Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Customs and Rituals

What attitudes toward pilgrimage are important in Confucianism and CIT?

Confucian teaching generally did not promote the popular practice of pilgrimage, associated as it was with Daoism and Buddhism. A larger concern had to do with the social and political implications of devotional travel. Many Confucians considered pilgrimage a potential threat to the stability of society. Anthropologists talk about the experience of “liminality” as an essential part of pilgrimage. Pilgrims step out of their accustomed social roles, leaving behind the rules, duties, and responsibilities of ordinary daily life. They become “liminal” in that they step across a threshold (limen in Latin) into another way of being and thinking, if only temporarily. For people who regard their function as maintaining social order, the prospect of throngs of pilgrims heading out across the countryside in hope of miracles or magic naturally poses a threat. Enthusiastic crowds are prey to demagogues and can turn into unruly mobs. Still, a parallel to devotional pilgrimage developed among Confucians on a smaller scale.

Confucius himself became a model of the itinerant scholar, traveling from one province to another in search of disciples and patrons. Later Confucians often followed his example. Eventually the places in which these Confucian exemplars had lived and taught began to attract visitors. Not surprisingly, the tomb of Confucius in Shandong became a goal for Confucian pilgrims, who were generally in search not of miracles, but of inspiration in the struggle to live a good life. In general, it appears that the tradition of family members caring for ancestral graves may have been significant in preventing burial places from becoming pilgrimage goals. Mountains were also important destinations for China’s Literati. There, one could contemplate most abundantly nature’s sacred beauty. There, too, was the incomparable source of poetic inspiration.


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