Confucianism, Religion and Human Community
Some scholars insist that Confucianism is not a religion. It does not teach about God, heaven, or the afterlife. Rather, it is a philosophy that aims to teach how to live responsibly, ethically, and wisely. And really, Confucianism is not quite a religion in the modern sense of the term, it has shown the elasticity of the world’s great religions, justifying oppressors and giving comfort to the oppressed. Several times it was thought to be dead or dying, and on each of those occasions it has been reborn with renewed vitality, most recently in the past few decades.
There is a lot of myth and legend surrounding Confucius. We actually have very little information about his life and times. What is known about Confucius comes mostly from his students. Confucius taught through informal conversation, leaving no written lessons. But he attracted many disciples (followers) who collected his teachings and wrote them down. These teachings, which stress the need to develop character, healthy social relationships, and a sense of responsibility, became the core of the philosophy known as Confucianism (Feng 89-90).
The most important text of Confucianism is The Analects. It was not written by Confucius, but contains many sayings collected by his earliest students. On young people, for example, “The Master said, ‘A youth, when at home, should be filial (an obedient child), and abroad, respectful to his elders. He should be earnest and truthful. He should overflow in love to all, and cultivate the friendship of the good'”(Waley 82).
Confucius, or Kong Fuzi in Chinese, is believed to have lived from 551 to 479 B.C. He was born into a noble family in northeastern China. After his parents died, the young Confucius became a teacher. During this time, China was in a state of chaos. The Zhou dynasty (ruling family) had little control over the vast country. Instead, rival lords competed for power and land, and waged war on each other. The bloodshed prompted many teachers and philosophers to devise ways to bring peace to China. They wandered from city to city, hoping to spread their ideas for reform. Confucius was one of these traveling teachers. He tried to offer his ideas to the lords, but none of them were interested. He never succeeded in becoming an official at court or a confidant to important people. (Feng 91-93).
Disappointed, Confucius returned home to open a school. Through his teachings, he sought to better society by encouraging proper conduct between human beings. The core of Confucianism is the idea of benevolence, or kindness. According to Confucius, one becomes benevolent by following a set of guidelines (rules) of acceptable behavior. Through the practice of these rituals (repetitive acts), one can learn to become a better person and lead a good life. Confucius believed the world would be harmonious if individuals were kind and respectful in five basic relationships: father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, elder friend and younger friend, and emperor and subject. According to Confucian theory, if an individual were good and virtuous, then his or her family would be, too. And if families were good and virtuous, it would follow that all of society would be harmonious (Feng 93-94).
Confucius approved of the rule of kings and emperors, but he argued that the best leader was one who guided his people with kindness and morality, not force. One of his rules said: “If you govern your province well and treat your people kindly, your kingdom shall not lose any war” (The Analects).
Through all its variations and its transformations, Confucianism’s sole unity has been its scriptural basis in a body of “classics,” works ranging in date from murky antiquity to the fifth century B.C. The Analects is only one work in this body of “classics,” and it is far from being the oldest. The Analects differs from other works in the canon, however, in representing the voice of Confucius. Here he offers terse comments and judgments that have remained, even to today, a living part of Chinese culture, and a standard by which to evaluate the situations of everyday life (Feng 95).
We can never know with historical certainty whether the words recorded in The Analects are actually those of Confucius himself, or the imaginative reconstruction of what Confucius should have said; but in either case the Confucius of the Analects comes across as a powerful personality. God, as represented in the Bible and the Koran, does not have a “personality.” God has judgments that are absolutely valid precisely because they are God’s, but we do not say that God has an “opinion.” Opinions are for mortals, and their value must be weighed against contrary opinion. Jesus, as the fusion of God and mortal man, also speaks with an authority above the level of opinion. And Shakyamuni, though he may have once had mere opinions before his enlightenment, speaks with absolute knowledge once he becomes the Buddha, the “Enlightened One” (Lau 27-29). In the Confucian tradition, by contrast, the voice of highest authority never reaches that level of downwardly mobile divinity or upwardly mobile Buddha. But he tries harder: The Master said: “For my part, I am not endowed with innate knowledge. I am simply a man who loves the past and who is diligent in investigating it” (The Analects).
