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Relational and Cultural Renewal

Through Acknowledging the Multiformity of the Ru (Confucian) Tradition

Having read Wang Jun’s article “The Preeminence of Love in Chinese Families” in the most recent ChinaSource Quarterly (18.2), “Christian Ethics and Family Living in China,” I would like to respond with a few thoughts that I trust will be helpful, and that might open further dialogue on this important topic.

To begin, I think it is helpful to point out that all of the articles in this issue, including the book review, touched on the post-traditional state of Chinese society. By post-traditional I mean that the centuries-long traditions that formed a social framework in which Chinese society could, to varying degrees, healthily operate have been dismantled. Many of the assumptions of various Chinese traditions no longer apply in contemporary Chinese society.

This is not just a Christian problem. How does the past, both distant and recent, relate to the present and the future? What do we do with what Wang Jun, I think rightly, calls “traditional ideology”?[1] How do we deal with the decay of the institution of the traditional Chinese family left behind by the Cultural Revolution? I think one of the greatest mistakes a Chinese Christian can make right now is to adhere to the absolute distinction between Christian family life and Chinese family life, whether “traditional” or contemporary forms of family. Chinese Christians have a prime opportunity to offer healing and renewal not only to individual’s lives, but also to Chinese culture at this time, even as Chinese Christians themselves try to sort through their own broken and ruptured lives.

First, I would question Wang’s representation of “Confucianism.” I would begin by asking, is this a philosophical tradition that he is describing, or a socio-cultural phenomenon? He seems to discuss both, at different times. This is a common confusion even among college-educated Chinese, and even among scholars of Chinese philosophy.[2]

If it is the philosophical tradition, we must recognize that the Ru (or Confucian) tradition is quite diverse with a plurality of perspectives on many issues. If we do not acknowledge this diversity within a single tradition we distort and ultimately destroy what can be supremely useful for the Chinese Christian in drawing links between cultural forms of wisdom that developed in China and the truth of Christian faith.

One example of this distortion: Wang claims that the entire Ru tradition “does not build authority from love but rather establishes a loving relationship based on authority” and that “authority and hierarchy are more important than love,” though he does not cite where he derives this claim from. In contrast, Zhang Zai (1020-1077), a central figure in the Song dynasty who influenced later neo-Ru (neo-Confucian) scholars, in his famous “Western Inscription” (ximing),[3] quotes a string of classical Ru texts to advocate a form of ontological awareness that gives rise to ethical concern which identifies all things in the universe with one’s own body, and identifies people in relation to oneself using familial terms. It is not a stretch to see what many Christians would recognize in Zhang’s brief ethical statement as Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39; Mark 12:31; originally from Lev. 19:18), particularly those who are most in need of care—in Zhang’s own words: “the tired, crippled, exhausted, sick, brotherless, childless, widows or widowers – all are my siblings who are helpless and have no one else to appeal to.”

A challenge might be raised that Zhang still relies on the hierarchical relationships between family members for his development of love, thus Wang is correct in saying authority comes before love in this example I have given. However, ethical injunctions similar to Zhang’s are made in the New Testament as well. First Timothy 5:8 says, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”[4] The assumption in both the Biblical text and in Zhang’s ethical statement is that there is a hierarchy of relationships, and a person’s love should be demonstrated first among those who are closest to oneself, without neglecting those who are relationally more distant. So it seems that there is some form of priority given to persons based on the type of relationship one has with each person. This is substantially different from a Mohist form of egalitarian love that takes no regard for personal relationships.

Now, this is only one example from the Ru philosophical tradition that offers an alternative and mainstream reading to Wang’s presentation of “Confucianism.” By offering this example I do not mean to imply that Wang’s description of the Ru tradition is completely unfounded, or that the view I have presented is the only one. Certainly examples in support of his claim can be found. I am only suggesting caution in making sweeping generalizations on a philosophical level that are not fully accurate. So, while Wang’s description might apply to contemporary, common understandings (traditional ideologies) of Ruist influence on Chinese culture, it simply cannot apply to the philosophical tradition as a whole.[5]

Secondly, if Christians are striving for cultural legitimacy and a voice at the table in steering the future of Chinese culture, I think it is largely unhelpful from a social standpoint to link Christianity with a “failed” philosophical tradition such as Mohism. While there are some philosophical connections between Mohist thought and Christian thought that could be further developed, as Wang rightly points out, I do not think it is helpful to continue the May Fourth Movement campaign to stamp out “Confucian” thought in Chinese culture. Scholars may be able to work out thoughtful solutions that relate Christian thought to Mohist thought (which, by the way, are also Chinese!), but the majority of Chinese people will not be able to relate to them in any meaningful way, and it again only serves to alienate Christian faith from the dominant perspective of Chinese culture, which happens to reflect predominantly Ru traditions.

