Days 7 to 11 - World Confucian Conference, Qufu
All along, the real focus for this trip to China has been attendance at the Third Session of the World Confucian Conference in Qufu, Shandong Province. Qufu is the hometown of Confucius (551 – 479 BCE), and there have been annual ceremonies marking his birthday on September 28 for over 2,000 years. In fact, this year’s celebration marked 2,561 years since his birth.
The tomb of Confucius
The current head of the Kong family is the 79th generation lineal descendant. His son, born in Taipei in 2006, has become the head of the 80 th generation. This Kong lineage represents the oldest documented family lineage in the world, and a recently completed census puts the number of registered members of the Kong family at something over two million. Unofficial counts and estimates suggest that the number of descendants is probably larger, over three million, but many saw their registration papers destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
With the First Session held in 2008, the World Confucian Conference is a very recent addition to the very popular and traditional birthday celebration in Qufu. This Third Session has been hosted by the Confucian Research Center in Qufu and attended by more than 200 delegates from 16 countries. Overwhelmingly, however, the participants have gathered from China, Korea, and Japan. A much smaller number has arrived from Europe and the U.S.A. The range of topics of considered at the conference is very broad, from scholarly work in history and philosophy to the description of model programs, the development of community centers, and proposals for training in corporate governance. There is also considerable discussion of the economic development possibilities for Shandong Province with promotion of the “Confucius Brand.”
After an opening day of welcoming and plenary sessions, the Conference broke into smaller groups with 40 to 50 delegates seated around massive conference tables. Each delegate was invited to comment on the questions at hand, for example, “The Role of Confucianism in Law and Politics,” or “Confucianism’s Role in Religion.” A number of delegates simply summarized the contents of the papers contributed to the Conference proceedings, but these discussions were often very lively, producing some sharp debate at times.
The format was unfamiliar to me, but the content of the discussion rang true with the kinds of commentary that occurs in discussion sessions at typical academic conferences around the world. The one significant difference is that the chairs of these discussion sessions made sure that every delegate, no matter how shy, expressed an opinion and contributed something substantial to the session. In the final plenary session on the last day of the Conference, the Chairs of each group offered a summary of the sessions along with commentary on the value of the discussions. These summaries were well done and proved interesting overall.
The call for papers for this conference allowed for papers to be written and delivered in either Chinese or English. As far as I could tell, however, there were only four delegates whose primary language is English – two from the USA and one each from Ireland and Australia. Just two of us arrived with such limited Mandarin capabilities that we required translation. Still, the conference offered complete simultaneous translation services, and the two of us limited strictly to English were each assigned a personal translator for each breakout session. These language services were extraordinarily good – headphones for the plenary sessions and “whisperers” for the breakouts. In the breakout, I did manage to get entangled in several verbal exchanges on issues dealing with historical contexts for western science, religion, textual criticism, and philosophy. Each time, my translator’s remarks met with broad approval and nods around the table. Based on the discussions that followed, I’m fairly certain my whisperer got the content accurately, but I couldn’t help wondering if some of the warm smiles greeting my remarks couldn’t be attributed to some helpful editorial work by my translator. He was terrific.
Overall, the support staff and the organization of the conference were outstanding. The “blue-vested” volunteers were students from Qufu Normal University, and those of us with language needs got special attention from students with excellent English, most particularly from a capable sophomore named Chu Qiu (初秋). “Autumn” proved herself an exceptional guide and facilitator, and from arrival at the airport through the closing session on the last day, she kept a special watch to make sure the English speakers were kept in the flow of everything happening – which bus to board, where to stand, which seats were for us, etc. I have to say, thanks to Autumn and the other student volunteers in Qufu, I had less trouble keeping in the flow of this conference than what I’ve experienced at many academic conferences in the English speaking world.
One of the co-curricular highlights for the week came at an extraordinary evening performance of music, dance, and theatre in the most modern, high tech theatre I’ve ever seen. Actually, a number of delegates, even among the Chinese, made the same comment. This was an event that for sheer spectacle and special effects looked more like the opening ceremony at the 2008 Beijing Olympics than a typical stage show featuring song and dance. Extravagant production followed extravagant production, each different, but each focused on celebrating the life and influence of Confucius. The theatre in Qufu isn’t as large as the Olympic stadium, but it is still massive and there was room for several thousand in the audience. The performance was SRO. The walls of this theatre are completely equipped with digital screens, and the cast of hundreds of singers, dancers, and performers used every opportunity to draw on the high tech equipment. Some of the more conservative delegates “regretted” such entertainment extravagance, but most seemed to enjoy it greatly. I know I did!
Of course, the highlight of the annual Confucian celebration comes on September 28th with the commemorative ceremony at the Confucian Temple in Qufu. This is an event that draws tour buses that disgorge thousands – school groups in their uniforms, and throngs of family groups eager to get a good view of the proceedings. Once again, in scope and scale the sense of this crowd was more akin to a gathering for a rock concert, or a major college homecoming game, than for a semi-religious, historical celebration.
All week, the delegation at the Third Session received police escorts and crowd control treatment as our three buses moved us around Qufu. The celebration at the Temple was no different – flashing lights and VIP parking right at the entrance gate.
As a delegation, we were invited to have eleven representatives seated on the stage for the commemorative ceremony. Autumn and her colleagues made sure that a number of the international delegates were included in the group selected to represent the Conference. As a result, those of us selected for the special seating missed the procession of dignitaries as it moved through the gates to the central temple, but with seats actually on the stage, we were able to watch the entire ceremony with an uninterrupted view. Moreover, as the representatives of the delegates at the conference, those of us seated on the stage were invited to place a lily on the commemorative flower offerings presented at the entrance to the temple.
Walk forward, make three short bows, and present the lily. This was a truly moving and emotional experience for all of us who took part – the music, the dancers, and the silent attentiveness of the crowd.
They are places for quiet moments of reflection and the opportunity to sit for peacefully taking in the views offered in traditional Chinese gardening.
No question about it, attendance at the commemorative ceremony marking the Confucius birthday was a high point in what proved to be a genuinely worthwhile conference. I’ve asked myself why this should be the case. I’m not sure that I’ve really captured the essence of how emotionally engaging this ceremony was, but that is certainly what made it so memorable. This was a thoroughly engaging morning. The ceremony was moving, and certainly underlined the significance of ceremony in Confucian thought and practice. Moreover, the feeling of celebration and the openness to everyone’s participation in the procession and offerings made us all – the entire crowd -- feel we were a part of something meaningful. I could not really capture it with my photographs, but even the primly costumed musicians, dancers, and footmen responded to smiles and shared their sense of excitement and quite freely. There was nothing of the Buckingham Palace aloofness here. This seemed a genuinely communal event, and that sense of sharing taken together with the seeming formality of the pageantry made this a truly special morning. Everyone there seemed to share the experience.