Shantung, China’s Holy Land

By: C. W. Bishop

Originally Published in 1921

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Not chance alone has brought Shantung, instead of some other of China’s Eighteen Provinces, to the fore at the late Peace Conference. Since prehistoric times the region has been a pivotal one, exerting decisive influence upon the cultural development and the political destiny of all northern China. There, thanks no doubt to its fertility and its temperate and stimulating climate,.the ancient Chinese civilization attained its highest development about the time of the wars between Persia and Greece. There, again, arose, in the fourteenth century of our era, the patriotic upheaval which ended in the expulsion of the powerful Mongol dynasty of Kubilai Khan, Marco Polo’s illustrious patron. There, also, began the Boxer movement of twenty years ago—that ill judged, unfortunate, but wholly patriotic and self sacrificing effort on the part of the unschooled masses to save their country from foreign domination. Of the present day importance of Shantung in connection with the future of the Far East it is unnecessary to speak; the recent negotiations regarding its disposition at Versailles are still too fresh in our memories.

Path and gateway to the Tomb of Confucius
Avenue and Memorial Gateway. The Approach to the Tomb of Confucius.

It has not been, however, its cultural and political significance that has rendered the province in a very special sense the Holy Land of so great a part of the human family. It is the presence within its borders of two sites dearer by far to the Chinese people than any others within the confines of the Republic. These are the sacred peak of T’ai Shan, holiest of mountains; and, some forty miles to the southward, the birthplace and the tomb of Confucius.

The railway journey from Peking southward carries one at first across the northeastern extremity of the great North China plain, that gift of the Yellow River, as is Egypt that of the Nile. As far as we can see stretch away the level fields, their monotony only broken, now and again, by the tree girt mud villages of the peasantry and by clusters of grave mounds, resembling haycocks, where the dead in a very real sense elbow the living. Along the line stations are frequent, and at every one, as the train passes, is the same crowd of soldiers, food vendors, passengers, coolies, carters, loafers, beggars, and, significant sign of the times, newsboys; all talking at once, bawling, shouting, screaming, gesticulating, pushing; but all good naturedly and with very few outbreaks of ill temper. Not the least of Confucius’ many great achievements was the teaching of his people good manners. His precepts, spreading abroad among high and low during two thousand years, have established an ideal of poise and -urbanity and good humoured give and take that has probably never been excelled. This ideal, naturally, is by no means always lived up to; but it is always present, and I have never yet, in travels in twelve out of the Eighteen Provinces, found an appeal to it, whether direct of indirect, fail of a ready response. This, I think, is the real reason why, as one so often hears said in the Far East, the better you get to know the Chinese people, the more you learn to like them.

Presently, as the train rushes on southward, occasionally crossing wide sandy riverbeds that in flood time become raging torrents, we see from the car window the faint blue of mountain masses rising like islands out of the level plain exactly as they did not very long ago, geologically speaking, out of a shallow sea. Steadily their features become more and more distinct as we approach. But not even the golden sunlit haze of autumn can soften their gaunt and craggy outlines. Not a tree breaks the sweep of their slopes. Everywhere naked rock crops out, and all about their bases the gulches seaming their rugged sides have spilled out upon the fertile lowlands fans of detritus —sand, gravel, and even huge boulders.

Tomb of Confucius
The Tomb of Confucius.

No such abomination of desolation presented itself to the view of the men of Confucius’ day as they gazed upon these mountains. Then they were clad from crown to foot in magnificent sweeping robes of green—chestnut and cedar and fir, and elm and walnut and birch. Forests of oak and of pine are especially mentioned, in the fragmentary records of those days that have come down to us. Even on the plain, widely cultivated though it already was even twenty-four hundred years ago, large areas were still covered with virgin forests, through which meandered deep, placid, well shaded streams, dependable the year around. The Book of Odes, among the earliest of surviving Chinese literary remains, is filled with references to the songs of the woodmen, the felling of trees, and the use of timber for building and for fuel. Numbers of such names as Peh Lin, “North Wood,” and Ta Lin, “Great Wood,” attached to places where nowadays woods there are none, tell the same story.

The onslaught upon China’s forests commenced with the overthrow of the feudal system, two hundred years before our era. The old nobility, full of zest for out door sports of all sorts, loved the woods and protected them for the sake of the game they sheltered—tiger and leopard and bear and wapiti and wild boar. The wretched serf caught stealing firewood was apt to meet with short shrift, and the felling of timber without leave was savagely punished. The overthrow of the old social system by the all conquering “Ts’in Shih Huang-ti—he of the Great Wall—threw open these areas to the peasantry. The new bureaucratic government encouraged the opening up of land, for the sake of the additional taxes it brought into the Imperial treasury, and because the woods formed lurking places for bandits and rebels. The people wished to add to their holdings of arable land, to secure fuel and building materials, and to destroy the lairs of the wild beasts that had so long taken toll, unchecked, of their herds and their crops. So the process went on, until now the hills are practically stripped over a great part of the country, and enormous areas of fertile lowland, buried deep under layers of sand and gravel swept down from the denuded heights, are absolutely ruined. Scientific foresters tell us that at the very least fifty years will be required for the reforesting of merely the more important watersheds. Nowhere in the world, probably, is there a more striking example of the disastrous effects that follow man’s uncontrolled interference with the delicate balance of Nature.

