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Religion Library: Confucianism

Sacred Space

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

Kongzi stated that divine realms are beyond human comprehension, so there is no Confucian concept of a sacred space outside of the realm of life on earth. The focus of Confucianism is ordinary human interactions, and thus, in a sense, the ordinary space of daily life becomes sacred space.

The most sacred space for Confucians may also be the most ordinary: the family home. In the home, the generations meet under one roof and help one another along on the path toward spiritual self-transformation. Elders fulfill their obligation to their ancestors by guiding the young and sharing wisdom handed down to them, ultimately becoming ancestors themselves. Youth fulfill their obligation to their elders by accepting guidance and seeking out the wisdom of the aged, maintaining their relationship with their forebears beyond the grave through ancestor worship.

Home altar combining Confucian and Buddhist elements, Taiwan: Public DomainAlthough ancestor worship may take place in public venues, such as community temples or public cemeteries, most ancestor worship takes place in the home at a domestic altar or in a family temple, where the name plaques or tablets drawn from family genealogical tables are kept. Offerings of incense, cooked rice, or fresh fruit are made to ancestors who remain within living memory -- usually only those of the last two or three generations. Over time, as ancestors recede from the consciousness of the living, their name plaques or tablets are ritually burned, while others take their place. Despite their eventual disappearance from family altars, remote ancestors' names usually are retained in carefully-kept family records.

Image of Confucius outside Confucian Temple: Public DomainIn pre-modern East Asia, the academies maintained by Confucian scholars functioned as sacred spaces. Here, young men would prepare for the competitive civil service examinations that served as the gateway to a successful career as a government official, and which were based on knowledge of Confucian scriptures and their orthodox interpretations and commentaries. Such Confucian academies once could be found all over China as well as in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Although Confucian learning ceased to be the basis of service in government after the fall of China's Qing dynasty in 1911, recently there have been efforts to revive elements of the traditional Confucian curriculum at all levels of Chinese educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities. In South Korea and Japan, high school students still study basic Confucian texts such as the Lunyu, and the educational systems of both countries still reflect Confucian concerns for moral development as an integral part of all learning, as well as the Confucian conviction that one should win a place in society based on one's merit and attainment, rather than by birth or wealth. Recently, there have been attempts to revive the Confucian academy by "New Confucian" intellectuals, who see a need for such an institution in present-day China.


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