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A Confucianist’s Magnificent Century: Commemorating Kung Te-cheng

Throughout his life, Kung Te-cheng always had a book in hand, practiced strict self-discipline, and studied relentlessly. (photo by Li Peihui)

Throughout his life, Kung Te-cheng always had a book in hand, practiced strict self-discipline, and studied relentlessly. (photo by Li Peihui)

 

The first-ever Republican-era Sacrificial Official to Confucius, the last person to hold the heredit­ary title of Duke Yan­sheng, former president of the Examination Yuan of the ROC—and the 77th senior lineal descendent of the Sage—Kung Te-­cheng survived stormy times while tenaciously maintaining the Confucian orthodoxy he inherited, and thereby inscribed his name as a 20th-century legend.

“The Ultimate Confucian Professor Kung Te-­cheng: A Centennial Celebration” was held in Tai­pei with great pomp on January 19, 2019 in the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall’s Bo’ai Gallery and in Kuo­kuang Hall inside the headquarters building of CPC Corporation.

Published in tandem with the commemoration, the three-volume Kung Te-­cheng Compendium comprises essays, diaries and calligraphy, representing a collection of rare and precious documents of great historical value. Some three-and-a-half years and nearly US$325,000 were spent for travel to sites throughout mainland China to film the docu­mentary Legend of Kung Te-­cheng: A Goblet of Wine Amidst Wind and Rain, which also is an important contribution to the historical record.

 

Newly anointed: In a ceremony carried out in the then Chinese capital, Nanjing, Kung Te-cheng—aged just 15 at the time—was sworn in as the first-ever Republican-era “Sacrificial Official to Confucius.” (courtesy of Chinese Association of Confucius)Newly anointed: In a ceremony carried out in the then Chinese capital, Nanjing, Kung Te-cheng—aged just 15 at the time—was sworn in as the first-ever Republican-era “Sacrificial Official to Confucius.” (courtesy of Chinese Association of Confucius)

Solemn gathering for Sage’s descendant

The winter sun sprinkles warmth on Tai­pei’s Song­ren Road. Inside the CPC Building’s Kuo­kuang Hall, high officials congregate: former president Ma Ying-­jeou; Tai­pei deputy mayor Teng Chia-chi; the director of the Ministry of the Interior’s Department of Civil Affairs, Lin Ching­-chi; Taipei City Department of Civil Affairs commissioner Lan Shih-­tsung; representatives of Confucian societies hailing from Japan and South Korea; and several hundred disciples, old friends and Kong family relatives have come ­together in the hall to solemnly and warmly com­memor­ate Kung Te-cheng, revered Confucianist of his era. (Confucius’ Chinese name was Kong Qiu; thus his descendants are surnamed Kong, also spelled “Kung.”)

A special commemorative exhibition was held at the Bo’ai Gallery from January 19 to February 10. It featured a four-character scroll extolling Confucius, “Exemplary Teacher for a Myriad Generations,” penned by Emperor ­Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty and donated by the Kong family to Tai­pei’s National Palace Museum; a large number of precious manuscripts; and Kung Te-­cheng’s diary from when the Nationalist government left Nan­jing for Chong­qing, its temporary capital during the war with Japan. Other personal effects such as certificates, official seals, medals, and many precious photos and calligraphic works were also brought together for this display.

Shown to the public for the first time was an em­broid­ered five-clawed dragon robe of satin, passed down in the Kong family, and said to have been a gift from the last-but-one Manchu emperor, ­Guangxu. There were a court necklace made up of bodhi seeds, jade and tourmaline, and an embroidered “mandarin square” (rank badge) featuring insignia such as a bodhi tree to indicate that the wearer was a civil official of the first rank. These items convey the high esteem in which the Kong family was held, and the honors accorded Kung Te-­cheng’s father, Kong ­Lingyi, duke of the first rank.

First public viewing: The original manuscript of a research paper on the ancient Book of Songs by the young scholar Kung Te-cheng, penned in Chongqing around 1940.First public viewing: The original manuscript of a research paper on the ancient Book of Songs by the young scholar Kung Te-cheng, penned in Chongqing around 1940.

The Kung Te-­cheng Documentary premiered simul­taneously at the commemorative gathering and inside the exhibition. It records events in 1920, on the fourth day of the first lunar month, inside and outside the heavily guarded Kong family residence in Qufu, Shan­dong. Every­one awaits with bated breath the first earthshaking cry of this “National Treasure” as he exits the womb, marking the instant that—after much suspense—a 2500-year sacred lineage is assured continuation. 

