Is Confucianism a religion, or is it a philosophy? “Confucius,” Moss Roberts tells us, “would address things present and manifest, that is, cultural presentations (wenzhang), but not things invisible and speculative, that is, human nature (renzhing) and the Way of heaven (tiandao).” However, in the years after Confucius’s death in 479 BCE, his followers made “things invisible and speculative” the principal parts of the Analects, which had hitherto been “earthbound” and contained “no gestures towards the divine.” Chin-shing Huang, on the other hand, regards Confucianism as a real religion, basing his argument on Wittgenstein’s observation that religions have a “family resemblance”, thus suggesting, as Huang puts it, “the diverse and variegated nature of religion” rather than some monolithic or all-embracing definition. And, of course, the fact that there are Confucian temples certainly suggests that Confucius’s teachings, much like Buddhism and Daoism, are more than just “philosophy” to many people. Reading Roberts’s new translation of the Analects along with Chin-shin Huang’s study of Confucianism as a religion is instructive because Confucius himself stands between two interpretations—readers can make their own conclusions from a clear and concise translation which is also interpreted by Roberts as he proceeds.
The Analects (the term was first used by James Legge in his 1861 classic translation), a short and pithy book known as the Lunyu (more literally Collected Sayings in Chinese), are concerned with ethics, politics and the organization of society. Confucius’s intention seems to have been the restoration of some kind of political and social order in a world which seemed to have forgotten how to accomplish either, and throughout his life he worked to persuade rulers and their ministers to follow the path of virtue, yet while he gathered disciples and followers, he never quite succeeded in his objectives and died a disappointed man. As Roberts tells us, the Analects “records his resignation to the adverse trends of history and the perversity of rulers.” Many centuries later, however, we find emperor Ming Taizu (reigned 1368-1398) writing “in the later generations, all who rule the world must pay him utmost respect and attend to sacrifices to him.”
How did the teachings of a man who had held only minor administrative positions and who was forced to wander from place to place become the object of imperial veneration? The answer is that they became politically useful to the rulers who studied them, and eventually evolved from moral philosophy into a kind of “state religion”. Furthermore, as Huang explains, Confucius’s descendants, the Kong family, were “manipulated by rulers as a political tool in power struggles over the centuries.” Confucianism has endured to this day and may be found to varying degrees not only in China itself, but in Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan and Korea as well. Roberts says that if Confucius came back today and visited those countries, “he would still recognize his basic principles and values regarding the bonds of human relations and the forms of authority.” What he might have been puzzled about is the temples; indeed, Confucius might be the only philosopher whose teachings have been turned into a genuine religion outside the possible exception of Buddha.
The most important category of Confucian teaching is the doctrine of Ren, which Roberts calls “the dominant value term of the Lunyu”, which Legge renders as “perfect virtue” or “benevolence”, but which Roberts says may be more accurately translated as “humanity”. Li Zehou, in his seminal work A History of Classical Chinese Thought (2020), calls it “humaneness”, as does Huang, but agrees that “no single explanation will capture its full meaning.” Roberts explains that the term seems to expand as the Analects progresses; it “starts out within the family (A1.2), widens to consideration for others, and finally expands to a love of mankind in general.” Huang tells us that in the 20th century, the New Confucians “limited themselves to rarefied discourse on ren” and neglected Confucius’s other important categories such as li (ritual or propriety), although Confucius taught that “the exercise of ren requires the exercise of self-restraint and returning to submit to li.” As Roberts translates the passage in the Lunyu, “Self-control and turning back to the path of traditional ritual is the way to practice humankindness [sic],” and explains that ritual actually “begins with self-discipline and then applies outwardly to all relations with others.” Here, ren is translated as “humankindness”, a good example of Roberts’s attention to the nuances of the Lunyu’s language and of why his commentary is so valuable. He seems to agree with Huang’s observation about the fluidity of meanings for the term ren, and is willing to allow for it in his own translation, and Confucius is thus freed from rigidity by an understanding translator.