We leave our train at the small provincial town of T’ai-an Fu, the regular starting point for the ascent of the sacred mountain. But before beginning our climb it will be of interest to gather what we may of the story of the mountain and its meaning to the Chinese people.

The Temple of Confucius at Ch’u fu.

In the time of Confucius T’ai Shan belonged to the State of Ts’i, one of the larger of the practically independent feudal territories into which China was then divided, and the one which acted as buffer against the marauding barbarians then dwelling to the north and east. Strong, progressive, and well organized, Ts’i was feared and respected by all, Chinese and barbarian alike. We catch a reflection of the spirit in which it was goverend in a delightful bit of folklore that has come down to us from those distant days. The marquis of the neighboring state of Wei, says the legend, once bragged to the ruler of Ts’i of a wonderful carbuncle that he had, an inch in diameter, fastened to his state chariot and casting its beams far and wide. “My jewels,” replied the lord of Ts’i to the boaster, “consist of four loyal officials who form the main bulwarks of my power, and whose integrity and ability shed their light throughout my entire state.” Whereupon, we are told, the marquis of Wei hung his head in shame.

The cult of the holy mountain belongs to Taoism, that one of the three great religions of China which has been called the real creed of the common people. The teachings of Confucius represent the ideals of character and conduct prevailing in his day and long before, among that ancestor worshipping feudal aristocracy of which the sage was himself a member. The origins of Taoism, on the other hand, are to be sought in the animistic beliefs and magico religious practices of the despised common people—their inheritance from the dim and barbarous prehistoric past. The teachings of the Taoist philosophy never lost the traces of their lowly origin. What their democratizing tendencies and their contempt for petty human distinctions really voiced was the popular feeling against the tyranny, the extravagance, and the bloodshed of the haughty and magnificent aristocracy.

For centuries Taoism, confined to the ignorant and voiceless masses, made but little headway. But when the mighty Ts’in Shih Huang-ti, one of the world’s very few original really geniuses, destroyed the feudal system and built upon its ruins a true centralized empire, he encouraged the ancient folk beliefs as an additional means of combatting the pretensions of the aristocrats and their adherents. Then it was that Taoism began to assume something of its later shape, with the incorporation of numerous new elements, some undoubtedly of western origin. Among the latter were beliefs such as those in the transmutation of the baser metals into gold, and in the existence of an elixir of life—ideas almost precisely similar to those held by our own medival alchemists, and unquestionably derived from some common source.

Stone monument
The Wordless Stone in thee Temple Grounds at T’ai-an-Fu.

The connection of T’ai Shan with the faiths of the people goes far back of this period, however. In the ancient Chinese view, the attributes of the mountain seem to have fallen into two general classes. For one thing, its mere weight and mass, it was thought, must without doubt tend to insure the stability and security of the surrounding country and its immunity from such terrestrial catastrophes as floods and earthquakes. Again, it was looked upon as augmenting the fertility of the fields and the yield of harvests through its character of a “cloud compeller” or gatherer of moisture giving vapors. In harmony with the general practice of primitive times, the mountain was first regarded as itself alive. It was only later that it began to be looked upon as merely the dwelling place of a tutelary spirit.

Like other folk cults, that of the ancient Chinese masses was devoid of any ethical features, at least in the later and more developed sense. This element, with its accompanying notion of future rewards and punishments, was originally quite unknown to the worship of the sacred mountain, and came to be added to it much later, during the great Tang dynasty (A. D. 618-906), as a borrowing from Buddhism. It is exactly this feature, however, which has in time rendered the god of T’ai Shan one of the most widely worshipped in China. In his character of the Judge of Hades, casting up on his abacus the debits and credits of departed souls, he has come to hold an exceedingly firm place in the popular imagination. Temples dedicated to him occur in every town of consequence in China. In spite of this great vogue of his, however, he is not permitted a monopoly of the sacred mountain. There is also a Goddess of T’ai Shan, the Princess of Colored Clouds (corresponding to the “rosy fingered Dawn ” of the Greeks), who enjoys among the women of North China, the same popularity possessed in regions further south and west by the Buddhist divinity, Kwan-yin.

