In September of the year 2000, my pursuit of Confucius led me and a Mandarin-speaking friend to the Chinese city of Qufu in Shandong Province, formerly the independent state of Lu, where Confucius was born, spent much of his life, and died. Ages ago, Qufu was the capital city of Lu. Today it is a flourishing country town dotted with temples, museums, and shrines dedicated to a favorite son who lived here twenty-five centuries ago.

Every year on September 28, Qufu celebrates the birth of Confucius. My friend and I attended the ceremony commemorating the philosopher's 2551st birthday, a festive event held on the sprawling ground of the Confucian Temple that dominates the center of Qufu. Hundreds of marchers, dancers, and musicians, wearing traditional silk robes in brilliant hues of vermilion, turquoise, and royal blue, carrying feathered banners and plumes, playing horns and lutes, cymbals, drums, and bells, paraded through the temple grounds and around a lacquer-red shrine as a resplendently attired speaker stood beneath the Gate of Esteeming the Lofty and read selections from the Analects — the sayings of Confucius.

Delegates from Confucian societies all over the world were there, along with Chinese government officials and dozens of the philosopher's direct descendents, members of the 77th, 78th, and 79th generations. We looked on as each honored guest approached the shrine in turn and bowed deeply, paying respects to the spirit of the sage as drums rattled and cymbals clanged.

Among the descendents were two half-British schoolchildren, twelve-year-old (Sophie) Kong Chui Yan, dressed in a pink embroidered silk robe, and her small brother, seven-year-old (James) Kong Chui Xu, squirming and shy in gold silk. The middle name Chui instantly identifies them as 79th-generation descendants, according to strict rules laid down by an 18th-century emperor. Sophie and James live in London. They had traveled to Qufu with their parents — their mother is British, their father Chinese — to take part in the ceremonies and make offerings at the family tombs. Earlier, we were told, they had bowed with their elders in front of a freshly killed cow, pig, and sheep, to the mournful tooting of long brass horns. Watching these Eurasian youngsters as they observed solemn ancient rites, I was reminded of the Confucian saying, "All within the Four Seas are brothers."

A popular legend says that Confucius was born some 15 miles to the south of Qufu, in a cave at the foot of Nishan Mountain, where his mother had taken refuge after suddenly going into labor. We wanted to see that cave for ourselves, so with a guide we drove out of town past rice fields, apple orchards, and mud-walled villages to the mountain. A gravel footpath led us down a rocky hillside to a wooden bridge that crossed a small creek. There we saw the entrance to the cave, marked by a stone tablet that says simply: "Cave of Confucius." We peered inside. It seemed a very small cave indeed, a cramped, dark, and damp place for such an epochal figure to come into the world.

While the actual site and date of Confucius's birth are uncertain, there appears to be little question about the location of the philosopher's grave. He lies buried just north of Qufu in the Confucian Forest, along with thousands of his direct and indirect descendants. Scattered through this lush and haunting forest — considered the largest family cemetery in the world — are dozens of temples and pavilions and hundreds of sculptures, tablets, and tombstones. The grave of the Great Sage himself, however, is disarmingly simple: a grass-covered mound enclosed by a low wall and marked by a dignified Ming Dynasty stele. His son and grandson are buried nearby.

Back in the center of Qufu, we paused at the town's busy main intersection, waiting to cross the street against a noisy stream of automobiles, trucks, and pedicabs. Overheard, a huge banner was stretched above the intersection. It displayed yet another saying from the Analects: "Isn't it a joy to greet friends who come from afar?"