Dr. Bin Song on the Meaning of Ru 儒 for Confucianism

Hello. I am Dr. Bin Song, a Ru scholar. I am an author and blog contributor at the Huffington Post.

This video’s topic is entitled: “The Meaning of Ru 儒.” Here are the guiding bullet points for you to understand the video.

1. What is Ruism?

(1) Simply put, Ruism refers to Confucianism. It is the most accurate and updated terminology to describe Confucianism.

(2) The term ‘Confucianism’ has an interesting history. In the middle of 16th century, Jesuit Christian Missionaries in China needed to come up with a name that referred to Kong Fu Zi, the venerated central teacher of Ruism. Those Jesuit Christian missionaries came up with “Confucius,” a Latinized version of Kong Fu Zi, which sounds very similar to the original Chinese. Interestingly enough, Kong Fu Zi is itself a venerated title the Chinese people gave to a great man named Kong Qiu (孔丘), and its shortened version is Kong Zi (孔子)

(3) However, in the middle of 19th century, following this Latinized naming trend of “Confucius,” Protestant Christians coined the term “Confucianism”. This was their attempt to describe the intellectual and social systems they encountered in China at the time. In turn, the people placed within these structures, the Protestant Christians called them “Confucians.” Unfortunately, this is problematic as with all things lost in translation.

(4) Internally, those Chinese intellectuals, scholar-officials, and other followers of “Confucius” did not name themselves “Confucians”. They referred to themselves as儒, Ru, and their tradition as 儒家、儒教、儒學 or 儒术.

Also, the meaning of Ru does not entirely revolve around Confucius. Ru has its own independent meanings, and the Ru school has many good reasons to use this particular term to identify themselves as I will explain shortly. Therefore, following this internal point of view of self-designation, the study of the Ru, should be called “Ruism,” instead of ‘Confucianism.’

2. The original meaning of Ru before Confucius. (In a Zhou Dynasty context about 1000 B.C. )

(1) Ru: professionals mastering ‘ritual’ (禮).

(2) Multiple meanings of 禮: social etiquette, religious ceremony (Tian-worship, funeral, etc.), civil ceremony (marriage, passage, etc.), political institutions, institution of laws and rules, technologies, etc. In a word, 禮 can be understood as ‘cultural codes’ or ‘civilizational codes’, speaking to the distinctiveness of human civilization.

(3) Multiple professionals of 儒: dancers, musician, diviners, shamans, ritual experts for religious and civil ceremonies, educators, doctors, etc.

(4) The division of Ru professionals in late Zhou period: the collapse of central authority of Zhou Dynasty lead to the decline and devision of Ru professionals. Some of them had to serve local warlords or ordinary households for gaining private profits.

3. The contribution of Confucius to the Ru legacy before him:

(1) To lay a deeper philosophical foundation of ‘Ritual’: Humanity or Humaneness (仁). Only when ‘ritual’ expresses sincere human feelings, and facilitates the creation of social harmony, it is good and should continue to be performed.

(2) To carefully compile, comment and explain the rich Ru classics (mainly six Classics) and therefore, lay a foundation for further development of the Ru tradition.

6.13子謂子夏曰:“女爲君子儒!無爲小人儒!” (《論語》)

Confucius tells his student Zi Xia: “You should be a noble Ru, rather than a petty Ru!”

4, The reason why Confucius’ followers named their own school as Ru.

(1) Confucius has no intention to name his school. He would like to be a transmitter, rather than an inventor.

(2) The time after Confucius was called the Warring-States Period. Intellectually, it is highly polemical. Other schools continued to attack Confucius’ followers, and referred to them as Ru; Confucius’ followers also refuted back, and referred to themselves as Ru. So, the Ru school, was actually ‘officially’ entitled in a highly polemical intellectual period when Confucius’ followers tried to identify themselves.


A famous Ru named Mengzi said, 'Those who are fleeing from the errors of Mo naturally turn to Yang, and those who are fleeing from the errors of Yang naturally turn to Ru. When they so turn, they should at once and simply be received. “


5, The meaning of Ru. It represents the ideal of the Ru teaching.

Through later commentaries in the Ru tradition for the aforementioned key verses and chapters thematatizing Ru, we know the following two meanings of Ru are warmly endorsed by followers in the Ru school. (extension and intension of concept)

(1) ‘Being soft’: people get ‘civilized’ through education, self-cultivation and a constant performance of ‘Ritual’ (cultural codes), which make them different from animals and non-human nature.

(2) ‘to moisten’: the purpose of creating and performing cultural codes is ‘dynamic harmony’, a co-thriving of all participants of human civilization continuous with nature.

(3) Ru, with these two meanings, can be used to describe a ‘learned and virtuous’ person who may have nothing to do with Kong Zi or the ‘Ruism’ school. But because of the grand ideal it represents, the character was adopted by the Ruism school to identify itself. This broad meaning of ‘Ru’ also speaks for the non-sectarian, and quintessentially humanistic spirit of Ru school.

6, Scholars who have noticed Confucianism as a misnomer: Julia Ching, Xinzhong Yao. Scholars that use ‘Ruism,’ ‘Ruists’ to replace ‘Confucianism’ or ‘Confucianists’ in their English academic writings: Bryan Van Norden, Robert Eno, Manyul Im and David Elstein.

7, A further discussion of the title ‘Ruism’ for the Ru school could be found at “Warp. Weft and Way” and the Facebook “Friends From Afar: A Confucianism Group” , which includes many references to academic resources.

Answers to friends’ questions:

(1) Ru, Pronunciation, 儒

(2) “I would clarify why to name this school ‘Confucian’ is completely wrong.” It is not completely wrong, because after all, Ru sometimes used 孔教, 孔門 to refer to their school in history. However, it is comparatively wrong, because first, quantitatively, 儒 is a more prevalent way for Ru’s self-identification, and second, the meaning of Ru doesn’t overlap the person of Kong Zi, and it is very important for us to understand this point in order to perceive the ideal and nature of the Ru school. In other words, knowing how the Ru tradition was self-identified as Ru will make beginning learners to understand more accurately both its history and its philosophy.

15:36 子曰:當仁,不讓於師。

Confucius said: if the cause of humaneness is at stake, do not yield to your teacher. (Analects, 15:36)

( To watch a Chinese version of this video, please click here. )

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