To Chinese of ages past, there was no place in all of the Middle Kingdom more revered than Qufu (pronounced Chu-fu), permeated as it was said to be by the spirit of China's greatest philosopher. Confucious, born in 551 B.C., attracted increasing numbers of disciples to Qufu, a settlement on the Shandong plain in eastern China. A year after his death, in 479 B.C., the sage's simple cottage in that small town was converted into a temple in his honor.
The temple complex continued to grow until, by modern times, it encompassed 49 acres in the heart of Qufu. Today, that preserve of architectural treasures, in addition to the ancient Kong family mansion (home to the philosopher's descendants until the Communist takeover during the 1940s), constitutes one of the most important tourist sites in all of China.
Though rarely visited by foreigners, Qufu draws throngs of Chinese to its splendors. A lively street scene, punctuated by the presence of food vendors, trinket sellers and cafés blaring karaoke music, gives way to the serenity of the temple precinct. Here, Chinese visitors crowd before a restored statue of the sage, many of them burning incense as a sign of respect, a sight unimaginable just a few years ago.
And just north of the temple lies another vestige of a China lost in time. In an extraordinary walled forest known as the Kong Lin is the grave of Confucious: the Kongs have been buried in this place since the fifth century B.C. Rising from thickets are countless stelae and monumental statues marking the location of 200,000 burials over 25 centuries. In contrast to this imperial pomp, the sage's own tomb is a mound of earth inside a simple brick wall. It is a fitting memorial for a simple man, splendid in its understatement.