Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Signs and Symbols

What is at the heart of the Confucian temple?

Looking into the courtyard you would see the main structure, the free-standing central memorial hall on a raised platform. Until the fourteenth century, most if not all Confucian temples would have had a full complement of statues of Confucius and the other major Sages. As a result of an imperial decree in 1530 (some date the change to 1382), pictures and statues of the great Teacher and his spiritual comrades were replaced by memorial “spirit-tablets” bearing the names of the sages and scholars. The main hall’s (da zheng) central altar houses the tablets of Confucius (named “The Most Holy Former Master, the Wise Kong”) and his four most important followers, Yen Hui, Zu Si, Zeng Zi and Meng Zi. Over the central altar is a panel that reads “Teach without discrimination”; in other words, accept all sincere comers as potential students. Along the right and left walls of the main hall are side altars, each bearing six tablets commemorating the twelve Sages—eleven students of Confucius and one of the founders of the medieval development called Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi (1130-1200 C.E.). In the rooms along the right and left sides of the main courtyard you would see several more altars on which are enshrined a hundred and fifty-four more name tablets, forty Sages and thirty-seven Scholars on the east, thirty-nine Sages and thirty-eight Scholars on the west. These major historical figures represent the cream of the Literati over many centuries. Finally, behind the main memorial hall, along the north wall of the courtyard, stands a room (the jung zheng) enshrining tablets of five generations of Confucius’ ancestors.


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