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Religion Library: Confucianism

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

The Han dynasty trend toward syncretism between Confucianism and its alleged rivals continued throughout the period between the Han and Tang dynasties (220 C.E.-618 C.E.). In The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching [Yijing] as Interpreted by Wang Bi (Columbia 1994), Richard John Lynn shows that while Wang Bi (226-249 C.E.) uses Taoist terminology in his commentary on this ancient text, his concerns are deeply Confucian. Even thinkers long regarded as Taoists, such as Ge Hong (283-343 C.E.), turn out not have been associated with any Taoist communities, as Nathan Sivin argues in his seminal article, "On the Word ‘Taoist' as a Source of Perplexity" (History of Religions 17 [1978]). Yet Ge Hong clearly espoused Confucian concerns, making the case for identifying him as a Confucian rather stronger than the case for seeing him as a Taoist in some scholars' eyes. A scholarly consensus that "Confucian" is not a very useful description for early thinkers within Kongzi's tradition has begun to emerge.

Many scholars now question the usefulness of the term "Confucianism" even when applied to the seemingly better-defined traditions of later imperial China. Benjamin A. Elman's Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam (UCLA 2002) documents how "Confucianism" does not correspond to any term used by so-called Confucians to describe themselves, their teachings, or their traditions. Some scholars even have argued that "Confucianism" was invented entirely by Westerners as a kind of inverse counterpart to individualistic values.  Lionel Jensen's Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (Duke 1997) argues that 16th-century Jesuits devised the category of "Confucianism" in order to serve their own purposes as agents of a foreign religion seeking Chinese converts. Certainly, the role of Christian missionaries in shaping Western views of Confucian traditions -- from the early efforts of Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552-1610 C.E.) to the pioneering translations of James Legge (1815-1897 C.E.) -- cannot be underestimated, and the fact that their portrait of early Confucianism resembles a kind of Platonic or Stoic monotheism, ripe for completion by the Christian gospel, should inspire suspicion.

Another thorny issue in the Western understanding of Confucianism has been the matter of its classification within categories originally developed to describe modern European traditions, namely "philosophy" and "religion."  As Wilfred C. Smith put it in The Meaning and End of Religion (Fortress Press 1991), "The question ‘Is Confucianism a religion?' is one that the West has never been able to answer and China never able to ask." This problem afflicts all scholarly approaches to Chinese traditions. Like any other category, "Confucianism" is value-laden, but the values with which it is invested depend on who deploys it. Those who have described these traditions as "religious" include the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920 C.E.) (who saw Confucianism as China's obstacle on the path to modernization), Chinese Marxists (who felt the same way), and so-called "New Confucians" (20th-century Chinese intellectuals, mostly from outside mainland China) who conversely advocate Confucianism as the foundation of cultural and economic success stories from Singapore to South Korea.


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