06 April 2012

Confucianism as religion: preparing new rituals on ancient ground

Confucius Temple in Beijing 北京孔廟

The following was submitted as a paper for Dr Paul Nelson’s ‘Religion and Development’ course at GSPIA on 6 April 2012.

The debate over whether Confucianism is a ‘religion’ is a venerable one in Sinological circles, hearkening back to debates between Christian missionaries in Asia and the defenders of the Confucian tradition. The ambiguous position of the concept of tian in the Confucian belief-system, along with the semi-agnostic nature of Confucianism regarding the supernatural and the afterlife, led many Western thinkers to place it outside the category of ‘religion’, of which the archetypes were the Abrahamic traditions with their shared insistence on a transcendent, universal God and the eschatological fate of each human being (Cavanaugh 2007). Asian scholars themselves are divided on the issue: on the one hand, Confucianism-as-religion was conceived by cultural nationalists at the turn of the century as a possible response to Western colonialism and conversion; on the other, to secular Chinese reformers of the Republican era who saw it as a symbol of the corrupt lao shehui which was holding back China from modernity, it was merely an outmoded philosophy – the creation of a religion from it was essentially an inauthentic reaction to Western forces and did not even reflect the true purposes of Confucius himself, who never relied upon supernatural powers or evocation of the transcendent to draw people to his message (Coppel 1989). And yet, in spite of the successes of the Republican government and of the Communist one which followed, not only the teachings of Confucius but also the rituals and material culture reflecting them have endured and indeed experienced a revival in recent years.

Part of the reason for this century-old debate is the fact that ‘Confucianism’ as a term has no real analogue in the original Chinese: it can be rendered as rujiao (‘scholastic doctrine’), as ruxue (‘scholastic learning’) or as rujia (‘the scholastic school [of thought]’). Of the three, the first has religious connotations (partly as a result of the translation of the English term ‘religion’ into Mandarin Chinese as zongjiao, implying both worship and formal doctrines), whereas the second two are more ‘secular’ and imply philosophical or ideological inclinations (Sun 2005). In some Asian countries, such as Indonesia and South Korea, Confucianism is considered a religion and its temples (litang, wenmiao) are viewed in the eyes of the law as houses of worship. There is currently a movement in Mainland China, drawing most of its support from academics and public officials, to have Confucianism recognised as a religion, and the traditional Temples to Confucius (kongmiao) recognised as places of worship (Yang 2007). This movement is far from new, however – the grassroots Indonesian Kongjiao Zonghui movement (itself inspired by the late Qing reform movements in mainland China) served as inspiration for more top-down efforts by the warlord Yuan Shikai and by the reformist activist and philosopher Kang Youwei to establish a religious Confucianism or ‘Confucianity’, efforts which were vigorously attacked by more liberal Republicans (Coppel 1989; Sun 2005) and by Marxists, who wished to categorise Confucianism as a religion and thus to safely manage it (Sun 2005) and relegate it to a ‘superstitious feudal’ (fengjian mixin) past, even though there were virtually no people on the mainland in the early Communist era who would have described themselves as religious ‘Confucians’ the way they might have described themselves as ‘Christians’.

Although the Chinese government still holds (on paper) to the anticlerical, atheistic doctrine of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, the ideology has been soundly on the retreat for the past thirty years since the death of Mao Zedong. On the ground, the aggressive capitalism, market reforms and increasingly unaccountable government which have replaced it have led to a crisis of faith, so to speak, for a great many Chinese people. In the past few years, Christian churches (even those registered by the government, such as Gangwashi and Chongwenmen in Beijing) have become increasingly strident in their messages and have attracted many adult converts; to a certain extent, the same is true of the Buddhist temples, such as Miaoyingsi Baita (Cooper 2007). The growing popularity of religion in Mainland China speaks to the cultural, moral and religious vacuum which arose in the wake of the Cultural Revolution as the state first overreached and then repudiated its own role as an essentially religious force, which various religious traditions, such as Christianity and Buddhism, have attempted to fill in the meanwhile. Among these religious traditions attempting to gain cultural traction, also, is Confucianism – or at least, Confucian revivalism in the process of being reinterpreted as a religion. This movement has seen some institutional support and support from scholarly movements, from New Confucian scholar Kang Xiaoguang’s 2003 ‘Outline for a Cultural Nationalism’ and the 2004 Jiashen Wenhua Xuanyan to the establishment of state-sponsored Confucius Institutes (Kongzi Xueyuan) both in China and abroad (including one at the University of Pittsburgh) to elaborate public celebrations of the birthday of Confucius (Xu et al. 2004; Yang 2007). Since 2001, a spirited and often acerbic debate has been taking place within the academic community as well, particularly within the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, concerning the status of Confucianism as a religion (Sun 2005).

