Issues of Religion and Confucianism

Confucianism in European and East Asian Views

Nowadays the problem of finding the global value of the Confucian tradition, as well as its interaction with European philosophy, has become central to the works of leading Chinese and Western thinkers. The problem of globalization of Confucian values has appeared because of interaction of cultural and civilizational traditions of China and Europe, as well as relation between tradition and modernization. Confucianism represents multifaceted ethical, moral, and political teachings. For a better understanding of political focus and specifics of Chinese society, it is necessary to study Confucianism, which has been the driving force for Chinese people for so long. Confucianism is not a religion in European sense of the word. The real difference between Confucianism and religion is that Confucianism is not a religion of church or community, but a religion of the state. In Europe, politics is a science, but in China politics is a religion since the time of Confucius. Kang Youwei is considered the first Chinese thinker who created political and legal theory of a new model, which is a new interpretation of the Confucian tradition, combined with the elements of Western political and legal theories. In the 20th century, Confucianism was regarded as a part of national essence. By conducting analysis of Kang Youweis Preface, Society for Kongzi Religion, this paper aims at discussing the difference between the 18th century European and the 20th century East Asian views regarding Confucian moral teachings. The discrepancies between Eastern and Western views of culture and religion make the controversial topic of the essence of Confucianism relevant today. Even after the attempts to unite Confucianism and Christian religion, Confucian philosophy and moral teachings remain the national essence of China.


The West has always experienced a long-standing and strong interest in Chinese philosophy, particularly in Confucianism. It began with the Jesuits who opened China to Europe. Respect of Europeans to Chinese culture during the period of Enlightenment was introduced by missionaries, who were highly educated people. The most important place among the first Jesuit missionaries in China belonged to Matteo Ricci, who began religious and philosophical analysis of the situation in China. Of all religious and philosophical trends of China, Confucianism was given the most positive assessment in Ricci's works and was interpreted as natural theology and most compatible with Christianity doctrine. Thus, the Christian-Confucian dialogue became the basis of cultural adaptation of Catholicism to Chinese conditions in the 16th-18th centuries.

The Jesuits, and especially Matteo Ricci, considered Confucianism the triumph of natural theology. Arguing that Confucius was an outstanding but a pagan philosopher, Ricci described his teachings as free from many superstitions, as the Confucians did not worship idols and believed in a single god. Ricci's important thesis was the fact that ancient Chinese beliefs contained monotheism in their base. Later, according to him, missionary monotheism was replaced by paganism and idolatry. However, the natural law, which ruled the life of China in ancient times, has remained only in the form of classical Confucian canon. Paradoxically, the Jesuits, seeking to prove the value of their mission to European public opinion in general and Roman Curia in particular, strongly praised China for its ideal state of mind and meritocracy.

Thus, the missionary concept of Matteo Ricci was based on the interpretation of original Confucianism as additional to Christianity. His aim was to break traditional Chinese syncretism by synthesizing and creating a new model of Catholicism based on the Confucian tradition. Ricci considered impenetrable conservatism and national complacency as his main enemies. The achievements of European science undermined traditional notions of Chinese self-sufficiency. Confucian image of China through the eyes of missionaries made a favorable impression on European thinkers, who were also interested in the issues of moral or practical philosophy. First of all, it concerns Leibniz and Wolff. Confucius gained a reputation of the creator of ethical and political doctrine. Prominent German philosopher Leibniz recognized the importance of Chinese thought for Western culture; he believed that if China sent educated people, able to teach Europeans the objectives and practice of natural theology, it would facilitate a more rapid return of Europe to its high ethical standards and overcome the period of decline.

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Starting from the second half of the 18th and until the end of the 20th century, the image of China in Europe underwent significant changes. The attitude of European thinkers to Chinese philosophy, especially Confucianism, became different. The influence of Herder, Hegel, and Weber, who were particularly responsible for such changes in European mind, was crucial. Their absolute authority and influence on opinions of their contemporaries formed a negative image of Confucianism that occurred in European culture. The consequences of these transformations has significantly strengthened the positions of Eurocentrism.

Herder considered the main reason for stagnation and cultural insignificance of China to be its identity and detachment from other cultures. Hegel declared Confucius to be no more than a preacher of practical wisdom. At the same time, Weber emphasized the exceptional institutional complexity of Chinese civilization, its unique historical continuity, and low internal capacity for transformation, which means that a relatively small number of fundamental institutional changes have occurred within the country, at least during the period preceding the onset of modern times. This combination of complexity, continuity, and low ability to transform is explained by social and status orientations of its main carriers, Confucian scholars. Lack of transcendent voltage makes Confucianism a persistent tradition of canonization.

Kang Youwei, Chinese thinker, philosopher, scientist, as well as state and public figure of the 20th century, regarded Confucianism as a national essence, and Confucius as an uncrowned ruler, sent by heaven to restore order in the society. Interpretation of Confucius as the creator of national religion gave Kang an opportunity to express his social and political views. Heading the Society towards Confucius religion in 1912, Kang Youwei sought constitutional fastening of the state cult of Confucius. In his Preface, Society for Kongzi Religion, Kang stated that even if people did not speak about Kongzis religion, it existed anyway. His mission was to extend Kongzi as Chinese fundamental principle and help it become a religion. Kang Youwei was a great Chinese reformer, who offered to turn Confucianism into a religion of the state, following the example of Christian churches. Western missionaries had certain influence on Kang Youwei, but he considered their ideas selectively. Confucian religion contributed to unification of public opinion and propaganda of doctrines, approved by the state. Kang's attitude towards institutional reform of Confucianism showed how profound the impact of Christianity was on Chinese civilization. Christian missions contributed to the acquaintance of elites with alternative social institutions and value systems. This situation is perfectly illustrated by the example of Kang Youwei: he wanted a true revival of Confucianism very much; he also had little interest in other religions. However, he was a reader of almost all missionary periodicals and translations published in China, so the primary Western idea about the role of religion was drawn from the missionaries and formed the basis of his intrinsic version of Confucianism.

The question of religious or national essence of Confucianism remains relevant these days. Today the attempts to overcome Eurocentric views on Eastern philosophy in general and the Confucian system in particular are made. However, many scholars refuse to regard Confucianism as a religion. In fact, everything that is associated with religious sphere, namely, God, spirits, arguments about fate of soul, as well as afterlife, is located on the periphery of Confucian teachings, as the main essence of this ideology is moral and social matters. Confucianism has been the official ideology of China for more than two thousand years. Thus, Confucius is considered the only source of Confucian wisdom. Confucian ethics is not religious; the ideal of Confucianism is creation of a harmonious society, which is built on the idea of devotion and loyalty.

Consequently, it may be concluded that the difference in views on Confucianism in the 18th and the 20th century lies mostly in discrepancies between Europe and Asia. Although Kang Youwei made attempts to transform this ethical, moral, social, and political philosophy into the state religion, the matters of theology are not important for it. It is difficult for the Western culture to perceive Confucianism, which is considered the national essence of China. However, globalization of the world culture is an inevitable process. Therefore, synthesis of European and Asian cultures will probably be able to return people perfection and heal the humanity.

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