Perspectives on Confucianism

As guest editor for this issue of ChinaSource Quarterly, I am very pleased that we are able to offer a number of articles from different perspectives that will help us understand the role of “Confucianism”—broadly defined—in China today, how Christians have tried to relate to this dominant strain of Chinese society and culture in the past, and how they might do so productively in the future.

First, we need to realize that there are, and always have been, several kinds of “Confucianism,” which some scholars would rather term “Ruism.” Despite broad agreement on some essential themes, “Confucianists” (“Ruists”) have always differed among themselves on rather important questions. Likewise, Christians have never been unified in their approaches to Confucianism but have exhibited varying attitudes of accommodation and rejection toward it.

These two sorts of variety will be evident in the articles featured in this issue. We shall see brief snapshots of Confucianism from different angles and will encounter several types of Christian approach, both in the past and today.

What, then, is “Confucianism” (or “Ruism”)? Is it the teachings of Confucius alone? Hardly ever does it appear in this pristine version; almost always, Mencius’s writings and two other classics come under the umbrella of essential Confucianism. In the early centuries after Confucius, competing schools of thought vied for supremacy in society and in official recognition. Eventually, the emphasis upon human nature as basically good became the “orthodox” position, up until very recently. Actually, the Chinese term for this broad school of thought is rujia (the “scholarly tradition”), while “Confucius” is the Latinized name given by the Jesuits to Kongzi, Master Kong.

This tradition has always emphasized “the person and human relationships in this world,” and thus “personal well-being, family harmony, social solidarity, political unity, and universal peace.”[1] The family stands at the center, but the state was strongly endorsed, especially the ruler. Obedience to authority at all levels received primary emphasis. Confucianism has always been thoroughly humanistic, stressing human action and focused totally on this world.

During the Chinese Middle Ages, however, Buddhism and Daoism, which had made inroads into the previous monopoly of Confucianism, injected it with new ideas, and what had been basically an ethical philosophy developed into a highly complex worldview, complete with a sophisticated cosmology, ontology and psychology, creating what came to be known as Neo-Confucianism.

To confuse matters more, in the twentieth century, Western ideas entered the scene producing “New Confucianism,” which is designed to adapt a venerable creed to modern movements and concepts, including globalization, science and democracy (in some forms). This New Confucianism has continued to evolve as men of outstanding intellect, many of them living in Taiwan and North America, seek to make it a faith for the twenty-first century. In China, meanwhile, a woman named Yu Dan has captured the media spotlight with her modernized renderings of the Analects of Confucius and the writings of the Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi. There is more to this increasingly complex picture, as our articles will show.

In general, Christians have tended to favor either the approach of Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary who sought to make as much contact as possible with the reigning Confucian school of the sixteenth century, or the approach of his Franciscan and Dominican critics, who viewed ceremonies in honor of ancestors and Confucius as idolatrous. The late Ralph Covell, whose Confucius, the Buddha, and Christ is reviewed here, favored Ricci’s strategy while the critique by Lit-sen Chang (Zhang Lisheng) in this issue represents the more conservative stance. Paulos Huang’s masterful comparison of Confucian and Christian doctrines of salvation, while making fundamental differences clear, seems to steer a middle course.

Professor Fenggang Yang, interviewed in this issue, believes that “the Chinese Christian church has become an institutional base for passing on transformed Confucian values to younger generations.”[2] Chinese Christians usually identify the core Confucian value, ren (benevolence), with agape love. Likewise, they assume that the filial piety, xiao, which is the prime virtue in Confucianism, is about the same as the honor which the Bible commands children to give parents. Other traditional Chinese virtues, often connected with Confucianism, are seen to be consistent with the Bible. Therefore, they do not “intend to replace Confucianism with Christianity, but to revitalize Confucianism with Christianity.”[3] Going further, while they hold to orthodox Christian beliefs, they hope to use ancient Chinese philosophies to make Christianity more acceptable to Chinese, who usually see it as a Western religion.

In the opinion of many outside observers, the most obvious, albeit unconscious, penetration of Confucian modes of thinking shows up in the Chinese Protestant pulpit! With a growing number of exceptions, Chinese Christian discourse hardly ever strays from a man-centered, moralistic and performance-oriented heritage that stresses what we must do for God rather than what he has done for us in Christ. The second obvious connection shows up in the focus among Chinese Christians upon “success” and “wellbeing” in this life as the emphasis in prayer and in testimonies rather than forgiveness of sin or the promise of eternal life.

Professor Yang demonstrates convincingly that the influence of Confucianism continues to grow almost daily. For example, President Xi Jinping recently touted the Chinese Communist Party “as a defender of ancient virtues, epitomized by Confucius and his collected teachings, The Analects.”[4] As Professor Kevin Yao points out, the sense of being threatened, which is felt by some very fundamentalist Confucians, could lead to serious conflict between Christianity and Confucianism. Meanwhile, most people in China, though not consciously calling themselves “Confucianists,” exhibit “Confucian” beliefs and behavior in their daily lives, as Peregrine de Vigo shows in his creative journey through “Chinatown.”

These articles are intended to whet your appetite; the materials featured in the Resources section will guide you further into a fascinating, complex and enormously important subject.

Image Credit: Les Whittle
G. Wright Doyle

G. Wright Doyle

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