After Confucius’s death, it would seem that li became the dominant aspect of his teachings as subsequent rulers established a ritual system exemplified by the physical spaces of Confucian temples. The culture changed from the merely practical or “earthbound” to a state-sponsored system which came to dominate religion, politics and cultural life. And, as scholars have noted, Confucian culture was one of elitist masculinity; Huang is at pains to point out that attempts to turn it into a “popular” religion in recent times have failed and will likely continue to fail. However, he notes that the secularization of Confucianism, emphasising ren over li, as a philosophy has been around since at least the latter part of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), resulting in the eventual demise of ritual: “New Confucians essentially forgot Confucius’s teachings,” he says. This attitude had a profound impact on Confucian temples, which “have, since the early republic, suffered so much damage and defamation that their religious significance became obscure.” This did not permanently happen to the sage himself; Roberts notes that after about 1972:
Confucius reclaimed his position in China as an icon both of education for social service and of domestic normalization as well as a figure of outreach to the diasporic Chinese communities. And there he remains today, part of the pantheon of leaders, together with Mao Zedong and Sun Yat-sen.
We may surmise that Confucianism in recent times has lost any religious significance, and that in a sense it has gone back to its roots as a system of ethics, family values and service to the state. However, looking at it from Huang’s perspective, it becomes obvious that for many centuries it was so much more than that—it was profoundly elitist in nature, unmistakably androcentric and above all, an instrument of the state. The temple embodied the ritual system in imperial China: “in imperial China,” Huang tells us, “Confucius temple rites were among the most celebrated and significant of state rituals.” In our own times, however, he continues, “Confucian rites are treated either as antique window-dressing (in Taiwan) or as a commodified brand-name product for the new market economy (in China),” which would work alongside what Roberts says above.
However, anti-Confucius sentiment predates the present era by a hundred years or more, an example being that of Chen Duxiu (1879-1942), a socialist educator who eventually became a founder and the first General Secretary of the Communist Party, who is quoted by Huang as proclaiming (in 1917) that “We should destroy all the Confucius temples in the nation and abolish all their rituals!” It might well be that Confucius was right in the end about the perversity of rulers; at one point in the Analects he is described as “the one who keeps trying to do what he knows cannot be done”.
Of course, Confucianism wasn’t the only religion in China. Buddhism and Daoism were equally, if not more, important, and eventually the problems which come along with religious diversity began to affect the state in the form of the Three Religions controversy, explained in detail by Huang. The Mongols, for example, had tended to favor Buddhism during their rule in China; as Mongke Khan (reigned 1251-59) stated, told a Daoist priest that he thought that neither Daoism, Confucianism or any other religion in China was “worthy to be compared with the Buddha.” The idea of combining all three religions in one system seemed to be the way out of the problem, an idea which seems to have begun in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when Emperor Xuanzong (reigned 712-56) wrote a commentary on the Diamond Sutra arguing for unification of the religions. In the Ming Dynasty, Emperor Taizu, whom we have previously met, pointed out that as all three upheld the “principle of aiding the needy”, it made sense, given that “ours is an age benighted by foolish men”, that “the Three Religions are all necessary.” And, as Roberts notes, “Chinese history has swung between periods of unity and of division,” and through them all the teachings of Confucius have survived, perhaps because “Rarely did Confucius speak of self-interest. He was engaged with human fates and humankindness” (A 9.1).
Roberts’s translation has the advantage of his commentaries and clarifications, which appear after each section in the Analects, as well as an invaluable introduction and some useful appendices explaining terminology and providing a detailed timeline. As I don’t read Chinese, all I can say is that Roberts makes Confucius an engaging figure through this translation, and the subtitle “Conclusions and Conversations” sums up his intentions; it’s as if we were actually talking to Confucius or watching him speaking to others. Some western readers, notably Bertrand Russell, have thought Confucius “boring”, but Robert’s translation certainly belies this dismissive attitude. Furthermore, he doesn’t just rehash other translations (I also like the Penguin one done by Annping Chin); as Stephen Durrant perceptively notes on the back cover, he “consistently captures the clipped, clean quality of the original,” and the conversations actually sound conversational.
Chin-shin Huang’s book is a masterpiece of careful and diligent scholarship. From the point of view (again) of a non-specialist, it would seem that he easily carries his argument that Confucianism is a religion rather than just a philosophy. The presence of so many temples is in itself a good example of this way of perceiving Confucius. The religious dimension of Confucianism is shown by him to be integral to our understanding of the Analects and their interpretation through the ages. Huang is probably correct in assuming that the temples have been neglected by scholars, and that this is in part due to the way religion is defined, particularly in the west. “This methodological turn falls into the category of removing conceptual obstacles,” Huang explains, “a task that is mostly destructive of existing paradigms.” His book, while it can at times be heavy going for the non-specialist, is nevertheless richly-rewarding if a broader understanding of Confucius and the Analects is desired, and goes a long way to explaining why Confucianism has weathered so many assaults over the years yet is still present as a ritual system in modern China.