It  is widely acknowledged that  Confucianism has a dominant influence in Chinese culture. But what is religion in the  Chinese context? Chinese scholars writing in Chinese generally see Confucianism (ruxue or rujia thinking) as a school of Chinese philosophy, and the question of whether Confucianism is a religion or not does not  arise. Western scholars on religion, however, often regard Confucianism as a religion. Indeed, Weber’s famous work on Chinese religion is entitled The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism (Weber 1951). It is worth noting that, historically, Chinese do not make a clear distinction between moral teaching and the western concept of religious teaching, these being referred to as jiao or ‘‘teaching.’’ Thus, sanjiao, referring to Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, is better translated as ‘‘three teachings’’ rather than as ‘‘three religions,’’ for in the Chinese  understanding  of  jiao, it  is  not  an important issue whether Confucianism is a religion or not.

Chinese popular religion and its complex of pantheon, rituals, and temples is easily under stood as religion. So is Taoist religion (daojiao). Once the  indigenous institutional religion of China, today its deities and rites can be seen as part of Chinese popular religion. However, anthropologists and sociologists do not see religion as merely an institution that deals with the supernatural, and they seek a more pluralistic definition that  can include all religious phenomena. Indeed, it is insufficient to understand the religious life of the Chinese from the perspective of Chinese popular religion only, for their transcendental views of life are guided by the  transcendental  teaching  in  Taoism  and especially Confucianism. This  is  particularly obvious in the context of religious dialogue. A dialogue with  Muslims about ‘‘perfect man’’ will require the Chinese to talk about the Confucian view of junzi (‘‘superior man’’) and relevant ethics, and/or the  Taoist  view of zhenren (‘‘perfect man’’).

Similarly, the Chinese can invoke the Confucian moral system of the unity of human and heaven when relating to the Muslim and Christian view of the human and God. Confucianism was developed from the teachings of Confucius (551–479 BCE) and Mencius (371–289? BCE). The  most famous Confucian texts are collectively known as Sishu, or Four Books:  Daxue  (Great  Learning),  Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), Lunyu (Analects), and Mengzi (Book of Mencius). Central to Confucian teaching is the idea of ren, which Wingtsit Chan  translates as ‘‘humanity.’’ Asked about this, Confucius said, ‘‘It is to love men’’ (Chan 1963: 40),  and  the  Confucian  moral  world involves this transcendental thinking. Through self cultivation by practicing values that bring about the ultimate value of ren, one becomes a Confucian superior person. Of crucial importance is the value of shu, or ‘‘reciprocity.’’ The most famous teaching about this is: ‘‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’’ (Chan 1963: 39). This  teaching is well known not only to the Chinese but also to the

other East Asian societies that have Confucian influence: Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. But the practice of Confucian love and ultimately ren really begins with xiao (usually translated as filial piety),  a  value that  emphasizes respect and  honor  to  parents,  elders, and  ancestors. Mencius said, ‘‘To have filial affection for parents is humanity, and to respect elders is right eousness’’ (Chan 1963: 80). So dominant is this value that,  to this day, Chinese generally are guided  by  the  value in  their  relations with parents and elders, even though its expression changes with  time  and  parents  and  children may have different standards and expectations.

In fact, xiao in Confucian thinking is spiritual. By extending xiao beyond the family, one is able to  love a  wider circle of people. As Mencius said, ‘‘In regard to people generally, he (superior person) is humane to them but not affectionate. He  is affectionate to his parents and humane to all people. He is humane to all people and feels love for all’’ (Chan 1963: 81). A related famous saying of Mencius is: ‘‘Treat with respect the elders in my family, and then extend  that  respect  to  include the  elders in other families. Treat with tenderness the young in my own family, and then extend that tenderness to include the  young in other families’’ (Chan 1963: 61). Practicing xiao is really the first step in the spiritual journey to attaining humanity (ren).

