It’s often said that Chinese culture is better preserved in Taiwan than it is on the mainland and no where is that more evident than in the rituals and ceremonies conducted to honor the great sage Confucius. September 28th is traditionally celebrated as his birthday and 2011 marks the 2561st year since his birth. Throughout Taiwan, Confucius temples in each city hold ceremonies at dawn to mark the occasion. In Taipei, the ritual is a mixture of public and private with the president typically taking part in the public event and the oldest male lineal descendant of Confucius conducting the private ceremony. Currently the 36 year old Kung Tsui-chang, a 79th generation direct descendant of Confucius, occupies the position as lineal head of the family. He also serves as a special adviser to the president of Taiwan.
Confucius was born in 551BCE at Mount Ni, close to the town of Qufu in the present day Shandong province of China. He lived until his early 70’s dying in 479BCE and his tomb is located in Qufu. The philosophy he expounded during his life has gone on to form the basis of Chinese society and customs with the effect still strongly felt today. A focus on family loyalty, ancestor worship, respect for elders and an early version of the Golden Rule are noted aspects of Confucian philosophy.
In Taiwan, the day doubles as Teacher’s Day when the virtues, struggles, and contribution of teachers to both their own students and wider society are honored. Students and former students will often give cards or small gifts to favorite teachers. Local civic offices and educational institutes will choose this day to bestow honors and recognition on teachers who excel.
At Confucian temples, the rituals begin at 6am with musicians dressed in Ming Dynasty robes beating drums and bells to start the ceremony. After three rounds of drumming, officials, custodians and other participants move into place inside the main hall where incense, food and drink is offered. Following this, the Yi dance takes place outside. The Yi dance predates Confucius, tracing it’s origins back to 1115 BCE in the Zhou Dynasty and was traditionally performed to pay respect to people with different social positions.
The ceremonies conclude at about 7am with the closing of the main gates to the Dacheng Hall, the central location for worship. The gates will remain shut for another year.
Each year, a mixture of students, tourists, officials and teachers attend the ritual. Following the closing of the gates, special rice cakes known as wisdom cakes are given out to those in attendance. The belief holds that taken even a small bite enables one to produce a better academic performance. Participants and onlookers will often use this time to pose for photographs in front of the Confucian temple.