At the grassroots level, however, the Temples to Confucius (kongmiao) are presently heavily patronised in post-Cultural Revolution China. To a certain extent, they occupy the same ambiguous and uncomfortable space in contemporary Chinese material culture and daily life as Buddhist temples do: though they have been deliberately preserved by the (atheistic) Chinese authorities essentially to serve as cultural sites and museums, and are still marketed as such by tourism and travel agencies (Cooper 2007; Mu 2011), they are visited as places of worship by the general populace. In Taiwan and among the Chinese diaspora, there has been a more or less continuous use of Confucian temples for religious devotions, as well as the much more widespread use of Confucian ritual forms in syncretic folk-religionist, ancestor-worship, Daoist and Buddhist observances (Clart 2003). There, as on the mainland, students would often offer prayers and make offerings in Temples of Confucius for help on examinations (Sun 2005) or simply out of veneration for his teachings and his place in Chinese culture (Mu 2011). On the mainland, in Qufu, Shandong Province, the hometown of Master Kong Qiu, the ‘original’ Confucian temple has been restored from its destruction during the Cultural Revolution (Overmyer 2003) and is in active use. An elaborate ceremony and memorial procession is held annually in Qufu every 28th of September; though there are smaller celebrations at Temples of Confucius throughout China (Chinavine 2009). Statues of Confucius are being (re)erected on university and school campuses and in public places throughout China, and classes in ‘national learning’ (guoxue) and in the Confucian Classics are gaining greater and greater prominence (Yang 2007).

And yet, though the impact of these seemingly innocuous academic revivals are much more subtle than those of Buddhism or Christianity (both of which have long and colourful histories of active proselytisation), these Confucian devotions and this burgeoning renaissance of the Confucian Classics are also playing a rather significant role in the quest to shape new moral identities in China. The appeal of Confucianism both in the West and in China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (where much energy was spent in the continual destruction of anything bearing a whiff of Master Kong) draws both upon a transgressive impulse to subvert a revolution which failed, and upon a genuine desire to build upon a transcendental, axial tradition which is positively and distinctively Chinese.

Sun Xiaodong hypothesises that the religious or quasi-religious rise in popular worship of Confucius is attributable to the long-standing ethical system associated with Confucian teachings, and to the ready identification of Confucian tradition with distinctively Chinese culture and nationhood (Sun 2005). Columbia University’s W. Theodore de Bary describes his own ambivalence to this revivalist attitude, particularly amongst ‘young people’ and marks some of the difficulties with adapting Confucianism to the role many idealistic Chinese students would have it play, charging full-steam ahead into the century-old debate about the religious qualities (or lack thereof) of Confucianism, and at the same time speaking to the lasting appeal of Master Kong’s humanist values (de Bary 1988). But where the daily devotions and the thirst for knowledge on the part of young people meets the academic field where Confucianism is supposed to thrive best, is precisely where even further complications begin.

Master Kong’s legacy is now being comprehended and rearticulated in at least three different ways. The first, common in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the overseas Chinese community and exemplified in the work of Tu Weiming (Professor of Confucian Studies at Harvard University) and Robert Neville (former dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University), who have come to be known as the Boston Confucians. Both seek to find perspectives of overlap between the thought of the Confucian Classics and amenable points of contact with secular Western liberalism and theories of democracy and human rights (Tu 2002) and with Christianity (Neville 2003) in order to give Confucianism a legitimate foothold in modern philosophical discourse and from thence create a broader platform from which Confucians can engage with contemporary problems in precisely the ways de Bary claims challenged classical Confucian thinkers and their intellectual progeny all the way up through the end of the lao shehui. Tu and Neville provide a conduit to relate and reinterpret the intellectual struggles faced by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and the overseas Chinese communities as they have confronted the weighty contradictions of modernity with Confucianism foremost among their intellectual paradigms.

