Book chapter

Religious Traditions in Politics: Confucianism (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

Because of the missionary activities of Jesuits in late imperial China and the world religions paradigm that emerged in the late 19th century, scholars tend to view Confucianism as a world religion. However, Confucianism does not fit into disciplinary boxes neatly. Accordingly, Confucian religiosity has been the subject of much debate among scholars. The answer depends largely upon how one defines religion and Confucianism. However, Confucianism and religion are not self-evident categories, but historically conditioned entities. Central to the theoretical discussion of Confucian religiosity has been the idea of transcendence. To many, Confucianism does not seem a type of religion because it does not put God at the center of attention. To others, Confucianism upholds immanent transcendence as its ideal, which does not impose an other-worldly standard but instead suggests human perfectibility. By invoking the notion of immanent transcendence, scholars caution us not to take European Christianity for granted and not to close our eyes to the array of alternative forms of religion. In addition to this theoretical debate, there have been other types of study on religious aspects of Confucianism. Anthropologists and historians have been studying practices of Confucian religious rituals in Chinese history. Rituals were a powerful method that rulers, throughout the dynasties, have employed to legitimize their rule. As with other rituals, imperial authorities patronized various rituals in the hope of attaining the support of their subjects. However, from its inception, Confucian rituals became complex interpretive arenas in which various social actors disputed, accommodated, negotiated, and rearticulated the Confucian orthodoxy according to their interests. Throughout the 20th century, mainland Chinese politicians and intellectuals often stigmatized Confucianism as the cause of China's downfall. However, Confucianism, which had been regarded as only a hindrance by the Communists, currently appears to be a resource with which to remake China.