Joseph A. Adler

Joseph A. Adler Joseph A. Adler is professor of Asian studies at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, where he teaches courses on East Asian religions. He received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His published work focuses on the “Neo-Confucian” tradition in Song dynasty China. His latest book, Reconstructing the Confucian Dao: Zhu Xi’s Appropriation of Zhou Dunyi, is nearing completion.

“Confucianism” is the Western-language name for a religious/philosophical tradition that was never, in East Asia, named after a founder. The Western appellation is based on the name coined by 17th-century Jesuit missionaries in China for Kong Qiu (551–479 BCE), a Chinese teacher of literate young men who generally referred to him as Kongzi (Master Kong), and who in a very few later texts was also called Kongfuzi (a more honorific form of Master Kong). It was this last name that the Jesuits Latinized into “Confucius,” which in turn gave rise to “Confucianism” in the West.

In China, the tradition of thought and practice associated with Master Kong was known as the “teachings of the Ru” (Rujiao). “Ru” literally meant “refined” or “soft,” but came to refer to “scholars,” especially those versed in the ritual, music, poetry, and history associated with the royal aristocracy of the Zhou dynasty (1045–221 BCE). The Ru were experts in the textual traditions that were regarded as blueprints for a benevolent government and humane society, based on the models provided by the sagely founders of the Zhou dynasty. These texts came to be known as the Five Classics or Scriptures (jing)—originally six before the Scripture of Music was lost—the earliest religious canon in Chinese history. This canon gradually expanded until, by the Song dynasty (960–1279), it reached its final form of Thirteen Scriptures.

Confucius was an itinerant teacher who regarded himself as merely a transmitter of these more ancient teachings, not a creator of a new tradition. But in fact he was an innovator, being largely responsible for injecting ethics into the religion of the Zhou literate elite. Until his time, the religious practices of the aristocracy had centered on ritual sacrifice to ancestral and natural spirits and divination. Confucius redirected attention to the human, social realm of family life, community life, and government—the beginnings of “Confucian Humanism.” But this Humanism was a religious Humanism, because it was grounded in the belief in “heaven” (tian), a semi-personalistic but mostly naturalistic absolute reality that engendered “virtue” or “moral power” (de) in human beings.

The best source for what Confucius actually taught is a collection of his sayings, brief conversations, and statements about him called the Lunyu (discussions and sayings), conventionally translated into English as the Analects. It is the best source but not exactly a good source, for it was compiled by his students after his death, with additions continuing for perhaps as long as 200 years. Nevertheless, throughout most of Chinese history it has been regarded as an accurate representation of the Master’s thought and, to some extent, his practice. “Practice” here means, primarily, selected examples of his comportment in daily life: how he treated other people, how he listened to music, how he ate, how he dressed, and the like.

This type of daily activity was included by Confucius in his understanding of “ritual” (li), a term that originally had referred more specifically to sacrificial ritual. Confucius broadened its meaning to include every human activity, which should be conducted, he said, with the same sense of reverence that one should have when sacrificing to gods or ancestors. Ritual so understood was the uniquely human way of expressing the fact that human beings are fundamentally social beings. Our social relationships are constitutive of who and what we are: we are sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, fathers or mothers, and so on. These relationships are primary characteristics of human beings, not secondary. What distinguishes the “noble person” (junzi) from the “petty person” (xiaoren) is an under

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A Confucian temple, Melacca, Malaysia.With the spread of Confucianism, Confucian temples have been built throughout East Asia. ( J. Gordon Melton)
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standing of these basic facts and a dedication to strive toward perfecting one’s social nature. That perfection—probably not achievable but important as a goal nonetheless—was called by Confucius “humaneness” or “humanity” (ren)—a variant of the word for person or human (also pronounced ren). Thus for Confucius, to be authentically human is to be humane; this is the proper goal of human life and what makes it meaningful. (Being a junzi is not the goal; the junzi is one dedicated to achieving the goal.) Without ren, ritual (li)—no matter how perfectly performed—is meaningless (Analects 3:3). But ritual is necessary in order to achieve ren. So ren is the necessary inner dimension of li, and li is the necessary outward expression of ren.