On the other hand, a much more conservative (and yet more radical and populist) academic approach to Confucianism has made its presence amply felt. The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Professor Kang Xiaoguang on the academic side and Yu Dan on the pop-culture side (Yang 2007) are the standard-bearers for this phenomenon. Inherent to their readings of the Classics and of the broader tradition is the critique of the general arc of Chinese society from the Republican Era through the Communist Era, the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s gaige kaifang (‘reform and opening’) to the present day – the crisis of legitimacy and the loss of a coherent moral narrative are definitive of modern China. Kang cites an alliance of large business interests and the ruling elites at the centre of the crisis, and notes that their rapacious behaviour has eroded the fabrics of trust and of empathy which must sustain any just society. His twin critiques of capitalistic Western liberalism and of Marxian communism (whether deliberate or coincidental) mirror very closely the rhetoric and logic of Catholic social teaching: what is demanded is good government, aligning with principles of social justice and mutual responsibility rooted in the virtues and lived experience of a specific community. It is from here that he reads Confucianism both as a radical interlocutor of Western liberalism and as the solution to China’s current dead-end course in an amoral market and an amoral state. He cites Confucian reformer Kang Youwei as the primary model for building a more just, more equitable and more humane China on Confucian principles (Kang 2006).

Beijing Normal University’s Yu Dan’s much-maligned (by academics and public intellectuals), more popular interpretation of Confucian teachings, including a television serial on exegesis of the Confucian Lunyu (The Analects) and a mass-market book touching on similar themes, though not as overtly radical as Kang Xiaoguang’s critical use of Confucian doctrine, still seeks to provide a replacement in the popular imagination for a culture she feels is becoming too materialistic. Though Yu’s work may be the Confucian equivalent of the toothless, vaguely-spiritual American ‘inspirational literature’ (Martinsen 2007), she is nevertheless articulating a message which is running at odds with a post-Deng Chinese consumer culture and attempting to get her audience to think on different dimensions. Her work has been a phenomenal success – the first run of her book (600,000 copies) sold out within four days of publication (Yang 2007).

Yet a third strain is the same Chinese state’s attempt to appropriate Confucian imagery and symbolism through the Kongzi Xueyuan and other official outlets and endorsements of traditional Chinese culture. The Chinese Ministries of Culture and of Education were very quick to pick up on the cultural shift back toward Confucian thought and expression in the early 2000’s, and in 2006 the Ministry of Culture elaborated in its five-year plan the need for ‘protection of national culture’, the reinvigoration of traditional holidays and the promotion of the Classics. As the Chinese state is suffering from a crisis of moral legitimacy, yoking Confucian doctrine to the cause of nationalism as a means of retaining cultural and political dominance is understandably seen as a prudent strategy (Yang 2007). Kang Xiaoguang notes that the Chinese government, in its public use of the language of ‘harmony’ (hexie) and the ‘well-off society’ (xiaokang shehui), was already beginning to incorporate ancient patterns of Confucian thought in place of Marxist-Leninist-Maoist doctrine, and to privilege (at least in its official language) class collaboration over either class struggle or the post-Deng ‘alliance of the elites’ (Kang 2006).

Does this attempt to synthesise modern nationalism with Confucian trappings necessarily turn this Confucian revivalism into yet another form of state propaganda? Many scholars have been tempted to say so, but qualitative studies such as the one conducted by French sinologists Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval in 2008 show that laypeople do have what might be considered genuine religious experiences stemming from encounters with Confucian thought. They trace the story of a Liaoning native who went from being a PLA dancer to a successful businesswoman in the gaige kaifang period to a Buddhist neophyte and then to a student of Confucius by way of Taiwanese philosopher Wang Caigui. Her religious experiences led her to a concern for individual peace of mind and for social justice that is summed up in the phrase anshen liming (‘be at peace and fulfill [one’s] duty’; Billioud and Thoraval 2008).

Thus, it appears that there are two separate, though contemporary and interlinking motions toward the reintroduction of Confucianism as a religion in the daily life of Chinese society. The first, a genuine, organic religious or quasi-religious expression by students, intellectuals and common people who wish to pay tribute to Confucius as a patron of culture and learning, is contiguous with and part of a long-standing tradition of veneration of Confucius and his students by ordinary Chinese. The second, also prominently drawing from students and intellectuals, deliberately and actively seeks to promote and evangelise these expressions as an alternative both to Marxist ideology and the growing dominance of cultural and political liberalism (what Yang Fenggang describes, somewhat unfairly, as ‘Confucian fundamentalism’). Though the cooptation by the state and by the Chinese Communist Party is viewed somewhat askance by Western (and some Chinese) observers, it would be mistaken to dismiss the newfound interest in Confucianism amongst Chinese intellectuals (among others) as merely a ploy for ideological legitimacy by a government which has run for practically thirty years without it. Confucianism in the mainland, far from being a dusty relic of a distant, superstitious feudal past, has a ‘future’, as Sun Xiaodong aptly puts it, ‘about to unfold right before our eyes’ (Sun 2005).