One of the striking things about the religion of China of feudal days is the entire absence of female divinities. The old aristccratic and patriarchal regime rigidly refused all equality of consideration to the fair sex in either the physical or the spiritual world. Yet modern China has a large quota of goddesses, many of them rivalling in popularity their masculine coadjutors. It seems probable that this change of attitude was due, in its beginnings at least, to the influence of the old aboriginal population of the Chinese coast lands. The Japanese, closely akin to these in many respects, have always had female divinities, the Imperial family itself, as is well known, tracing its descent not from a Sun God but from a Sun Goddess. And the various goddesses now included in the Chinese pantheon seem practically all to have originated in regions along the coast, which remained in aboriginal hands till well within the historical period. Thus the worship of Kwan-yin, the Goddess of Mercy, finds its focus in the islands near the mouth of the Yangtse, in a district still reckoned as barbarian in the time of Confucius, and its germ is almost certainly traceable to an aboriginal sea goddess cult taken over by the syncretizing Buddhist missionaries. Again, the belief in Ma-tse, the patroness of sailors, is especially characteristic of the coastal province of Fukien, which became Chinese only in the sixth century of our era, and is still imperfectly assimilated.

Gate with a long, steep stairway leading up to it
The Southerly Heavenly Gate. Entrance to the Summit of T’ai Shan.

T’ai-an Fu, with its pleasant suburbs, its temple courts shaded with noble trees, and its wall dating from the time of the Ming emperors, the master builders of China, is a not unfavorable specimen of the Chinese provincial town. Its whole atmosphere is one of peace, calm, and the dignity that comes of agelong existence. Perhaps this is due, in part at least, to the way in which it is so wholly dominated both physically and spiritually by the great mountain mass, towering nearly five thousand feet above it only a few miles to the northward.

It is quite possible to accomplish the ascent and return to the city in one day. To do so, however, is to miss much. Better far is it to go as the pilgrims go, tramping leisurely along, with many a pause to rest and to admire the beauty all about—beauty of mountain and cloud and plain, with the warm, mellow sunlight over all.

Our preparations for the ascent made the night before—coolies and mountain chairs engaged, and needed wraps and eatables got ready—we start out in the clear, cool, stimulating morning by paying a visit to the T’ai Miao, the fine old temple occupying the whole northwestern quarter of the town, on a site where has stood a sacred edifice of one sort or another throughout the past two thousand years. Almost deserted except during the pilgrim season, its shaded courts are charmingly restful and still. Within its areas are numerous large inscribed stelae of great historical interest. One monument, which bears no inscription and which in consequence is known as the “Wordless Stone,” is said by popular tradition to have been erected by the great Ts’in Shih Huang-ti himself. In reality, however, it is undoubtedly of Buddhistic origin and probably not older than the sixth or seventh century of our era. Of the type known as a ch’uang, it consists of several decorated stone drums superimposed one upon another, the largest not far from thirty feet in circumference. The ornaments chiselled upon its surfaces appear to represent lotus leaves and clouds, and some of the detail is really wonderfully fine.

The mountain chairs in which the ascent is usually undertaken are carried by Muhammadan bearers, a sturdy lot, apt to be refractory and take advantage when possible, but on the other hand straightforward, friendly, and quick to see a joke, even when against themselves. Tradition states that the Muhammadans of China are descended from an army of Arab auxiliaries who settled in the country during the T’ang dynasty and took to themselves native Chinese wives. Be this as it may, the adherents of the Prophet in China are in form, feature, and dress practically indistinguishable from their Confucian and Buddhist and Taoist fellow countrymen. Very rarely do red cheeks, a more European cast of countenance, and the absence of the so called “Mongoloid fold” of the eyelid—that feature which, to Occidentals, gives the impression that the eyes themselves slant—suggest that we have here a race which is even in part non-Chinese in origin. Even the mosques are scarcely to be distinguished from temples, save by the absence of images and the presence of an occasional Arabic inscription. The refusal to eat pork, of which the Chinese in general are so fond, is one of the few things in which the Muhammadans differ radically from their fellow countrymen. In the maintenance of this particular taboo they are very strict indeed; I have had coolies in my employ, when asking for empty provision tins which I was about to throw away, carefully inquire whether they had been used to contain swine’s flesh.

Tall rectangular stone monument
Monument on the Summit of T’ai Shan Erected about 100 B.C.

Over the lowlands it is well to ride as much as possible in our chairs; there will be walking enough farther on. From the city wall the path rises gently toward the base of the mountain which towers ahead of us to the north, its peaks carved by the rains and frosts of ages into many a fantastic buttress and pinnacle and turret. Far away to the left the chair men point out, on an isolated spur, the ruins of a wall, one of those places of refuge so common in the hilly districts of China and so mutely eloquent of the terrible insecurity of life among the poor country people during periods of disturbance. This particular fortalice, so the men tell us, was built and held by a band of heroic maidens in some sad time of invasion or rebellion; but when it all occurred they are unable to say.

Now and again we pass through p’ai-lous, those memorial gateways set up by a grateful people in honor of some exceptionally rare and admirable character, such as an honest mandarin, or a widow who has signalized her respect for the marriage bond by refusing ever to wed a second husband. In the ancient feudal days, some hundreds of years before our era, it was customary for rulers to bestow upon worthy subjects insignia of honor, and these were displayed at the gateways of the native towns and villages of the recipients. In time special gateways came to be erected for the purpose; and finally the gateway itself became the commemorative sign, as it remains to this day.

