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  • Traces of the Sage: Monument, Materiality, and the First Temple of Confucius by James Flath
  • Man Xu (bio)
James Flath. Traces of the Sage: Monument, Materiality, and the First Temple of Confucius. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2016. xix, 290 pp. Hardcover $55.00, isbn 978-0-8248-5370-9.

Inspired by the high-profile development of New Confucianism in contemporary China, scholars have been examining the history of Confucianism from a wide range of perspectives, among which the study of Confucianism and material culture has attracted the attention of a number of historians who are specialized in art, cultural, and social history. James Flath's interest in the study of museums, monuments, and heritage conservation sites gave rise to his research on the Kong Temple, the very first and most prominent monument to Confucius in China. By presenting the Kong Temple as a "thing" that possesses a "social life" and tracing its transitions and transformations (p. 2), his book, Traces of the Sage, not only enriches our knowledge of Confucianism but also contributes to understanding "how monuments achieve iconic status, how architecture engages its inhabitants through contingency, and how space and time intersect in the formation of place" (p. 196).

Flath investigates "the cycle of repair, erosion, and rebuilding" (p. 2) of the Kong Temple from the ancient time to the present and structures his book in chronological order. The first part (chapters 2-4) studies the history of the temple in China's dynastic history and focuses on three themes: "Kong Temple as Structure," "Ritual as Material Culture," and "Kong Temple as Space." [End Page 57] Under each topic, Flath discusses the continuities and changes of the temple in three long-term periods: Han to Tang, Song to Yuan, and Ming-Qing eras. Centuries of construction and reconstruction of the Kong Temple staged the complicated conflict, negotiation, compromise, and cooperation between the Kong family, local elites, and government. Although the Han established Confucianism as an orthodox state ideology, the Kong Temple remained largely "an ancestral temple and memorial shrine" (p. 28). Official worship, sponsorship, and management were absent as a whole till the end of the Tang dynasty. The Kong Temple "emerged as symbol of imperial legitimacy" (p. 28) in the Song dynasty and was "inextricably tied into the system of rule" (p. 35) from the Ming onward. It retained the national prestige and expanded to a palace-like architecture featuring imperial building codes in late imperial China.

Flath conceives the Kong Temple as a monumental complex as well as a sacred space. He explores the history and physical characteristics of the walls, gates, arches, courtyards, rooms, pavilions, steles, effigies, roofs, and interior decoration of the temple to show how classical antiquity sustained here in the long two millennia. "The ongoing processes of inscription, erosion, and reproduction and the active creation of separation and rank have produced an environment with profound associations and a clearly defined hierarchy" (p. 125). Furthermore, he interprets ritual as "an active culture of transaction and negotiation" (p. 52) and "constructive spatial hierarchy" (p. 76). In tracing the movement of skills and resources in the confinement of the temple, he scrutinizes ritual settings in spatial and material terms, presents the complexity of the architecture, and reveals the political implications of ritual performance.

The second part of the book focuses on the development of the Kong Temple in modern and contemporary times. From the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, China suffered from foreign invasions and warlordism. The concern of imperial legitimacy and ritual propriety lost importance, and government sponsorship of the temple was no longer reliable. In tune with the modernization of the nation in the early twentieth century, the temple was subject to new systems of heritage management and political exploitation. Scholars, national government, warlords, and Japanese occupiers interpreted the temple's culture differently and manipulated it to serve various political purposes. In the mid-twentieth century, the newly established communist government appreciated the temple's heritage and historical value and made tentative progress toward conservation. However, the formal protection came to an end during the Cultural Revolution, when the Kong Temple's continuity with the past was criticized...


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