Confucianism  developed   throughout   the centuries, culminating in the neo Confucianism (lixue) of the Song and Ming dynasties. By then, Confucian thinkers had incorporated aspects of Taoist and Buddhist thought into their Confucian teachings. The most famous Confucianist of this period was Zhu  Xi (1130–1200),  who synthesized various important Confucian ideas, including those of the neo Confucianists of the Song dynasty. His discussion of the Supreme Ultimate  (taiji) –  the  all embracing ultimate standard in the universe – is so transcendental that it is as religious as it can be.

Since the early twentieth century, especially after  the  May  Fourth   Movement  of  1919, Confucianism was attacked as upholding feudalism and blamed for China’s backwardness. At the same time, Confucian thinkers who were exposed to the West tried to relate it to modern China, giving rise to the modern Confucian ism called xin ruxue or ‘‘New Confucianism.’’

A well known founder of this new school was Liang Shumin (1893–1988). Reflection on Con fucianism in relation to Christianity and western thought is evident in his writing. He insisted that  Confucianism is  not  religion, which he saw as characterized by superstition. He argued that,  in China, moral teaching had taken the place  of  religion.  This   of  course  involves the  definition of religion, and  it  is common to find Chinese intellectuals seeing religion as dealing with the supernatural and with myths. The  well known Chinese  philosophy professor Lao Siguang holds this view, too, and considers Confucianism not a religion. However, he points out that Confucianism has religious functions (Lao 1998: 192). A notable exception is Ren Jiyu, who considered Zhu Xi’s thought as belonging to the realm of religion although he  considered it  as not  practical. A  ‘‘third generation’’ New Confucianism thinker who is well known in the West is Tu  Weiming, the Harvard academic who has been active in introducing Confucianism in the West and relating it to modern challenges. He has also been active in   participating  in   interreligious  dialogues, speaking about Confucianism.

Overall,   Confucianism  is   important   for understanding Chinese religious life, which is much more than just worshipping deities and ancestors, as can be commonly seen being practiced by ordinary Chinese in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora among Chinese who still observe indigenous Chinese religious beliefs and practices. Just as not all Christians and Muslims follow the teachings of their religions in daily life, not all Chinese practice Confucian teachings, and few actually read Confucian  texts.  But  Confucianism remains important  as a Chinese ideal of spiritual life, and aspects of it, including different expressions of xiao, are practiced by ordinary Chinese. Confucius founded a moral and spiritual system that provided  the  ideal  for  one  to  be  religious through self cultivation to be a moral human. Although Confucius and Mencius did not promote belief in the supernatural, the ancient Chinese idea of heaven remained important as the moral absolute, as can be seen in the saying of Mencius: ‘‘He who exerts his mind to the utmost knows his nature. He who knows his nature knows Heaven’’ (Chan 1963: 78).

Confucianism provides the  ethical base of Chinese popular religion and various Chinese religious organizations. For example, the Sanyi Jiao (Three in One Doctrine), Zhengkong Jiao (Teaching  of  True   Void),  which  are  ‘‘syncretic’’ Chinese religious organizations based on  ‘‘three teachings,’’ and  Dejiao, which  is based on ‘‘five teachings’’ incorporating Jesus and  the  Prophet  Mohammed  in  this  ‘‘syncretic’’ Chinese  religious  organization,  have Confucian  teaching as  an  important  part  of their religious teaching, even though the rites may be more Buddhist or Taoist. As a member of the  pantheon of Chinese popular religion, Confucius  is  a  god  that  blesses educational achievement. Some Chinese parents  (such as in  Malaysia and Taiwan) still bring children who are entering school for the first time to a temple to worship Confucius, in the hope that they will be blessed to succeed in education. As a member of the Chinese pantheon, Confucius is a minor god among many. As a sage, Confucius is honored by the Chinese in general, and memorial rites are performed in Confucian temples in mainland China and Taiwan and in Confucian associations in Southeast Asia, especially on his birthday anniversary.

