Celebration of Confucius' Birthday

China Marks The 2,556th Anniversary Of Confucius's Birthday
In 2005, China marked the 2,556th anniversary of Confucius's birthday. Getty Images/China Photos

The Grand Ceremony Dedicated to Confucius (祭孔大典) is held annually on Confucius’ Birthday (September 28) to pay homage to Confucius, China’s ‘First Teacher.’

Who Was Confucius, and Why Is He Celebrated?

Confucius (551-479 BC) was a sage, scholar, and philosopher. Confucius passed on his passion for education by emphasizing the importance of education. A slew of accolades, including a posthumous award of “Supreme Teacher” in 1AD, an imperial decree deeming him a "Grand Master" in 581AD, and the bestowing of the title “Prince of Culture” in 739AD led to Confucius’ continued popularity.

The Confucian ceremony has been traced to the Zhou Dynasty (1046BC-221BC). After Confucius’ death, ceremonies to honor him were held by Confucius' family members. Emperor Lu Aigong (魯哀公) converted Confucius’ home in Qufu (曲阜), in Shandong Province, to a temple so Confucius' descendants could honor him. It wasn't until after Han Emperor Gaozu Liu Bang (高祖) paid his respects to Confucius that all emperors began to worship Confucius. Confucian Ceremonies have been held regularly since the Han dynasty (206BC-220AD).

During the Three Kingdoms Period (三国时代) (220AD-280AD), Emperor Cao Cao (曹操) established the biyong (辟雍), an institute for teaching the emperor how to conduct the Confucius ceremony.

What Happens During the Confucian Ceremony?

The modern Confucian ceremony is 60-minutes long and is celebrated at Qufu (Shandong), the birthplace of Confucius, the Confucius Temple in Taipei, Taiwan, and at temples throughout China.

The Confucius ceremony is held at day break each Sept. 28 on Confucius’ birthday. The modern Confucian Ceremony consists of 37 parts which are each precisely choreographed.

The ceremony starts with three drum rolls and a procession of attendants, musicians, dancers and participants who include political leaders, school principals and students, musicians in Ming Dynasty style red robes and black hats and 64 dancers dressed in Soong and Ming Dynasty style yellow silk robes with dark blue waistbands and black hats.

Each person must stop every five steps and pause before continuing to his designated spot where each person remains standing for the entire ceremony.

The next portion of the ceremony involves opening the gates of the temple, which are only opened during the Confucian ceremony. A sacrifice is buried and the spirit of Confucius is welcomed into the temple. After three bows, food and drink, which traditionally included a pig, a cow, and a goat, is offered as a sacrifice to Confucius. Nowadays, livestock has been replaced with fruit and other offerings at some ceremonies including the one at the Confucius Temple in Taiwan.

After the food offering, “The Song of Peace” is played with traditional Chinese instruments while the dancers, who are all students, perform the Ba Yi dance (八佾舞), an ancient dance that started in the Zhou Dynasty as a way to pay respect to people of different social positions. Yi means ‘row’ and the number of dancers depends on who is being honored: eight rows for an emperor, six rows for a duke or princess, four rows for high-ranking government officials, and two rows for lower ranking officials. Eight rows of eight dancers are used for the Confucian Ceremony. Each dancer holds a short bamboo flute, which symbolizes balance, in the left hand and a long pheasant tail feather, which symbolizes integrity, in the right hand.

Incense is offered and after a few moments of chanting, there is another round of three bows. Next, each official group makes a presentation and, in Taiwan, the president offers incense before chanting a blessing and giving a short address. Some years the president of Taiwan is unable to attend so another high ranking political person delivers the speech on his behalf. When the president finishes chanting, there is another round of triple bows.

The sacrificial feast is removed to symbolize it has been eaten by the spirit of Confucius. His spirit is then escorted out of the temple. A final round of three bows precedes the burning of spirit money and prayers. The participants move from their appointed places to watch the pile of money and prayers burn. They return to their places before the gates of the temple are closed.

Once the gates are locked, the participants exit and the ceremony concludes with the participants and observers feasting on a ‘wisdom cake’. It is said eating the special rice cake will bring luck with one’s studies so hundreds of students line up each year hoping a bite of this cake will make them as smart as Confucius or at least garner better academic performance.

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