Revered for centuries but reviled in recent decades, Confucius is making a comeback in China – and on its dinner plates.
“Confucius cuisine” is a fine-dining trend that reflects how the ruling Communist party – which long saw the sage as a reactionary force – has drafted him into its modern campaign to boost what President Xi Jinping has called China’s “cultural soft power”.
One of the few ancient Chinese names to have global recognition, the philosopher highlights bonds with overseas Chinese and other Asian nations, and his moniker has been adopted for more than 300 language-teaching “Confucius Institutes” in 90 countries.
The authorities are “going back and finding certain elements that existed before the 20th century” and “exploiting Confucius as a brand”, says Thomas Wilson, a professor at Hamilton College in New York.
Among restaurants in Qufu in the eastern province of Shandong – where the philosopher known in Chinese as Kong Zi lived from 551 BC to 479 BC – the cuisine is an edible symbol of the way the writer has been reworked.
“Book of Odes and Book of Rites Ginkos”, a dense, mildly sweet dessert named after two Confucius classics, is a yellow pea flour “book” topped with nuts and drizzled with honey.
In another dish, radishes carved into exquisite trees reflect his saying that “food can never be too fine and cooking never too delicate”.
The philosopher’s teachings of hierarchy, order and deference had deep resonance in the feudal societies of China and the region.
Tens of generations of his descendants lived at the sprawling Confucius Residence complex in Qufu, enjoying close ties with a succession of emperors, along with ever bigger land grants and hereditary titles.
They regularly feted all manner of dignitaries with elaborate banquets, over time developing an exquisite cuisine, say the chefs promoting it today.
But that privileged world disappeared in the 20th century, as Japan invaded the country and the Communists won the civil war.
Many Confucius descendants – then in the 77th generation – abandoned Qufu and fled to Taiwan.
After taking power the Communists savaged Confucianism, and during the tumultuous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Red Guard youths incited by Mao Zedong destroyed Confucian temples along with other symbols of the past, and targeted Confucian chefs for abuse.
With trained chefs having fled mainland China or passed away, piecing together exactly what Confucius cuisine entailed has proved difficult.
“The Cultural Revolution cut off nearly four generations,” laments Wang Xinglan, who was commissioned by the commerce ministry to rediscover Confucius cuisine in the 1980s and now heads the Shandong Cuisine Research Association.
Today’s dishes supposedly draw from those developed over the centuries at the residence in Qufu, but that leaves plenty of room for interpretation among enterprising restaurateurs.
“Some people want to use the label, but they simply don’t understand the dishes, the culture, the history – so they can’t make the food,” says Wang.
A couple running Confucian Home-Cooking – one of many hole-in-the-walls in Qufu advertising authentic traditional dishes – serves Confucius Residence Tofu for 30 yuan (HK$38) and egg soup for five yuan.
Their version of “Book of Odes and Book of Rites Ginkgos” amounts to a pile of the yellow nuts ringed by tomato slices, which the husband takes just a few minutes to whip up before sitting back down to stuff chopsticks into plastic sleeves.
On the wall hangs a C rating from the sanitation bureau.
Meanwhile down the street the luxury Shangri-La hotel – where dishes run as high as 680 yuan – boasts an artistic Confucius feast reimagining “Book of Odes and Book of Rites Ginkgos” as a snow pear carved with the word “poetry”.
The dessert is topped with a slowly stewed date, lotus seed and ginkgo nut and drizzled with caramel sauce and osmanthus honey.
The hotel’s Confucius Mansion’s Eight Treasures soup includes sea cucumber, abalone, fish maw and other delicacies.
In another dish prawns are cocooned in hand-pulled fried vermicelli and plated like a modern sculpture.
Professor Wilson points out that “the first motive for reviving any of these things is to make money.
“The so-called Confucius cuisine is part of the opening up of the tourist industry in China,” he says.
A Qufu resident surnamed Li, 45, passing by the lush hotel grounds, dismisses what she considers a ploy for free-spending tourists.
“They take a carrot and carve it into something pretty. But it doesn’t taste good, it only looks good,” she says.
“It’s for people with money.”