Chinese commentators observe here that the Master is being modest. It is their view that Confucius is a Sage and was indeed born with innate knowledge. What we learn from their disagreement with Confucius’s explicit statement about himself is not the impossible question of whether Confucius was or was not born with innate knowledge; we learn, rather, that a Sage can be “modest,” and that therefore we have to discount some of his utterances as expressions of his modesty. Elsewhere commentators frame Confucius’s words with claims that the Master is speaking out of anger, or despair, or pointedly shaping his words for some particularly obtuse disciple. Confucius’s sayings are never contradictory in the strong sense of the term, because the Master speaks from different moods, situations, and phases of life. Jesus in the Gospels sometimes comes close to such circumstantial responses of mortal men, but he is firmly anchored in a different plane of being, to which he knows he will eventually return. Confucius, by contrast, has both his feet in this world; and, as The Analects reports several times, he keeps his distance from and silence about the world of gods and spirits (Lau 32-35).
This stance of Confucius in the Analects offers a particular challenge to translators. English has a ready-made language of divine authority; it is easy to believe that the same God speaks in English versions of the Koran as in the Bible because divinity speaks with the same English idiom in Arabia as in Israel. But the voice of authority that speaks secular truths shadowed by mortal circumstance gives us … Polonius. Unlike God, a Sage is always in danger of sounding pompous. It must be said that previous translators of The Analects have not always escaped this danger (Lau 36).
In a famous essay on translation, the nineteenth-century philosopher Schleiermacher made a distinction between the tendencies of translation that still remains valid. Faced with the different resources and habits of two languages, the translator may either twist the language of the translation to resemble the language of the original, or he may recast the forms of the original to come out naturally in the language of the translation. The translation committees that made the King James Bible are perhaps the most successful examples of the former approach. In the Old Testament, their English followed the Hebrew idiom as closely as possible, though centuries of devotional reading have transformed this strange Hebraicized English into one of the most familiar and fully naturalized forms of the language. English has similarly been enriched by trying to sound like Latin, French, and German. In the same way, the terseness of the Chinese idiom enriched the poetic language of the Imagist poets early in this century. To make classical Chinese effective discursively rather than poetically, however, requires a goodly amount of filling in the empty spaces (Waley 83-83).
We now have two new translations of The Analects to add to the roughly half dozen other translations available in print. The one is by Chichung Huang, formerly a professor at Bennington College and, before that, at Beijing University. The other is by Simon Leys, professor emeritus at Sydney University and a well-known commentator on modern Chinese culture. These two translations of The Analects diverge neatly into alternative approaches, both in the degree of their adherence to the Chinese idiom and in the degree of their expansion of the Chinese original (Lau 37).
A major traditional Western social theory views individual persons as rational beings with self-interests and certain rights. They enter the society as if they had signed a social contract with each other for the purpose of mutual gains, and by this contract their individual rights are guaranteed. Thus the relation between members of a society is like a contractual relation. In contrast, the Confucian views the society as a large family in which the ruler’s relation to the subjects is like that of a father to his children. For Confucius, just as there is no contract within the family, there is no contract in the society either. The philosophy of managing a good family and that of managing a good society are essentially the same. The Western division of “public sphere” and “private sphere” simply does not exist in Confucianism (Lau 38-39).
Confucius, jen and the Way (Tao/Dao)
The Confucian concept of jen originated in a turbulent slave time of China called Spring and Autumn (722-481 B.c.). As we mentioned, Confucius lived 551-479 B.C. in a transforming period from early developing slave society to its declining time. Facing such a revolutionary period of struggle, Confucius held a conservative political attitude, advocating the idea of overcoming oneself and restoring rituals in Chou dynasty (1111-249 B.C.). He thought those institutions of rites in Chou reflected various customs of respecting the old, benevolence, and mercy for all, and that Chou should be regarded as an ideal society. Despite this, Confucius had to accept some innovations such as the abolition of the old custom of burying slaves with their dead owners. He created a doctrine of jen in his discourses with his disciples and they edited those dialogues as a world famous book, The Analects. Jen as a general virtue appears more than one hundred times in The Analects, and although Confucius did not give a precise definition of Jen, we can still understand what jen means through Confucius’ own words (Robinson 37).
In The Analects, Confucius emphasized the idea of jen as the humanity in humans, the benevolence or universal love, as an essence or substantial aspect connected with the old idea of li (rites), the regularization of rituals in previous Chou society. After his death, the doctrine of jen was developed by later Confucians, especially during the Han (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) and Song (or Song) dynasties (A.D. 960-1279).
