BEIJING — THE only acknowledged direct descendants of Confucius, Kong Demao and Kong Decheng (a sister and brother), are pawns in the rivalry between China and Taiwan.
Now a soft-spoken great-grandmother, Kong Demao regained the stature of her ancestry after the ruling communists acknowledged the influence of China's greatest philosopher and reembraced his legacy in the late 1970s.
The elderly woman sits in a government assembly of prominent Chinese, holds an honorary title in the China Confucius Foundation, enjoys a comfortable apartment, has a car at her disposal, and makes three trips a year back to the Kong family home in Qufu, where she is an influential celebrity.
But Mrs. Kong, who grew up in cloistered feudal luxury in the family mansion, has paid an enormous price for her pedigree. Except for one short meeting in Japan in more than 40 years, she has been separated from her brother since he fled to Taiwan with retreating Nationalists in 1948. That move broke a 2,500-year tradition of family residence in Qufu.
As the direct heir of impoverished Confucius (Kong Fuzi) but the only son of the 77th generation of the vastly wealthy Kong family, Kong Decheng wielded great influence as a noble of the Kong mansion built by Chinese emperors as a monument to the philosophy that kept them in power.
A professor of history and ritual in Taipei, Mr. Kong oversees Taiwan's formidable system of exams, which determines access to education and jobs. But his position also prevents him from corresponding with his mainland sister.
Mrs. Kong, a housewife who was married to a government bureaucrat, was humiliated and forced to dig air-raid shelters during the Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao Zedong viciously attacked Confucianism as a remnant of a hated feudal past.
"Perhaps Mao himself didn't fully understand what is Confucianism, so he criticized it," she muses. "In everyone's life there are twists and turns. I now live in peace."
Today, Mrs. Kong basks in her renown, especially during the frequent trips to Qufu that she began making in 1978 to oversee what had been the family domain.
Admittedly no Confucian scholar, she remembers only a few of the sayings she learned as a girl, confined almost constantly within what was considered a "sacred mansion."
Mrs. Kong is unsure just how many Kongs there are. Regularly, delegations from South Korea, Japan, and other neighboring countries influenced by Confucian thought come to search the archives in hopes of winning a place on the Chinese world's most prominent family tree.
Whom China and Taiwan will acknowledge in the next generation remains to be seen. Mrs. Kong still hopes for a reunion with her brother on the mainland. But she is unsure if China will recognize her brother's son as the next descendent or find a new designee among those claiming Kong lineage on the mainland.