Explain moral markets

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Choose and answer one of the following (cite lectures and Yao for all answers):

1. Explain moral markets

2. Explain law as reconciliation, law as restitution

3. Explain the Confucian understanding of material and moral incentives.

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Taking into account the long history and wide range of Confucian studies, this book introduces Confucianism – initiated in China by Confucius (c. 552–c. 479 bc) – primarily as a philosophical and religious tradition. It pays attention to Confucianism in both the West and the East, focusing not only on the tradition’s doctrines, schools, rituals, sacred places and terminology, but also stressing the adaptations, transformations and new thinking taking place in modern times.

While previous introductions have oCered a linear account of Con- fucian intellectual history, Xinzhong Yao presents Confucianism as a tradition with many dimensions and as an ancient tradition with contemporary appeal. This gives the reader a richer and clearer view of how Confucianism functioned in the past and of what it means in the present.

There are important diCerences in the ways Confucianism has been presented in the hands of diCerent scholars. This problem is caused by, and also increases, the gap between western and eastern per- ceptions of Confucianism. Written by a Chinese scholar based in the West, this book uses both traditional and contemporary scholar- ship and draws together the many strands of Confucianism in a style accessible to students, teachers, and general readers interested in one of the world’s major religious traditions.

xinzhong yao is Senior Lecturer in and Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Lampeter. He has doctorates from the People’s University of China, Beijing, and from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Dr Yao has published widely in the area of philosophy and religious studies and is the author of five monographs including Confucianism and Christianity (1996) and Daode Huodong Lun (On Moral Activities; 1990), four translations (from English to Chinese), and about fifty academic papers. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.







An introduction to Confucianism

XINZHONG YAO University of Wales, Lampeter



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List of illustrations page viii Preface xi Confucianism in history: chronological table xiv

Introduction: Confucian studies East and West 1 Stages of the Confucian evolution 4 Methodological focuses 10 Structure and contents 12 Translation and transliteration 14

1 Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics 16 ‘Confucianism’ and ru 16

Ru and the ru tradition 17 Confucius 21 Confucianism as a ‘family’ (jia) 26 Confucianism as a cult (jiao) 28 Confucianism as a form of learning (xue) 29

Ethics, politics and religion in the Confucian tradition 30 An ethical system? 32 An oAcial orthodoxy? 34 A religious tradition? 38

Confucian classics 47 Ancient records and the classics 49 Confucius and the Confucian classics 52




Confucian classics in history 54 The Thirteen Classics 56 The Five Classics 57 The Four Books 63

2 Evolution and transformation – a historical perspective 68 Confucianism and three options 68 Mengzi and his development of idealistic Confucianism 71 Xunzi: a Great Confucian synthesiser 76 The victory of Confucianism and its syncretism 81 Dong Zhongshu and the establishment of Han Confucianism 83 Classical Learning: controversies and debates 86 The Confucian dimension of ‘Mysterious Learning’ 89 The emergence of Neo-Confucianism 96 Five masters of early Neo-Confucianism 98 Zhu Xi and his systematic Confucianism 105 The Idealistic School: Lu Jiuyuan and Wang Shouren 109 Korea: the second home for Confucianism 115 Japanese Confucianism: transfiguration and application 125

3 The Way of Confucianism 139 The Way of Heaven 141

Heaven and the Confucian Ultimate 142 Heaven and moral principles 147 Heaven as Nature or Natural Law 149

The Way of Humans 153 Morality as transcendence 155 Good and evil 160 Sacred kingship and humane government 165

The Way of Harmony 169 Harmony: the concept and the theme 170 Oneness of Heaven and Humans 174 Humans and Nature 175 Social conflicts and their solutions 178

4 Ritual and religious practice 190 Confucianism: a tradition of ritual 191

Ritual and sacrifice 191

List of contents




Sacrifice to Heaven 196 Sacrifice to ancestors and filial piety 199 The cult of Confucius 204

Learning and spiritual cultivation 209 Learning as a spiritual path 209 Spiritual cultivation 216

Confucianism and other religious traditions 223 The unity of three doctrines 224 Confucianism and Daoism 229 Mutual transformation between Confucianism and Buddhism 233 Confucianism and Christianity 237

5 Confucianism and its modern relevance 245 Confucianism: survival and renovation 246

Stepping into the modern age 247 The rise of modern Confucianism 251 Unfolding of the Confucian project 255

The themes of modern Confucian studies 261 Confucianism and the fate of China 263 Confucianism and western culture 266 Confucianism and modernisation 270

Confucianism and its modern relevance 273 The revival of Confucian values 274 An ethic of responsibility 279 A comprehensive understanding of education 280 A humanistic meaning of life 284

Select bibliography 287 Transliteration table 309 Index 330

List of contents




List of illustrations

An inscribed portrait of Confucius travelling around to teach, supposedly painted by Wu Daozi, a famous painter in the Tang Dynasty (618–906) frontispiece

(Located between pages 138 and 139)

1 The statue of Confucius at the main hall of the Temple of Con- fucius, Qufu, the home town of Confucius

2 The Apricot Platform where Confucius is said to have taught, in the Temple of Confucius, Qufu, Confucius’ home town

3 The Sacred Path leading to the tomb of Confucius, the number of trees at one side symbolising his seventy-two disciples and at the other his life of seventy-three years

4 The tablet of Confucius in front of his tomb 5 The tablet and tomb of Zisi (483?–402? bce), the grandson of

Confucius 6 People meditating in front of the hut at the side of the tomb

of Confucius where Zigong (502?–? bce), a disciple of Confucius, is said to have stayed for six years mourning the death of his master

7 The tablet and statue of a Former Worthy (xian xian), Master Yue Zheng (?–?) who is traditionally regarded as a transmitter of the Confucian doctrine of filial piety, in the Temple of Confucius at Qufu




8 The Temple of the Second Sage (Mengzi, 372?–289? bce), at Zou, Mengzi’s home town

9 Korean scholars paying homage to Confucius in the ceremonies of sacrifice to Confucius at Songgyun’gwan, the National Academy of Confucius (from: Spencer J. Palmer’s Confucian Rituals in Korea, Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press and Seoul: Po Chi Chai Ltd, 1984, plate 66)

10 Two semicircular pools in front of a hall in the Songyang Confu- cian Academy, near the famous Chan Buddhist monastery, Shaolin Si, Henan Province

11 The spiritual tablet and statue of Zhu Xi (1130–1200) in White Cloud Temple, a Daoist Temple, Beijing. The inscription on the tablet reads ‘The Spiritual Site of Master Zhu Xi’. His hand gesture is certainly a kind of variation of Buddhist ones

12 The stage of the Global Celebration of Confucius’ 2549th birthday held by the Confucian Academy Hong Kong, 17 October 1998

List of illustrations








As a schoolboy I read an Indian story about four blind men and an ele- phant: each of these men gave a diCerent and highly amusing account of the elephant after touching only a specific part of the animal, and, of course, not one of them was able to describe the animal correctly. To my young mind, they couldn’t do so because they weren’t able to touch the whole of the elephant in one go. In other words, I believed that if any of them had had an opportunity to do this, then he would certainly have been able to generate a correct image of it. As I grew up, and had an opportunity to read more on philosophy and religion, I realised that it was perhaps not as simple as this. Could a blind man, who had never seen or heard about such an animal as an elephant, tell us what it is, even if we suppose that he could have physical contact with all the parts of the animal? Besides the limitation of sense experience, there are many other factors that would hinder us from acquiring full knowledge of such an object, and in addition to intellectual inability, there are many other elements that would distort our image.

Having fully understood the problem arising from the intellectual pro- cess of knowing things, Zhuangzi, a Daoist philosopher of around the fourth century bce, argues that our vision has been blurred by our own perceptions when coming to grasp things, and that true knowledge is possible only if we take all things and ourselves to be a unity, in which no diCerentiation of ‘this’ and ‘that’ or of ‘I’ and ‘non-I’ is made. Shao Yong, a Confucian scholar of the eleventh century ce, approached this problem from a similar perspective. For him, error in human knowledge




is due to the fact that we observe things from our own experience. He therefore proposed that we must view things, not with our physical eyes, but with our mind, and not even with our mind, but with the principle inherent in things. When the boundary between subject and object dis- appears, we will be able to see things as they are.

The majority of scholars who have been trained in the West, however, find it diAcult to accept the underlying philosophy of the Chinese meth- odology proposed above. A much appreciated intellectual tradition in the West maintains that an investigation must start from a separation of subject and object, and that experience along with a critical examination of experience is the only guarantee of the ‘objectivity’ of the invest- igation. According to this view, a diCerentiation of values from facts is therefore central to any presentation of a religious and philosophical system.

Neither of these two seemingly diCerent and even contradictory meth- odologies alone can assure us of a true knowledge of religion and philo- sophy. More and more people are coming to appreciate that we would benefit from a combination of these two approaches in our investiga- tion of religious and philosophical traditions. Although this is a topic far beyond the parameters of a short preface, suAce it to say, that the inquiry into religious phenomena should involve empathy to some degree, and that an inquirer should be able to enter into the doctrine and practice of a religion almost as an ‘insider’, as well as to step outside as a critical observer. Indeed this methodology underlies the structure and contents of my introduction to Confucianism, and readers may easily see that the nature and image of the Confucian tradition as revealed in this book have been the result of a ‘double’ investigation, with the author being both a ‘bearer’ of the values examined and a ‘critic’ of the doctrine presented.

The formation of the book took place whilst lecturing on Confucian- ism in the University of Wales, Lampeter. I have run this course for a number of years, and the last time I did it was during the first term of the 1998/9 academic year, when I had just completed the first draft of this book. Conveniently, I took the manuscript as the textbook for the course, and I was pleased to know that it functioned well in this capacity both in and outside the class. Looking back at the writing process, I realise how much I have benefited from teaching and from the questions asked and suggestions made by the students.





I am grateful to Clare Hall, University of Cambridge for awarding me a Visiting Fellowship in 1998, which, supported also by the Pantyfedwen Fund and the Spalding Trust, made a significant contribution to the com- pletion of the first draft of the book. Intellectually, I benefited from con- versations and discussions with colleagues both at Lampeter and at Clare Hall, whose knowledge and insight added much value to the formation and reshaping of my original presentation. A number of colleagues, friends and students read various parts of the book. I would especially like to thank Oliver Davies, Gavin Flood and Todd Thucker, for their comments and advice, which have enabled me to avoid errors and oversights and to correct infelicities of English style throughout the book. Any that remain are, of course, my own responsibility.

Various sections of this book originally appeared as papers in academic journals or as part of research projects. Among them, ‘Peace and Recon- ciliation in the Confucian Tradition’ (Reconciliation Project, Gresham College) becomes the basis of the third section in chapter 3, and ‘Confu- cianism and its Modern Values’ (Journal of Beliefs and Values, no. 1, 1999) has been incorporated into the third section of chapter 5. I wish to thank the editors for allowing me to reuse the materials in this book. I would also like to thank the editors of Cambridge University Press, especially Mr Kevin Taylor, for their eCorts in nurturing the project and bringing this book to the readers.





Confucianism in history: chronological table

In the world Chinese history

Legendary ages

Xia Dynasty (2205?–1600? bce)

Shang or Yin Dynasty (1600?–1100? bce)

Zhou Dynasty (1100?–249 bce)

Western Zhou (1100?–771 bce) Eastern Zhou (770–256 bce) Spring and Autumn period (770–476 bce) Warring States period (475–221 bce)


Sage–kings: Yao, Shun, Yu the Great

Jie, the last king, a condemned tyrant

Tang, the founding father Zhou, the last king, a condemned tyrant

King Wen, King Wu, Duke of Zhou, the three Zhou sages; Confucius (551–479 bce)

The Confucian classics

School of Zisi (483?–402 bce)

The Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean

Mengzi (372–289 bce) Xunzi (313?–238? bce)




Confucianism was introduced to Vietnam, Korea and Japan Indian Buddhism was introduced to China and interacted with Confucianism

National Academy in Korea established (372) The Analects were brought to Japan in 405(?) by a Korean scholar Wang In.