Confucius was the first to articulate the concept of jen as the center of his thought. The term “jen” is repeated more than 100 times in The Analects, but these words provide little by way of defining jen, as many scholars have noticed. As a result, the meaning of jen is very vague and variable, and interpretations of it differ according to different scholars without final agreement. However, among all the interpretations, the emphasis has been put on two kinds of explanations: one focusing on man of jen (loving man) and the other on jen as overcoming oneself and restoring “li” (rite). Both of these accounts can be validated by reference to Confucius’ own words. When his best disciple Yen Yuan asks about what jen is, Confucius responds, “He who can submit himself to li is jen” (The Analects 12:1). What is the nature of jen itself? Confucius says, “A man of humanity, wishing to es tablish his own character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method of realizing humanity” (The Analects 6:30). Here, jen is intimately linked to the relationship between man and man; he seems to mean a reciprocal good faith and respect among men. The reciprocal good faith is given a specific content: it is that set of specific social relationships articulated in detail by li or rites. In a word, where reciprocal good faith and respect are expressed through the specific forms defined in li, there is the way of jen. Thus, “li and jen are two aspects of the same thing”. And: “The man who really loves others is one able to perform his duties in society” (Fingarette 42).
According to their analysis, jen exists not in itself, nor in speaking, but in doing, in the relationship between individual men, and in li. Virtues such as “loyal,” “brave,” and “kind” give us no insight or help in grasping the essence of jen, because Confucius indicates repeatedly in The Analects (5:18, 5:7, 14:2, 14:5) that the possession of such virtues is insufficient for establishing that a man is jen. For him, it is action and public circumstances that are fundamental (Fingarette 40). Given that a man who submits himself to li is jen (The Analects 12:1), jen and li are in a relation of each depending on the other. “Each points to an aspect of the action of man in his distinctively human role. Li directs our attention to the traditional social pattern of conduct and relationships; jen directs our attention to the person as the one who pursues the pattern of conduct and thus maintains those relations” (Fingarette 42). Jen and li cannot be separated in the sense that they are two aspects of the same thing.
Every scholar who reads The Analects would be familiar with Confucius’ explanation of jen, namely, “To master oneself and return to propriety is humanity” (The Analects 12:1). This propriety is referring to rites in Chou society (1111-249 B.C.) The origin and core of rites established by customary rules in Chou is to show great respect by sacrifices to heaven and to ancestors. These rites and customs are supposed to keep society in good order within a hierarchical system. In Chinese characters, state and family can become one meaning. The origin of “state-family” is the starting point of Chinese history. Rulers never separated state and family; hence, filial piety is the first important element in jen structure. After the collapse of the kin and clan system, Confucius drew upon its historical traditions and turned them into a conscious ideology by emphasizing that the kinship gradation system should be kept as a universal and permanent social meaning and standing (Robinson 39).This claim was readily acceptable to both rulers and ruled because of kinship’s biological base, which provided a naturalistic rationale for its practice such as a customary three years mourning for parents’ death. In his book, On the History of Ancient Chinese Thoughts, Zehou Li gave an incisive explanation of why li plays an important role in performing jen. According to Li, Confucius explained the traditional three years mourning period as modeled on the intimated love relation between parents and their offspring, based on natural and psychological needs and dependencies (Li 11-12). Thus, Confucius could explain the whole system of rituals in kin relationship in terms of the concept of filial piety and also rationalize its practices by reference to everyday family loving relations. The external or behavioral constraints of li were seen as stemming from the inner emotional compulsions of human needs, and so the rigid compulsory rules become promoted into the conscious ideas of a good life in combining ethical rules and psychological desire (Li 12). From this model, later Confucians would easily develop a complete role-ethics as their dominant ideology.
Confucius and Personal Identity
If the question of Confucian self-definition is difficult, then tracking down a satisfactory definition of what modern scholars have called “Confucian religiosity” is even more difficult. All of the problems with definition and self-understanding still obtain, along with the added complication of finding a workable definition of the religious dimension of the Confucian tradition. The assumption of such a quest is that there is indeed something like a stable religious dimension within Confucian discourse. This has been and still is a highly contested issue within Confucian scholarship. Some people believe they see religion in Confucian guise; others scoff and suggest that religion, like beauty, is merely in the eye of the beholder, and here merely a projection of the post-Reformation and Enlightenment conviction that everyone has a religion. The debate has raged for centuries and shows no sign of diminishing (Routledge 122-25).
