Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Confucianism: The Neglected "Eastern Religion"

Statue of Confucius at Beijing Temple

But perfect freedom is not found without some rules. People, especially young people, think that freedom is to do just what they want, that in Zen there is no need for rules. But it is absolutely necessary for us to have some rules. But this does not mean always to be under control. As long as you have rules, you have a chance for freedom. To try to obtain freedom without being aware of the rules means nothing. It is to acquire this perfect freedom that we practice zazen. (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, D.T. Suzuki, p. 34)

The ultimate Confucian concern is self transformation as a communal act and as a faithful dialogical response to the transcendent. (Tu Wei-ming, Centrality and Commonality, p. x)

"Confucianism: The Neglected "Eastern Religion"

Americans and Europeans in the twentieth century often turned to "eastern religions" for models of belief and behavior and continue to do so in the twenty-first. How accurate these interpretations are is a matter of scholarly controversy, but that is a discussion for another time. The least "sexy" of the religious institutions of the east is Confucianism. Not only has it been avoided by most western appropriations of "eastern religions," but also it has been roundly criticized within the east. Confucianism has been stereotyped as rigid, authoritarian, and anti individualistic. Nonetheless, aspects of Confucianism have found their way into our own culture, notably into our educational system, in the use of examinations to place civil servants, and in the use of bureaucratic systems as controlling structures in business as well as government. Confucianism is quite relevant to the theme of this year-long symposium, "Character, Responsibility, and Freedom"; it is a major world system of religious thought which directly and clearly addresses these issues.

The Chinese term which most closely relates to our term, character, is te. This is the te of the Tao Te Ching, by the way, and it is a word which precedes all of the existing Chinese religions. Originally it meant something like virtue, in the old English sense: in old English it is the virtue of a seed which produces a plant, the virtue of the planets which determines their course through the heavens, and so forth. Te in ancient China was particularly respected as a force which inhabited great leaders. It was one's te which allowed one to lead, and empowered one's leadership. The te of powerful leaders could even survive death: the degree of one's te determined one's place in the heavenly bureaucracy which dictated earthly events, and through te one could continue to influence the course of human life on earth. Plenty of attention from the living could enhance and prolong the influence of a deceased relative's te, hence the tradition of "ancestor worship" (a misnomer) which continues to characterize Chinese religion (and the religions of other countries which have come under its influence, such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam).

It was Confucius (or his immediate followers, since no writings by Confucius are extant) who solidified the concept of te as a moral construct. As the power of hereditary rulers diminished, the Chinese began to propose moral systems to guide society. (See Arthur Waley's introduction to his translation of the Tao Te Ching, entitled The Way and its Power.) Confucianism and Taoism were among the systems considered and discussed during the period known as the "Hundred Schools of Philosophy" (551 - 233 BCE) and the concurrent time of chaos known as the Warring States period (403-221 BCE). Legalism, another of these proposals, is responsible for the state of Confucianism throughout most of Chinese history. The Legalists were able to gain power by marrying their ideas with Confucianism, hence some of the elements of authoritarianism which we tend to associate with Confucianism (1).

The early Confucian solution was founded on self cultivation for the benefit of society. It was proposed that a leader should be a good person, a moral person, and that anyone who, through desire or social status, anticipated being a leader should rigorously mold and polish personal character, or te. Te in this sense was not just personal power, but referred to positive human qualities. Confucius had the idealistic idea that a perfect leader could create a perfect world, through moral strength and example. He did stress respect for and obedience to authority, but based on the assumption that those in authority would be worthy of that respect and obedience. The system of hierarchical obligations he advocated worked both ways.

How does one cultivate oneself? One way is through education. Not, as one might expect, a narrow and restrictive education: The so-called "Confucian Classics" are actually a hodgepodge of stories about historical events, poems, aphorisms, oracular pronouncements, folk tales and so forth. They certainly do not present a single, unified point of view. Confucius also traveled a lot, to different regions with different customs and mores. Part of his success as a teacher, in my opinion, was his ability to honor and acknowledge these differences. To read widely, many different points of view, and to experience various cultures is to become a thoughtful, individual who can become a valuable leader: This is the Confucian Way.

To think for oneself is both a freedom and a responsibility, and is a practice which develops character. Unfortunately, this part of Confucius' philosophy did not long survive in China. As H.G. Creel said, "Confucius' method, which consisted of incessant hard thinking together with the willingness to re-examine even one's basic premises, is so rigorous that no considerable group of men has ever espoused it for very long" (Creel, Chinese Thought, 84).