Qin Dynasty (221–206 bce)

First emperor (r. 221–210 bce)

Han Dynasty (206 bce–220 ce)

Former Han (206 bce–8 ce)

Liu Bang (r. 206–195) Emperor Wu (r. 140–87)

Xin Dynasty (9–23) Later Han (25–220)

Wei–Jin Dynasties (220–420)

Wei (220–265) Western Jin (265–316) Eastern Jin (317–420)

Southern and Northern Dynasties (386–581)

Confucianism in history: chronological table

In the world Chinese history Confucianism

Burning of books and the killing of Confucian scholars

Confucianism became the state orthodoxy Classics annotated Grand Academy established Old Text School

Dong Zhongshu (179?–104 bce)

New Text School Yang Xiong (53 bce–18ce) Liu Xin (?–23 ce)

Huan Tan (23 bce–50 ce) Wang Chong (27–100?) Ma Rong (79–166) Zheng Xuan (127–200) Chenwei Literature

Mysterious Learning Wang Bi (226–249) He Yan (d. 249) Xiang Xiu (223–300)

‘Pure Conversation’ Ruan Ji (210–263) Ji Kang (223–262)

Daoist Religion incorporated Confucian ethics

Buddhism flourished and debates between Confucianism and Buddhism intensified




Nestorians came to China (635) Korean Silla Kingdom (365–935) established Confucian Studies First Japanese Constitution (604) incorporated Confucian ideas

Korean Koryo Dynasty (918–1392): civil service examination system; national university

Confucianism in history: chronological table

In the world Chinese history Confucianism

Sui-Tang Dynasties (581–907)

Sui (581–618) Tang (618–906)

Song Dynasties (960–1279)

Northern Song (960–1126) Southern Song (127–1279)

Yuan Dynasty (1260–1368)

Confucianism gradually regained its prestige; civil service examination system established

Han Yu (768–824) Li Ao (772–841) Liu Zongyuan (733–819)

Renaissance of Neo-Confucianism

Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) Zhang Zai (1020–1077)

Rationalistic School Zhu Xi (1130–1200)

Idealistic School Lu Jiuyuan (1139–1193)

Practical School Chen Liang (1143–1194)

Harmonising Rationalism and Idealism

Wu Cheng (1249–1333)

Zhu Xi’s annotated Four Books as standard version for civil service examinations (1313)




Confucianism in history: chronological table

Korean Yi Dynasty (1392–1910): Neo-Confucianism

Yi Hwang (1501–1570) Yi I (1536–1584)

Japanese bakufu system Fujiwara Seika (1561–1619) Hayashi Razan (1583–1657)

Japanese Shushigaku Yamazaki Ansai (1618–1682) Kaibara Ekken (1630–1714)

Japanese Yômeigaku Nakae Tôju (1608–1648)

Korean Practical Learning Korean Eastern Learning Japanese Kogaku

Itô Jinsai (1627–1705) Ogyû Sorai (1666–1728)

James Legge (1815– 1897) translated the Confucian classics into English

In the world Chinese history Confucianism

Chen Xianzhang (1428–1500) Wang Yangming (1472–1529) Schools of Wang Yangming

Li Zhi (1527–1602) Donglin School

Gao Panlong (1562–1626)

Liu Zongzhou (1578–1654)

Learning of the Han School of Evidential Research

Gu Yanwu (1613–1682) Wang Fuzhi (1619–1692) Huang Zongxi (1610–1695) Dai Zhen (1724–1777)

New Learning Kang Youwei (1858–1927)

Ming Dynasty (1368–1644)

Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)




In the world Chinese history Confucianism

Wing-tsit Chan (1901–1994) W. T. de Bary Okada Takehiko Cheng Chung-yin Tu Wei-ming

Republic of China (1911– ) People’s Republic of China (1949– )

Modern New Confucianism

Xiong Shili (1885–1968) Fung Yu-lan (1895–1990) Tang Junyi (1909–1978) Mou Zongsan (1909–1995)

Confucianism in history: chronological table



Introduction: Confucian studies East and West



Confucian studies East and West

If we were to characterize in one word the Chinese way of life for the last two thousand years, the word could be ‘Confucian’. No other individual in Chinese history has so deeply influenced the life and thought of his people, as a transmitter, teacher and creative interpreter of the ancient culture and literature and as a moulder of the Chinese mind and character.

(de Bary, et al., 1960, vol. 1: 15)

At the end of the sixteenth century, an Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552– 1610) arrived in China. Ricci soon realised that the first task for him should not be to win over a great number of people to conversion and baptism, but instead to try to secure a stable and respectable position for himself within Chinese society. So Ricci and his fellow missionaries strenuously attempted to integrate themselves into the community. The Jesuits saw a similarity between Christianity and Buddhism – both were religions from the West – and therefore they presented themselves as ‘Monks from the West’, shaving their heads and changing their clothes to Buddhist robes in order to win the support from the Chinese, just as they thought the Buddhists had done a thousand years before. However, it was not too long before the missionaries realised that the Buddhists were not so highly regarded as they had at first imagined. They dis- covered that in fact it was Confucian scholars who were the true social elite of Chinese society. Accordingly the Jesuits changed their habits once more, wearing Confucian clothes and growing their hair long. In this way they created a new image of ‘Scholars of the West’. Ricci continued with his Chinese studies, paying great attention to Confucian texts, and began to be regarded as a highly respected western scholar (xi shi). Rule says:

The decisive change from the dress and role of Buddhist monks to those of Confucian literati was accomplished in May 1595 when Ricci left Shao-chou for Nanking, but it had been in preparation for a considerable time . . . Matteo Ricci first discovered and then



An introduction to Confucianism


adapted himself to Confucianism in the course of his thirty-odd years in China. (Rule, 1986: 15, 26)

Ricci became friends with a number of Chinese scholars and oAcials who introduced him to the court. He and his fellow missionaries sent back hundreds of letters, travel reports, treatises and translations to Europe which made a major contribution to the introduction of Con- fucius and Confucianism to the West. Although there had been some knowledge of China and the Chinese, until Ricci and other Christian missionaries began their work, Confucianism had hardly been studied in Europe. The serious way in which the missionaries treated Confucian doctrines suggested that as Christianity was to the Europeans, so Con- fucianism was to the Chinese.

Ricci and his fellow missionaries clearly studied Confucian classics as part of their missionary strategy and their presentation of the Confucian tradition may indeed be taken as a ‘Jesuit creation’ (Rule, 1986). How- ever, by introducing Confucianism to Europe, Ricci became one of the pioneers of Confucian Studies in the West. The Jesuit version of Con- fucianism played a key role in generating Sinophilism among the learned community in Europe and some Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, such as Voltaire and François Quesnay in France, Leibniz and Christian WolC in Germany, and Matthew Tindal in England thereby became fascinated by Confucian ethical and social doctrines. For some of them, the Confucian political blueprint that the state was ruled ‘in accordance with moral and political maxims enshrined in the Confucian classics’ appeared to provide an ideal prototype for a modern state (Dawson, 1964: 9). Since then, Christian missionaries and those influenced by Christian images of the eastern tradition have continuously played an important role in the introduction of Confucianism to the West and in promoting the interpretation of Confucian doctrine within a Christian or European framework. ‘In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’, according to Karl Jaspers, ‘it was not rare for Protestant missionaries in China to be so over- whelmed by the profundity of Chinese thought that they would reverse their role and return to the West, so to speak, as “Chinese missionaries” ’ (Jaspers, 1962: 143– 4). The twentieth century has seen a rise in the number of sinologists, philosophers, anthropologists and historians taking part in Confucian Studies. As a result, Confucian Studies has gradually become a discrete discipline and is now an established subject



Introduction: Confucian studies East and West


not only within the subject of Asian Studies but also in the areas of philosophy and religious studies.

Modern scholars from West and East introduce and examine the Confucian tradition from the standpoints both of insiders and of out- siders. More recent examples of preeminent scholars in the West who take their points of view roughly from within Confucianism but also critically examine the tradition include, to name but a few, Wing-tsit Chan (1901–94), Wm. T. de Bary, Tu Wei-ming, Cheng Chung-ying, Roger T. Ames and Rodney L. Taylor. These scholars have not only introduced Confucian Studies to western students and readers, but have also developed and enriched the Confucian tradition itself. In their hands, Confucianism is not merely treated as an old political ideology or a socio- economic system, but primarily as a religious or philosophic tradition, open both to the modern world and to the future. These scholars have striven to establish a strong link between the past and the present, a healthy interaction between the Chinese tradition and other great traditions in the world. Their influence on western students of China and Confucianism is enormous, and some of them have created a new image of Confucian masters. This can be seen from Sommer’s testimony in relation to Wing-tsit Chan, a prominent translator and researcher of Confucian Learning, that ‘some of us students secretly suspected that, in some mysterious way, Professor Chan was Chu Hsi [a great Neo- Confucian master]’ (Sommer, 1995: ix).

Two main problems engage Confucian Studies in the West. The first problem is that after about 400 years of study and research, Confucian- ism in the West is still a subject which only involves a small group of scholars. This situation is due in part to highly scholarly Confucian works being less accessible to students pursuing general philosophical and religious studies. This problem is one of the major factors in the slow development and expansion of Confucian Studies in the West. The second problem arises from methodology and the ways in which Con- fucianism is introduced and studied. Confucianism has been presented variously in the hands of diCerent scholars, which causes further con- fusion among readers. These two problems are both caused by, and also increase, the gap between Confucianism as it is perceived in the West and the Confucianism understood in the East. More and more scholars have realised the extent of these problems and have sought to solve them in one way or another. For example, in a book entitled Thinking Through



An introduction to Confucianism


Confucius, David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames attempt to return to the pre- suppositions that sustain the Confucian tradition through reinterpreting Confucius. They comment that

The primary defect of the majority of Confucius’ interpreters – those writing from within the Anglo-European tradition as well as those on the Chinese side who appeal to Western philosophic categories – has been the failure to search out and articulate those distinctive presuppositions which have dominated the Chinese tradition.

(Hall & Ames, 1987: 1)

Much of East Asia was once under the influence of Confucianism, but this has waned, and Confucianism has clearly lost its dominant position there. Even so, despite all criticism, Confucianism still has an important role to play in East Asian philosophy, religion, politics, ethics and culture. Consequently, one of the major tasks facing all scholars of Confucian studies is how to communicate between traditional values and modern applications, between eastern and western Confucian scholarship.

Stages of the Confucian evolution Confucianism is primarily a Chinese, or more precisely, East Asian, tradi- tion. To understand Confucianism as a way of life or as a traditional system of values, we have to go to its homeland and find out how it came into being and how it was transformed. A popular method that is used in presenting the Chinese Confucian tradition is to divide its history into as many periods as there are Chinese dynasties. In this way Confucianism becomes part of a much more complicated history and the Confucian pro- gress is mixed up with the general changes in political, social, economic, religious and cultural life. On many occasions Confucianism gained strength and positive influence from these changes, yet on other occasions it suCered from the breakdown of the social fabric and responded by becoming either more flexible or more dogmatic. Throughout the his- tory of the Chinese dynasties, Confucianism changed and adapted itself to new political and social demands, and these changes and adaptations are as important as the teachings of the early Confucian masters.

It can be said in general that the advance of Confucian Learning was directly related to the replacement of one dynasty with another. The link between Confucianism and dynastic government was formally forged during the Former Han Dynasty (206 bce–8 ce) when it was promoted as



Introduction: Confucian studies East and West


the state ideology. Since then, right up until the beginning of the twentieth century, Confucian scholar–oAcials were influential in laying down the basis for government, and the amount of influence exerted by Confucian scholars more or less depended on the patronage of those people who were in a position to implement the teachings. None the less it does not follow that Confucianism was always a shadow of political change. Much of the development of Confucian Learning was largely independent of imperial patronage and many of its schools remained outside the political milieu and presented a direct challenge to the establishment. Confucianism was not merely a passive tool of government. Rather, it functioned, to a considerable extent, as a watchdog for ruling activities, endeavouring to apply its principles to shaping and reshaping the political structure. There were doctrinal elements that sustained the development of Confucian schools and there were also spiritual reasons for Confucian masters to direct their learning away from the current actions and politics of those in power. In this sense de Bary is right when he points out that

It is probably to the Confucian ethos and Confucian scholarship that the Chinese dynastic state owed much of its stability and bureaucratic continuity . . . Yet the reverse was not equally true; Confucianism was less dependent on the state for survival than the state on it. Even though aCected by the rise and fall of dynasties, Confucianism found ways to survive. (de Bary, 1988: 110)

If Confucianism is not simply a shadow of dynastic change, then how should we present a historical perspective of it? When discussing the history of Chinese philosophy as a whole, Fung Yu-lan (1895–1990), one of the great Modern New Confucians, divided this history into two ages, the creative and the interpretative. He calls the creative age, from Confucius to the Prince of Huainan (d. 122 bce), the Period of the Phi- losophers (zi xue); and names the interpretative age, from Dong Zhongshu (179 –104 bce) to Kang Youwei (1858–1927 ce), the Period of Classical Learning (jing xue) (Fung, 1953: 2). This two-part division reveals some essential characteristics of the development of the Confucian tradition. The creative period represents the initial formulation of the early teach- ings into a cohesive tradition while the interpretative period illustrates the expansion of the tradition in line with social and political develop- ments that necessarily take place over the centuries. However, if we simply apply this two-fold pattern to the history of Confucianism, then



An introduction to Confucianism


our perspective would be seriously limited. By merely singling out the methodological features of Confucian Learning, this division under- emphasises the distinctive contributions made by distinguished masters and overlooks the multidimensionality of various Confucian schools. More importantly, this approach does not take suAcient account of the interplay between Confucianism and the many other traditions that also existed through its long history and development.

Focusing on the development of modern Confucianism, Mou Zongsan (1908 –95), another modern New Confucian master, formulated a diCerent pattern for the history of Confucianism, dividing it into three periods or ‘epochs’ (Fang & Li, 1996: 486 – 95). His disciples, among whom Tu Wei-ming presents a most persuasive argument, have developed this theory further. According to this three-period theory, Confucianism thus far has gone through three epochs. The first epoch from Confucius (551– 479 bce), Mengzi (371–289 bce) and Xunzi (310?–211? bce) to Dong Zhongshu represents the origin of Confucianism and the accept- ance of the tradition as the mainstream ideology, which corresponds to the period from the Spring and Autumn period (770 – 476 bce) to the end of the Later Han Dynasty (25–220 ce). The second epoch starts from the renaissance of Neo-Confucianism and its spread to other parts of East Asia and ends with the abolition of the dominance of Confucianism in China and East Asia, corresponding to the era from the Song Dynasty (960 –1279) to the beginning of the twentieth century. The third epoch takes place in the twentieth century, beginning with the critical reflection on the tradition initiated in the May Fourth Movement (1919) and which is still an ongoing process. A significant feature of the third epoch is that modern Confucian scholars propagate and reinterpret Confucian doctrines in the light of Western traditions, in which Confucianism is being brought into the world and the world into Confucianism (Tu, 1993: 141– 60; 1996a: 418). The primary question behind the three-epoch theory is whether or not Confucianism is able to develop so that it can become part of a global spirituality and culture. In search for answers to this question the emphasis must be on the Confucian expansion of its geographical area in relation to its self-transformation in response to external challenges. The three-epoch theory implies that the further development of Confucianism depends upon whether or not it can re- spond appropriately and successfully to industrialisation, modernisation, democracy and the ‘global village’. Commendable as the three-epoch theory is, it is nevertheless inadequate for us to use this theory to present




Introduction: Confucian studies East and West


the historical perspective of the Confucian tradition. As a highly abstract formula, the theory inevitably pays less attention to many significant parts or periods of Confucian evolution which have made important con- tributions to sustaining and innovating Confucian Learning. Therefore, if we use it as a paradigm for the history of Confucianism, it would be too general to reveal what characterises the Confucian tradition as a con- stantly growing and changing tradition. If using it to highlight Confucian history, we would overlook the fact that Confucianism draws its energy and vitality both from within and from the interaction between itself and many other traditions, and between the past and the present.

