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Confucian Comeback

An Interview with Fenggang Yang

Professor Fenggang Yang, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, Indiana. His research focuses on religious change in China and immigrant religions in the United States. He is the author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule (2012), Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities (1999) and the coeditor of six books. He was elected President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in 2013. In this interview, Professor Yang explains why he believes Confucianism in various forms is already a major presence in today's China.

ChinaSource: What are the concrete signs that Confucianism is growing in China?

Professor Yang: We need to think of multiple layers, starting from the grass-roots, bottom up, such as elementary schools up through high schoolI'm only talking about the better organized schools. Private Confucian schools (si shu) have become a kind of movement. They try to be independent from the state system; though their legality is ambiguous, they are growing in number. There are also weekend schools and camps, which are many. Then, at the university level, there are many institutes or academies of guoxue (national learning) funded by the government. In addition, in society at large, there are regional, national and international associations of Confucianism.

There are also different movements, such as the Han Fu movement, that promotes the wearing of traditional Han dynasty dress. Confucius birthday commemorations, while not officially organized, are organized by the peoplenot the governmentand are taking place all over China with increasing frequency.

The state has given definite signals that it supports Confucianism. For example, President Xi visited Qufu, Shangdong and met with leaders of the Confucianism institute there. He said that he wanted to read two books on Confucianism; this was reported as big news in the official media. The Communist Party is engaging in various efforts to raise the profile of Confucius. Lectures on Confucianism, for instance, have now become common, not only in universities but also party schools in each province, municipality and county. (Party schools are run for members who are in line for promotion.)

We should also take note of symbols. More statues of Confucius are being erected on university campuses, and more temples to Confucius are being restored in cities across the nation. They are open to the public and offer lectures on Confucianism and other public events.

CS: There is a long-standing debate about whether Confucianism is a religion. Can you comment on this?

PY: Confucianism has a religious dimension or religious elements. This has been recognized after many able expositions by new Confucians in modern times. On the other hand, many scholars recognize that the religious dimension of Confucianism is thin and weak. Overall, Confucianism offers little articulation about supernatural beings and life beyond death, lacks a clearly defined doctrine of beliefs and lacks an organization of clergy and believers. In real life, to meet their personal spiritual needs, many Confucians have to resort to Buddhism, Daoism or folk religion.

CS: What do you make of the strange appearance of a statue of Confucius at Tiananmen Square, and then its sudden disappearance?

PY: This shows the uncertainty among top officials about the place of Confucius in the Chinese ideological system. We have to remember, also, that there are contending forces, some pro and some con, which are fighting this out. One camp put the statue there and another removed it.

Even among those in positions of power who think they can use Confucianism, we find different approaches: some want to use it as a source of secular ethics only while others would like to make Confucianism the religion of China. The secular and religious versions of Confucianism strongly disagree with each other.

You will also see among academic scholars that some advocate promoting Confucianism as a religion or one of the state-recognized religions [along with Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Roman Catholicism and ProtestantismEd.]. Others strongly reject this idea of a religious Confucianism. I have been working closely with Chen Ming, a supporter of making Confucianism an officially recognized religion. He is more liberal in his orientation in the sense that he is less political and more interested in culture. Scholars like Jiang Qing are more political in their advocacy. Chen Ming and I share some views. We agree that Confucianism is more like a civil religion. I would like to move the discussion in this direction, but he treats it as a first step only on the way to its becoming accepted as a real religion.

This is a burgeoning movement; much has happened in the last few years. Former President Hu Jintao tried to make it work but was hesitant; however, the new leadership seems to be bold on many fronts, including this one.

CS: Among what groups of people is Confucianism growing?

PY: Among academics and the government, as we have seen. Others in society at large are also involved. Some retired teachers promote the Confucian elementary and secondary schools of which I spoke earlier. Surprisingly, Buddhists also promote these schools. Their purpose is to grow Buddhism, but it's more appealing to use popularized Confucian classics (like the Three Character Classic and the Disciples Codes) as a means to attract people to their temples. They will say, "We are building a Confucian community to change the morality of the whole town." They do this by introducing classical text recitation practices as well as various sorts of social service ministries. Monks have seen this as an opportunity to expand their exposure and influence. Some sectarian groups, like Yi Guan Dao, Xuanyuanjiao and Tian Di Jiao, also use public readings of Confucian classics to legitimize their presence in China.

