Thursday, June 1, 2017

Recite Confucius and get in for free!

I have just got back from a short break in Qufu (曲阜). Qufu is a small town in Shandong, famous for being the birthplace of Confucius. It is the reason why all of Shandong's 100 million people always introduce their province to the foreigner who has never heard of it as "the hometown of Confucius". The town has been recognized as the sage's place of origin for over 2000 years, and as you can imagine it is full of historical sites connected with Confucius. It is also now a stop on the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, meaning that it can be reached from Beijing in just two hours and twenty minutes, even though the distance is actually quite huge.

The town has a small historic centre where most of the sites lie, surrounded by an (of course totally reconstructed) Ming-era city wall. The area was surprisingly un-crowded, considering that I went there during a national holiday. Outside of the historic centre Qufu seemed small and non-descript, and after 5 PM when the sites close the whole town becomes quite dead.

While in Qufu I had a funny experience. When I reached my youth hostel, I saw a notice claiming that it is possible to get into the town's main attractions for free if you can memorize five phrases by Confucius. When I asked I was given a sheet with twenty quotations from the Analects, out of which I could choose any five to memorize. The phrases all had an English translation, which was useful because the quotations are in Classical Chinese, and their meaning was not necessarily obvious to me at first glance, although with the help of the translations I could make sense of the characters. Quotations by Confucius are still read and written in Classical Chinese, the so-called 文言文 that remained China's unchanged written standard for over 2000 years, even when it no longer held any relationship with the way people spoke anywhere, until the early twentieth century when it was replaced with the modern standard.

I decided to memorize the following five phrases:

(clever talk and ingratiating manners are seldom found in a virtuous man)

(a gentleman is not a tool)

(the gentleman is at peace with himself, but there is no rest for the wicked)

(virtue is not left to stand alone. If you practice it you will have neighbours)

(While the parents are alive, the child must not travel afar. It they do travel, they must have a place to which they go).

As you can see classical Chinese is always very concise, which is much of the reason that these sentences are impossible to understand in Chinese unless you see the characters written down. Those who wrote in classical Chinese only cared about whether the sentences made sense when read on paper, not when spoken. And due to the nature of the Chinese writing system, the two things don't necessarily go together. This problem is much less pronounced in modern Standard Chinese, but it is far from completely absent.

In any case, armed with my five phrases I went to the town's ticket office, where you can buy a single ticket for 150 Yuan that covers Qufu's three main attractions (the Confucius Temple, the Confucius Mansion and the Confucius forest). Given that this is about 20 euros, you can see that getting in for free is an attractive proposition. Once I got to the counter, I asked about getting in for free by memorizing Confucius, and without batting an eyelid the attendants said "next door".

This is where things got a bit weird. I went next door, and found a special office entirely dedicated to letting travellers prove that they have memorized five phrases by Confucius. At the reception desk I was met by two unfriendly clerks who told me that there were already a lot of people waiting to recite their five phrases, and I would have to wait in a line. Outside, in the boiling heat, behind what seemed like an organized tour group of Chinese tourists all armed with sheets like the one I had been given, memorizing their phrases so they could get in for free. What was really strange is that the whole place had the musty and slightly ramshackle feel of a Chinese government office, and people were being conducted one by one into a room in the back so they could recite their Confucius and get their free tickets.

When I asked how long I would have to wait, I was told an hour. I decided to give up and come back next morning, in case there were less people. I did indeed come back the following day, although it was actually more like noon by the time I arrived. This time there were no people. Another extremely cold and unfriendly clerk gave me a form to fill in, with my name, nationality and passport number. After a minute or two I was called into the ominous room in the back, and sat in front of a desk, where the same clerk prompted me to recite the five phrases with the tone of an oculist asking me to read the letters on the wall. The whole thing was beginning to feel like a driving licence examination. I akwardly recited the first phrase, at which she told me that I had to add 子曰 ("Confucius says" in Classical Chinese) in the beginning. I then proceeded to recite the other phrases, always prefaced with "Confucius says".

I was then given a certificate with my photo (which had just been taken), name and passport number, which would allow me free entry into the town's three main tourist sites. It looked just like a certificate of the kind they give you for passing exams in China. My long Italian surname had also been totally misspelt by the clerk. Be it as it may, I used it to get in for free and save 150 Yuan.

All in all, I think the idea of allowing people to get in for free by memorizing Confucius is actually a really good one. It certainly ensured that I memorized five quotations that I shall never forget again. Having said that, the whole thing had been quite different from what I originally expected, which was that I would reach the gates of the tourist site, recite the phrases in front of smiling ticket vendors who would tell me that "wow, your Chinese is amazing", and then I would be allowed through without paying with a pat on the back. I even imagined a few local tourists filming me on their phones during the process. Instead, I had basically had to go through a rather strange examination in the backroom of a government office. Another one of those weird and slightly wacky experiences that can make travel in China such a great source of anecdotes.

A statue of Confucius in Qufu

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