Also on public display for the first time is the bright red and yellow decree issued by Xu Shi­chang, president of the Bei­yang government, complete with the seal that conferred upon Kung Te-­cheng the hereditary title of Duke Yan­sheng. His father having died several months before he was born, and his mother only 17 days thereafter, within 100 days of his birth this tiny infant in swaddling clothes was designated a duke, and thereby fated to shoulder the heavy burden of the Confucian “family business.”

In 1984, Kung Te-cheng held talks with Pope John Paul II. This meeting of giants from East and West was portrayed as a key moment in 20th-century history. (courtesy of Chinese Association of Confucius)In 1984, Kung Te-cheng held talks with Pope John Paul II. This meeting of giants from East and West was portrayed as a key moment in 20th-century history. (courtesy of Chinese Association of Confucius)

The fires of war

Another significant personal effect is the certificate issued by the Nationalist government designating Kung Te-­cheng as the first “Sacrificial Official to Confucius.” Just 15 years old at the time, he was sworn in at a ceremony in Nanjing.

A well-preserved marriage certificate serves to docu­ment Kung’s grand wedding ceremony. In December 1936, amidst civil war in China and only months before the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, he accomplished this key life event, and with it, his lonely heart once again found a warm place to call home.

But on the first day of 1938, the 18-year-old Kung received an order to proceed south immediately. This presented a dilemma: with his wife Sun Qi­fang about to give birth, should they stay or leave? To avoid the possibility of his being exploited as a puppet by the Japanese, this matter brooked no hesitation; they had to set out that very night. Within two hours of their departure, Japanese troops entered Qufu. Ultimately, this resolute split-second decision determined a completely different trajectory for the era.

A group of eight, including Kung and his wife, his secretary Li Bing­nan and the teacher Lü Jin­shan, fled in fear on a perilous journey. They arrived in Han­kou three days later, and five days after that his wife gave birth to their eldest daughter, Kong Wei’e.

After relocation to Chong­qing, their residence was twice bombed. It wasn’t until they moved to Ge­le­shan in the western part of the city that they found a respite from the chaos. It was there in 1939 that Kong Wei­yi, their eldest son, came into the world.

20th-century calligraphy master Wang Xiantang’s “Yilan Mansion,” with inscriptions by Tai Jingnong, Zhang Jing, Dai Junren, Qu Wanli, Li Bingnan and Zhao Anan.20th-century calligraphy master Wang Xiantang’s “Yilan Mansion,” with inscriptions by Tai Jingnong, Zhang Jing, Dai Junren, Qu Wanli, Li Bingnan and Zhao Anan.

Constantly uprooted

After he came to Taiwan, Kung Te-­cheng, who often joked he had never spent a day in school, received honorary doctorates from South Korea’s Sung­kyun­kwan University, Rei­taku University of Japan and National Taiwan University. In his younger years in the Kong family home, talented tutors such as Wang Yu­hua, ­Zhuang Gai­lan, Wu Bo­xiao and Zhan Cheng­qiu, and then after relocating to Ge­le­shan, Lü Jin­shan and Ding Wei­fen, offered guidance to Kung and laid a solid foundation for him in the study of the traditional Chinese classics, the Chinese script, poetics, ancient bronze artifacts, calligraphy, English, and the seven-stringed Chinese zither, or gu­qin. Beginning in 1948 he studied in the United States, where he was schooled in Western scholarship and came to affirm democratic values. During this period he was instructed by Fu Ssu-nien, whose erudition and character he greatly esteemed.

During his long teaching career, Kung also funded and pioneered the production of a black-and-white film, Ceremony: Marriage Customs of the Scholar Class. The project represented a personal breakthrough. Some of his disciples, who actually performed in the film, appeared at the exhibition, where they recounted how it was shot.   

Kung was a master of five traditional calligraphic scripts: kai­shu, (regular script); xing­shu (semi-cursive); cao­shu (cursive); zhuan­shu, (seal script), and li­shu (cler­ical script). He left behind an enormous amount of outstanding calligraphy, which formed an important part of the display.

As the descendant of a sacred ancestor, from childhood Kung was humble and austere. Throughout his life, right­eous­ness, sincerity, self-cultivation and wise management of family life served as his moral guidelines, and he sought to fully express them in his behavior. The scroll featuring four Chinese char­ac­ters by his own hand, “Remain true to one’s word, and show respect for others in one’s actions,” which was on display at the exhibition, is based on a passage in the Analects of Confucius. A motto passed down within the family, it is also an encouragement to future generations.