The road approaches the mountain along the nearly dry bed of a torrent, which has brought down vast quantities of boulders and pebbles to spread out over the fertile ground below. Stone walls surround the fields, a rather rare feature in North China, where so much of the soil is pure alluvium, unmixed with stones or gravel. Waterworn stones, too, embedded in mud, form the material for the huts of the country people; many of these are roofless and deserted, with only the gable ends standing—counterparts of the “bishops’ mitres” of war harried mediaeval Europe.

Soon after the actual ascent begins we turn off to the left for a moment to visit a small temple in which is kept the mummy of a Taoist hermit who left this mundane world in 1703, at the age of nearly one hundred As we mount higher and higher the air becomes cooler, more bracing, and more inspiring. The road along its level stretches is shaded by avenues of fine cypress trees (Thuva orientalis), which only the aegis of the holy mountain has saved from going long ago for fuel or coffin boards or lumber. Slopes are ascended not by ramps but by flights of stone steps, neatly hewn and put in place; our men tell us that these number seven thousand, which is doubtless not very far from the truth, since the crest of the mountain rises between four and five thousand feet above the town. In a few of the places are seen very ancient and much worn steps, cut in the living rock. These, says tradition, are as old as the days of Confucius; and tradition may well be right, for we know that pilgrimages to this mountain have been going on from prehistoric times, and some sort of path must very early have been constructed. The modern pilgrims’ way, paved with stone slabs and provided in many places, particularly where it skirts the brink of the torrent, with a tasteful stone balustrade, is only a little over a century old. In winter it is said to be very dangerous from the sheets of ice which form upon the flights of steps.

Stone well with roof
The Well of Confucius Ch’u fu, Shantung.

As we advance the animal life becomes noticeable. The bird life is rich and varied, lizards dart over the rocks, and butterflies flutter gaily about the wild flowers, among which a delicately beautiful mountain pink is not uncommon. Inscribed tablets, some of really tremendous size, and many very old, meet us at every turn, the vertical lines of the writing in closest keeping with the sheer perpendicularity of the cliffs on which they are cut. The effect is as different as possible from anything that could be produced by similarly placed signs in our alphabetical lettering with its cold and formal angularity and its horizontal lines. There is something strangely personal, vital, almost esoteric, in the Chinese ideograph. Bound by no rigid convention, the writer is able to put into his brush strokes the same intimate and individual quality of self expression which with us is the peculiar province of the painter alone. Hence in all these innumerable inscriptions about us there is nothing inhar-monius—nothing to desecrate the natural beauty of the landscape. The sentiments which they express help us, too, to realize that the gorge through which we are passing and the soaring heights ahead have been accounted by generations of men as holy ground.

At one point in the ascent, where we pause to rest, Chinese historians tell us that the emperor Ts’in Shih Huang-ti was once overtaken by a heavy shower and found refuge under a mighty pine, which in gratitude he ennobled with the title of Wu-ta-fu, or ” Grand Official of the Fifth Degree.” Between 3,000 and 4,000 feet above the sea, on a slope across the canyon, is a grove of pines, the last remnants, perhaps, of the forests for which the mountain was anciently noted. The effect is quite parklike, the stately trees standing well apart, with expanses of sunlit grassy sward between. It was hereabout apparently, that Confucius encountered a countrywoman who was mourning the loss of her husband, her husband’s father, and her son, all devoured by tigers, but who refused to move to better settled regions on the ground that the presence of maneating tigers was better than that of unjust rulers. The story is told, of course, to point a moral; but the very fact that tigers are mentioned in this matter of course way paints all the more vividly the picture of the holy mountain as it was in the sage’s day, with its dense forests, its jungles, and its beast haunted coverts.

Above the zone of pines the stone stairs grow rapidly steeper and the intervening levels fewer and shorter. At length one precipitous flight of nearly four hundred and fifty steps brings us to the Nan T’ien Men, the “Southern Heavenly Gate,” a stately portal whose arched passage gives access to what is officially regarded as the summit of the mountain. In reality, however, once past the Nan T’ien Men, the path rises sharply to the right, through clusters of huts, under other gateways, and past a succession of temples, before we arrive, just at sunset, at the true summit of the mountain, a rocky pinnacle falling away abruptly on all sides save the south, and surmounted by a temple sacred to the god of T’ai Shan, the great Sovereign of Jade.

Stone stairway
Part of the Pilgrim’s Road.

As usual with temples and palaces in China from the remotest times, the main building here faces south, with lesser structures flanking it right and left, and the gateway in front looking out upon the terraced approaches. In the courtyard thus formed is an octagonal enclosure with a carved stone balustrade, surrounding a weather worn and fissured rock regarded as the highest point of the mountain. In front of the main building a few belated worshippers quietly go on with their devotions, oblivious of our presence. We are made welcome, with grave courtesy, by the resident Taoist priests, clad in loose coats and trousers and with hair done up in a topknot the old native custom of China before the conquering Manchus, in the seventeenth century, imposed their own garments and queues on their new subjects.