This introduction is not intended as a thorough study of Confucian history. We nevertheless need to present a brief account of how Con- fucianism evolved and how it was transformed. In our historical per- spective, Confucianism has gone through five stages, or in other words, it has presented itself in five dimensions. In each of these stages or dimen- sions, Confucian doctrines gained new characteristics, the contents of Confucian practices were enriched and the range of Confucian teach- ing was widened.

Confucianism in formation In this first stage, Confucianism acquires a ‘classical’ form. The classic presentation of Confucianism (ruxue or rujia) took shape during the so-called Spring and Autumn period (770 –476 bce). Confucius and his faithful followers made the first eCorts to formulate a new philosophy based on the old tradition and propagated it as the path to peace and har- mony. Much modification of, elaboration and clarification on classical Confucianism were added by brilliant scholars in the Warring States period (475–221 bce), among whom Mengzi and Xunzi became preeminent in the later Confucian tradition, and due to their eCorts Confucianism became one of the major schools with many diCerent presentations.

Confucianism in adaptation In the second stage, Confucianism is reformed and renewed in the inter- action between Confucian schools and the schools of Legalism, Yin–Yang and the Five Elements, Moism and Daoism. Following the replacement of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 bce) by the Han Dynasty, Confucianism recovered gradually from the setback under the Qin persecution and the Legalist discrimination. Having clearly realised that they were in an




An introduction to Confucianism


eclectic culture, Han Confucians started a long process of adapting their doctrines to the need of the empire. During the process of adaptation, classical Confucianism was transformed, elaborated and extended. A theological and metaphysical doctrine of interaction between Heaven and humans was established and consequently became the cornerstone of the revived Confucianism. There were two prominent schools of the time: the New Text and the Old Text Schools. Debates between them resulted in new interpretations of Confucius and the Confucian classics. This led to what is known as ‘Classical Learning’, or more accurately, ‘scholastic studies of the classics’ ( jing xue). Attention focused on close interpreta- tion of words and sentences in the classics and by the end of the Later Han Dynasty the extensive exegesis had nearly exhausted all the life energy of Confucian scholars. To counter this stagnation, scholars of the Wei–Jin Dynasties (220 – 420) adopted one of two courses. Some introduced Daoist philosophy into Confucianism while others adapted Confucian world-views to Daoist principles. In each way Daoism and Confucianism came together in what is known as Dark Learning or Mysterious Learning (xuan xue). This was to have a lasting influence upon the later development of Chinese thought.

Confucianism in transformation In this stage, Confucianism responds to the challenges from Buddhism and Daoism by ‘creating’ a new form of Confucian Learning. Con- fucianism of the Song–Ming Dynasties (960–1279, 1368 –1644) regained its authority over all aspects of social and religious life. Inspired by Buddhist philosophy and Daoist spirituality, Confucian scholars re- formulated the Confucian view of the universe, society and the self on the one hand, and endeavoured to strip Confucian Learning of the elements they considered to be Buddhist–Daoist superstitions on the other. The result of their eCorts was a comprehensive system of new Confucian Learning called Dao Xue (the Learning of the Way) or Li Xue (the Learning of the Principle/ Reason), which as such is normally trans- lated in the West as Neo-Confucianism.

Confucianism in variation The fourth period sees Chinese Confucianism being introduced to other East Asian countries, and combined with local culture and tradi- tion to acquire new forms of presentation. China is the homeland of



Introduction: Confucian studies East and West


Confucianism, but Confucianism is not confined to China. The history of Confucianism can be characterised as a process of radiation. From its origins in the north, it spread to the whole of China and then to other countries of East Asia. More recently it has spread to North America, Europe and the rest of the world. According to historical records, Con- fucian doctrines and institutions were introduced to Vietnam, Korea and Japan as early as the Former Han Dynasty. In the beginning, scholars in these countries simply replicated the Chinese system but gradually, eminent native scholars emerged who, taking the Chinese masters as their guides, reinterpreted the Confucian classics and commentaries in the light of their own understanding, experience and insight. In this way, they successfully recreated a new scholarship by introducing new forms and contents into Confucian Learning to satisfy the social and political needs of their own countries. Thus, Chinese Confucianism acquired additional manifestations, where the common sources of Confucian Learning and practices were transformed into diCerent and yet related streams flow- ing into the twentieth century.

Confucianism in renovation Confucianism is further transformed during this last period and develops in the light of other world philosophies, especially European philosoph- ical tradition and Christian spirituality in the modern age. Prominent scholars of the twentieth century such as Xiong Shili (1885–1968), Liang Suming (1893–1988), Fung Yu-lan (1895–1990), Qian Mu (1895–1990), Tang Junyi (1909 –78) and Mou Zongsan (1909–95), devoted the whole of their lives to the revival of Confucian values and the transformation of Confucian doctrines. Their contributions have rejuvenated Confucian- ism and constitute a significant part of ‘modern new Confucianism’ (xiandai xin ruxue).

While intending to give a brief but clear account of Confucian history, we recognise that it is not possible in this work to take full account of all the Confucian schools and sub-schools. Therefore we will have to single out the most influential masters and examine their contributions to the development of the Confucian tradition. In so doing, we will especially emphasise the epoch-making innovations and transformations achieved and highlight the crucial stages in its development, while leaving many great Confucians and their teachings unexamined, or less closely examined than they might otherwise deserve.



An introduction to Confucianism


Methodological focuses Taking into account the long history and wide range of Confucian studies engaged in the East and the West, and the great contributions made by modern scholars during the last few decades, I will present Confucian- ism primarily as a philosophical and religious tradition, with a special focus on its intellectual creativity and its modern relevance. I intend sum- marily to highlight, and critically examine, what has been achieved both in the West and in the East. I will also pay special attention to what has been understood as ‘Confucianism’ with regard to its doctrines, schools, rituals, sacred places and terminology presented in history, while at the same time stressing the significance of the adaptations, transformations and ‘new thinking’ taking place in modern times.

One way to write an introductory book about Confucianism is to follow its historical development, beginning with the pre-Confucius age down to modern times. This is the basic structure of a few books of this kind, and James Legge (1815–97), Herrlee Creel, and more recently John Berthrong have done it in this way. While giving the reader a linear account of Confucian intellectualism, these scholars are less successful in their presentation of Confucianism as a philosophical and religious spirit penetrating all strata of society. In contrast to them, I will intro- duce Confucianism as a single tradition with many facets and as an ancient tradition with contemporary appeal. I hope to give the reader a multidimensional view of the Confucian tradition by investigating how Confucianism functioned in the past and how it is applied in the present.

To examine the Confucian tradition, we need to explore its original sources, not solely relying on second-hand materials available in the West. By original sources we mean two kinds of texts. Firstly, original texts in Chinese either in the form of ancient classics, annotations and com- mentaries or in modern deliberation and presentation. Secondly, inter- pretative books and articles in other languages, both highly specialist materials including translations and annotations, and theme studies and original research. These two kinds of material are equally important and cross-references between them will be made throughout the chapters. A select bibliography containing both categories is appended for further reference.

Whether or not Confucianism is religious is a question of debate, and this will be closely examined in chapter 1. Here, suAce it to say that



Introduction: Confucian studies East and West


Confucianism is a tradition open to religious values. There are two approaches to religious traditions in China adopted by prominent sinologists; in one, a religion is studied as it was presented in the sacred writings, while in the other, it is studied as it is applied in the way of life. At an earlier stage these two methodologies were represented respect- ively by James Legge and J. J. M. de Groot. W. E. Soothill points out the deficiency of each of them and believes that any religious tradition must be studied in both dimensions. This comment is of insight, and will be useful for our present study of Confucianism:

A study of a religion which limits itself to the teachings of the early founders, and which ignores the present condition of its development, will give a very imperfect presentation of the religion as a whole. On the other hand, a study which is limited to its expression in practice, without doing justice to the ideals of the founders, equally fails to do justice to the religion as a whole, for the religious ideals of a people, while they may be written on the tablets of their hearts and conscience, often find very imperfect expression in their lives.

(Soothill, 1973: 21)

The Confucian tradition is both a tradition of literature and a way of life. These two dimensions are related to and supplement each other. To introduce Confucianism as a living tradition flowing from the past to the present, we must look into how these two dimensions function together, i.e., how the Confucian doctrine underlies the life of the people and how the practice, political or religious, reflects as well as refreshes Confucian Learning. To examine in detail the complicated relation between the Confucian Way and Chinese practices is beyond the reach of this intro- ductory book. How Confucian doctrine was used in East Asian politics, religions, literature, arts and daily life are topics for diCerent kinds of thematic research. Nevertheless we insist that relevant to our study are not only the Confucian doctrines of Heaven, humanity and harmony, but also how these doctrines are put into practice; not only the philosophic discussion of human nature, but also devoted self-transformation in relation to one’s spiritual and cultural destiny.

Similar to studies of any other philosophical and religious tradition where numerous and various interpretations create both depth and con- fusion, a study of Confucianism is also an area full of diCerences. As an introduction, this book has to be content with what has been generally recognised in Confucian studies. While taking into account newly found



An introduction to Confucianism


evidence, it does not argue for a specific theory, and while discussing the most important issues concerning Confucian studies, it does not fully engage in all the current debates. What is intended throughout the book is to present a phenomenological investigation of what Confucianism was and is, and to generate a seamless interpretation and presentation of its religious and philosophical doctrines. Having done this, I will supple- ment a number of questions to each chapter for further discussion, to stimulate students and readers in general to think about the questions to which there are no straightforward answers.

Structure and contents This book comprises five chapters apart from this introduction. Chapter 1 is a thematic presentation of what Confucianism is and what characteristics it has. The focus of this chapter is on Confucius and his contribution to the Confucian tradition, but attention is also given to the origin and nature of what is called ‘Confucianism’ in the West. Chapter 2 presents a historical view of how Confucianism evolved, focusing on major Confucian schools and their leaders, from the early records to the time when Confucianism was stepping into the modern age. It investigates the common heritage of various schools and also highlights the distinctiveness of each of them, treating them as necessary links in the whole process of Confucian transformation and evolution. In terms of geographical location, it concentrates on the unique con- tributions made by Confucian masters and scholars in China, Korea and Japan, while leaving Confucianism in other areas such as Vietnam and Southeast Asia to future studies.

Chapter 3 discusses the key elements of Confucian doctrine, and presents them in the form of the Three Ways: the Way of Heaven, the Way of Humans and the Way of Harmony. The Way of Heaven is cen- tral to the Confucian view of the transcendental, the metaphysical, the natural, the ethical, the political and the religious. The Way of Humans deals with the human correspondence with, and implementation of, the Way of Heaven, as manifested in human nature, moral virtues, social integration, political order, and personal destiny. Central to Confucian belief is that the Way of Heaven cannot be fulfilled, unless it has been understood and consciously carried out by humans in our life. The Way of Harmony is concerned with how harmony can be achieved between humans and Heaven, between conscious activities and the environment,



Introduction: Confucian studies East and West


between individuals, between family members, as well as in society and the world. It is argued that harmony is not only a central concept, but also the spirit manifesting the life and power of Confucianism; it is both the Confucian reality and the ideal that Confucian believers endeavour to realise. Confucian harmony is primarily about the unity between Heaven and humanity. According to Confucian understanding, this unity indicates a harmonious state of the world in which humans live and behave, which provides humanity with enjoyment, peace and order. It also indicates a continuous relationship between the spiritual and the human, the mind and the body, form and matter, and the tradi- tional and the present, which gives individuals the sense of continuity, eternity and security. It indicates once more the mutual transformation of the eternal and the temporal, the infinite and the finite, and the sacred and the secular, which can be observed in the proper performance of ritual, and must be carried out in human engagement in conscientious and industrious activity.

Chapter 4 concentrates on religious ritual and practices fostered and upheld in the Confucian tradition. It demonstrates how Confucian values have penetrated the lives of the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, and that people in these countries inevitably come under the influence of Confucianism, and that their thinking is underpinned or shaped by Con- fucian values, whether or not they have studied the Confucian classics. It starts with an investigation of how Confucian doctrines are used to transform religious rituals and practices and how these rituals and practices reflect the rational and humanistic ideals propagated by Confucian masters. Confucian practices exist not only in the form of religious worship and cults, but also in the unique way that Confucianism takes learning and self-improvement as a spiritual path. Confucian spirituality is influenced by the interaction between Confucianism and other religious traditions, notably Daoism, Buddhism and Christianity. It is in this interaction that Confucianism has transformed itself and has caused transformations in other traditions as well.