There is the rise of ‘‘New Confucianism’’ in the modern Chinese encounter with the West. Toward the end of the Qing dynasty there was also an attempt to make Confucianism the state religion of China, comparable to Christianity in the West. The  most prominent leader of this movement in China was Kang Youwei (1858– 1927). This Confucian revival movement failed, partly due to the close association of Confucianism with the  imperial system, which the Chinese overthrew in 1911. Here it is important to point out that the mandarins in imperial China throughout the centuries had promoted an official Confucianism that served the state and its bureaucracy. This official Confucianism should  be  distinguished  from  Confucianism, the ethical and spiritual system.

Nevertheless, the establishment of Kongjiao Hui,  or  Confucian associations, succeeded in promoting the worship of Confucius, especially in Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) and Indonesia.  In  Indonesia,  Tiong  Hoa  Hwee Koan, established in 1900, was the first Chinese association to  seriously  promote  Confucian ism. The establishment of Khong Kauw Hwee (i.e., Kongjiao Hui) in Indonesia – the first one was founded in Solo in 1918 (Coppell 1981: 180) – further promoted Confucianism. The formation of a federation of Confucian associations in Jakarta in 1955, the Khong Kauw Tjung Hwee consolidated the  promotion  of  Confucianism and contributed to the formation of an institutional religion that may be called ‘‘Confucian Religion’’ in present day Indonesia. The growth of Confucianism as an institutional religion was also helped by the official recognition of Confucianism as one of the ‘‘six religions’’ in Indonesia in 1965, alongside Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hindu Bali, and Buddhism.

Today,  the  development  of  Confucianism has been under the organization of MATAKIN (Majelis Tinggi Agama Khonghucu Indonesia –the Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia). Confucian Religion may be considered  a  new  Chinese  organization that grew out of the Confucian revival movement. That  Confucianism succeeded in  forming an institutional Chinese religion in  Indonesia is due to the promotion and the politics of religion and  identity  in  Indonesia. The  lack of Chinese  intelligentsia well versed  in  Confucianism helped,  too,  unlike in  China,  where scholars could  not  view Confucianism as  a religion. The  presence and influence of Islam and Christianity were also important. Indeed, the Confucian Religion holds Sunday services, and the Confucian Four Books  are treated as Holy  Scripture.  Confucius  is  referred  to  as nabi (Indonesian  for  prophet),  and  Tian  or Heaven becomes Almighty God.

What is the sociological relevance of Confucianism today? As explained, Chinese religious life cannot be understood without reference to Confucianism or its influence on Chinese life. In  fact, Confucianism is not  just  philosophy articulated by scholars; it is also diffused into Chinese social life. In  a way, it  resembles a ‘‘civil religion’’ – ‘‘a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity’’ (Bellah 1967) – of the Chinese. The well educated (in Chinese) can articulate Confucian ideas sophisticatedly, whereas the ordinary masses express Confucianism in  their  memorial rites and  in their rhetoric about filial piety, harmony, and views of  life, although often  not  necessarily conscious of their Confucian origin.

The economic success in East Asia since the 1980s has encouraged scholars to write about Confucianism and modernity. Although Confucianism appears as a common factor in these societies, it is simplistic to attribute economic success and modernity to a religion or an ideological system. Nevertheless, Confucianism is sociologically relevant in its influence on attitudes of life and on social relations. An example of Confucian influence on the Chinese view of life is the idea of fate, which allows humans a dynamic part in determining it (cf. Yang 1970 [1961]: 273). Chan  (1963: 79) describes this Confucian doctrine of fate thus: ‘‘man should exert his utmost in moral endeavor and leave whatever is beyond our control to fate.’’ This attitude of fate, perhaps more obvious in coping with life than with practicing morality, is commonly held by Chinese in China and in diaspora. It has served them well in striving for higher achievement (such as educational and economic achievement) and coping with difficult life in general. It provides hope for success and a better life.