Confucius never got the opportunity he hoped for, to become advisor to a great ruler whom he could mold into perfection, and who would, in turn, create the perfect state. Confucius was most successful as a teacher, and his followers spread his teachings and created the system known as Confucianism. This system, adulterated by authoritarianism, Legalism and various other misinterpretations, but by no means lacking beneficial qualities, became the foundation for Chinese political and social systems for two thousand years.

Statues of Disciples of Confucius at Confucius Temple in Nagasaki, Japan

New Interpretations of Confucianism for the 21st Century

Confucianism has not been a popular choice for those who have turned to "eastern religions" for solutions to modern problems. Two contemporary scholars have proved to be exceptions, and have written persuasively about the role Confucian ideas could play in the modern world. One of these is a philosopher, the other a historian, hence a discussion of their studies seems appropriate to this interdisciplinary Forum. While most sinologists de-emphasize the religious aspect of Confucianism, these two scholars argue convincingly for a religious interpretation.

A Professor Emeritus in Philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, Herbert Fingarette’s publications are diverse in range and often deal with psychological issues. He has written about death, self-deception, criminal insanity and alcoholism. He is best known by those interested in China for his little book, Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, an analysis of Confucianism for a western audience which has had great appeal to undergraduates and novices to the field. Tu Wei-ming is a Harvard historian who has focused his career on the study of Confucianism, and on revitalizing Confucianism for the twenty-first century. Both Herbert Fingarette and Tu Wei-ming begin their interpretations with that aspect of Confucianism which is readily acceptable to westerners, self cultivation, and then build upon that notion with an emphasis on its social aspects. One does not better oneself for selfish reasons, but for the good of the community. Says Tu, "[S]elf transformation [is] a communal act." What's more, he adds, it is a "faithful dialogical response to the transcendent" (Centrality and Commonality, p. x). We must learn to be human, and "learning to be human is an ultimate concern" ("A Confucian Life in America," interview with Bill Moyers, PBS).

Tu even extends his interpretation of Confucianism to include ecological issues and beyond. He begins with the traditional reference in the following passage from The Great Learning:

The ancients who wished clearly to exemplify illustrious virtue throughout the world would first set up good government in their states. Wishing to govern well their states, they would first regulate their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they would first cultivate their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they would first rectify their minds. Wishing to rectify their minds, they would first seek sincerity in their thoughts. Wishing for sincerity in their thoughts, they would first extend their knowledge. The extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. For only when things are investigated is knowledge extended; only when knowledge is extended are thoughts sincere [and so on back through the litany to peace in the world]. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, p. 1292 (2))

But in Tu's version, not only the world is included, but also beyond--we are responsible not only to self, family, community, state, and world, but also to the entire cosmos. Tu's notion of character should have great appeal to the ecologically minded. As we all know, Asia's vaunted holism, while often cited by western ecologists, has not prevented wholesale ecological disaster within Asia. Tu argues that a Europe-centered mentality--the desire for "development"--may have led to these problems, and certainly provides no solution. Asia must look beyond Europe to symbolic resources based on its own ancient traditions.

Fingarette’s comments on Chinese philosophy are limited to one little eighty page book, yet he too has transformative ideas based on Confucianism. One of these has to do with the "choice-responsibility-guilt complex" of western thinking. Confucianism offers instead "A Way without a Crossroads": "The proper response to a failure to conform to the moral order is not self condemnation for a free and responsible, though evil, choice, but self reeducation" (pp. 34-35). Education therefore includes not only learning to recognize what is right, but also how to aim to act morally, as well as persistence and commitment to the notion of doing so. The lack of a crossroads means that notions like "heading down the path to destruction" do not apply. An immoral act is not a "sin" or a stain upon one's soul, although it is a matter for shame. It is a mistake which should motivate one towards further education, towards greater effort to do right in the future. The inspiration for moral behavior is not divine rewards or punishments, but harmonious participation in society.

Confucius himself said he was not able to harmonize his inner needs with the needs of society until he was seventy years old, although he began the effort at the age of 15. (See excerpts from the Analects following this essay.) Confucius asserted that punishment would not cause people to behave morally, but rather, would have the opposite effect. This is another difficult aspect of Confucian philosophy that did not long survive in Chinese politics; soon the Legalist notion of harsh punishment became the norm. Yet the Confucian notion of moral education has persisted within Chinese family and community systems, and may even predate Confucius. I'm sure there are modern psychologists who have argued along similar lines, although one should not confuse the Confucian system with the laissez-faire methods some baby boomers adopted in trying to avoid the excesses of corporal punishment which were their own heritage.