The modern development of Confucianism and the problems facing modern Confucian scholars are dealt with in chapter 5, in which the so-called ‘three generations of modern new Confucians’ are examined, and fresh challenges to Confucian theories and practices and Confucian responses to these challenges are investigated. Confucianism has survived the impact of western culture and Communist revolution and is being



An introduction to Confucianism


revived as a motivating force for modernisation. We are repeatedly reminded that behind economic, political and social life in East Asia are the values fostered in the Confucian tradition. Some scholars even claim that ‘the new patterns of behaviour in these rapidly modernizing societies are undergoing modification that can only be understood with reference to the ancient Confucian heritage’ (Küng & Ching, 1989: 95). In view of the influence and the revitalised image of Confucianism in the last few decades, some scholars argue that Confucianism is moving towards a ‘new age’. It is also suggested that the new creativity of Con- fucianism is not simply confined to East Asia; it has oCered a positive response to universal and perennial human problems and concerns. In critically examining these suggestions and taking into account the eCorts to accentuate Confucianism made by modern scholars in the West and the East, the book reaches a conclusion that Confucianism is by no means only a tradition of the past, and that a revived Confucianism is able to oCer positive values conducive to a healthy life in the modern age.

Translation and transliteration Most of the original texts quoted in this book have been translated into English. As a matter of fact, there are perhaps few books from other non-western traditions that have been rendered into western languages as often as the key Confucian classics have been. This leads to one of the problems with which most students of Confucianism are often faced, namely, the diCerences between various renderings of the same book. Similar to the rendering of the scriptures of other religious/philosophic traditions, translation of the Confucian classics often reflects a personal involvement in re-experiencing the philosophy behind the texts. DiCer- ent translators have diCerent understandings of the philosophy, and their renderings inevitably diCer. In order to present the Confucian tradition in the best way, we cannot possibly adopt single translations exclusively. As far as the key sources are concerned, especially in the case of Lunyu or the Analects of Confucius and Mengzi or the Book of Mengzi, I will make selective use of the translations rendered respectively by James Legge, Arthur Waley, D. C. Lau and Wing-tsit Chan. When necessary, I will select the translations I judge most accurate. As these texts are num- bered in the order of chapters and paragraphs, it is reasonably easy for the reader to match our quotations with any of the available transla- tions. On some occasions when no translation is satisfactory, I will



Introduction: Confucian studies East and West


rerender what is quoted, while on other occasions when there is no trans- lation available for a Confucian text, I will be responsible for rendering the quoted passages directly from the original source. The references to the original sources and to their English translators are given in the first and second parts of the select bibliography.

The second problem facing a student is how to understand Chinese terms and characters through translations. Some of the Confucian terms and phrases are so complicated in meaning and application that it would be impossible to find English equivalents for them, while others have so wide a range of references that none of the English terms or phrases is suAcient to denote its meanings. In this case, I will give a number of English words that are close to the original meanings of a Chinese char- acter, while if possible choosing one of them in the following pages.

The third problem most students find diAcult to handle, is the romanisation of Chinese words or characters. There are two major sys- tems currently in use for transliterating Chinese characters into English. The first is the Wade–Giles or modified Wade–Giles system, which used to be the dominant system for romanising Chinese characters among western sinologists and the scholars from Taiwan and Hong Kong. The second is the pinyin system prevailing in Mainland China, Singapore and Malaysia, which although a newcomer, has recently been adopted by many western sinologists and Chinese specialists, partly due to the fact that more and more materials are being published in Mainland China. Although there are good arguments for either system, this book will primarily use the pinyin system, only retaining the Wade–Giles tran- scription for some well-known names, for example, Fung Yu-lan or Tu Wei-ming, which are so familiar in the West that it would cause mis- understanding or unnecessary diAculty if I were to retransliterate them into pinyin spellings. I have not changed the Wade–Giles spellings or other systems of transliteration used in book titles or in quoted passages. To make it convenient for readers, I have provided a glossary of Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters, with their pinyin, Wade–Giles or other transliterations used in this book.



An introduction to Confucianism



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics

About 2,500 years ago, a man was born to a once aristocratic family in a small state called Lu in East China. During his lifetime, the man endeavoured to work ‘towards a goal the realisation of which he knows to be hopeless’ (Lunyu, 14: 38), carrying forward the old tradition in a chaotic environment and opening up a new horizon in a dark age. By the time he died at the age of seventy-three, his teachings had spread through- out the state and beyond. His disciples and students compared him to the sun and moon, while his rivals considered him a man ‘who does not work with his arms and legs and who does not know how to distinguish between diCerent kinds of grain’ (Lunyu, 18: 7). But there was one thing that neither side knew: that Chinese culture, and to some extent, East Asian culture, would be forever linked with his name, and that the tradi- tion he loved and transmitted would rank with the greatest in the world. This tradition is known in the West as ‘Confucianism’.

‘Confucianism’ and ru The origin of the English word ‘Confucianism’ may be traced back to the Jesuits of the sixteenth century:

Until Nicholas Trigault published his version of Ricci’s journals in 1615, there was hardly any knowledge of, not to say debate about, Confucianism . . . The Jesuits were virtually the first Europeans to discover Confucius and Confucianism, ‘the sect of the literati’ as they not inaccurately called it . . . The Jesuits, representatives of European values and intellectual methods, attempted . . . to understand Chinese



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


intellectual life in terms of systems, and transmuted the tradition of the Ju or Chinese ‘scholars’ into an ‘-ism’, Confucianism.

(Rule, 1986: 2, 195)

Since then ‘Confucianism’ or its equivalents in other European lan- guages has been taken in the West as a proper name for the East Asian tradition with Confucius as its fountainhead. In fact, what is meant by ‘Confucianism’ is more a tradition generally rooted in Chinese culture and nurtured by Confucius and Confucians rather than a new religion created, or a new value system initiated, by Confucius himself alone. It is true that as a distinctive ‘school’ Confucianism began with Confucius. It was Confucius who explored deeply and elaborated extensively on the basic principles of what was to become Confucianism, and it was Confucius and his disciples who succeeded in transmitting and trans- forming their ancient culture. But it would go too far to suggest that Confucianism was ‘created’ solely by Confucius and Confucianism was sustained exclusively by the faith in Confucius. In this sense, the word ‘Confucianism’ is a misnomer for the tradition that is normally referred to as ru jia, ru jiao, ru xue or simply as ru in China and other East Asian countries. Confucius played a key role in the development of the tradi- tion which had originated long before his time. He is usually regarded as a ‘sage–teacher’ for the people or as the Sage for Confucians, but seldom as the Saviour, and never as the Lord. Confucius functioned as ‘the founder’ of the Confucian tradition in a way quite diCerent from the founders of other religious traditions.

R U a n d t h e R U t r a d i t i o n Ru jia, ru jiao or ru xue may be translated roughly as ‘the doctrine, or tradition, of scholars’. To understand the nature of this doctrine or tradition, we have first to explore its root in ru. A prominent scholar of the Han Dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), Liu Xin (?–23 ce), located the formation of ru as a profession in the early years of the Zhou Dynasty (1100?–256 bce) and asserted that ru was characteristic of its devotion to the ‘six classics’ (the Book of Poetry, the Book of History, the Book of Rites, the Book of Music, the Book of Changes, and the Spring and Autumn Annals), and that as a social group and a distinctive school, ru emphasised the virtues of humaneness (ren) and righteousness (yi), followed the ancient sage–kings, and took Confucius as their master (Hanshu, 1997: 1728). However, the identification of ru with Confucian



An introduction to Confucianism


scholars was not recognised until a much later time, when Confucianism had been recognised as a prominent school with its scholars engaging with the classics and the Way of ancient Sages. What then is the original meaning of the ru?

Among ancient texts, the character ru first occurs in the Analects, where Confucius taught his disciples to be a ru of virtuous gentlemen (junzi ru), and not a morally deficient man or a vulgar ru (xiaoren ru) (Lunyu, 6: 13). Some scholars, both Chinese and Western, argue that although groups of men professionally skilled in ceremonial practice existed prior to Confucius’ time, the character ru post-dated Confucius’ time and was in fact coined as a name for the followers of Confucius (Eno, 1993: 192). While we cannot engage in this debate, suAce it now to say that there is no reason for us to disregard what is implied by the reference to the two kinds of ru in the Analects, and we have grounds for believing that as a profession or distinctive group in society, ru must have predated the time of Confucius.

As mentioned above, Liu Xin gave a clear explanation to the origin of ru. He traced the origin of ru to a government oAce (situ zhi guan, Minis- try of Education) whose function was to ‘assist the ruler to follow the way of the yin–yang and to enlighten [the people] by education’ (zhu renjun, shun yinyang, ming jiaohua, in Hanshu, 1998: 1728). There seem to have been few debates concerning the meaning of ru before the twentieth century, and people generally accepted Liu Xin’s explanation. Following the introduction of a western scientific methodology at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, Chinese scholars started to rethink the character ru and reassess its meanings and connotations. A group of scholars followed Liu Xin to confirm that ru was indeed from a govern- ment oAce. Zhang Binglin (1869–1936), for example, argued that all the schools which came into being during the period of Spring and Autumn (771–476 bce) and the period of Warring Sates (475–221 bce) originated from the imperial oAces (wang guan) of the Zhou Dynasty. In his article Yuan Ru (‘Exploring the Origin of Ru’), Zhang pointed out that in ancient times ru was a general term with a range of references, and that there were three kinds of ru in the Zhou Dynasty: ru as a distinguished title for intellectuals or gentlemen who were equipped with skills and expertise in one or more areas of social life (shu shi); ru as a classification for those who were professionals in the six arts (rites, music, archery, carriage driving, history and mathematics); and ru as an oAcial title for those



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


who assisted the ruler to follow the way of yin–yang and to enlighten the people by education. Zhang believed that the three kinds of ru were later disregarded and ru as a general term became a specific name for those who taught and transmitted the Confucian classics (Zhang, 1909: 56).

Other modern scholars such as Kang Youwei (1858 –1927) and Hu Shi (1891–1962) disagreed with Liu and Zhang with regard to the origin of ru. For them, ru did not originate in a government oAce of the Zhou Dynasty. Based on the records that Confucius usually wore a special cap (zhangfu zhi guan), Hu Shi claimed that ru referred to the adherents (yimin) of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 –c. 1100 bce) who because of their expertise in religious rituals were employed as priests by the Zhou Dynasty. When the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100?–770 bce) declined shortly before the time of Confucius, these professionals lost their privilege and social status, and became a group of people who lived on their knowl- edge and skills in rituals and ceremonies (Hu, 1953: vol. 4). In his Yuan Ru Mo (On the Origins of the Ru and Moists) Fung Yulan argued against this assumption that wearing the Shang cap did not mean that these people were adherents of the Shang. Fung further separated ru and rujia, the former being a professional group who lived on education and per- forming rituals, the latter being a distinctive school established in the Spring and Autumn period (Chen, 1996: 334).

Most of the debates were concentrated on the immediate predecessors of ru that later tradition knew as Confucian scholars. Whether or not it was associated with a government oAce, the members of ru were certainly associated with learning and education. But what was their original profession? Recently, a number of Chinese scholars have returned to the question. Some conclude that as a profession ru refers originally to dancers and musicians in religious ceremonies of the Shang Dynasty when the worship of spirits and gods dominated the life of the people. A ru would perform various dances and play music as imprecation for a good harvest and as oCerings to gods or ancestors, and would lead ceremonies for the coming of rain during the seasons of drought. To fulfil their duties ru had to study not only the rituals proper, but also other relevant subjects such as astronomy/astrology to predict rain or drought. The character ru (�) is said to come from the character xu (�). Xu was composed of two parts, ‘cloud’ (�) above sky (�) (Yan, 1995: 50), which reveals the relation of ru to ritual dance in rain-praying. In the oracle bone inscriptions, xu was rendered as a man who is in a shower ( ),



An introduction to Confucianism


suggesting a ritual ablution before a ru went about his responsibilities. In chapter 38 ‘The Conducts of Scholars’ of the Book of Rites, we can see the importance of bathing for a Confucian scholar: ‘The scholar keeps his person free from stain, and continually bathes (and refreshes) his virtue’ (Legge, 1968, vol. 27: 407).

Other etymological connections also suggest that ru were related to ritual dance, music and religious ceremonies. The character ru shares the same root with those for ‘weaklings’ and ‘cowards’, indicating that the members of ru were characterised by their softness, suppleness and flexibility. Probably for this reason, Xu Shen (58?–147?), the first Chinese philologist, defined it as such: ‘Ru means “soft.” It is the title for [Confucian] scholars (shu shi) who educated the people with the six arts’ (Shuowen Jiezi Zhu, 1981: 366). Therefore, a ru was gentle and yielding rather than competitive and commanding, in contrast to a warrior who was known for his vigour in war and competition. As a master of music and dance, a ru was clearly aware of his own refinement and manners, and believed his own worth to reside in his cultivated and noble etiquette; it was this which served to distinguish the ru from common people, such as farmers, craftsmen and merchants.

To summarise and assess what has been presented above, we may hypothesise that the diCerent explanations of the origins of ru might actually refer to the diCerent periods in the evolution of the groups of men who were called ru. The ru went through a number of stages before the time of Confucius. Firstly, ru referred to dancers and musicians in reli- gious rituals, who were characterised by their softness and flexibility. At this stage, ru was a special group in society whose members were roughly equivalent to what we mean by shamans, magicians and sorcerers. Secondly, ru were masters of rituals and ceremonies, who performed, or assisted the performance of, various rituals. At this stage, ru referred to professionals expert in religious rituals, rites and ceremonies. Thirdly, ritual masters became teachers in oAcial education. To be able to look after rituals, ru must have mastered history, poetry, music, astrology, archery and mathematics which were closely related to rituals in ancient times. As experts in these areas they exercised responsibility for training young dancers, musicians and performers, and for teaching on rituals and ritual-related subjects, which earned them the title of shi (�): ‘Masters / Teachers’, although they were still employed as professional priests or assistants at oAcial or non-oAcial ceremonies.