In social relations, including respect for the elders, the Confucian emphasis continues to be important  to  the  Chinese. Even in  mainland China,  where  Confucianism was condemned during the Maoist period, Confucian ideas of social relations are evident and generally upheld among both the less and better educated Chinese, in relations between parents and children, between teachers and students, between elders and younger people, and between officials and ordinary people. An often debated issue about Chinese society is that of the individual versus the group, and many times a western observer often  still  assumes that,  in  Chinese  society, individuals are subjected to group interest. In fact, Fei Xiaotong, in his famous small book Xiangtu Zhongguo (Earthbound China) (1947), pointed  out  that  Chinese social relationships cannot be described as group centered or individualistic; they are self centered or egoistic in a web of relationships (Fei 1992: 65). Indeed, de Bary (2003), discussing this issue in relation to Confucianism, points out that Confucianism does not emphasize the group or community at the expense of the individual. An understanding of Confucian traditions is still important for the sociological understanding of Chinese culture and society as well as Chinese worldview.

Despite  western  influences,  Confucianism remains important for the Chinese and, in fact, for the Japanese and Koreans. For Chinese outside mainland China, Confucian traditions are meaningful to their cultural identity, and Confucius is worshipped as a deity in the popular religion.  Because  of  globalization  and   the increasing need of interreligious dialogue, the need to turn to Confucianism as an important source of Chinese spiritual traditions will be even more keenly felt. Since 1978, China has been pursuing  economic modernization. The collapse of communism as an ideology, and in fact religion, seems to have left a major spiritual vacuum, although giving more room to Chinese popular religion, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths, even new religious experiments such as Falun Gong. Despite all these developments, and although there have been various campaigns  against  Confucianism  since  the beginning of the twentieth century, Confucian ism is always embraced when the Chinese need to turn  to their own spiritual traditions. But what is embraced is not the feudal Official Confucianism that served the imperial regimes but the Spiritual Confucianism that is relevant not only to the Chinese but also to the world community. Globalization and the meeting of civilizations will make this  form of Confucianism relevant to China and the Chinese in diaspora. Whatever the development, Confucianism will continue to influence Chinese cultural life, notably in attitudes to life and in social relations. After all, how Chinese can Chinese cultures be without Confucianism?


  1. Bellah, N. (1967) Civil Religion in America. Daedalus 96: 1-21.
  2. Chan, -T. (Ed.) (1963) A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  3. Coppell, (1981) The Origins of Confucianism as an Organized Religion in Java, 1900 1923. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 12(1): 179-96.
  4. De Bary, T. (2003) Confucianism and Communitarianism. In: Chen, R. (Ed.), Ruxue yu Shijie Wenming (Confucianism and World Civilizations). Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore, Singapore, pp. 919-32.
  5. Fei,  (1992) From the Soil:  The Foundations  of Chinese Society. Translation  of  Fei  Xiaotong’s Xiangtu Zhongguo (1947). Introduction and Epilogue by G. G. Hamilton & W. Zheng. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  6. Lao,  (1998) Zhongguo Wenhua Yaoyi  Xinbian (Outlines  of Chinese Culture: New Edition). Chinese University Press, Hong Kong.
  7. Mei, P. (1967) The Basis of Social, Ethical, and Spiritual  Values  in   Chinese   Philosophy.   In: Moore, C. A. (Ed.), The Chinese Mind: Essentials of Chinese Philosophy and Culture. University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, pp. 149-66.
  8. Weber, (1951) The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism. Free Press, New York.
  9. Whyte, K. (2004) Filial Obligations in Chinese Families: Paradoxes of Modernization. In: Ikels, C. (Ed.),  Filial  Piety:  Practice and Discourse  in Contemporary East   Asia.  Stanford   University Press, Stanford, pp. 106-27.
  10. Yang, K. (1970 [1961]) Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Roots. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Back to Sociology of Religion