted Ni Duke of Consummate Perfection) and his image seated facing south in temples in the two Directorates of Education

  • 1084: Mengzi (Mencius) enshrined as a correlate with Yan Hui; Xunzi (Hsun-tzu), Yang Xiong, and Han Yu enshrined as scholars

  • 1104: Wang Anshi enshrined as correlate after Mengzi (later demoted to scholar in 1126 and removed entirely in 1241)

  • 1241: five Dao School (Daoxue) masters (Zhou Dunyi, Zhang Zai, the Cheng brothers, Zhu Xi) enshrined

  • 1267: Zeng Can (reputed author of the Great Learning) and Kong Ji (reputed author of the Doctrine of the Mean) were promoted to correlates marking the court's recognition of the canonical status of the Four Books; enshrinement of Shao Yong, Sima Guang, and Lu Zuqian

  • 1369 (Ming dynasty, Hongwu 2/): sacrifices in schools suspended, they continue in Qufu

  • 1372 (Hongwu 5): Sacrifices to Mengzi were suspended but are resumed the following year

  • 1382 (Hongwu 15): resumption of sacrifices to Kongzi in the Imperial University

  • 1477 (Chenghua 13/2/8): the number of sacrificial vessels increased from ten to twelve and rows of dancers from six to eight, effectively promoting Kongzi to status of emperor.

  • 1496 (Hongzhi 9/2): the number of dancers was increased to 72 as with the regulations for the son of Heaven

  • 1530: enshrinement of five Song Confucians (including Ouyang Xiu and Lu Xiangshan); removal of thirteen scholars and canonical exegetes; demotion of seven others to local temples; elimination of earlier ranking system based on posthumous titles (king, duke, marquis, earl) and exclusive use of a hierarchy that divided the men enshrined into sage, correlate, savant (housed in the main temple hall) and worthy and scholar (housed in the eastern and western cloisters)

  • 1531 (Jiajing 10): The Shrine for the Duke of Giving Birth to the Sage (Kongzi's father)

  • 1642: six Dao School masters (Zhou Dunyi, the Cheng brothers, Zhang Zai, Shao Yong, and Zhu Xi) elevated to status of worthy

  • 1712: Zhu Xi elevated to correlate

  • 1724: restoration of several scholars removed in 1530

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    Appendix D. Versions of the Confucian Canon
    Imperial Edition (653)
    Correct Meaning of the Five Classics (Wujing zhengyi)
    Ed. Kong Yingda, et al.
  • Mao Odes, Mao Heng (3rd c. B.C.) edition
  • Record of Rites, Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition
  • Book of Documents , Kong Anguo (156-174?) edition
  • Zhou Changes, Wang Bi (226-249) edition
  • Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, Du Yu (222-284) edition
    Nine Classics (Jiujing)
  • Mao Odes (Mao shi), Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition
  • Record of Rites (Li ji), Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition
  • Rites of Zhou (Zhou li), Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition
  • Ceremonial Rites (Yi li), Zheng Xuan (127-200) edition
  • Ancient Text Book of Documents (Guwen shangshu), Kong Anguo (156-174?) edition
  • Zhou Changes (Zhou yi), Wang Bi (226-249) edition
  • Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Zuozhuan), Du Yu (222-284) edition
  • Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Gongyang zhuan), He Xiu (129-182) edition
  • Guliang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Guliang zhuan), Fan Ning (339-401) edition
    The Four Books and Five Classics
  • Analects (Lunyu zhangju jizhu), Zhu Xi (1130-1200) edition
  • Mencius (Mengzi zhangju jizhu), Zhu Xi edition
  • Great Learning (Daxue zhangju jizhu), Zhu Xi edition
  • Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong zhangju jizhu), Zhu Xi edition
  • Basic Meaning of the Zhou Changes (Zhouyi benyi), Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi edition
  • Collected Commentaries on the Book of Documents (Shujing jizhuan), Cai Shen (1167-1230) edition
  • Collected Commentaries on the Odes (Shijing jizhuan), Zhu Xi edition
  • Collected Explanations on the Record of Rites (Liji jishuo), Chen Hao (fl. Yuan dynasty) edition
  • Three Commentaries on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu sanzhuan), Hu Anguo (1074-1138) edition
    Imperial Edition (1415)
    Great Collection of the Four Books and Five Classics
    (Wujing sishu daquan)
    Ed. Hu Guang, et al.
  • Four Books: Ni Shiyi edition
  • Change: Dong Zhenqing, Zhouyi huitong; Hu Yigui, Zhouyi benyi; Hu Bingwen Zhouyi benyi tongshi
  • Odes: Zhu Xi, Shijing jizhuan
  • Documents: Chen Li, Shangshu jizuan; Chen Shikai, Shu Caizhuan pangtong
  • Rites: Chen Hao, Liji jishuo
  • Spring and Autumn Annals: Wang Kekuan, Chunqiu zuanshu; Li Lian, Chunqiu zhuzhuan huitong
    Commentaries on the Thirteen Classics (1797)
    Shisan jing zhushu
    Ed. Ruan Yuan
  • Zhou Changes (Zhouyi), Wang Bi (226-249) ed.
  • Book of Documents (Shangshu zhengyi), Kong Yingda (574-648) ed.
  • Mao Odes (Maoshi zhengyi), Kong Yingda) ed.
  • Record of Rites (Liji zhengyi), Kong Yingda ed.
  • Rites of Zhou (Zhouli), Jia Gongyan (fl. 655) ed.
  • Ceremonial Rites (Yili), Jia Gongyan (fl. 655) ed.
  • Gongyang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Gongyang Zuozhuan), He Xiu (129-182) ed.
  • Guliang Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Guliang Zuozhuan), Fan Ning (339-401) ed.
  • Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Zuozhuan), Du Yu (222-284) ed.
  • Analects (Lunyu zhushu jiejing), He Yan (d. 249) ed.
  • Filial Piety (Xiaojing zhengyi), Xing Bing (932-1010) ed.
  • Erya (Erya shu), Xing Bing ed.
  • Mencius (Mengzi zhushu jiejing), Sun Shi (962-1033) ed.

    back to beginning of "The Confucian Canon"

    Other websites on Confucianism and Chinese religions and philosophy

    Links to web sources on Asian Philosophy and Religions maintained by the Institute of Chinese Studies, University of Heidelberg

    Benjamin Elman's Classical Chinese Historiography for Chinese History: a bibliography of sources on pre-twentieth century Chinese history

    Joseph Adler's links for Chinese religions and philosophy

    Wesleyan Neo-Confucian Etext Project: Chinese character versions of the Four Books and major writings by Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming, and Liang Qichao

    Links to complete e-text versions of the Thirteen Classics and Twenty-five Dynastic Histories in Chinese called Scripta Sinica maintained by Academia Sinca, Taiwan. Chinese language software required

    Links to complete Chinese-language (traditional characters) e-text versions of the Thirteen Classics; pre-Qin philosophical writings; Huang Zongxi's anthologies of Song, Yuan, and Ming Confucianism (Song-Yuan xue'an, Ming ru xue'an); Tang poetry; Categorized Writings of Zhu Xi; comprehensive mirrors of Chinese history (Zizhi tongjian and Xu zizhi tongjian); Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber; Twenty-five Dynastic Histories National Palace Museum in Taiwan

    Steven A. Brown's Chinese Philosophy Page

    Stephen Angle's Chinese Philosophical Etext Archive

    Bryan W. Van Norden's Essential Readings on Chinese Philosophy

    and also Bryan W. Van Norden's selected list of Chinese philosophy-related links

    Bibliography on Confucius and Confucianism

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