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


Along with the decline of cultic practices and the rise of rationalism during the Spring and Autumn period, a large number of ru departed from the oAcially assigned profession, and entered various areas of social life. The ru became distinctive for their skills in state rituals and in oAcial and private education. The character ru was also gradually extended to become a specific term for those who had skills of ritual, history, poetry, music, mathematics and archery, and who lived oC their knowledge of all kinds of ceremonies and of many other subjects (Chen, 1996: 350). Among the teachers of these disciplines Confucius stood out as an outstanding ru of his time, and opened up a new course by developing and transforming the ru tradition. By the time of the Warring States period, Confucius had been recognised as the highest figure in the ru tradition, as indicated by Han Fei (280?–233 bce), a leading Legalist philosopher and a well-known critic of Confucianism, ‘In the present age, the celebrities for learning are the literati [ru] and the Mohists. The highest figure of the Literati was K’ung Ch’iu [Kong Qiu]; the highest figure of the Mohists was Mo Ti’ (Liao, 1960, vol. 2: 298). Not long after that, the tradition of ru was totally identified with the doctrines clarified, elaborated and propagated by Confucius, and ‘the rituals of the ru’ and ‘the Way of Confucius’ became interchangeable in a collec- tion of the Former Han Dynasty (Huainanzi Yizhu, 1990: 501). One way or another, Confucius’ transmission and interpretation of the ancient culture and his practices of education played a major part in shaping and reshaping the ru tradition. The process involved in this transformation must be taken into account when we discuss the relationship between Confucius and ru. Therefore, whatever method one may employ in trac- ing the origin of Confucianism, one must take into account both the cultural heritage on which Confucius worked and the transforma- tion Confucius made to the ru tradition. In this sense it is misleading to simply ‘characterize Confucius and his followers through their role as masters of dance’ (Eno, 1990: 2–3). As we have pointed out above, by the time of Confucius, the ru had fundamentally changed their social and cultural functions, and therefore, should not be treated in the same way as the earlier masters of dance and music.

c o n f u c i u s ‘Confucius’ is a Latinised form of the Chinese name Kong Fuzi, Master Kong, which is in turn a reverent title for Kong Qiu or Kong Zhongni



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(551–479 bce). Confucius was born and lived in the Spring and Autumn period of the Zhou Dynasty. The Zhou Dynasty was established on the system of feudalism: under the central government the empire was divided into many feudal states, either headed by the members of the royal house or awarded to those who had rendered outstanding service to the state. There were about 124 states shortly before Confucius’ birth and around 70 during his life. Initially the system worked well. The princes and dukes of the states took the king as the ‘Son of Heaven’ and as their chief commander. When the grasp of Zhou Kings over the states weakened, however, the administrative system began to collapse. The heads of individual states ignored the command and order from the central government, and competed with one another for a bigger share of land and property. This led to military conflict between states and power struggles within a state. The old order of social life was being destroyed and a new one was advancing, while the people were left in endless suCering and misery, husband being torn from wife, and wife being forced to leave husband; the rich enjoying their luxury, while the poor had nothing to rely on (Legge, 1992, vol. 4: 117, 320, 423, 424).

Many thinkers explored the cause of chaos and disorder, and expanded upon their ways of solving the problems. Some became pioneers of diCer- ent schools, and Confucius was one of them, probably the most famous one of his time. He believed that chaos and disorder developed from the misuse and abuse of ritual/propriety (li) and music (yue). He described these as a situation of li huai yue beng – ‘the decay of ritual/propriety (li) and the collapse of music’. Unable to endure this state of aCairs, Confucius embarked upon a life-long enterprise to restore the value of rituals and to propagate the rules of propriety. For him chaos and dis- order could not be corrected under a bad government, in which neither ruler nor minister acted in accordance with the true values of their roles. To establish a righteous government, the ruler and his ministers must act according to what was established in ancient rites, because what made a government good was the power of moral virtues rather than the power of cruel and punitive laws. Moral virtues could produce trust and faith in the people, while punitive measures might stop wrongdoing only for a moment. A ruler ‘who governs the state through his virtue is like the pole star which stays put while the other stars revolve around it’ (Lunyu, 2: 1). An eAcient way to secure ‘governing by virtue’ was to perform rituals and play music correctly, which would enable performers to remain in a state



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of sincerity and loyalty and to set up good examples for the common people so that they knew what was right and what was wrong. In this sense, Confucian Learning, performing rituals and playing music were not merely a matter of ceremonies. Either at a personal level or at a social level, ‘flourishing comes from [learning of ] poetry; establishing results from [properly performing] ritual; and completing is to be achieved by means of music’ (Lunyu, 8: 8). In order to set up guidelines for good family and social life, Confucius reinterpreted the meaning and methods of learning and education of the ru tradition, and believed that the pro- motion of the tradition had great leverage on improving the quality of social life, was the key to overcoming present problems, and would lead the people to a refined and redefined world of goodness and harmony. As his objective was the restoration of social and moral excellence, and the cultivation of purity within the heart of individuals, so that society and humanity at large could function harmoniously, Confucius took on the task of reforming the government through revitalising the ancient ways which was believed to have been established at the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty and carried out eCectively and eAciently during the first half of the dynasty: ‘The Zhou is resplendent in culture, having before it the example of the two previous dynasties. I am for the Zhou’ (Lunyu, 3: 14).

The political ambition and moral strength with which Confucius strove to realise his ideal came in part from his ancestral background and aristocratic origins. Confucius is believed to have been a descendant of the royal house of the Shang Dynasty and his family lived in the state of Song until his grandfather was forced to move to the state of Lu. His father died when Confucius was three years old and it was his mother who raised him and had him properly educated. The passing away of his father led to the further decline of the family, and Confucius once described himself as ‘being of humble station when young so that I was able to handle many menial things’ (Lunyu, 9: 6). The humbleness of his living conditions and the nobility of his ancestry were probably two main factors which encouraged him to learn. The road to the final achieve- ment was long but gradual, as we find in his poetic self-description which records that he set his heart firmly on learning at the age of fifteen, and by thirty he had achieved some success; ten years later, he had reached a higher step, when he was no longer perplexed with world aCairs; at fifty, he believed that he had understood the Mandate of Heaven; at sixty his ears were docile, and at seventy, he had reached the peak of human



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transformation so that he could do everything following his own heart’s desire without transgressing the norm (Lunyu, 2: 4).

In his public career, however, the progress was much less obvious. He was a private educator and a well-known master for most of his life. Although Confucius was keen to transform government, he himself seemed to be more interested in practising virtues at home than in holding oAce. When asked why he was not involved in government, Confucius replied, ‘What does the Book of History say? “Simply by being a good son and friendly to his brothers, a man can exert an influence upon government.” In so doing a man is, in fact, taking part in government. How can there be any question of his having actively to “take part in government?” ’ (Lunyu, 2: 21). Confucius held oAce for only a few years, the first significant post assigned to him being that of magistrate of the district Zhongdu when he was nearly fifty-one years old (501 bce). Due to the success of his administration in this district, he was promoted to Minister for Construction (500 bce) and the Chief Justice, possibly even serving as acting Prime Minister for a short period (499 bce). Seeing that he was unable to turn his doctrines into practice, Confucius left his home state of Lu for other states in 497 bce, hoping that his words would be heeded, his politics carried out and his ideal realised in other parts of the world. For thirteen years (497–484 bce), he and a group of his disciples travelled from one state to another, frequently encountering failure and despair. However, he never lost his faith in the Way of Heaven (tian) and his mission in the world. Confucius believed that Heaven is the Ultimate, the source of faith from which he drew his optimism and wisdom in dealing with human aCairs.

When Confucius realised that the situation was hopeless and when the political climate in the state of Lu changed, he returned home, devoting the rest of his life to teaching disciples and editing ancient classics, in the expectation that the disciples would carry on his work and pass his teachings on to later generations. Confucius died in the fourth month of 479 bce, and it was said that Duke Ai of Lu (r. 494–467 bce) came to pay his condolences: ‘Alas! Heaven has no mercy on me, and has not spared me the Grand Old Man, leaving me unprotected and in deep regret. Alas! Father Ni (Confucius’ name)! Great is my sorrow!’ (Lin. 1994: 153; Legge, 1992, vol. 5: 846). A few hundred years later, when Sima Qian (145?–86? bce), the greatest Chinese historian, wrote a biography of Confucius, he concluded with the following paragraph:



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


When I read the works of Confucius, I try to see the man himself. In Lu I visited his temple and saw his carriage, clothes and sacrificial vessels. Scholars go regularly to study ceremony there, and I found it hard to tear myself away. The world has known innumerable princes and worthies who enjoyed fame and honour in their days but were forgotten after death, while Confucius, a commoner, has been looked up to by scholars for ten generations and more. From the emperor, princes and barons downwards, all in China who study the Six Arts take the master as their final authority. Well is he called the Supreme Sage!

(Shiji, 1997: 1947; Yang & Yang, 1974: 27)

It is commonly agreed that as a distinctive school Confucianism took shape in the hands of Confucius and he was responsible for the formation of the basics of Confucianism. His commanding personality and profundity of knowledge attracted many followers and he himself became the centre of gravity and the embodiment of Confucian virtues. His understanding of the world and religious matters led the Confucian tradition to the direction of rationalism and humanism, which charac- terises Confucian practices, either secular or religious. He deliberated on many important concepts, which laid down the very foundation for Confucian doctrines. He virtually instituted a pedagogic tradition which transcended the class distinctions. And he painted a picture of the gentleman/virtuous man (junzi) as an attainable ideal. All these become the backbone of the Confucian Way, illustrating how a Confucian fol- lower should behave, how he should lead his life and what he must do for an ideal society. It is believed that following this Way, a Confucian will be able not only to manifest the Principle of Heaven and Earth, but also to continually ‘make’ the Principle out of his own practices.

With all his contributions clearly recognised, however, there is no agreed evaluation of Confucius and his works, and opinions on him among western scholars vary dramatically. For example, in his history of philosophy, Hegel looked down upon Confucius as merely a moral educationalist and his teachings as a collection of moral proverbs, which represents the primitive stage of the progression of the Absolute Spirit. For Karl Jaspers, the image is diCerent. Confucius is said to be one of the four ‘paradigmatic individuals – It would be diAcult to find a fifth of equal historical stature’ – who ‘by being what they were did more than other men to determine the history of man. Their influence extended through two millennia down to our own day’ (Jaspers, 1962: 6). As



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regard to his contribution to religion, Herbert Fingarette emphasises the sacredness of his secular teaching, while Julia Ching would rather consider him ‘a seminal thinker’ (Ching, 1993: 52).

The main concern of Confucius was with humans and with the funda- mental principles of humanity. Confucius believed that these principles were the root of social relationships, the foundation of the stability, peace and prosperity of the state, the family and individuals. He developed his ethics around two central theses; that goodness can be taught and learned, and that society can only be in harmony and at peace under the guidance of wisdom. He further developed a system of concepts to expound the central theses. Of these concepts four became the underlying ideas of the Confucian tradition, namely, the Way (dao), ritual/propriety (li), humane- ness (ren) and virtue (de), and later the backbone of the ideological struc- ture of a Confucian state. Devoting himself wholeheartedly to solving human problems, Confucius propagated the value of education, virtue and self-cultivation. On the one hand Confucius kept a distance from religious matters such as serving ‘spirits and ghosts’, and would rather talk about this life than the life after (Lunyu, 11: 12); on the other hand, he held a deep faith in Heaven and destiny (ming), and preserved religious ritual strictly. Although he believed in his mission that was endowed by Heaven, he never saw himself as the leader or founder of a religious tradition; what he did was merely to transmit the ancient cul- ture, which in his mind was the model for the present and the guarantee for the future. However, in the transmission he ‘innovated’ the old tradition, as asserted by Schwarts that ‘in his focus on the concept of jen [humaneness] Confucius is an innovator rather than a transmitter’ (Schwarts, 1985: 76). According to Fung Yu-lan, ‘in transmitting, he originated something new’ (Fung, 1961: 41), while in the words of Jaspers, ‘in the philosophy of Confucius, the new expressed itself in the form of the old’ (Jaspers, 1962: 54).

c o n f u c i a n i s m a s a ‘ f a m i l y ’ ( J I A ) It was said that Confucius had three thousand students, among whom 72 were intimate disciples – the number of his disciples varying in diCer- ent books, for example, 70 in Mengzi 2a:3, 77 in Shiji, 76 in Kongzi Jiayu, and 72 in Hou Hanshu, and the number of 72 becoming widely accepted probably under the influence of the Five Elements School’s numerological configuration of the perfect number 360 divided by 5. After



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three years’ mourning (in one case six years’) for their master, these dis- ciples and students went to diCerent areas, either engaging in adminis- tration of a state, or setting up schools to teach the principles of the ru tradition. Confucius was recognised as the symbol of the ru, and the ru gradually became a specific term for those who followed Confucius to interpret, and teach, the classics, and who engaged themselves in admin- istration, education and the preservation of ancient rituals and music. The multidimensional themes raised in Confucius’ conversations and the rich resources of his teaching made it possible for the members of the ru to develop diCerent understandings and interpretations of Confucius and his philosophy. The diCerences in the methods of learning and practice led to a variety of sections within the broad category of the ru. According to Han Fei, during this period there were eight prominent sections of the ru (Watson, 1970: 119). Although these sections developed Confucian doctrines in manifestly diCerent directions, all of them considered them- selves faithful followers of Confucius, devoted to studying, editing and interpreting the classics as well as producing a considerable amount of new literature in the ru tradition, and thus receiving recognition as dis- tinguished scholars (ru) on the ancient classics. All these sections together were known as ru jia, one of the bai jia (a hundred schools).

