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The Yansheng Duke and the Kong family

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The status of the Yansheng Duke – the title given to Confucius’s direct male descendant – rose throughout imperial history as emperors granted him increasing privileges and hereditary titles; under the Qing dynasty, he enjoyed the unique privilege of being permitted to ride a horse inside the Forbidden City and walk along the Imperial Way inside the palace. Emperors presented the duke with large areas of sacrificial fields (so called because the income from the fields was used to pay for sacrificial ceremonies), as well as exempting him from taxes.

As a family, the Kongs remained close-knit, practising a severe interpretation of Confucian ethics. For example, any young family member who offended an elder was fined two taels (about 70g) of silver and battered twenty times with a bamboo club. Strict rules governed who could go where within the house, and when a fire broke out in the living quarters in the last century it raged for three days as only twelve of the five hundred hereditary servants were allowed to go into the area to put it out. A female family member was expected to obey her father, her husband and her son. One elderly Kong general, after defeat on the battlefield, cut his throat for the sake of his dignity. When the news reached the mansion, his son hanged himself as an expression of filial piety; after discovering the body, his wife hanged herself out of female virtue. On hearing this, the emperor bestowed the family with a board, inscribed “A family of faithfulness and filiality”.

The Kong family enjoyed the good life right up until the beginning of the twentieth century. Decline set in rapidly with the downfall of imperial rule, and in the 1920s the family was so poor that when wine was required for entertaining a guest, the servants bought it out of their own pocket, as a favour to their masters. In 1940, the last of the line, Kong Decheng, fled to Taiwan during the Japanese invasion, breaking the tradition of millennia. His sister, Kong Demao, penned In the House of Confucius, a fascinating account of life lived inside this strange family chained to the past; it’s available in foreign-language bookstores. Half of Qufu now claims descent from the Kongs, who are so numerous there is an entire local telephone directory dedicated to the letter K.

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