While our supper, of simple monastic fare, is preparing, we stroll about the balustraded galleries flanking the group of buildings. Toward the west the huge red ball of the sun is setting in the dim haze of dust that at all seasons floats over the great North China plain. To the east, through the gathering darkness looms a subsidiary summit, hardly lower than that upon which we are standing. Northward stretch other ridges, serrated, treeless, with gloomy gulfs already veiled in night. To the south the ground slopes away, at first gently, then falling sharply in a welter of precipice and buttress and crag down to the plain far below. All is quiet and stillness and peace; even the breezes are hushed; and the clear sky overhead, now just beginning to display its twinkling lights, gives promise of a cold night. The priests tell us, in fact, that although October is not yet half gone, they have already had one flurry of snow, which, however, soon melted.

Presently a young priest brings us supper, and there, by the dim light of a lantern, on a rough table before the original altar, we fall to with our chopsticks on huge bowlfuls of delicious noodle soup, piping hot and flavored with soy, next to hunger the finest of sauces. Then, on plank bedsteads, beneath the great images towering above us in the darkness, we turn to for our night’s sleep.

Dawn comes, crisp and bright. A hasty breakfast, and then we start out to explore the sacred summit. On the terrace just below the entrance to the main court of the temple stands a tall plain slab something over sixteen feet high, surmounted by a roof shaped capstone with the straight eave lines which all Chinese roofs displayed until the fashion of upturned corners came in, a few centuries after the commencement of our era. This monument bears no inscription of any kind. Locally, like so much else in China that partakes of the colossal and the grandiose, it is ascribed to Ts’in Shih Huang-ti. It is, however, probably a little more recent, having apparently been set up by the emperor Wu-ti, of the Han dynasty, a decade or so before the birth of Julius Caesar. Of a sort of stone not found upon the mountain, the task of transporting it to these heights must have been tremendous.

The so called “eastern summit” next invites our attention. Upon it stand the ruins of what was once evidently a stately temple enclosure, marking the spot, says tradition, where the emperor, Wu-ti, just mentioned, performed the great Feng sacrifice in the year 110 B. C. There was something mysterious about this rite—a mystery that later times have failed wholly to clear away. The popular belief has been, ever since Wu-ti’s time, that the custom was originally inaugurated by the fabulous Divine Emperors of old, in the mythical period of four thousand years ago. This notion, however, it is practically certain was first promulgated toward the close of the second century before our era, in order to afford a precedent for the celebration of the rite by Wu-ti himself. Certainly no such ceremony had ever been performed before his time within the true historical period. The manner in which he conducted the rite has a flavor of the mysterious too; for, besides himself, but one functionary was allowed to be present, and this man died a few days later. There is a very widespread idea, found in all parts of the world, that rites partaking of a magical character must be kept strictly secret, if their efficacy is not to be lost. The suspiciously opportune death of the emperor’s helper looks very much as though His Majesty were taking no chances of information being divulged.

Temple at the top of a mountain
Temple Covering the Summit of T’ai Shan.

Farther east still the mountain falls away in nearly sheer cliffs, down into tremendous gorges. Across a spur terminating in one of the greatest of these precipices is built a substantial wall into which is let an inscription, “Thou shalt not commit suicide.” Suicides with us are almost invariably due to selfish reasons. The motive which leads the egoistic product of our western civilization to play the part of his own executioner is usually the wish to escape from some unpleassant situation in which, through fate or folly, he finds himself placed. Not so in China. There a frequent motive is the offering of one’s own life as a vicarious sacrifice—a substitute for the life of some loved one. The idea is that the Rulers of Human Destiny about to deprive some individual of life, may be bought off by the death of another. It is this pathetic belief that has caused so many to cast themselves over this precipice before us that the guard wall and deterrent inscription have become necessary.

Slightly south of the Cliff of the Suicides yawns another fissure, hundreds of feet deep, giving cut upon the plain dimly seen through the haze below. Across this cleft there toppled, at some time in the far distant past, a great column of rock. Broken by the fall into several huge rectangular fragments, these by some freak of fortune wedged themselves in place, forminga natural stair with fathom high steps. This the Chinese call the “Bridge of the Immortals” —those anchorites and recluses upon the mountains, who, according to Taoist teaching, through a life of abstinence and holy living win eventually to such absolute mastery over the flesh that the laws of time and space and gravity lose all power over them, and they soar away through the clouds to a glorious immortality in the bright realms under the gentle sway of the “Royal Mother of the West.”

A more charming view than that from the southern face of the sacred mountain it would be hard to find. To the right, as one looks down over the cliffs, is the valley up which climbs the long pilgrim trail. Nearly due south, barely seen through the morning haze, is the flat rectangle that marks the city of T’ai-an with its protecting wall. Closer at hand, on the slopes and scarps beneath us, are masses of rock in wildest confusion, worn, seamed, and savage, but all transmuted by the alchemy of the glorious autumnal sun. About us, beds of fragrant mint, and crimson pinks and asters and bluebells attract swarms of butterflies and bees. In the sky and on the heights ravens and magpies and kites wheel and soar and perch. Small wonder that to such a sweet scene of calm and utter aloofness from the world men have come for thousands of years, seeking peace and quiet and rest for their souls.