The reason that reverence is appropriate to the process of transforming oneself into a humane person is that “Heaven produced the virtue [de] in me” (Analects 7:21 or 7:22, depending on the edition), and heaven is the Confucian symbol of the ultimate. One’s inherent virtue is one’s connection with something that transcends the mundane world and is therefore sacred. Yet the fact that such virtue is inherent in human nature means that the sacred is, in a sense, immanent in the human world; the potential or power enabling human beings to transcend their given conditions is immanent. Another connection with the sacred in Confucian thought is “learning” (xue), which for Confucius primarily meant learning from the wisdom of the “sages” (shengren) who produced the Classics or Scriptures (jing). The Confucian Classics were thought to be the records of the divine sages who created some of the fundamental features of Chinese culture (in the

case of the Yijing) and the sage-kings who founded the Zhou dynasty, whose first 300 or 400 years were thought to have been a glorious golden age of peace and benevolent government. Confucius regarded these sages as beyond the reach of ordinary humans, beyond even the achievement of perfect humaneness. They were divine or semi-divine, as is suggested by the word we translate as sage, shengren, which is also used for “saint.” Similarly, the so-called classics were jing, the same word used later to translate the word sutra when Buddhism entered China from India. And the two words together, sheng jing, are in fact the Chinese translation of “Holy Bible.” This is why “scripture” is a better translation of jing than “classic.” So the Confucian understanding of learning is also a connection with the sacred. In addition to these texts, learning encompassed the arts, such as poetry and music.

All of this together—wen or literate culture—was part of the Confucian Way (dao). The goal of making the Way prevail encompassed not only the self-perfection of the junzi aimed at humaneness but also the perfection of society through benevolent government. Service in government was the highest calling for the Confucian junzi. Confucius apparently served in several minor positions, but never achieved his personal goal of being an advisor to a king. The next best position for him was to be a professional teacher, and this is how he was honored throughout later Chinese history, as the “First Teacher,” the “patron saint” of the teaching profession. His birthday, conventionally taken to be September 28, has traditionally been celebrated as Teacher’s Day in both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan.

The teachings of Confucius were spread by his disciples, in several different lineages and variations. The next great Confucian thinker was Meng Ke, called Mengzi (Master Meng) in Chinese and Mencius (another Latinized construction) in English. His dates are less certain than those of Confucius, but he lived in the fourth century BCE and perhaps a little into the third. While we know Confucius (based on the Analects) as a teacher, Mencius comes down to us, through the book bearing his name, as a philosopher who presents and defends his ideas through rational argumentation. He is best known for his argument that human nature (renxing) is inherently good—a claim that can be found implicitly but not explicitly in the teachings of Confucius. What he means by this, Mencius says, is that humans are born with the potential to achieve the virtues of humaneness (ren), rightness (yi), ritual propriety (li), and wisdom (zhi). That potential is innate in the form of four specific, natural feelings, such as the feeling of commiseration, which can be consciously cultivated into the fully developed virtue of humaneness. It is these concrete, naturally occurring feelings that constitute the inherent goodness of human nature. This is a further development of Confucius’s claim that “Heaven produced the virtue in me.” It is restated by another text from the Mencian school, the Zhongyong (The Mean in Practice), which begins with the line, “What Heaven ordains/confers [tian ming] is called human nature.” Mencius differed from Confucius in regarding sagehood as being within the realm of human possibility—in effect redefining sagehood as the theoretically achievable goal of humaneness.