The early Catholic missionary activity in the sixteenth century in Japan and China and the later nineteenth-century Protestant encounter with Confucianism is a fascinating variation on the theme of the Western search for Asian religion and wisdom. Without putting too fine a point on it, alone among the religions of Asia, Confucianism caused doubt about its proper categorization in the minds of the missionary-scholars. It was clear to them that the religious traditions collected under the designations of Hinduism and Buddhism were false and even diabolic projects of deluded and sinful human nature; they were less clear about Confucianism. For many missionaries Confucianism was not yet another example of false human religious striving, but rather a sophisticated and sometimes even admirable philosophic wisdom tradition (Routledge 131-133).
Is it true that Confucianism does not recognize individual autonomy? In the past, scholars often defended Confucianism against these charges. Their argument holds that there is, within Confucianism, a concept of moral autonomy that can support civil liberties without having to incorporate the liberal notion of individual autonomy. This argument of moral autonomy is important. If sound, it can revise, if not reject, the dark and pessimistic picture of Confucianism powerfully painted by May Fourth thinkers (Routledge 134-137).
Confucius and Traditionalism
The Confucian commitment to tradition as defined by canon leads to a different way of looking at what constitutes the tradition than would be the case for some organized West Asian religion with ruling councils, strict definitions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and procedures for affirming, modifying, or abandoning the complex web of religious identity (Chow 217). For instance, the Confucian canon takes a great deal of interest in history and poetry as civilized arts worthy of respect and emulation. Hence, one can be a perfectly good Confucian by being interested in history and poetry without any kind of inclination toward the spiritual cultivation of the mind-heart. In other words, there is a vast range of the possibilities of “being” Confucian because of the content of its rather extensive canon.
There are parts of the Confucian canon, such as the Doctrine of the Mean, that are taken by certain Confucians as signifying the religious and/or mystical aspect of the tradition. But, of course, there is no all-encompassing reason to demand that any given Confucian read even the Doctrine of the Mean as a text expressing what the modern New Confucian Tu Wei-ming calls Confucian religiosity (Chow 218-223). On the contrary, just as long as you read and acknowledge the text as a fiduciary aspect of the tradition, this qualifies you as a Confucian. Many great Ch’ing dynasty textual critics took their reading of the Doctrine of the Mean neat as an exercise in philological reflection.
Often, especially in scholarly associations such as the American Academy of Religion, there are awkward moments when Confucian scholars make public confessions that they do not understand Confucianism to be a religion in any sense whatsoever. They usually compare and contrast the Confucian tradition to the organized Christian tradition and point out that there is nothing organizationally, functionally, or intellectually resembling such a religious community within the Confucian world. Other Chinese, Korean, or Japanese scholars, themselves given to a religious reading of their texts, will counter that there is most definitely a religious dimension to the tradition. Both are probably correct in that they are simply embracing different segments of the Confucian tradition (Chow 228-231).
One useful image is to think of Confucianism as a tradition defined but not always constrained by the material and interests contained in the canonical classics. The debates about self-definition are most often involved with warrants and arguments for a particular reading of a canonical text. Of course, the very nature and composition of the texts does suggest limits to what is and is not possible for a faithful interpretation. For instance, it would be very hard to think of a Confucian who would not take jen or humanity/humaneness as the key Confucian virtue, or to find a Confucian who would not be interested in the role of ritual in the human community. There are simply so many texts that deal with humaneness as a virtue and ritual as a crucial element of human life that every Confucian qua reader of texts must confront these claims for attention and interpretation. What one does with the virtue of humanity and the role of ritual can be as diverse as Mencius and HsUn Tzu, or Chu Hsi and Tai Chen. Confucians have every right to state categorically that Confucianism is not a religious community patterned on the West Asian Christian model (Feng 95-96).
Chow, Kaiwing. The rise of Confucian ritualism in late imperial China. California: Stanford University Press, 1994.
Feng, Yulan. A short history of Chinese philosophy. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948.
Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius–The secular as sacred. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
Lau, D. C. Confucius: The Analects. New York: Penguin Group, 1979.
Li, Ze-hou. Zhongguo Gudai Sixiang Shi Lun (On the history of Chinese ancient thought). Taibei: Feng Yun Shi Dai Press, 1990.
Robinson, Fiona. Confucianism and Tao. Boulder: Westview Press, 1988.
Routledge. Concise Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. Personal Identity. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Waley, Arthur. The Analects of Confucius. New York: Random House, 1978.