Traces of the Sage

Monument, Materiality, and the First Temple of Confucius (Spatial Habitus: Making and Meaning in Asia's Architecture)

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James A. Flath
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , March
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This book is built around an ingenious idea: tracing the history and transformation of a single temple to show the complex ritual, social, aesthetic, architectural, material, and political realities of a religious tradition. The book fulfills its promises brilliantly.

Traces of the Sage offers a fascinating account of the history of the Kong Temple 孔廟, the “first temple of Confucius,” erected in Qufu shortly after Confucius’ death. An art historian by training, James A. Flath offers the reader not only the historical evolution of an architectural complex, but also a rich social history through the exanimation of a singular sacred site. As Flath puts it, “this book is about the work of creating architecture, the art of constricting memorials, and the problem of managing a sacred place” (2). Yet, “in tracing the temple’s multimillennial transitions and transformations and observing how its rhythms are recorded in space, text, and architecture, one begins to understand that the temple is not merely subject to the agency of its human actors. The temple was and is a ‘thing,’ and as a thing, it possesses what Arjun Appadurai describes as a ‘social life’” (2).

Flath’s book is inherently interdisciplinary. I can imagine it being assigned in a graduate seminar or upper-level college course in art history, history of China, material culture, and East Asian religions. Indeed, this book is as much of an art historical account of the temple as it is a chronicle of the social life of the most important Confucian sacred site. As such, it belongs on any reading list on temples and culture—next to Susan Naquin’s seminal study Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400-1900 (UC Berkeley 2000), Jun Jing’s ethnographic account The Temple of Memories: History, Power, and Morality in a Chinese Village (Stanford University Press, 1996), Thomas Wilson’s superb edited volume On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics, and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius (Harvard University Press, 2003), and Francis Schmidt’s more theoretical treatise How the Temple Thinks: Identity and Social Cohesion in Ancient Judaism (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001). If we add Sebastien Billioud and Joel Thoraval’s excellent The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China (Oxford University Press, 2015) to Jing’s and Wilson’s work, which has several chapters on Confucius temples and rites, we would also have a list of exemplary recent books in Confucian studies.

The thematic arrangement of the chapters serves the ambitions of this book well. Its seven chapters are divided into two parts. In the first part, which engages primarily with historical records, we learn about how Kong Temple was constructed and reconstructed across two millennia—for with time comes decay, erosion, entropy, fire. We also learn about the material aspects of ritual life in the temple across three distinct historical periods of ritual practice: the Han Dynasty; from Tang to Yuan Dynasties; Ming and Qing Dynasties, periods much covered by historians of Confucianism such as Thomas Wilson. We also learn about the architectural systems and spatial networks of the temple. These lucidly written chapters, with effective architectural drawings and photographic illustrations to aid visualization, make for an admirable study of Kong Temple as a sacred site.

The second part of the book deals mostly with the fate of Kong Temple in the modern and contemporary periods. Here we see the temple as the site of the “modern politics of culture” since the late nineteenth century. We see the commercialization of the temple and its surrounding areas in recent years; and we see the constant struggles over the management of “heritage” today. The tension over the symbolic capital of the temple is a never-ending process of conflict, of negotiation, of appropriation, and ultimately of revival and transformation. For anyone interested in the politics of religion, culture, and memory in contemporary society, these chapters are excellent sources.

The key insight of this book is the importance of taking seriously the material reality of Kong Temple. Flath treats it as a complex of architectural systems, as a sacred space, as a concrete site for rituals, as a bureaucratic and economic entity, and as a location of cultural politics. Although Flath is clear that he is not assigning agency, per se, to the temple, he shows us how fruitful it is for us to understand the temple as a central albeit unconscious actor in the making of its own history. As he concludes, “Kong Temple continues to influence the way in which the community makes sense of its past–and its present” (203). Flath seems to suggest that Kong Temple is both lieux de memoire (sites of memory) and milieu de memoire (environment of memory), Pierre Nora’s concepts that Flath refers to. This is apt, for, as Flath puts it, a milieu du memoire is “perpetually actual … evolving, unconscious, open to manipulation and appropriation, and forgettable as well as memorable” (10).

Whenever I visit Kong Temple, I see new configurations of ritual activities, commercial transactions, and political symbols emerging, often in unexpected ways. During my last visit, in November 2016, there were selected works of President Xi Jinping for sale in temple shops, with posters advertising his decree that “one should read Confucian classics.” There was also a group of twenty-something men and women wearing hanfu—historical style of clothing dating to before the Qing Dynasty—to pray to Confucius at the temple and at his tomb. They were young professionals from Shanghai, members of an informal club interested in traditional Chinese culture. In their elegant garments from a bygone age, they nevertheless mingled well with other visitors, wading through the light veil of incense smoke as they made their way through the temple ground. Indeed, as Flath shows us eloquently, Kong Temple is forever maintained by the interconnected and tension-filled movements of material, ritual, political, and cultural forces. Perhaps this is its source of vulnerability as well as its ultimate strength.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Anna Sun is associate professor of sociology and Asian studies at Kenyon College.

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James A. Flath is professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario, Canada.


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