The last great Confucian thinker from the “classical” period was Xun Qing or Xunzi (Master Xun), who lived in the third century BCE. He is primarily known for his sharp criticism of Mencius’s theory of the goodness of human nature. He claimed, in fact, that human nature is fundamentally evil, since if left unchecked people are naturally selfish and aggressive. He did say, though, that people can become good, and in fact agreed with Mencius that any person is theoretically capable of becoming a sage. What is required for our natural, evil inclinations to be transformed into goodness is learning, especially the learning of ritual propriety. So on the question of human perfectibility Mencius and Xunzi agree. Their disagreement actually hinges on different concepts of what the “nature” (xing) of a thing is. For Mencius it is the unique characteristic that differentiates one class of things from another. Since only humans are capable of cultivating the four primary virtues, that is what distinguishes us from other animals, and so that is our nature. For Xunzi, the nature of a thing is what appears naturally or spontaneously, without external influence or training. Since education is necessary for human goodness to be expressed, that goodness cannot constitute our nature. Another way Xunzi differs from both Confucius and Mencius is in his understanding of heaven

(tian). For Confucius and Mencius, heaven has a moral will, expressed as the mandate of heaven (tian ming). This was originally a doctrine of political legitimation attributed to one of the founders of the Zhou dynasty in the 11th century BCE, the duke of Zhou. The doctrine originally stated that heaven confers the authority to rule on a family (dynasty) based on its virtue, and removes that authority when their virtue declines. Thus the Zhou, who conquered the previous ruling dynasty, the Shang, through military means, “deserved” the right to rule because of their virtue and the later Shang rulers’ debauchery. Beginning with Confucius, tian ming was extended to mean “what heaven ordains,” which was assumed to be good. Xunzi, however, said that heaven is merely “the heavens” in a naturalistic sense, which do not respond in any way to human goodness or evil—a position of religious skepticism. This and his theory that human nature is evil (taken at face value) eventually resulted in Xunzi being excluded from the “orthodox” interpretation of the Confucian tradition. Mencius, with his idea of the naturalness of human virtue and its corollary, the idea that morality is inherent in the natural world, came to represent the main line of Confucian thought.

Until the second century BCE Confucianism was just one of several influential schools of thought, which also included classical Daoist thought, Legalism, and the School of Mozi (fifth century BCE). During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), Emperor Wudi (r. 140–87 BCE) reorganized his government according to the subjects of the Five Classics (documents, history, ritual, poetry, and divination) and established a school for training government officials in those subjects. This was the first institutionalization of Confucianism, making it the official ideology of the Han government. Since the Ru who were the acknowledged experts in these fields were also followers of Confucius, his ideas came as part of the package. The advisor who influenced Han Wudi to support Confucianism was Dong Zhongshu (179–104 BCE), an accomplished scholar who integrated the naturalistic theories of yin and yang and the Five Phases (wu xing) into Confucian thought. Although imperial support of Confucianism rose and fell over the centuries, the official status of Confucianism largely remained a constant until the last dynasty (the Qing) fell in 1911.

During the period of disunity that followed the fall of the Han in 220 CE, most of the work done by Confucian scholars was literary and commentarial, with little added to the pool of Confucian ideas. Buddhism, which had entered China in the first century CE, and the Daoist religion, which began in the second century CE, attracted the most original thinkers during this period. (Daoism as a full-fledged religion is only loosely connected with the classical texts, such as Laozi or Daodejing and Zhuangzi, which are commonly regarded as Daoist.) China was reunited by the Sui dynasty (589–618). During the succeeding Tang dynasty (618–906) the first stirrings of a Confucian revival began, most notably with Han Yu (768–824), who was strongly opposed to Daoism and argued that Buddhism was antithetical to the essence of Chinese culture.

The Confucian revival came into its own during the Song dynasty (960–1279), when there were several new schools of thought that collectively came to be known in the West as “neo-Confucianism” (there were also “conventional Confucians” during the Song who should not be included in this category). Of these, the one that emerged dominant from the 13th century on was the Cheng-Zhu School, named after Cheng Yi (1033–1107) and Zhu Xi (1130–1200). Cheng Yi and his brother, Cheng Hao (1032–1085), developed a metaphysical terminology in which the earlier Confucian-Mencian concerns with human virtue, human nature, learning, and government could be embedded in a larger philosophical framework. The two key terms were li (“principle” or “order”—a different word from the li that means “ritual”) and qi (the “psycho-physical stuff” of which all existing things—including mind and spirit—are composed). Zhu Xi, a few generations after the Cheng brothers, combined their ideas with those of several of their contemporaries, constructing a coherent system that dominated Chinese intellectual life for the next 700 years, and is still being actively studied and developed by scholars worldwide. Zhu Xi also developed an educational curriculum covering all levels of schooling and beyond. This included a book called Family Rituals (Jia li), which became very popular in China, was reprinted throughout the ensuing centuries in many editions, and was regarded as the standard to strive for in the practices of ancestor worship and life-cycle rituals. Another influential school