Thirdly, if we are addressing a sociological phenomenon, in other words, traditional ideology, we should remember that this ideology often distorts cultural wisdom that would otherwise be a strong resource and ally for Chinese Christians, hence, my first point above. It is important for Chinese Christians to be able to discern not only what is accurate and supportable Christian doctrine from Scripture, but also be able to discern what is accurate and supportable positions regarding Chinese cultural material.

For example, Wang writes, “Love that goes outside the strict limits will not be praised and respected, but will actually be prohibited and blamed.” Sociologically, in contemporary China, that is most certainly true. But it does not represent even Master Kong’s (Confucius’) own thinking on relationships, let alone the whole Ru tradition. In the Lunyu (Analects), book 11, chapters 6-10 we are presented with a series of moments surrounding the death of Master Kong’s most beloved disciple, Yan Yuan (Yan Hui). Chapter 9 says,

When Yan Yuan died, the Master bewailed him exceedingly, and the disciples who were with him said, “Master, your grief is excessive.” “Is it excessive?” said he. “If I am not to mourn bitterly for this man, for whom shall I mourn?”[6]

Then, in chapter 10, it says,

When Yan Yuan died, the disciples wished to give him a great funeral, and the Master said, “You may not do so.” The disciples did bury him in great style. The Master said, “Hui behaved towards me as his father. I have not been able to treat him as my son. The fault is not mine; it belongs to you, O disciples.”

What a profound transformation of relationship! What love! And, yes, Master Kong himself was criticized by his own disciples[7] for not following social ritual. Was Master Kong wrong? Can a Chinese Christian find support in generally accepted Chinese traditions for their love that goes beyond traditional relationships? I believe so. But if Chinese Christians alienate themselves from their own cultural traditions that offer support to their Christian faith, they will continue to be seen only as outsiders, or worse, as traitors.

What can be helpful, however, is for Chinese Christians to recognize when their faith comes into conflict with “traditional ideology,” and to point it out to themselves and others, as I have done in the example above, and which Wang Jun does in his article. Another such example is that of filial piety, only briefly touched on by some of the articles in this issue.

The traditional ideology of contemporary Chinese culture says that a filial child is one that submits in every way to whatever the parents say. Certainly some classical texts can be used to support this idea. However, Xunzi (4th to 3rd century BC), perhaps the third most influential Ru scholar in Chinese history, offers a striking rebuff to the “traditional view,” saying that the most filial thing a son (or child) can do when a parent is offending the higher moral law is to remonstrate with that parent (a fancy word for oppose or object to something), rather than acquiesce. This aspect of Chinese tradition has largely been forgotten.

Is Xunzi not a Ru scholar? Is he not Chinese? Cannot Christians call upon that higher moral law, just as the early Christians did, and say “I must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29)? For a Chinese Christian to make such a point to other Chinese has the potential to shift the common stereotype (traditional ideology) that Christian ideas are foreign and diametrically opposed to Chinese culture. This misconception needs to be overcome.

By thinking creatively through their own cultural traditions, Chinese Christians can discover ways to link their faith with the cultural material that is already there. When such linkages are discovered it has the potential to not only demonstrate that Christianity is at home, often quite comfortably, in Chinese culture, but that it can also be a form of cultural renewal in the contemporary PRC.


  1. ^ I take this to mean that traditional cultural belief systems in the PRC have become, at least in part, what Marx described and was later expanded on by Antonio Gramsci, as ideology. That is, ideas that govern social behavior, derived primarily from consent, and appear to be “common sense.” 
  2. ^ In scholarly philosophical writing on the Ru tradition over-generalizations are very common. When a scholar says, “the Ru tradition says…,” what they often really mean is, “my version of the Ru tradition says…,” without explaining that there are multiple alternatives that call into question the particular agenda of the writer.
  3. ^ A useful translation by Bryan Van Norden can be found at:
  4. ^ In fact, the first half of 1 Timothy 5 resonates vividly with many Ru values, appealing to a person’s social role (father, sister, etc.) as a guideline for how one ought to treat others, how agape love is expressed in various relationships.
  5. ^ By way of comparison, the same generalizing phenomenon occurs in what is inappropriately called “Western” philosophy, as if Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Aquinas, Hegel, Marx, Russell, and Dewey all held relatively similar philosophical positions.
  6. ^ Lunyu translations are from James Legge’s The Chinese Classics, vol. 1.
  7. ^ Likely representing the common people’s view (traditional ideology), much like Jesus’ disciples often did in the four gospels.
Image credit: Family I by Peiyu Liu via Flickr.
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Peregrine de Vigo

Peregrine de Vigo (pseudonym), PhD, lived in central China for nine years and is a student of philosophy, sinology, and several other “-ologies.”View Full Bio

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