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 : 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?
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