CS: What influence do the New Confucianists overseas (in Taiwan and North America) have on Chinese society and thought?

PY: They play a very important role. Harvard professor Tu Weiming is now in Beijing where he has an institute of advanced study of humanities at Peking University funded by the government. He has been very active. He also has other honorary appointments in Hangzhou and elsewhere; he gives frequent interviews and lectures.

Scholars in Taiwan play even bigger roles. The movement to read Confucian classics really is promoted by a scholar from Taiwan, Zhang Qiaogui. He first gave some lectures in China to show how beneficial it is for children to recite Confucian classics, then he was invited for lecture tours and finally, classes were organized. Students of New Confucianism scholars formerly in Taiwan (Mou, Tang) visit China frequently attending conferences, giving lectures and teaching courses.

The scholars living overseas play important but also complicated roles. Their version of Confucianism is unique. Tu Weiming has lived in the United States for so long that he knows the strengths of the Western system of universal values such as freedom, democracy and so on. In addition to them, he would say that we also need Confucian values as a contribution to modern life. Those who have lived in Taiwan have lived in a democratic system and thus see Confucianism as important in daily life there, but they are reluctant to make it the state ideology or religion.

The driving force for making Confucianism the state ideology or religion is really in China. I call these individuals "Confucian fundamentalists"; the others are not fundamentalists.

Some scholars are more knowledgeable about Western philosophy but think that Confucianism is the most worthwhile system of values. Even strong advocates of making Confucianism the state religion have spent years studying Western theology and philosophy and believe these are not useful for China. "China should be China," they say.

CS: Have any empirical studies shown any change in behavior among young people who have received a classical Confucian education?

PY: The man from Taiwan uses pop psychology articles and presents them as scientific evidence for their value in moral formation; however, the movements have been too recent to see any real empirical research on them.

CS: What aspects of the Confucian tradition (that is, Confucius' Analects? Mencius? Neo- Confucianism? Other documents?) are being emphasized and promoted today by New Confucianists? By the government? Others?

PY: There is a wide variety, depending upon the different persons involved. They are all doing things simultaneously and are not at all unified. They fight furiously among themselves. For example, some argue for Confucian constitutionalism while others maintain that constitutionalism is not a Chinese tradition; they don't want democracy because they think it's bad for China.

What they have in common is an emphasis upon social harmony, but what does that mean? No public protests? Crack downs on corruption? There is no agreement.

CS: How did the 1989 Tiananmen incident change the attitude of Confucianists towards the question of the nature of man as good (Confucius, Mencius) or evil (Sunzi)?

PY: First of all, some young people turned to Confucianism after 1989 just as many have turned to Christianity since then. They all realized that Communist ideology had failed and they began to explore alternatives. Secondly, philosophical debate is not that common among the Confucianists. Some of them even reject the category of philosophy as a Western notion, insisting instead on the holistic nature of the Confucian system. Finally, they don't get to the philosophical level of discussion. The discussions are really driven by nationalism. There have been some good debates in universities on practical matters, such as, how the law should respect family relations. Confucius said that a son should hide his father's crimes and a father his son's crimes while modern legal theory would require him to tell the truth about his father or his son. Which way is better? Of course, we need to understand that this is a kind of reaction to the Cultural Revolution when the family was destroyed in the name of Communism, and family members turned family members into the Party for their presumed "crimes." However, the new debate is also related to the current fight against the corruption of crony capitalism. All these discussions are more related to daily practice.

CS: What recommendations do you have for Christians?

PY: We should be aware of different kinds of Confucianism in China and show our sympathy and empathy in social and cultural contexts. To engage those who are hostile to Christianity in debates is fine, to point out where they are wrong regarding historical facts and logical fallacies. But we should also work with those who are open-minded, stressing that the two are not in competition. We can be open-minded about integrating Confucianism and Christianity to benefit not only China but also other societies. We need a multi-dimensional approach.

At present, Confucianism is not a civil religion, but it could be. In that case, however, it has to take Christianity into consideration. Together, we can contribute to building a new civil religion which is not only for China but also for the larger world. Some Confucian fundamentalists treat Christianity as a competitor, but that is not necessary.

Photo Credit: Xinhua/Fan Changguo

G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle is the director of China Institute ( and Global China Center (, the editor of Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity (, and co-editor of Studies in Chinese Christianity, published by Wipf and Stock. For more on effective ministry among Chinese, see Reaching Chinese Worldwide,... View Full Bio