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Temple of Confucius


Among the major religious currents in China, the cult of Confucius corresponds to the official rituals of the Empire, whether at the court or in the temples of Confucius: it is the official religion of the mandarins.  The writings attributed to Confucius (551-479 BCE) attach great importance to rituals and music which are supposed to bring harmony between men.

The origin of certain instruments used in these ceremonies dates back to Neolithic times and sound stones of that period have come down to us. The Chinese established very early on a classification of musical instruments according to eight sounds (bā yīn) which correspond to the eight materials used in these instruments. This classification is part of a symbolic classification system tied to the cosmology of ancient China. The eight materials are stone (stone chimes), earth (globular flute - i.e. ocarina - made of baked clay xūn), metal (bell chimes), wood (wooden drum), bamboo (flutes), gourd (free reed mouth organ, although the shēng is no longer made from gourds), skin (drums) and silk (zither and qín's strings).

The bā yīn classification system covers the traditional Chinese instruments used in official rituals; but these are not the most often used instruments in Chinese music. A panorama of more recent instruments, often of foreign origin, is presented for instance in the Chinese opera.

The imperial regime was replaced by a republic in 1912. Since then the imperial rituals and temples dedicated to Confucius have fallen into disuse. Most of the temples and instruments they contained were destroyed in the course of the 20th century.

Mahillon, the first curator of the Musical Instruments Museum, managed to increase the museum's collections thanks to contacts in many countries. One of his contacts, Jules Van Aalst, published his book Chinese Music in 1884 and is the source of the acquisition of many Chinese instruments by the museum. The set of instruments copied from those of the temple of Confucius in Canton is one of his major contributions.

Unlike the other instruments acquired by the museum, these were specially ordered and made for the museum at the request of Mahillon in around 1908. What remains of the correspondence between Mahillon and Van Aalst shows that they were not entirely satisfied with the results and that the instruments delivered were more suited for display than to be played. Van Aalst also noted out that in thirty years he had never actually seen xūn and páixiāo flutes and that the temple of Confucius in Canton did not have any at that time.

The MIM nonetheless has the privilege of possessing a significant and very rare testimony of the instruments used in official Chinese rituals as they existed before the disappearance of the Empire, after a tradition of more than 2,000 years.

Translation: Fiona Shotter

George Soulié de Morant, Théâtre et musique modernes en Chine, Paris, 1926
Jules A. Van Aalst, Chinese Music, Shanghai, 1884
Jules A. Van Aalst, Chinese Music, Shanghai, 1884