The area at the top is not large, and a very few hours suffice to see it all, though one would not be sorry to tarry longer. Shortly after midday we begin a leisurely descent occupying most of the afternoon. By the time we reach the mouth of the valley, where it debouches upon the plain, the sun has set, the chill night has come on, and off to the left, over the shoulder of the dark mysterious mountain, rises resplendent the full moon, with black cedar boughs athwart its blood red face.

Next morning a way train carriers us forty miles southward, across rolling agricultural country, to the station whence we are to go, by cart, to visit the temple and the tomb of Confucius, at Ch’ii-fu, a few miles to the eastward. Here, as is well known, still dwell the lineal descendants of the Sage, after nearly eighty generations—theirs the longest authentic pedigree in existence ; it is as though a modern Greek family could trace its descent from one of the Seven Sages.

Memorial tablets amongst scaffolding
Preparing Memorial Tablets on the Ascent of T’ai Shan.

The road across the plain, though not bad as roads go in China, is merely a cart track across country, dusty, deeply rutted, and crossing the occasional shallow streams by fords. It is chiefly for the sake of having some means of crossing the water dry shod, and of retsing occasionally, that we hire a cart—one of the variety universal in North China, springless, two wheeled, and with an arched tilt or canopy, open in front; built with an eye to endurance and hard usage rather than comfort. Other vehicles much in use here are enormous wheelbarrows with a pair of handles at each end, and perhaps a donkey to help in the pulling. The Chinese wheelbarrow seems much more scientifically designed than ours. One repeatedly sees a single coolie cheerfully trundling along a load of eight or ten persons, or an equivalent weight in produce, mile after mile, at a steady rate of two miles an hour. Where is the Occidental labouring man who, in one of our wheelbarrows, could push a load of half a ton, fifteen to twenty miles a day, seven days in the week, over such roads as those of China?

The country through which we pass is densely populated, and so close together are the tree embowered villages that one seems passing continually through one vast wood, interspersed by clearings planted with beans, sweet potatoes, fall wheat, and peanuts; the latter just harvested, the gaunt black village pigs are busily gleaning in the upturned furrows. Here and there are groves of persimmon trees, their huge luscious fruit worth travelling far to taste. Now and then appear graveyards; and occasionally we pass sacred groves, where the yellow roofs of roadside temples gleam among the trees. We are passing through what, in Confucius’ day, was the small feudal state of Lu, whose rulers traced their descent from the royal clan of the Chou line, and whose privilege it was to employ the royal ceremonial in their state sacrifices. Every year, in the sixth month (the year under the Chou dynasty began with the winter solstice), they offered a white bull to the manes of their founder, the illustrious Duke of Chou, who flourished according to the commonly accepted account, about eleven hundred years before our era.

Natural rock bridge
The Bridge of the Immortals.

The small size of Lu made its participation in the wars of the period highly dangerous, and its rulers strove desperately to maintain the strict neutrality upon which their independence hung. It was partially this enforced aloofness from the current life of the time, and partly the tradition of its origin and its cult connections, which caused the little state to emphasize so strongly its ritual and cultural and literary preeminence, while its larger and more powerful neighbors were vying with one another in savage struggles for more material supremacy.

Hence it is natural that Confucius’ whole life and teaching should have been coloured by conservatism, by the desire to return to conditions which he pictured as prevailing during the golden age of the dynasty, and by the ambition to restore the decrepit old monarchy to its pristine power and glory. His noble birth too no doubt influenced him; for his father, a noted warrior and a man of herculean mould, traced his descent from the ancient emperors of the Shang dynasty, dethroned over half a millennium before.

To his vast credit, considering the troubled and anarchic times in which he lived, there is no evidence, in his career, of any self seeking, or of disloyalty either to his principles or to his country. True, he was accused by his foes of being too haughty and unbending in demeanor, but this attitude, so far as it really existed, was doubtless due partly to the aristocratic traditions of his family and partly to his concept of the nature of the social relations. In character we know that he was rigidly puritanical, intensely conservative, upright, and sincere, although he once excused the nonfulfillment of a pledge by saying that a promise given under constraint was not binding—in this merely anticipating our own modern legal view.

Very much of what Confucius upheld as the standard of conduct applies today as much as it did in his day, and there need be little reason to despair of the future of the Chinese nation, impregnated as thoroughly as it is with the rules of behaviour which he taught. His concept was of an individual who was self respecting, modest, dignified, and sincere; consistent, true to his word, loyal, benevolent, and a lover of learning rather than of wealth. No time server, yet he must be in full sympathy with human nature and with the best feeling of his time; not given to excess in any form, unflinching where principle was at stake, and unafraid in the presence of death. Finally, he must be correct in dress and demeanor, cleanly both in person and in deed. His ideal is one that can not but approve itself to all right thinking men, of whatever race or creed or political faith. And it is one which has had, in the past two thousand years, innumerable followers—men who in times of domestic turmoil or foreign invasion have not shrunk from sealing with their blood, in the face of every temptation, their unswerving loyalty to duty and to country.