Jia means a structure of family home, being extended to refer to a group of people who are devoted to the same ideal and who form among them- selves relationships which are like those of a large family. By ru jia it is meant the school or tradition of literati or scholars who have committed themselves to the tradition of the ru. As a school, ru jia sought to make the Way of ancient sage–kings prevail again in the present world. The Way of the ancients was understood as multidimensional in its contents, including the vision of harmony, the rules of propriety, the values of rituals and rites, virtues and methods of a benevolent government. All these were believed to have been well illustrated in the classics that ru scholars held Confucius to have edited and interpreted. Ru jia propagated the study and learning of these classics to correct disorder and to transform the society, and strove to bring order to the state and peace to the world. Like many other schools, the ru transmitted these teachings and principles through forging a seemingly unbroken chain of master–disciples. Its prac- tices were characterised by untiring study of, and instruction on ancient writings, and by performing rituals and playing music properly under the guidance of masters.



An introduction to Confucianism


c o n f u c i a n i s m a s a c u l t ( J I A O ) For a long time after the death of Confucius, Confucianism remained only one of many schools. Although its teaching was considered prominent and its followers were numerous, it did not enjoy any privilege through- out the Warring States period. On the contrary, it was frequently mocked and attacked by the followers of other schools, as it had been during the lifetime of Confucius. In the eyes of its rivals, Confucianism did not provide adequate answers to the problems of life, nor did it show any advantage over other schools. In a passage from a Daoist work, the Book of Zhuang Zi, Confucianism is treated the same as other schools, having its strong and weak points: ‘The various skills of the hundred schools [bai jia] all have their strong points, and at times each may be of use. But none is wholly suAcient, none is universal’ (Watson, 1964: 364).

The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 bce) relied on Legalism (fa jia) to unify and govern the empire. As Legalism was one of the chief rivals of Confucianism, Confucianism was humiliated and suCered from suppression and persecution. With a gradual recovery in the first few decades of the Former Han Dynasty (206 bce –8 ce), Con- fucianism became a dominant school and an orthodox ideology during the reign of Emperor Wu (r. 141–87 bce). Closely related to the religious sacrifices of the state, Confucianism was given another name, jiao, and later became one of the three jiaos, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. In Shiji or the Records of the Historian ru and jiao are first linked together. However, the meaning here is perhaps no more than the teaching of the ru (Shiji, 1997: 3184; Watson, 1961, vol. 2: 455.) One of the early references to Confucianism as a religious doctrine is made in the History of the Jin Dynasty ( Jinshu, 1997: 1). When Kang Youwei of the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) launched a reform movement to transform the Confucian tradition into a state religion, he confected the story that Confucius created the ru jiao, the religion or religious doctrine of literati.

The original form of ‘jiao’ ( ) is a pictograph, consisting of ‘a hand holding a stick ( | )’ and ‘beating ( ) a child ( )’. The later form of the character (�) consists of ‘teaching (educating, )’ and ‘filial piety (�)’, meaning that a child is rigorously brought into a filial relation. This meaning was broadened to include the doctrines that a group of people endeavoured to transmit and spread. A jiao also implies a system of observance of rituals, disciplines of behaviour and faith in the teachings of the founders of a tradition, which are regarded as three of the most



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


important factors in maintaining the unity and transmission of a jiao. Therefore, what is meant by ru jiao is the cult of the learned or cultured, the continuous tradition of the scholars who followed Confucius to take part in the interpretation and application of the doctrines explored in the classics, and who emphasised the importance and significance of rituals and ceremonies for the realisation of their ideal. As Confucianism was promoted to be the state ideology, the reverence and worship of Confucius became part of state religious activities. Confucius was given the title of Perfect Sage and Ancient Teacher; religious ceremonies were performed on his birthday and other festivals, and sacrifices were oCered to his spiritual tablet in temples dedicated to Confucius. Along with the rising of Confucius’ status and with the dogmatic application of his teach- ings, two more names were invented to refer to Confucianism. Kong jiao (‘the cult of Confucius’) emphasises that the teaching and figure of Con- fucius are central to the tradition, and recognises that Confucianism as a distinctive school, a glorious tradition and an orthodox doctrine was promoted, explored, transmitted and interpreted by Confucius, while li Jiao (‘the ritual religion’) reveals the overemphasis of Confucianism on li, the rules of propriety, the rites, rituals and ceremonies.

c o n f u c i a n i s m a s a f o r m o f l e a r n i n g ( X U E ) One of the features that serves to distinguish Confucianism from many other traditions is its commitment to the study and transmission of ancient classics. Confucius is said to be the great editor and commentator of the classics, and his reputation as the sage is based on the fact that he embodies ancient culture. Following him, each generation of Confucian masters and scholars made a contribution to learning, and the doctrines of Confucianism were gradually enriched and extended in numerous writings, treatises and discussions. The Confucian tradition has gathered around its classics an unparalleled abundance of annotations and com- mentaries. As the tradition of literati, Confucianism is steeped in the spirit of scholarship. Confucianism is thus known by the name ru xue, mean- ing the learning of scholars, and the term is first used in the Records of History (Shiji, 1997: 3118). It is agreed that Confucianism has been able to outlive its status as state religion, and has survived persecution, suppression and revolution, because it is sustained not by its social and religious privilege, but by its unflagging eCorts to further learning. It is also contended that Confucian temples may be demolished, devotion to



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its sages abolished and Confucian followers may be stripped of their social privileges, but Confucianism can still survive and thrive as long as learn- ing is permitted, and the classic texts are available. For this reason, most modern East Asian intellectuals prefer to name Confucianism as ru xue rather than ru jia or ru jiao, in recognition of the fact that the life and spirit of Confucianism lies in its learning.

It is generally recognised that either as a school of thought or as the state orthodoxy, the vitality of Confucianism can be generated through learning and education, and renewed in practising what has been learnt. Confucian Learning diCers significantly from what we mean today by ‘learning’. For a Confucian, Learning is first of all a process of reading, understanding and deliberating, but it is more than a purely academic subject. Confucian Learning is the study of the Way of Heaven both in the inner self and in external practices. The only purpose of learning is the promotion of virtuous action and the cultivation of a moral charac- ter, as Confucius made it clear that ‘A person of virtue studies the Way in order to love people’ (Lunyu, 17: 4). Confucian Learning is also closely related to human nature and destiny. Learning is to transform one’s self and retain what is virtuous. It is in this sense that Mengzi, the second sage in the Confucian tradition, understood the way of learning to be nothing other than ‘going after the lost heart’ (Mengzi, 6a: 11).

As a particular kind of learning, the Confucian tradition is known for three characteristics (1) that its members are mostly learned people or civilised intellectuals in a broad sense, which reveals that in Confucian Learning preference is always given to the virtuous way of life (2) that they commit themselves to expanding upon, and interpreting, the classics, which indicates that the value of Confucianism lies in a continuous process of transmitting and furthering the ancient tradition; and (3) that they endeavour to carry out, politically and ethically, collectively and individually, the principles embodied in the classics, which implies that the intention and goal of Confucian Learning is to transform the world in the world.

Ethics, politics and religion in the Confucian tradition The seven-dimension theory of religion put forward by Ninian Smart has become a useful tool for scholars in Religious Studies to explore the richness and depth of a particular tradition. Smart believes that although it is diAcult to define a religion, we can examine it usefully



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in its diCerent aspects or dimensions, such as the practical and ritual dimension, the experiential and emotional dimension, the narrative or mystic dimension, the doctrinal and political dimension, the ethical and legal dimension, the social and institutional dimension, and the material dimension (Smart, 1989: 12–21).

‘Confucianism’ literally means the tradition and doctrine of literati/ scholars. In fact, it is more than the values of a group of people. It con- tains a socio-political programme, an ethical system, and a religious tradition. It functions as an underlying ideology and a guiding principle permeating the way of life in China and informing the cultures of many other East Asian countries.

Confucian doctrines are primarily explored and illustrated in the Confucian classics, and are also enriched, transformed and extended at the hands of many generations of Confucian masters and students. The interpretation of Confucian principles changes with the times, and we can therefore observe a number of distinct phases or stages in the pro- cess of Confucian evolution. Confucianism was the dominant school of thought and orthodox ideology for the most part of two thousand years, exercising both dogmatic and dynamic functions. It was dogmatic in maintaining and strengthening its dominance, but it was also flexible enough to adapt to diCerent environments and situations, shaping and reshaping itself constantly and synthesising new ideas from other schools. It is essentially a Chinese tradition, primarily reflecting the Chinese atti- tude towards life and the world, although of course it has spread also to other East Asian nations, flourishing in both a distinctively Korean and Japanese form.

Any adequate understanding of Confucianism, past and present, will depend upon a thorough examination of all its dimensions, phases and forms as well as the interplay between it and its social environment. Each of these dimensions is in itself a miniature of the whole tradition, embodying the fundamental principles of Confucianism and at the same time reflecting other dimensions in its own distinctive way. Can we single out from the many dimensions the one which is more important than the others and by which Confucianism may be defined? Many modern scholars and students in Confucian Studies have attempted to answer this question, yet Confucianism demonstrates an ability to cross the boundaries of the traditionally defined subjects in the West, therefore the variety of its presentations has made it almost impossible to be clearly



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defined. Even so, some of them still argued that Confucianism must have some essential characteristics that serve to set it apart from other tradi- tions and to preserve its distinctiveness, and that it should be possible to define Confucianism in its relation either to ethics, politics or religion.

a n e t h i c a l s y s t e m ? Morality has been characteristic of Confucian theory and practice. It was on the foundation of Confucianism that various codes of moral life, rules of propriety, patterns of behaviour and guidelines for social and daily life were produced and enhanced. Confucianism underlined, and perhaps to a smaller extent continues to underline, the basic structure of society and community, to orient the life of the people and to define their moral standards and ethical ideal in most parts of East Asia.

Considering the central position of morality in Confucianism and the significance of Confucian ethics for society, some Western scholars have concluded that the moral dimension is so essential for Confucianism that Confucianism itself can be defined as a form of ethics. A number of prominent scholars hold this position. For them, ‘Confucianism . . . was essentially a system of ethics’ (Needham, 1970: 24–5); ‘What is called in the West “Confucianism” is . . . the traditional view of life and code of manner of the Chinese gentry’ (Zaehner, 1988: 370); and Confucianism should be viewed only as ‘a set of behavioural patterns’ (Tu et al., 1992: 40).

As a moral tradition, Confucianism demonstrates many features in common with other moral systems in the world. For example, Confucian ethics emphasises that both inner motive and its external results must be taken into account when we evaluate a person or his/her conduct. In this sense, it is both deontological and consequentialistic. Confucius repeat- edly taught that while it was important to observe ancient rituals strictly, it was even more important to have a sincere heart and a devoted spirit: ‘For if a person lacks humaneness (ren) within, then what is the value of performing rituals? For if a person lacks humaneness within, what is the use of performing music?’ (Lunyu, 3: 3). Confucius took a holistic view of a person and believed that if we looked at how a person acted, examined his motives and his tastes, then it would be impossible for the person to conceal his real character from us (Lunyu, 2: 10).

Confucian morality revolves around family relationships, especially around the relationships between parents and children, between elder and



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younger brothers, and between husband and wife. In these relationships, the primary emphasis is put on fulfilling responsibilities to each other with a sincere and conscientious heart. However, Confucian ethics is not con- fined to the family. It takes family virtues as the cornerstone of social order and world peace. Its logic is that the family is the basic unit of the human community and that harmonious family relationships will inevitably lead to a harmonious society and a peaceful state: ‘If only everyone loved his parents and treated his elders with deference, the Empire would be at peace’ (Mengzi, 4a: 11). For those who are members of the ruling class, their virtues in family aCairs are even more significant for the whole country: ‘When a ruler feels profound aCection for his parents, the common people will naturally become humane’ (Lunyu, 8: 2).

In the light of such points, some modern philosophers believe that the way by which the Confucian moral system was established is similar to that of virtue ethics. Moral instruction and ethical persuasion employed by Confucius and Mengzi are even said to be able to ‘provide a radical alternative to the Aristotelian and Thomistic paradigms most often in- volved’ in the West (Nivison, 1996: 2). As a system of virtue ethics, Con- fucianism is said to point to a solution for social problems arising from the lack of virtues and from the lack of will to practise virtues. With respect to the lack of virtues, the Confucian solution is a sort of persua- sion enforced by rules of ritual /propriety, while for so-called ‘weakness of will’ it follows the path of self-cultivation and education.

Even if we agree with all these arguments, the question still remains: are these arguments enough for Confucianism to be defined as a system of ethics? There is no question that Confucianism is oriented towards morality and that ethics is the central part of its theory and practice. But what is meant by ‘morality’ in Confucianism is in fact quite diCerent from that defined in Western ethics. In this respect, Henri Maspero’s comments are to the point:

The central problem of the Doctrine of Literati in all ages was one of ethics; and that is probably what has so often led to the judgement that Confucianism was above all a morality, which is far from accurate . . . It is indeed a matter of a very particular ethics, quite diCerent from what we generally understand by this word, and that is probably why it is so often omitted from Western accounts of Confucianism. In reality, the problem is the eCect which the good or bad acts of man (and especially the governmental acts of the sovereign, representing humanity) have



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upon the orderly progress of natural phenomena (the progress of stars, eclipses, earthquakes, floods, etc.) and upon human aCairs (the deaths of sovereigns, revolts, overthrow of dynasties, etc.).