Fingarette’s understanding of the religious aspect of Confucianism is evidenced by the title of the book, The Secular as Sacred. Daily human interaction is religious, governed as it is by custom and tradition, by shared language and social forms which enable us to communicate. "Society, at least insofar as regulated by human convention and moral obligations, becomes in the Confucian vision one great ceremonial performance, a ceremony with all the holy beauty of an elaborate religious is the ceremonial aspect of life that bestows sacredness upon persons, acts, and objects..." (p. 76).

This would be a good time to remind the reader that in China, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism do not exist in isolation from one another. Only religious specialists choose to self identify as Taoists or Buddhists, and even these usually remark upon the importance of the other systems. I say this in order to argue that most current western interpretations of Taoism miss the point because their Taoism isn't Confucian enough. True, Confucius often plays the foil in Taoist texts, such as Chuang Tzu, but he appears more often in the same text as an exemplar of the Taoist way. True, the Tao Te Ching clearly represents voices of those who oppose Confucian ideas, but one who carefully reads the entire Tao Te Ching cannot avoid noticing that a great deal of the text is written for would-be leaders and that its attitude can be quite harsh and callous. H.G. Creel even suggested that Taoism must accept its share of credit for the Legalist takeover (Chinese Thought, 111-113)--and he said this nearly 25 years before the oldest known copy (at that time) of the Te Tao Ching was found in the tomb of a Legalist official. There is much more to the Tao Te Ching than the Tao of Pooh!

Taoist texts have a great deal to say about freedom from society, its values and regulations, but Confucianism also speaks of freedom--the freedom that can come from acceptance of the importance of social relationships and obligations. Mind you, I'm not talking about blind obedience, slavish attention to rules and regulations, or a boring life of unthinking conformity. There are some interpretations of Taoism which contain a positive Confucian element--notably Michael LaFargue's: see his Tao and Method, an interpretation of the "original meaning" of the text based on the method of Biblical scholarship known as "form criticism." I also recommend LaFargue's article, "Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical: A New Theory of Religions," for a more general statement about the pursuit of religious truths in a pluralistic world. I submit that the works of Creel, Fingarette, Tu Wei-ming, LaFargue, and other scholars of Chinese thought have much to contribute to our discussion of "Character, Responsibility, and Freedom."

1 A few misunderstandings about Confucianism are pervasive in the west. One is that Confucius wrote the Confucian classics. While Chinese tradition once held that Confucius wrote, or at least edited, the classics, both Chinese and American scholars have long agreed that if Confucius wrote anything, it has not survived. Even the Analects, a collection of sayings compiled by early Confucian scholars, is largely composed of later materials. Most of the "Confucian classics" had already been written by Confucius' time. The list of "classics" upon which the examination system was based was proposed by later scholars, as was the examination system itself. Another, more egregious misunderstanding is that Confucius proposed a rigid, authoritarian system of government; or, to put it another way, that the system of government which prevailed in China during the first and second millennia of the Common Era was based on Confucian teaching. In a series of brilliant political maneuvers executed by the authoritarian Hsun Tzu and the Han dynasty emperor Wu (along with a large supporting cast of philosophers and officials), Legalism disguised as Confucianism became the prevailing political order in China.

2 Chapter 54 of the Tao Te Ching says:

Cultivate Virtue in your own person,
And it becomes a genuine part of you.
Cultivate it in the family,
And it will abide.
Cultivate it in the community,
And it will live and grow.
Cultivate it in the state,
And it will flourish abundantly.
Cultivate it in the world,
And it will become universal.
(Wu's translation, p. 77)

Steles commemorating scholars who passed the
Imperial Examinations - Confucius Temple, Beijing


This is a brief annotated biography on Chinese religion as it relates to the theme of "Character, Responsibility, and Freedom":

Translations of the Tao Te Ching are myriad. Popular translations such as Feng and English, or Stephen Mitchell, while appealing to western readers, are not particularly accurate renderings. I would recommend Robert G. Henrick's translation (Ballentine Books, 1989) for linguistic accuracy, and LaFargue for "original meaning" as discussed above. SUNY Press has published his translation without extensive textual justification (The Tao of the Tao Te Ching, 1992, in addition to the longer Tao and Method: A Reasoned Approach to the Tao Te Ching, 1994). My personal favorite is Tao Teh Ching, first translated by John C.H. Wu in 1961, now republished by Shambhala.

The other best loved Taoist text is Chuang Tzu. I actually prefer it to Lao Tzu. I recommend Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1964, and The Essential Chuang Tzu, translated by Sam Hamill and J.P Seaton, Shambhala, 1998 both of which are highly accessible and even entertaining. While there is nothing inherently incorrect about Thomas Merton's poeticized excerpts, the contemporary reader can just as easily go directly to the source and get a much fuller and more authentic version written in a lively and humorous style.