Yet Confucius, by the men of his own time, was reckoned a failure. This was because his own expressed purpose was the restoration of what he conceived to be the state of affairs existing in the good old days, some hundreds of years before. In this sense Confucius’ life was a failure—a failure as complete as the effort of Columbus to reach Cathay and Zipangu by sailing westward from Spain. But just as Columbus, all unwittingly, was the first to establish definite, conscious, and permanent contact between the two halves of the globe, so Confucius, though failing utterly in his attempts to check the steady decay of the ancient monarchy and the old social system upon which it was based, became in the fulness of time the great exemplar and beloved teacher of hundreds of millions of his fellow men. And in the future his influence is destined to extend over the face of the globe to just that degree in which the newly awakened Chinese people find themselves called to participate in the common affairs of mankind.

Boulders in a jumble blocking a view
Ascent of T’ai Shan. Boulders Washed Down as a Result of Deforestation.

It is of the greatest importance, in order to understand the meaning of Confucianism, to distinguish carefully between the sage’s own teachings and the cult that has in later times come to be built up around him. It has been rather flippantly said that Confucius himself, though not an agnostic and disbeliever in the efficacy of prayer, has become himself a god, the recipient of the invocations of countless thousands. This is not quite true. The Far Eastern concept of divinity is not at all that of the modern Occident; nor, though less unlike, it is quite the same as that once held by the peoples of classical antiquity. Canonization would come distinctly nearer than deification to expressing in terms clear to our Occidental thought the process to which Confucius has been subjected. Ancestor worship, in both East and West, has played a part—perhaps the chief part—in the rise of this concept, of canonization in the Occident, or deification, if one chooses to insist upon that term, in the Orient. The belief that the dead still live, that they continue to take an interest in the lives and fortunes of their people, watching over their prosperity, rejoicing in their well being, aiding them in adversity, was one to which ancestor worship accustomed mankind, whether dwelling by the Tiber or by the Huang Ho. Once grant the postulate of the sentient existence of the soul after death, and all the rest follows naturally. It is in this sense that Confucius has been made an object of worship by later rulers, who found in his teachings of conservatism and filial piety and loyalty a source of invaluable support to their dynasties. It is for this reason, too, that honor has been chiefly paid him, not by the actual founders of new ruling families, but rather by their successors, after the lines had become endued by time with something of the sanctity of legitimacy and vested right.

With all this cult of the Sage, however, his own teachings have nothing to do. Indirectly, in fact, they discourage it; for he himself said that worship paid to the ancestors of another was vanity and not to be indulged in. He never set himself up as an object of worship, or even as a teacher of new doctrine. On the contrary, he expressly claimed to be nothing more than an interpreter of the past, a systematizer and recorder of the best that was recounted of the lives of the great men of old. In so far as his system took account of any religious element at all, it was linked with the ancient ritualistic state worship of T’ien, the Sky, which had come down from historic times, and with perhaps even more ancient cult of ancestors carried on privately by each individual family group. The cult of Confucius, with its temples and its ritual, will no doubt in time pass away, as so many other cults have done in the past, and as so many are doing in the present age of disintegration and intellectual rebirth. But the ideal of life and conduct set up by Confucius can not pass away; for it is something of universal application and must remain such so long as man remains a social being.

Even to the foreign visitor from the Occident not too blinded by inherited prejudice to realize the essential and inherent oneness of mankind, this region through which we are passing seems holy ground, and it is possible to understand in a measure what it has meant during so many generations to the Sons of Han. It is less through age than in continuity of conscious racial, cultural, and political existence that China exceeds the rest of the modern nations of the earth. For example, the very name of the little sacred city which we are slowly approaching across the plain dates back to a time when Thebes and Babylon were the leaders of the western world, and Athens and the imperial city by the Tiber were yet unknown. And that long gray wall which we begin to see, presently, far away on our left front, surrounds a plot of ground that has been the burial place of a single family during the space of time that has elapsed since Leonidas died at Thermopylae.

Of the beginning or end of this wall we can see nothing; for it encircles a space said by the Chinese to be forty li, or about thirteen miles, in circumference, and the graves of the descendants of Confucius contained therein are legion. One estimate places them at over a million; and certainly they number many tens of thousands. Assuredly men have gone on dying and being buried elsewhere, as they have done here; but where else is there such another graveyard, continuously used during more than two thousand years, and that by the descendants of one man?

