An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Religious Aspects of Confucianism

Mar 10, 2020 © Ulrich Theobald

The Western term "Confucianism" (Chin. ru 儒) refers to several different issues, first, it can be seen as a set of rules for social behaviour characterized by differences of social status to which certain obligations are tied. In this shape, Confucianism with its normative orientations for behaviour is deeply embedded in the Chinese cultural tradition and was transferred to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Second, the term is used to denote an ethico-political mode of governance characterized by a combination of authority and benevolence. From the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) on and right to the end of the imperial period in 1912, "Confucianism" constituted a kind of political orthodoxy. Third, Confucianism is a scholastic or philosophical tradition (rujia 儒家, ruxue 儒學) that emerged in the late Spring and Autumn period 春秋 (770-5th cent. BCE) and had its focus on social relations. From the 10th century on, it experienced – under the influence of Buddhism and Daoism – a heavy influence of metaphysical thought which led to the emergence of the so-called Neo-Confucianism (Chin. lixue 理學, xinxue 心學, daoxue 道學).

Fourth, Confucianism also pertains to the field of religion, where it competes with Buddhism, Daoism and certain expressions of folk religion. Nonetheless, Confucianism is barely a confession to which believers belong, unlike the other two of the three religions (sanjiao 三教). Finally, the scholastic tradition of Confucianism is been having a deep impact on the school and learning system of China until today. The intense study, annotation and exegesis of "Confucian" texts (see Confucian Classics) led to the foundation of academies and universities and interpreted Confucius (Kongzi 孔子, 551-479 BCE) as the "primordial teacher" (xianshi 先師).

The elements of religious Confucianism include the worship of Confucius, the founder of the "Confucian" tradition, and some of his disciples (the seventy-two disciples) and later personalities like Mengzi 孟子 (Meng Ke 孟軻, 385-304 or 372-289 BCE) or Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), but also basic elements of Chinese religion performed long before the age of Confucius, namely ancestor worship. Other forms of worship, like the veneration of Heaven (tian 天) or natural spirits, were explicitly kept back from by Confucius himself, while Mengzi reintroduced the belief that Heaven might keep an eye on the mode of governance.

The philosopher Confucius adhered to a rather rational world view, for which reason classical writings like the Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes", actually a divination handbook, were re-interpreted as a guidance for a scholar or a ruler, instead of as a text to prognosticate one's fate. Yet the infight between various schools of Confucianism during the Han period (see old-text and new-text debate and apocryphal classics) demonstrates that the belief in supernatural powers was part and parcel of early Confucianism. In the interpretation of the new-text school, Confucius even became a kind of demigod venerated in special Confucius Temples (Kongmiao 孔廟).

During the chaotic twentieth century, the religious aspect of Confucianism put it in the dock like any other religion, as an expression of superstition. This was particularly the case during the Cultural Revolution. Yet even then, some of the iconoclasts refrained from destroying Confucius shrines all over the country.

Religious aspects of Confucianism can be seen the ancestor veneration of single families during the Qingming or Tomb-sweeping Festival (qingmingjie 清明節) which was made a statutory holiday in 2008. Larger family clusters ("clans") carry out extensive activities like building ancestral shrines, delivering sacrificial ceremonies, compiling genealogies, founding schools for the study of Confucian writings like the Four Books (sishu 四書) and the Five Classics (wujing 五經), and so on.

The regularity of social norms in Confucianism makes it a binding element of society and an orientation in times of social and political change. It gives social and moral identity and contributes to services for the local communities, and eventually expands – according to the famous theory of Max Weber (1864-1920) – economic activities. Confucianism as a religion does not believe in supernatural forces, but focuses on social obligations under a quasi-religious cover that is upheld by ceremonies and practices with liturgical character.

Apart from Heaven and the "deified" historical Confucian masters themselves, there is the concept of the all-wise sage man (shengren 聖人) which points into a religious direction. Some of these "sage men" are mythological persons, like the emperors Yao 堯 and Shun 舜 or the historical Duke of Zhou 周公 (11th cent. BCE), while others are just hypothetical prototypes.

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