Amidst the turbulent seas of history, Kung sought to maintain the role of the pure scholar. Even when he was invited to serve in influential posts such as member of the National Assembly, president of the Examination Yuan, advisor to the presidency or Confucian-­descendant-as-diplomat, he adhered to the maintenance of Confucian tradition, and always behaved with impeccable propriety and discretion.

In the period immediately after his relocation to Taiwan, on several occasions he visited Japan, Korea, Europe and the United States to host ceremonies venerating Confucius. In 1984, he held talks with Pope John Paul II, and this meeting of giants from East and West was portrayed as a key moment in 20th- century history.

In late 1948 and early 1949, relics formerly housed in Bei­jing’s Palace Museum and in Nan­jing’s National Central Library and National Central Museum were relocated to Taiwan. When they were stored in the newly built Bei­gou Warehouse at Wu­feng in Tai­chung in 1955, the Kung family’s relics were also placed there. Soon after­ward, the collections were placed under the adminis­tration of the newly created Joint Management Office of the National Palace Museum and Central Museum, and in 1956 Kung Te-­cheng took over as chairman.

The commemorative exhibition held in the Bo’ai Gallery of Taipei’s Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall showcased many precious works of calligraphy and Kong-family heirlooms.The commemorative exhibition held in the Bo’ai Gallery of Taipei’s Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall showcased many precious works of calligraphy and Kong-family heirlooms.

During his tenure, Kung fully carried out his responsibilities, cataloguing the relics and chronicling their provenance and history. He arranged for their display in the United States, a momentous event that resulted in American support for the construction of the National Palace Museum at Wai­shuangxi in Tai­pei’s Shi­lin District.

Archetypal purveyor of Confucian learning

The commemorative exhibition on Kung Te-­cheng, jointly sponsored by the Chinese Association of Confucius, Tai­pei City Civil Affairs Bureau, Tai­pei Confucius Temple and National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, encompassed Kung’s entire lifetime.

Kung gave courses on topics such as The Three Book of Rites, bronzeware script, and the bronze ritual vessels of the Yin and Zhou dynasties at tertiary institutions such as National Taiwan University, National Taiwan Normal University, National ­Chung ­Hsing University, Fu Jen Catholic University and Soo­chow University. This strict teacher and affectionate father figure was unanimously cherished by disciples such as Zeng ­Yongyi, ­Zhang Jing­ming, ­Huang Qi­fang and Ye Guo­liang.

The 79th senior lineal descendent of the Sage, Kung Tsui-chang, who is the current Sacrificial Official to Confucius, thanked all parties for their assistance and participation in the centennial commemoration, and pledged to shoulder the weighty responsibility of promoting Confucianism.The 79th senior lineal descendent of the Sage, Kung Tsui-chang, who is the current Sacrificial Official to Confucius, thanked all parties for their assistance and participation in the centennial commemoration, and pledged to shoulder the weighty responsibility of promoting Confucianism.

Kung treated others with generosity while personally maintaining strict self-discipline. After class, he often invited students who were not well off to dine with him, and ensured that they had a hearty meal. But he himself was extremely frugal, and at times made do with just a man­tou for a meal.

Parting sorrows

When Kung was 69 years old, his eldest son suddenly passed away. As he suffered the intense sorrow of a parent losing a child, Kung recalled a lifetime of hardship, and the shocks and humiliations endured by his forebears. He couldn’t help but grieve and break down in tears in front of his family.

Also on display is Kung’s diary, open to one page of scribbled text that is covered with smeared traces. It chronicles the death of his eldest sister. His emotional devastation need not be stated with words. This couplet, dedicated to the sister from whom he was separated for 42 years before being reunited, fully conveys Kung’s helplessness and turbulent life: I raise a goblet of wine amidst wind and rain / Our hearts separated by ten thousand li.”

Kung Te-­cheng, an authority on the Three Books of Rites, used his life to write history. Yet he quietly persevered in his quest: The scholar must seek to comprehend the Heavens, and endow the people with the principles by which to govern their lives.

Three years after the death of Kung Te-­cheng, his deepest wish was realized by his grandson Kung Tsui-­chang, the 79th senior lineal descendant of Confucius. The latter embarked upon the 1,300-meter-long Sacred Path at the Temple of Confucius in Qufu—last trodden by Kung Te-­cheng more than six decades previously—symbolizing how Confucian philosophy, its traditions of scholarship and virtue unbroken through the centur­ies, continues to resound in the modern age.