The road at first seems bringing us direct to the cemetery. But presently it turns more and more to the right—southward—approaching as it does so a long avenue of cypress, gnarled and fantastic, which connects the town to the south with the great city of the dead nearly a mile to the north. Presently we enter the gate, and after a few minutes’ walk through narrow and crowded streets we come to the great Kung Miao, the Confucian temple par excellence, original and pattern of all the countless others which have been planted wherever men of Chinese race have gathered together. Occupying nearly a quarter of the area of the little town, we find it a great congeries of courts, containing stately yellow roofed buildings, noble trees, and inscribed stelae, of which, without the aid of a plan, it is hard to form any ordered conception. The main gate—opening southward, of course—is not for commoners like ourselves. We enter by a smaller portal to the side, and then, under the guidance of attendants, explore the various courts and sanctuaries and porticoes that open out before us. The approach to the main building is by a succession of stone terraces, with carved balustrades of white limestone closely resembling fine marble. The temple itself is a splendid example of the best Chinese style, with double roof of gleaming imperial yellow tile, supported, not by wooden columns, as is commonly the case, but by ten great stone pillars, exquisitely carved with entwining dragons. Within, in the dim cloistral light, is the gigantic seated figure of Confucius himself, arrayed in royal robes—a privilege which has been posthumously granted him; and in the same hall are statues of various ones of his principal disciples.

Interesting as is the temple, there is a spot in one of the secondary courts, in the eastern part of the great enclosure, which has for us even greater appeal. For it is here there stood, long ago, the house occupied by the Sage, and, beside it, the humble well from which he drew the water which he drank. Tea, of course, was then still unknown; and the Chinese of that period eschewing, as they still do, milk and its various products, drank either water, or beer brewed from rice or from that most primitive of cereals, millet. As is well known, the great emperor and consolidator, Ts’in Shih Huang-ti, decreed the destruction of all literature dealing with the past of the feudal states which he had overthrown and incorporated in his empire. The task of destruction was rendered the easier by the fact that the cumbersome books of that day were written, not upon paper, which was still unknown, but upon slips of wood or bamboo, while copies were rare and their whereabouts usually well known. However, when the ancient house of the Sage was finally torn down, about three centuries and a half after his death and nearly a hundred years after the famous Burning of the Books, concealed within its walls were found copies of the revered Classics, written in the ancient character, even then almost undecipherable save by experts.

Although the Sage’s house is gone, his well still survives. It is simple—merely a shallow excavation; for all the great North China plain, through its geological structure, is underlaid with water at no great depth from the surface. About the mouth is a circular stone curb, and enclosing it and the simple commemorative tablet is a stone rail, with tastefully carved posts and panels.

Our inspection of the temple and its various courts completed, we retrace our steps as far as the north gate of the town, and there strike off up the long avenue of cypress, northward, toward the great cemetery where the Sage lies buried. Part way up is a fine commemorative gateway with five spans—a glorified example of the p’ai-lous which we noticed on our approach to the base of T’ai Shan. There is too a stone bridge over a long since silted up rivulet. The road enters the grounds of the cemetery between gigantic stone figures of men and animals; near these an aged tree trunk, bound about with iron bands, is said to be one planted originally by Tse-kung, most famous of the Sage’s disciples. Presently to the left of the road, we pass the grave of the grandson of Confucius, a plain earthen tumulus embowered in fine trees. The whole enclosure, in fact, is well wooded, the trees deriving their origin, it is said, from those set out by his three thousand disciples in honer of their Master; the story goes that these youths, coming as they did from every part of the China of that day (when everything south of the Yangtse was terra incognita, inhabited by savages and demons), set out each the trees representative of his own home, so that here were assembled every species of tree found in the entire country.

At the end of the road, or rather where it turns at right angles to the left, is the tomb of the son of Confucius, also a mere grass grown earthen mound. Just west of it is yet another, simple, not more than three or four yards in height, overgrown with rank grass and brush, and shaded by noble trees; in front of it, and a little to the right as we face it, is a stone slab whose inscription, in the ancient classical character, tells us that here lies buried the Sage himself.

Nightfall is approaching and the sky has become overcast and lowering. The gloom, the utter loneliness, and the clustering cedar and cypress combine to produce a feeling of solemnity and age and awe. The very lack of all architectural grandeur and pretentiousness seem to proclaim, what the Sage himself taught, that true greatness and worth are not material, but spiritual, not from without, but from within, that in simplicity and sincerity and unaffected poise and self possession does genuine nobility of character manifest itself. Few things more clearly demonstrate the innate good taste or the sense of the fitness of things that the Chinese people possess, than the simplicity of the sepulture which they have accorded the greatest teacher of their race.

The sun has set when we leave the tomb and commence our return across the plain westward toward the railway. Lights begin to twinkle in the villages and farmsteads, otherwise unseen in the darkness; occasionally a belated toiler passes us on his way to his night’s rest; far off the baying of dogs is heard. Otherwise we might be alone in this ancient land as we plod through the darkness, deceived more than once by distant gleams on the horizon, till at last we come once more to the cluster of huts about the railway station, and seek the shelter of a native inn.

Cite This Article

Bishop, C. W.. "Shantung, China’s Holy Land." The Museum Journal XII, no. 2 (June, 1921): 85-115. Accessed February 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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