Appendix A: Chinese Terms and Proper Names

anshen liming 安身立命
Chongwenmen 崇文門
Deng Xiaoping 鄧小平
fengjian mixin 封建迷信
gaige kaifang 改革開放
Gangwashi 缸瓦市
guoxue 國學
hexie 和諧
Jiashen Wenhua Xuanyan 甲申文化宣言
Kang Xiaoguang 康曉光
Kang Youwei 康有為
Kong Qiu 孔丘
Kongjiao Zonghui 孔教宗會
kongmiao 孔廟
Kongzi Xueyuan 孔子學院
lao shehui 老社會
litang 禮堂
Lunyu 論語
Mao Zedong 毛澤東
Miaoyingsi Baita 妙應寺白塔
rujia 儒家
rujiao 儒教
ruxue 儒學
Shandong Qufu 山東曲阜
Sun Xiaodong 孫笑冬
tian 天
Tu Weiming 杜維明
Wang Caigui 王財貴
wenmiao 文廟
xiaokang shehui 小康社會
Yang Fenggang 楊鳳崗
Yu Dan 于丹
Yuan Shikai 袁世凱
zongjiao 宗教

Appendix B: Bibliography
  • Billioud, Sébastien and Joël Thoraval. 2008. ‘The Contemporary Revival of Confucianism: Anshen Liming or the Religious Dimension of Confucianism’. China Perspectives 2008(3): 88-106.
  • Cavanaugh, William. 2007. ‘Does Religion Cause Violence?’ Harvard Divinity Bulletin 35(2): 22-35.
  • Chinavine. 2009. ‘Celebrations of Confucius’. University of Central Florida Online Archive. http://www.chinavine.ucf.edu/qufu/confucius_celebration/ (accessed 6 April 2012).
  • Clart, Philip. 2003. ‘Confucius and the Mediums: Is There a “Popular Confucianism”?’ T’oung Pao 89: 1-38.
  • Cooper, Matthew Franklin. 2007. ‘The Role of Religion in Modern China’. Capital Normal University. Integrative cultural research project.
  • Coppel, Charles A. 1989. ‘«Is Confucianism a Religion?» A 1923 Debate in Java’. Archipel 38: 125-35.
  • De Bary, W Theodore. 1988. ‘The Trouble with Confucianism’. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at the University of Berkeley, 133-83.
  • Kang Xiaoguang. 2006. ‘Confucianisation: a Future in the Tradition’ (trans. Liu Huiqing). Social Research 73(1): 77-119.
  • Martinsen, Joel. 2007. ‘Yu Dan: Defender of Traditional Culture, Force for Harmony’. Danwei. http://www.danwei.org/scholarship_and_education/yu_dan_defender_of_traditional.php (accessed 6 April 2012).
  • Mu Duosheng. 2011. ‘Confucian Heritage Locked Behind Expensive Entrance Fees’. Global Times Online. http://www.globaltimes.cn/NEWS/tabid/99/ID/678663/Confucian-heritage-locked-behind-expensive-entrance-fees.aspx (accessed 6 April 2012).
  • Neville, Robert C. 2003. ‘Response to Bryan W. van Norden’s Review of “Boston Confucianism”’. Philosophy East and West 53(3): 417-20.
  • Overmyer, Daniel L. 2003. ‘Religion in China Today: Introduction’. The China Quarterly 174: 307-16.
  • Sun Anna Xiao Dong. 2005. ‘The Fate of Confucianism as a Religion in Socialist China: Controversies and Paradoxes’. Chapter 9 in State, Market and Religions in Chinese Societies, eds. Yang Fenggang and Joseph B. Tamney, 229-51.
  • Tu Weiming. 2002. ‘Confucianism and Liberalism’. Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 2(1): 1-20.
  • Xu Jialu et al. 2004. ‘Cultural Declaration in the Year of Jiashen’. People’s Daily Online. http://www.people.com.cn/GB/paper81/13119/1176605.html (accessed 6 April 2012).
  • Yang Fenggang. 2007. ‘Cultural Dynamics in China: Today and in 2020’. Asia Policy 4: 41-52.

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