For a thorough exploration of the Tao Te Ching, its authorship, its western and Chinese interpretations, a discussion of various translations into English, and more, see Lao Tzu and the Tao-Te-Ching, ed. Livia Kohn and Michael LaFargue, SUNY Press, 1998.

The Confucian Analects have not received the same level of attention, but a number of good translations exist. I recommend D.C. Lau's Penguin Classics version (1979), and also Arthur Waley's 1938 annotated The Analects of Confucius (Vintage Books, 1938). Poet and translator David Hinton has just published translations of both the Analects and the Confucian scholar Mencius (Counterpoint, 1999 and 1998). A detailed scholarly attempt to sort out Confucius's own words from later additions to the Analects is presented by E. Bruce and A. Taeko Brooks. Entitled The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and his Successors, this difficult tome published by Columbia University Press in 1998 represents a lifetime of study of all the ancient Chinese texts.

About Confucius the person, not to mention early influences of Confucianism on the west, no better text exists than H. G. Creel's, Confucius: the Man and the Myth (The John Day Company, New York: 1949) reprinted by Harper Torchbooks as Confucius and the Chinese Way.

By far the clearest and most accessible summary of the development of Confucian thought and its role in Chinese history is Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Mao Tse-tung, by Herrlee G. Creel (The University of Chicago Press, 1971 - originally published in 1953). I have used this book in Religions of China for the last two semesters, and you will find excellent conversation partners among these students. This is the locus of the (soon to be) famous "Who should rule?" debates.

Other publications mentioned in the essay are:

Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius--the Secular as Sacred (Harper Torchbooks, 1972).

LaFargue, Michael. "Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical: A New Theory of Religions," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. LX, no. 4, pp. 693-716.

Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Weatherhill, 1970.

Tu Wei-ming. Way, Learning, and Politics: Essays on the Confucian Intellectual. (SUNY, 1993).

Tu Wei-ming. Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on Confucian Religiousness. (SUNY, 1989).

Waley, Arthur. The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought. Grove Press, 1958.


The Master said, "At fifteen I set my heart upon learning. At thirty, I had planted my feet firmly upon the ground. At forty, I no longer suffered from perplexities. At fifty, I knew what were the biddings of Heaven. At sixty, I heard them with docile ear. At seventy, I could follow the dictates of my own heart; for what I desired no longer overstepped the boundaries of right." (Book II, #4)

Tzu-kung asked about the true gentleman. The Master said, "He does not preach what he practises till he has practised what he preaches." (Book II, #13)

The Master said, "I for my part have never yet seen one who really cared for Goodness, nor one who really abhorred wickedness. One who really cared for Goodness would never let any other consideration come first. One who abhorred wickedness would be so constantly doing Good that wickedness would never have a chance to get at him. Has anyone ever managed to do Good with his whole might even as long as the space of a single day? I think not. Yet I for my part have never seen anyone give up such an attempt because he had not the strength to go on. It may well have happened, but I for my part have never seen it." (Book IV, #6)

Chi Wen Tzu used to think thrice before acting. The Master hearing of it said, "Twice is quite enough." (Book V, #19)

In his leisure hours the Master’s manner was very free-and-easy, and his expression alert and cheerful. (Book VII, #4)

The Master took four subjects for his teaching: culture, conduct of affairs, loyalty to superiors and the keeping of promises. (Box VII, #24)

Yen Hui said with a deep sigh, "The more I strain my gaze towards it [Goodness], the higher it soars. The deeper I bore down into it, the harder it becomes. I see it in front; but suddenly it is behind. Step by step the Master skillfully lures one on. He has broadened me with culture, restrained me with ritual. Even if I wanted to stop, I could not. Just when I feel that I have exhausted every resource, something seems to rise up, standing out sharp and clear. Yet though I long to pursue it, I can find no way of getting to it at all." (Book IX, #10)

The Master said, "I have never seen anyone whose desire to build up his moral power [te] was a strong as sexual desire." (Book IX, #17)

Tzu-king asked saying, "Is there any single saying that one can act upon all day and every day?" The master said, "Perhaps the saying about consideration: Never do to others what you would not like them to do it you."(Book XV, #23)

The Master said, "When everyone dislikes a man, enquiry is necessary; when everyone likes a man, enquiry is necessary." (Book XV, #27)

The Master said, "A man can enlarge his Way [Tao] but there is no Way that can enlarge a man." (Book XV, #28)

(Source: The Analects of Confucius. Translated and annotated by Arthur Waley. Vintage Books, 1938.)

"Fu-dog" at Confucius Temple, Nagasaki, Japan

*article and photos copyrighted to Julia M. Hardy 2009*

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