(Maspero, 1981: 71)

Indeed, Confucian ethics are not only about what we mean by ‘moral issues’, but also about politics, religion, education, psychology and meta- physics. All these aspects are integral to Confucian ethics. As morality is integrated with religion and politics, moral virtues become essential both for governing and for religious activities. As religion and meta- physics are part of morality, religious ritual and practice are a way of moral improvement. Taking these into account, we have to say that since Confucianism contains a special kind of morality, and since Confucian ethics cover a much wider area than in the West, it would be misleading simply to define Confucianism as a moral system.

a n o f fi c i a l o r t h o d o x y ? As the tradition of literati, Confucianism is characterised by its deep involvement in politics, aspired to by its ambition to bring order and peace to the world. After Confucianism gained predominance over all other schools, Confucian ethics gradually became a universal yardstick for behaviour and ideas, an orthodoxy that oriented conduct, thought and relationship. The moral and political requirements of Confucianism were crystallised as ‘Three Guiding Principles’ (san gang) and ‘Five Constant Regulations’ (wu chang), on which Confucian states were established. Among the three principles maintained and propagated by Confucianism, the first and foremost one is the subordination of a subject or minister to his ruler, which is followed by that of a son to his father and of a wife to her husband. The Five Regulations are actually five Confucian virtues, humaneness (ren), righteousness (yi), ritual /pro- priety (li), wisdom (zhi) and faithfulness (xin), which are believed to be as constant and unchanging as natural laws, remaining the same for all time and guiding /ordering all other virtues. These principles and regula- tions are taken as the essence of life and the bonds of society. In this way, Confucianism extended the boundaries of moral codes from individual matters to social and political areas, not only providing the state with an ideological format, but also equipping the authority with the standards to judge behaviour and thoughts.



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To emphasise the function and value of Confucianism in shaping and reshaping society and politics, some scholars argue that Confucianism was none other than an oAcial state orthodoxy. In posing the question ‘What was the Confucianism that concerned society at large in late imperial China?’, for example, Kwang-Ching Liu and his companions obviously have in mind the answer of ‘an oAcial state orthodoxy’ (Liu, 1990: 1, 53–100).

Confucius was seriously concerned with political irregularities. In order to bring peace to states and to restore the brilliant Way of the ancients in his time, he paid great attention to the rules of propriety. One of his concerns was about the discrepancy between names and reality, between language and action, and between rights and duties:

If names be not correct (zheng), language could not be fluently used. If language be not fluently used, aCairs could not be carried on to success . . . ritual /propriety (li) and music could not be flourishing . . . the punishments could not be properly made . . . then the people would not know how to behave. (Lunyu, 13: 3)

What Confucius tried to argue here is that if a ruler, a subject, a father and a son do not fulfil their duties, they abuse their titles and violate the names by which they are defined. For Confucius, this is the beginning of the collapse of ritual /propriety and music, and is one of the causes which bring about social disorder and political chaos.

Having given preeminence to the role of a ruler in restoring the Way of the ancients, Confucius seldom emphasised the one-way loyalty of the subject or minister to the ruler. Rather, he insisted that the relationship must be reciprocal: ‘The ruler should employ his subject–ministers according to the rule of propriety/ritual (li), while subject–ministers should serve their ruler with loyalty (zhong)’ (Lunyu, 3: 19). However, to serve the purpose of imperial government, this theory of ‘rectification of names’ was, especially in the latter part of history, extended and interpreted as a conservative bulwark for an authoritarian regime in which absolute subordination of subject–minister to ruler guaranteed an eCective administration. In this way, Confucianism became more than a system of morality or a school of thought, and it was the core of the state orthodoxy that every person, every event and every aCair must be in accordance with what was required from them.



An introduction to Confucianism


For a long period in the past, government bureaucracy and Confucian scholarship were almost identical: the oAcials of the state were chosen either by examining a candidate’s learning of the Confucian classics or by recognising his achievements in practising Confucian virtues. A systematic way of selecting oAcials in accordance with Confucian prin- ciples was already put into use in the Han Dynasty, and this system later developed into a network of civil servant examinations at county, provincial and national levels. On the one hand, Confucianism gained its energy from the scholars who took the Confucian Way as the Truth and Confucian Learning as an eAcient and eCective means to transform society and to bring peace to the world. Within an ideal Confucian context, a scholar is a Confucian whether or not he is in oAce, and he can do what is expected of him whether he is an oAcial or not. On the other hand, as Confucian Learning was identified with the contents of examination, many scholars took it as their greatest duty to gain success in civil examinations and to be part of government bureaucracy. To some extent, whether achievement in Confucian Learning could be recognised or not depended upon success in examination, as depicted in a proverb: ‘All other careers are inferior, while only [Confucian] Learning is superior [wanban jie xiapin, weiyou dushu gao].’ It was perhaps true that for many men over a long period of history, Confucian Learning was no more than a stepping-stone to success in an individual’s career. Confucianism was eventually transmuted from a resourceful doctrine into an authentic scheme, not only binding the performance and thinking of a social elite, but also defining how to lead a life for every individual.

There is no doubt that Confucianism acted as an oAcial state orthodoxy during the latter part of East Asian history; but our inquiries into the nature of Confucianism as an orthodoxy lead to a number of other questions. What kind of function did the state orthodoxy exert on the life of the people? Wm. Theodore de Bary believes that as the orthodox tradition, Confucianism was ‘a life-style, an attitude of mind, a type of character formation, and a spiritual ideal that eluded precise definition’ (de Bary, 1975: 24). In order to elucidate its social functions, he analyses the four types of orthodoxy assumed by Neo-Confucianism in late imperial China, educational orthodoxy, bureaucratic orthodoxy, philosophical orthodoxy, and ‘liberal’ orthodoxy (de Bary, 1981: 50 –7, 188–94). The quartet presentation of Confucian orthodoxy draws a clear picture of how Confucianism functioned in history. But as these four are



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very diCerent by nature and in function, it would not make our task any easier to define Confucianism, even if we agreed that it was a socio- political orthodoxy.

A more serious question would arise if we defined Confucianism as the state orthodoxy: What was or is Confucianism when it either was not yet, or no longer is, the state orthodoxy? Confucianism was not always a dominant ideology, nor has it been the state orthodoxy since the beginning of the twentieth century. From Confucius until the middle of the Former Han Dynasty, Confucianism was not orthodox at all. It was subject to attack, criticism and persecution. From the collapse of the Later Han Dynasty (25–220 ce) to the Song Dynasty (960 –1162) Confucianism maintained the name of the state ideology but in reality its control over the state and over social life was limited to a very small area, thanks to the popularity of Daoism and Buddhism. From the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1980s, Confucianism lost its grasp over the state and over people’s life and thinking. It was criticised and attacked as a reactionary and conservative force by many liberals and Communist intellectuals alike. Nevertheless, Confucianism still existed and developed during all these periods. The fact that Confucianism has outlived its status as the state orthodoxy demonstrates that ‘orthodoxy’ is not the essential quality of Confucianism.

The third question in relation to the definition of Confucianism as the state orthodoxy is this: was Confucianism an orthodoxy manipulated by a small group of social elite, or a culture shared by a large portion of people? From a historical perspective Confucianism existed both as an oAcial orthodoxy and as a popular culture, being at once a tradition for scholars–oAcials and a common system of values for peasants, artisans and merchants. On the one hand, Confucianism evolved out of the ru tradition, and Confucius educated his students to be true gentlemen, to devote themselves to learning and practising the principles of the ancient classics. A great number of Confucian masters were prominent philo- sophers (zi) who loved wisdom and endeavoured to make plain the secret of human and natural life, although ‘the Chinese word corresponding to philosopher denoted group attachment to tradition rather than individual love of wisdom’ (Dawson, 1963: 10). For these reasons, Confucianism is said to be ‘a circle of academics’ and the way of life for a small group of social elite. On the other hand, Confucianism does have its ordinary character, appealing to the people of all ranks. Its theories and practices



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were initially the new products of freethinking and private education. All but two of Confucius’ disciples came from the families of a lower social status, and Confucius was a very ‘common’ person whose early life was spent in poverty, and whose knowledge was gained through hard learning. Most of his conversations were humorous and many of his attitudes to life were typical of the Chinese. Many Confucian scholars of later generations could even be said to be half-Confucian and half-Daoist: in oAce they engaged themselves in administration, while out of oAce they concentrated on self-cultivation, either through learning, cultivation and education, or on enjoying natural and social pleasures.

It is thus clear that Confucianism is not merely an oAcial orthodoxy. Otherwise, we would not be able to explain properly why Confucianism is said to be both conservative and radical, retrogressive and progressive. Measured by modern values, it did indeed have its ‘good’ as well as its ‘bad’ side. Some modern scholars have only seen or emphasised the one side or the other by which they label Confucianism. Having examined the long history of Confucianism, for example, Shryock commented that ‘Confucianism is one of the major achievements of the human mind, and its noble code of ethics makes it worthy of the deepest respect’ (Shryock, 1966: 226). This view, however, is not shared by others. For the latter, Confucian orthodoxy was a product of history, and has become com- pletely obsolete and is an obstacle for forward progress. An early example of the latter opinion was provided by James Legge, an outstanding trans- lator and interpreter of Confucian classics, who saw the teachings of Confucius as the cause of the backwardness of China. According to Legge, ‘There has been a tendency to advance, and Confucius has all along been trying to carry the nation back’, and because Confucius and his followers had no sympathy with progress, Legge believed that the influence of Confucianism ‘will henceforth wane’ (Legge, 1991, vol. 1: 108, 113). The divergence of their views itself demonstrates that the definition of Confucianism as an oAcial orthodoxy can lead only to a partial evaluation of the tradition.

a r e l i g i o u s t r a d i t i o n ? ‘For the historian or phenomenologist of religion, Confucianism presents a kind of extreme or limiting case in which the religious or sacred ele- ments are elusive and challenge many of the accepted generalisations’ (Rule, 1986: xiii). One problem regarding an overview of Confucianism



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


is whether or not Confucianism should be considered a religious tradi- tion, and if we are to take it as a religion, then what can we say are its distinctive features? The western interpreters of Confucianism disagree greatly on this issue, partly because of a terminological ambiguity arising from applying western terms of religion, philosophy and ethics to an eastern tradition, and partly because of a phenomenological confusion coming from restructuring Confucianism in light of these scholars’ own religious or non-religious convictions.

Whether Confucianism is religious or not is directly related to the question of how to define the Confucian tradition. Under the influence of a Christian definition of religion, earlier generations of western scholars judged it on the basis of the Christian doctrine, so that Confucianism swings between religious and agnostic or between good and evil. For example, ‘Confucianism, which for the Jesuits had seemed a wonderful preparation for the Gospel, was, even for Legge the great interpreter of it, an evil which had to be swept away’ (Dawson, 1964: 25). In general, contemporary western scholars have extended their concept of religion, but this has not yet reached an agreement about the religious elements of the Confucian tradition. A number of contemporary western scholars avoid involvement in any kind of questions on the religious nature of Confucianism, while others attempt to argue for their own views. However, their views have by no means converged. For the sake of convenience, we can classify their opinions into two groups. The first group holds an opinion diametrically diCerent from the second group and attempts to establish that Confucianism was and is a religion. For example, Rodney Taylor argued

those interpretations that have sought to define Confucianism as a form of humanism devoid of religious character have failed to realise the central feature that persists throughout the tradition. I argue that a single thread runs throughout the tradition, and this thread is religious . . . Let us make no mistake, Confucianism is an ethical system and humanistic teaching. It is also, however, a tradition that bears a deep and profound sense of the religious, and any interpretation that ignores this quality has missed its quintessential feature.

(Taylor, 1986b: 1–2)

The character of Confucianism as a religion is examined on vary- ing grounds. With respect to traditional function and cultural heritage, Confucianism is considered a religion because it ‘has played a central



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role in the cultures of China, Korea and Japan as the major moral and religious teaching at the very heart of each of these cultures’ (Taylor, 1986a: 1). With respect to the content of the tradition, it is believed to be religious because it has a strong ritual dimension: oCerings and sacrifices to ancestors, for example, have been central to Confucian beliefs (Smart, 1989: 110). With respect to its metaphysical ultimate, Confucianism is considered to be a religion due to its understanding of Heaven and to ‘the relationship of humankind to heaven’ that functions as a religious core from which all that flows ‘is part of religious meaning’ (Taylor, 1986b: 2).

The opinions of the second group are marked as much, if not more, by disagreement. For some, Confucianism is not a religion because it focuses on interpersonal relationships, rather than on a human relation- ship to God or a supernatural Being. For others, it is because Confucius is mostly a teacher of morals and ‘it is considered wrong therefore to class his doctrine as a religion’ (Giles, 1915: 67). For some again, it is because Confucianism lacked a supernatural element and ‘depended on no super- natural sanctions’ (Needham, 1970: 24–5). Max Weber concluded that ‘Confucianism was indiCerent to religion’, and that ‘Completely absent in Confucian ethic was any tension between nature and deity, between ethical demand and human shortcoming, consciousness of sin and need for salvation’ (Weber, 1968: 146, 235). Much unsatisfied with Weber’s evaluation that Confucianism is so rationalistic that it has eradicated ‘all the residues of religious anchorage’, Creel remarked sharply that ‘it would be pleasant to be able to say that Weber’s comments on Confucius and Confucianism were all equally penetrating, but unfortunately this is not the case’ (Creel, 1960: 310).

