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Contemporary Confucian Revival and Its Interactions with Christianity in China

One of the most significant consequences of China’s remarkable reform and liberalization of social life since the 1980s is a massive revival of religion. All the religious traditions existing prior to the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) have been making a comeback and once again have become the shaping forces in the spiritual life of Chinese people. It is so much so that Chinese society today has turned fairly religious. Among all the religious traditions, Protestant Christianity and Confucianism have experienced the most spectacular growth in the recent decades.

Protestantism has been recognized almost unanimously as the fastest growing religious community since the 1980s. Today China has one of the largest Protestant communities in the world. The Confucian story is equally impressive. Under almost a half-century of iconoclastic attack and communist suppression, Confucianism seemed doomed, and its demise appeared irreversible in the late 1970s. Surprisingly, since the 1990s, this ancient tradition has been resurrected, and its revival has gained momentum. Extravagant rituals are staged to commemorate Confucius’ birthday; the Confucian scriptures are reprinted and circulated; efforts are made to instill Confucian values into the minds of younger generations, and so on. As these two traditions inevitably interact more with each other, the tension and rivalry between them intensifies.

This amazing development in mainland China has recently attracted considerable international attention, thanks to two recent events: the symposium “Christian Faith and 21st Century China,” held in August of 2012 at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and its sequel on “Christian Faith and Ideological Trends in Contemporary China,” held in August of 2013 at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.

Cosponsored by the Forum of Chinese Theology and several Christian institutions based in the West, these two events brought a group of Confucian scholars face to face with a group of Christian scholars for dialogue. Among a wide spectrum of topics covered by these symposiums, the Christian-Confucian dialogue stood out as one of the highlights. Indeed, Christian-Confucian dialogue may no longer be a new thing in China, but this is perhaps the first time for such a high level conversation to be carried out on an international stage. These events have given us a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of the characteristics of the so-called New Confucian Movement in modern-day China and its ongoing interaction with Christianity in China.

Features of Contemporary Confucian Revival in Mainland China

In the long history of Confucianism in China, decline and renewal are nothing new, but this fresh wave of Confucian revival comes against a unique social backdrop and exhibits a number of new features, which were demonstrated clearly in the recent symposiums.

First, more than just an intellectual renaissance, the current Confucian revival represents an attempt to regain Confucian dominance in Chinese culture and society. For thousands of years, Confucianism had been the backbone of classical Chinese civilization and social order. However, as its political and institutional foundation and support collapsed, it suffered a tremendous decline of influence and lost its mainstream status under the onslaught of Westernization and secularization in China during the twentieth century.

After several decades of remarkable economic growth in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, China’s transformation from a Third World country, eager to copy the West, to one of the global economic superpowers with newfound self-confidence is nearly completed. Consequently, nationalist sentiment has been on the rise across the country. A growing number of social elites in China are calling for the exploration of a distinctively Chinese path of modernization and the forging of a unique national identity. This momentous turn of the tide has certainly created a favorable condition for cultural nostalgia and the resurrection of such native traditions as Confucianism.

As generations of young Chinese intellectuals, educated mostly in the post-Cultural Revolution era, began to rediscover Confucianism and other indigenous traditions, some of them had their own conversion experience. They formed the core group of the so-called New Confucian Movement in contemporary China. As one Confucian attendee at the Oxford symposium pointed out, these New Confucians are not just scholars or researchers but also believers and practitioners of Confucianism. Shaped by the Confucian worldview, they have political, cultural and social agendas and do not hide their ambition to put Confucianism back in the center of Chinese civilization in the twenty-first century. In this sense, these contemporary Confucian intellectuals are none other than the champions and missionaries of a Confucian cause.

Second, these Confucian intellectuals may be genuine advocates for a Confucian revival, but they are definitely not the only stakeholders and players in the current campaign to promote traditional values. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), confronted with the chronic credibility crisis of Marxism, has ironically found it convenient to manipulate Confucianism for its own advantage. By recasting itself as the champion of China’s national traditions, the CCP apparently hopes to regain some spiritual legitimacy and shore up the ideological foundation for its rule. In fact, both local and central CCP authorities have brazenly sponsored all kinds of events and projects to promote Confucianism and other traditional religions. On the other hand, the CCP does have a bottom line: traditional values cannot be promoted at the expense of the mainstream status of Marxism and communist rule. There is a group of “official” intellectuals who favor Confucian tradition but carefully toe the party’s line.

In sharp contrast, the New Confucian intellectuals represent a grassroots movement to rehabilitate the ancient tradition. Largely based in universities and research institutes, they are Confucians in belief as well as in practice. In other words, they are independent ideologically and organizationally. Passionately arguing that China’s future lies only in Confucianism, they can be very critical of Marxism, the CCP and its policies.

Both the New Confucians and the CCP know they have certain shared goals and interests. They can collaborate to a certain extent, but the tension between them remains. The CCP never hesitates to keep the grassroots movement marginalized. As far as the Confucian participants at the recent symposiums are concerned, they all belong to the grassroots movement.

