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The Role(s) of Confucianism In Society

Is Confucianism best represented as a political system or is Confucianism best described as a religious tradition?
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One of the questions central to the study of Confucius and Confucianism for decades of scholarship has been the nature of Confucian teachings. Simply put, is Confucianism political theory or a religious tradition? Any text on Asian political systems will talk at length of the centrality of Confucian teachings to the political ideologies of East and South East Asia, interpreting Confucianism as a historically dominant political ideology. In turn, any text introducing the religious traditions of Asia will include Confucianism, identifying it as one of the Three Religions (san-chiao) of China as well as a dominant religious tradition throughout the rest of East and South East Asia.

The question: Confucius is a minister of what? Is Confucianism best represented as a political system and Confucius as a minister of state? Or is Confucianism best described as a religious tradition and he as a minister of religion?

The answer: both!

To address the seeming contradiction that both roles are accurate descriptions, consider the context of the history of the tradition. In the pre-modern world, whether East or West, and to a large degree in the West even after the advent of the Enlightenment, the political state was a religious state. This phenomenon, referred to as "theocracy," had few exceptions historically: the phrase "divine right of kings" fits the bill.

The Chinese state is no different from its inception in the centuries before the Common Era until into the 20th century. The king or the emperor ruled by what was called the Mandate of Heaven, T'ien-ming. The ruler himself was called T'ien-tzu, Son of Heaven. The central focus of this divine or sacred kingship was T'ien, the word we translate as "Heaven."

First, a disclaimer: this translation of T'ien carries no connotation as a concept related to the Judeo-Christian belief in heaven as a salvational end to which one goes, or doesn't go(!), after death. The term T'ien means, simply and literally, "sky," the celestial sphere or "heavens" above us. In very early usage, however, the term carries the meaning of a "sky deity" or "god" -- a controlling figure over the world, portrayed often in rather theistic manner.

This concept of T'ien gives traditional Chinese thought a principle of "purpose," that is, order, design or a "maker" in literalist terminology, and thus, for the Chinese state, a source of religious authority. The king is said to rule as the Son of Heaven, by holding the Mandate of Heaven. His authority, political and religious, is vested in Heaven. Such a state is a theocracy, a religious state.

What is the relation of Confucius and the Confucian tradition to this ideology? By emphasizing the learning of the sages of antiquity, Confucius believed rulers ruled by the Mandate of Heaven. Confucius thus supported the theocratic nature of the Chinese state. More importantly, however, he supported the religious authority associated with T'ien as a principle of "purpose." Because of T'ien, the universe had a purpose and that purpose was exercised on behalf of the state.

For the Confucians, this "purpose" of Heaven was seen as a greater authority than the power of rulership itself. The ruler only ruled because of Heaven's Mandate, and the Mandate could be taken away. To hold the Mandate, the criterion was the moral conduct of the ruler. In Confucian thought, much is made of the distinction between a ruler, wang, a true ruler of moral worth, and a tyrant, pa, one who exercises power only for his own personal aggrandizement. In classic Confucian terminology the difference is drawn in ethical terms: the distinction of li, profit, and jen, goodness. The ruler that held the Mandate ruled with goodness and it was believed that he held the Mandate only so long as he ruled with that goodness. The emphasis remains for Confucians of all generations upon the ruler to exercise moral leadership. The status that is given to the nature of rulership as moral leadership in classical Confucian thought has often been compared to Plato's Republic and his ideal of the philosopher king. Perhaps a rather different perspective from our world today!

Thus far, we have addressed only the dynamic of Confucian thought within the matrix of the political state, suggesting the degree to which Confucianism is both political and religious. How do these teachings come around to the individual? Is the focus upon the individual a tutorial in state craftsmanship or is it something different and perhaps deeper in its capacity to hold religious meaning? Where it has been straightforward to see the religious underpinnings of Confucian ideology for the state, it has been more difficult to bring this same focus, the religious capacity of Confucian teachings, to the individual.

What then of Confucius? Is he simply a political figure trying rather unsuccessfully to attain a political voice, or is there a religious dimension to his teachings? If you read carefully Confucius' principle writing, the Lun-yü or Analects, you will find statements suggesting that Confucius' teaching provides a religious foundation not only for the state, but for the individual as well. When Confucius concludes his own autobiographical passage (Analects, II:4) with the statement that his life could be measured by the degree to which he came to accord with T'ien, Heaven, he is pointing in the direction of religion. Such a reference, later described as T'ien Tao, Way of Heaven, identifies a "purpose" brought to bear upon the individual, thus providing a basis for personal religious belief. But this line of thought will be continued in subsequent posts as we probe more deeply into Confucian teachings within the life of the individual. Stay tuned!