Eastern scholars in Confucian Studies do not perform much better than their western counterparts, although their divisions are due to reasons quite diCerent from those in the West. One of the many diAculties in defining Confucianism as a religion is that the term ‘religion (zong jiao)’ has quite a diCerent resonance in Chinese than in a western language. If in English, the term ‘religion’ often carries, along with its descriptive meanings, a commendatory implication of ‘devotion, fidelity or faithful- ness, conscientiousness, pious, aCection or attachment’ (The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, vol. 13: 569), in Chinese, the word that refers to religion is primarily suggestive of superstitions. A religion is usually regarded as a superstructure which consists of superstitions,



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


dogmas, rituals and institutions (Fung, 1961: 3). For this reason ‘the things of religion were not greatly appreciated’ in China, as Matteo Ricci observed a long time ago (Gernet, 1985: 16).

Historically it was believed in the West that human knowledge about the world and about ourselves would be much better served by main- taining a division between the secular and the religious (initiated by Plato), and by the compartmentalisation of human sciences such as philosophy, ethics, politics, economics, education and religion (probably starting with Aristotle). To the ancient Chinese, however, these divisions are inappro- priate. Their religious view of the world is not intentionally distinguished from their philosophical or political view. The terms which were used to refer to their views of the world, such as dao (the Way), jiao (doctrine or the tradition) and li (principles or laws) are all, without exception, suit- able to denote philosophical thinking, political ideal, ethical norms and religious practices. The distinction between diCerent traditions is seldom categorically emphasised and an individual is normally able to commit himself to more than one doctrine. With this fact in mind, Eric Sharpe argues that ‘to talk of syncretism of religious thoughts or threads, and particularly in any discussion about the “three religions of China”, any scholar had to admit that it was possible for a Chinese to belong to all three systems at the same time’ (Sharpe, 1994: 82).

The modern Chinese use a term coined by combining two characters, zong and jiao, which originally meant ‘ancestral’ and ‘teaching /doctrine’. In the mind of the ancient Confucians, there were two kinds of teaching. Those transmitted from ancient times by sages are considered to be noble and orthodox, encouraging people to be good and sincere, to be filial to their ancestors and parents. When these teachings are corrupted or misused, they become associated with superstitions, involving belief in miracles, strange powers, reincarnation and so forth. They believe that noble doctrines are those by great sages like Confucius, Lao Zi and Sakyamuni the Buddha, while the depraved teachings were evident in popular Daoism, popular Buddhism and folk cults. When ‘religion’ is identified with the theories and practices of the latter, it enjoys the respect of few scholars. This perhaps explains why in the modern age only a handful of scholars such as Kang Youwei (1858–1927) would enthusiastically argue for establishing Confucianism as the state religion, and this eCort met a strong reaction and harsh criticism from other Con- fucians. Liang Qichao (1873–1929), for example, opposed any attempt



An introduction to Confucianism


to label Confucianism a religion because he believed that ‘religion’ was incompatible with Confucius’ own views and was contrary to rationalism (cited in Yang, 1961: 5).

Here we encounter that definitions of Confucianism turn on defini- tions of religion in general. ‘Religion is diAcult to define in a way that satisfies everyone . . . It is always a part of the general culture of the people who hold it, and at the same time it is an interpretation of that culture’ (Shryock, 1966: 223). Many modern scholars in the West have gone beyond the old and ultimately Christian definitions of religion so that many diCerent traditions and cultures can now be comfortably drawn under its umbrella. Durkheim rejected various definitions of ‘religion’ popular in his time. Among these definitions, one defined religion by the supernatural and the mysterious, and the other defined religion in relation to God or a spiritual being. Durkheim believed that ‘A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them’ (Durkheim, 1961: 21–44). Paul Tillich took religion as the ‘state of being grasped by ultimate concern’ (Tillich, 1963: 4). John Bowker examined religions in their sociological and anthropological functions so that a religion is a way of breaking ‘through limitation’ or is expressive of ‘route-finding activities’ (Bowker, 1973: viii). Frederick Streng defines religion as ‘a means towards ultimate transformation’ (Streng, 1985: 1–8). John Hinnels emphasises specifically that there are inherent dangers in assuming that there will always be a definable and separate phenomenon recognisable as a ‘religion’, since ‘the religion of the majority is often expressed mainly through custom and practice’, which leads him to believe that the nature of a religion is in its custom and practice (Hinnels, 1991: 12–13).

In the light of this expansion of the understanding of religion, more and more western scholars tend to think of Confucianism in terms of a religion. In Mainland China, where the Confucian tradition is in general defined as a feudal ethical system, the perception of Confucianism has also started to change, as indicated by a group of recently published articles in which a number of prominent intellectuals confirm the close link between Confucianism and religion in one way or another (Xinhua Wenzhai, no. 10, 1998, pp. 37– 42). It is clear that these new attempts are diCerent from those made by the Sinologists of old generations who



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took Confucianism as a religion because of its similarities to Christian- ity. Contemporary scholars attempt to establish that Confucianism is religious, a tradition of a unique character that is distinctive from other religions in one way or another. Inquiries into the religious nature of Confucianism thus focus on its distinctiveness.

It is agreed that the diAculty in defining Confucianism as a religion does not lie much in its practices, and the practices Confucianism cherishes such as ancestral worship, patronage of Confucian sages and sacrifices oCered to Heaven do not diCer greatly from the religious practices of many other traditions in the world. The nub of the diAculty lies in its humanistic teachings and rational understanding of the world and life. Even W. E. Soothill who listed Confucianism as one of the three religions in China had to resort to the complementary unity of the three religions in China to make up for ‘the deficiency of Confucianism in making little or no provision, beyond a calm stoicism, for the spiritual demands of human beings’ (Soothill, 1973: xi–xix). Is there ever any religious spirit and value in the Confucian doctrines on philosophic, ethical and social matters, so that a distinct type of religiosity can be identified?

Hans Küng believes that Confucianism is a religion, a religion of wisdom, distinguishable and yet related to two other types of religion in the world. According to him, there exist three Great River Systems of world religions. The first river system is of Semitic origin in the Near East, which is of prophetic character and is composed of ‘three Abrahamic religions’, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From the Near East to the Indus Valley, we encounter the second great river system of religion. It is of Indian origin and has a mystical character. It originated in the Indian tradition (Upanishads). As a reformation or adaptation of this, there emerged three further religions: the reform movement of mahavira, called Jina, the ‘victor’, founder of Jainism; the reform movement of Gautama Buddha which gave birth to Buddhism; and the more recent Hindu religions, whether monotheistic or polytheistic. The third great river system of religion is of Chinese origin and is associated with the figure of the sage; it is therefore labelled a religion of wisdom, and includes Confucianism, Daoism and part of Chinese Buddhism. In the third system of religion, it is the wisdom of the sages, Confucius, Lao Zi and the Buddha, that leads the people to their salvation (Küng & Ching, 1989: xi–xix).



An introduction to Confucianism


Julia Ching defines Chinese religions as ‘religions of harmony’, because they are all based on the theme that ‘Heaven and human are one (tianren heyi)’. For her, there are two kinds of religion of harmony, the first one intending for ‘a greater harmony between God and man’, while the second seeking ‘a greater harmony between the divine and the human orders, such as in Taoist philosophy, in the humanism of Mencius, of Neo-Confucianism, as well as Chinese Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, especially of Ch’an (or Zen)’. Taking these two sides into account, Ching believes that Confucianism is ‘a humanism that is open to religious values’. Recognising that the main concern of Confucius and Confucianism is with social and moral aCairs, Ching does not agree that all humanists are ‘secularists or at least religious agnostics’, and insists that Confucius is a humanist of a special kind and that there is a profound spirituality in his moral teachings which are the foundation of Confucianism (Ching, 1993: 6, 51, 52).

Confucianism covers a wide range of doctrinal deliberations from pure humanism to ultimate spiritualism but a spiritual concern over human destiny runs through it. Some people therefore concentrate on the dis- tinctiveness of the religious dimension of Confucianism rather than on whether or not Confucianism is a religious tradition (Tu, 1989a). In a recently published book entitled Confucianism and Christianity, this author argues that the distinctiveness of Confucianism as a religion lies in its humanistic approaches to religious matters, such as beliefs, rituals and institutions, and in its religious concerns with secular aCairs, indi- vidual growth, family relationships and social harmony (Yao, 1996a). There is more than one type of religion in the world. DiCerent under- standings of transcendence, imminence, immortality and the ways to eternity, manifest diCerent religious values, which underlie the variety of religions, either theistic, humanistic or naturalistic. One of the ways in which some writers have failed to recognise Confucian spirituality is that Confucianism has been examined and judged with the yardsticks of a theistic system. Within a theo-centric framework, Confucianism is said to be definitely not a religion, since ‘It has no priesthood, no church, no bible, no creed, no conversion, and no fixed system of gods. It has no interest in either theology or mythology’ (Ferm, 1976: 150). However, if one recognises that diCerent types of human religiosity exist, it would not be so diAcult for us to see that there are Confucian counterparts to the Christian ‘priests, church, bible, creed, theology and mythology’. For



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


example, Confucian academies functioned in much the same way as churches of Christianity. Matteo Ricci first noticed that these Confucian Academies (shu yuan) were equivalent to Christian preaching houses and the Confucians were also ‘impressed by the resemblances between the [ Jesuit] preaching houses and their own traditional academies’ (shu yuan). E. Zürcher also observed that ‘the atmosphere of shu yuan did have some- thing solemn and almost holy’: each meeting began with a ceremony in honour of the founder and Confucius; the rules of conduct were codified according to a convention, which often included pious hymns sung by choirs of young boys (Gernet, 1985: 17–18).

The diCerent approaches discussed above lay the ground for our own view of the distinctiveness of religious Confucianism. As a religion, Confucianism is indeed of special character. The backbone of Confucian doctrines is composed of three principles: harmony and unity between humanity and Heaven, harmony and unity between descendants and ancestors, and harmony and unity between the secular and the sacred (Yao, 1996a: 31–3). In analysing, and expanding on, these three dimen- sions of harmony, Confucianism develops a systematic and unique doctrine of human religiosity. This is a kind of humanism, because it concentrates on solving secular problems and insists on human per- fectibility. However, Confucianism is not humanistic in the normal sense of this term, because it does not end with the material satisfaction of human needs, nor does it reject pursuing the spiritual Absolute. Although it holds a diCerent conception of what can be counted as the ‘spiritual’, Confucianism does have a common sense of the ultimacy of a personal experience of the sacred and a personal commitment to the Ultimate. It is thus a humanistic religion, a humanistic tradition manifesting spiritual longing and discipline in its classics, creed, practices and institutions, and leading to a religious destination that answers human ultimate concerns. These concerns are expressed through individual and communal commit- ments and revealed by the desires to transform self and society according to their moral and political vision. Confucianism is a kind of humanism that seeks sacredness in an ordinary and yet disciplined life; or in Paul Rule’s words, it is a ‘secular religion, this-worldly in emphasis yet appealing to transcendent values embodied in the concept of “heaven” ’ (Rule, 1986: 31). By relating the secular to the sacred, the humanistic to the religious, Confucianism demonstrates a unique understanding of the Ultimate and of transcendence, and opens a distinctive path to human eternity.



An introduction to Confucianism


Confucianism is a humanistic religion because the Confucian under- standing and conception of the Ultimate, of the imminent power, of the transcendent, of the world, life and death are all related to, and based on, its exploration of human nature and human destiny. Human life is meaningful and invaluable, not only because it is a way of fulfilling human destiny, but also because it is the only way of bridging this life and the beyond, the limited and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, which is well illustrated by Confucius in his reply to the questions of how to serve spiritual beings and how to understand death: ‘If you are not yet able to serve humans, how can you possibly serve spiritual beings? If you do not yet understand life, how can you possibly understand death?’ (Lunyu, 11: 12).

As a religious humanism, Confucianism is characterised by its faith in Heaven (tian) and the Mandate of Heaven (tian ming), and by its belief that humanity can achieve perfection and live up to heavenly prin- ciples. It insists that humans have their mission in the world. But it also insists that this mission cannot be fulfilled unless men and women have done their best to fulfil their ethical and moral duties, from which there develops a unique understanding of the moral as the transcendental and the secular as the sacred. Confucianism stresses the importance of self-consciousness and self-cultivation as the pathway leading to ‘transcendence’. Self-transformation is never meant to be a matter of isolation of the self from others and from society. Rather, it is closely related to human and natural orders, conscientiously exercised in the form of social and political action, and optimistically aimed at harmonising the world through changes. It is in this sense that Tu Wei-ming points out that ‘The question of being religious is crucial for our appreciation of the inner dimension of the Neo-Confucian project’, and that the religious- ness of Neo-Confucianism should be defined in terms of the individuals’ eCorts in engaging in ‘ultimate self-transformation as a communal act’ (Tu, 1985: 135).

As a humanistic religion, Confucianism is also distinctive in its ration- alism. According to Max Weber, ‘To judge the level of rationalization a religion represents we may use two primary yardsticks which are in many ways interrelated. One is the degree to which the religion has divested itself of magic; the other is the degree to which it has systematically unified the relation between God and the world and therewith its own ethical relationships to the world’ (Weber, 1968: 226). By the first measure,



Confucianism, Confucius and Confucian classics


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