Third, while Chinese society is at a crossroads and various ideologies and religions vie for influence in shaping the nation’s future path, New Confucianism puts forward not only its spiritual and cultural vision but also political and social blueprints. It may be inaccurate to say that New Confucians simply call for a return to a bygone tradition and the good old days. At least some of them are open to Western philosophy, market economy and democracy, and they do not agree on everything among themselves. They all do share one single vision for the Chinese culture: Confucianism needs to be restored to its mainstream status as before while all other religions should be content with secondary and supplementary roles. This common vision was articulated powerfully by some of the Confucian speakers at the symposiums.

However, in comparison with Christianity and other religions, the critical weakness of contemporary Confucianism is still its lack of institutional base and organizational structure. Remaining largely a “diffused” tradition, as depicted by eminent sociologist C. K. Yang, Confucianism will still have a hard time translating itself from an intellectual elitist movement to an organized mass spiritual movement.2

The Dynamics of the Current Interactions between Confucianism and Christianity

Ironically, the recent Confucian revival was partially stimulated by the dramatic rise of Christianity in mainland China. In the race to fill the spiritual void left by the Cultural Revolution and to shape the Chinese culture in the twenty-first century, Protestantism emerged as an early winner with the highest growth rate among all the major religious traditions. This result paradoxically turned the Christian tradition into a sort of common enemy for all other traditions, including Confucianism. Fearing a cultural “outsider” like Christianity would steal China’s soul, the new generation of Confucians felt it was their destiny to defend the nation’s heritage and thus started their campaign with a strong sense of crisis and urgency.

Like their predecessors in modern times, these New Confucian intellectuals may appreciate some elements of Christian tradition but would categorically reject the tradition intrinsically as a Western cultural import alien to Chinese civilization. Citing the unfortunate historical ties between Christianity and Western colonialism, they charge that Christianity as a Western religion served as a running dog [i.e., abject slave, Ed.] of Western imperialism and cultural invasion in the past, and that today it once again becomes a threat to Chinese cultural tradition and national identity. Unfortunately, the popularity of Samuel Huntington’s theory of “Clash of Civilizations” in China serves to reinforce Christianity’s Western image and to vindicate the Confucian argument for a rivalry between the Chinese Confucian civilization and the Judeo-Christian civilization.3 For these New Confucians, the aggressive Christian proselytizing campaigns and such moves as constructing a large church building in Qufu, Confucius’ birthplace, are highly provocative and offensive and deserve the strongest response.

Of course, these New Confucian scholars are fully aware of past and current Christian efforts to reach out to the Confucian tradition and to indigenize Christian teachings in the Chinese context. In their minds, the outcomes of these efforts are at least dubious and worthless. Even worse, they see all Christian accommodations to Confucianism as just part of a cunning missionary scheme to eventually marginalize Confucianism and conquer China spiritually. This kind of skeptical and antagonistic mentality and rhetoric still shapes Confucian responses in today’s dialogue between Confucianism and Christianity. When a group of Christian intellectuals issued a statement entitled “The Relationship between Christianity and Chinese CultureOur Attitudes” in the 2012 symposium, a leading Confucian scholar immediately declared the document “arrogant” and “unacceptable.”

Overall, contemporary Christian responses to Confucianism tend to be defensive. From the 1980s to 1990s, the church in China was overwhelmingly preoccupied with church growth. It was not until recent decades that an increasing number of Christian intellectuals and church leaders began to turn to the issue of Christian-Confucian relations. Understandably, the Christian responses are still far from fully developed. In thinking through how to relate to the native traditions, frankly, the Chinese church today has not even surpassed its Nestorian and Jesuit predecessors, and it still has a long way to go before a credible theology of religion and effective apologetic strategy are at its disposal. This situation was once again proved by the absence of eloquent and well-thought out Christian responses to the Confucian challenges at these symposiums. In my assessment, the Christian statement mentioned above offers hope. It is the first time we can see a fresh attempt to conceptualize the Christian-Confucian relation from the perspective of world religion versus ethnic culture.

In China, the long history of Christian-Confucian interactions has been marked by episodes of hard feelings and conflict as well as good will and harmony. Starting from the early 1980s, a new chapter has been unfolding in this history. Without denying the existence of some sporadic, friendly, interactions and gestures of good will between these great traditions, I have to say that distrust, hostility and rivalry still make up the dominant tone in their ongoing encounters. Further complicated by the meddling of the secular Chinese political forces for its own political gain, a genuine intertraditional dialogue remains a dream. For the Chinese church, how to witness faithfully and effectively in a religiously pluralistic society is going to be a major challenge in the twenty-first century.


1 Parts of this essay were presented on different occasions in Boston during September and October 2013.

2 See C. K. Yang, Religion in Chinese Society (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1961), chapter xii.

3 See Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Image Credit: Graeme Eyre, via Wikimedia Commons

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Kevin Xiyi Yao

Kevin Xiyi Yao

An expert on the history of Christianity in China, Kevin Yao, ThD, is Associate Professor of World Christianity and Asian Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.    View Full Bio