of neo-Confucian thought was developed in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) by Wang Shouren (1472–1529), commonly called Wang Yangming, and his followers. Drawing in part on the ideas of a contemporary of Zhu Xi’s, Lu Jiuyuan (1139–1193), commonly called Lu Xiangshan, and therefore called the Lu-Wang School, this approach relied more on moral intuition than the Cheng-Zhu School, which emphasized the importance of intellectual inquiry in pursuit of the Way.

The teachings of the Cheng-Zhu School, beginning in 1313 under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), were the official basis of the civil service examination system through which government officials were selected until 1905. In the 19th century there was an intellectual movement known as kaozheng (examination and verification, or “evidential research”), which critically analyzed the texts on which the Cheng-Zhu School based its teachings and promoted a return to more original sources, or “Han learning.” At the very end of the 19th century there also began what some have called a “third wave” of Confucianism (after classical and neo-). These scholars incorporated Buddhist and Western learning into a new Confucian synthesis. As of the beginning of the 21st century the third generation of these “new Confucians” are the elder generation of Chinese and Chinese-American scholars, who have trained a large contingent of younger scholars, most of whom are Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese American, and Euro-American. This last generation, for the most part, are less apt to be considered “Confucians” themselves; they are generally seen as scholars of Confucianism. However, since “Ru” really means “scholar,” the distinction is not a sharp one. Due largely to the influence of the third and fourth generations of Confucian scholars, the Confucian tradition is increasingly being taken seriously as a significant contributor to the cross-cultural dialogue of religions and to comparative philosophy.

There is not a consensus on the question of the religious nature of Confucianism, although scholars in the field of religious studies generally understand it as a religious tradition. The problem is partly a semantic one and partly due to the particular character of Confucian thought and practice. One semantic question concerns the reifying connotations of speaking of it as “a religion,” given that it is not, at least since the demise of the imperial Chinese examination system and court rituals, an institutionalized religion. But neither is Chinese “popular religion” institutionalized, yet no one denies that it is religious; it simply is not referred to as “a religion.” Confucianism can indeed be understood as an example of “diffused religion” (a term coined by the sociologist C. K. Yang in the early 1960s), which is religion that is practiced in largely secular social settings. The settings for Confucian practice are the family, the community (interpersonal relations), and, until the end of the last dynasty, the state (government).

Another semantic problem involves the Sino-Japanese words for “religion,” zongjiao in Chinese and shumm kyo in Japanese, which are different pronunciations of the same Chinese characters (kanji in Japanese). This word was coined in the late 19th century by Japanese translators of treaties and Western-language texts and was later adopted by the Chinese. These translators felt that Christianity was a different sort of thing than the various Chinese and Japanese “teachings” (jiao / kyom), such as Buddhism and Daoism, and “ways” (dao / dommmor to), such as Shinto. Christianity demanded exclusive allegiance, while Buddhism, Daoism, and Shintom could be mixed and matched by individuals unproblematically. And Christianity strongly emphasized belief in particular doctrines, while the East Asian traditions emphasized action more than belief. Zongjiao / shumm fit the bill, because zong / shumkyomeans “sect” and implies exclusive membership, and jiao / kyom (“teaching”) implies doctrine. Zongjiao / shumm kyo therefore has connotations of a foreign, exclusivistic, doctrinal religion. When Chinese or Japanese people, then, say that Confucianism is not a “religion,” they of course are saying that it is not a zongjiao / shumm kyowhich is correct if we understand that word as unpacked above. But when asked whether it is a jiao, like Daojiao (Daoism) or Fojiao (Buddhism), they are likely to agree, because in Chinese it is in fact called Rujiao.

See also:

Buddhism; Christianity; Confucius; Confucius’s Birthday; Indonesia, Confucianism in; Mencius; Shinto.



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