Confucius: Cultural Sage, Philosopher, and Religious Figure

This important article both explains the growing significance of Confucius for today’s China and more than hints at a possibly abrasive confrontation with the rapidly-expanding Christian population.The author, who is an associate professor at the School of Philosophy of Renmin (People’s) University in Beijing, received his doctorate from the University of Hawaii, and specializes in Chinese and Comparative Philosophy. He thus speaks with the double authority of expert knowledge and a semi-official position.After rehearsing what is generally believed by Chinese about their greatest sage, including his teaching and his editing of what became the Classics, and observing that Confucius’ work “created the Confucian school of thought,” Prof. Wen launches into the topics announced in the title of the article.

Cultural Sage

Living during a time of great political and intellectual ferment, Confucius “carried out the mission of preserving and resurrecting” all that was best from China’s cultural heritage up to that time. Through his own life experience and reflection upon the relevance of the past to the present, Confucius essentially created a school of thought that “is a magnificent and uplifting doctrine, full of sagacity and addressing both the practical and spiritual components of a community.” “This so-called religion finally came to be an inextricable part of Chinese culture after many generations of Confucianists’ sustained efforts.”The focus of Confucian thinking is the dao (way) of culture. When he approved of a disciple who “not only cared for formal matters but also appreciated the many other joys of life,” Confucius was teaching his students “to be unworldly, which exemplifies the height of Confucian values.” In Wen’s opinion, “because Confucian philosophy uplifts the spirit in this way, it attracted much attention from generations of rulers in history and finally became the mainstream of Chinese culture.”

Philosopher: Family Reverence as the Root of Humanity

Confucianism holds that “the most fundamental relationship is between father and son,” so we should “cultivate one’s behavior into family reverence (xiao).” Such family reverence – often called filial piety – forms the foundation of all ethics, and leads to “compassion and respect for broader humanity.” As a political thinker, Confucius taught that filial piety formed the basis for a stable and moral society, as it would lead to proper respect to all in authority, including the ruler, as well as a sense of responsibility towards those under one’s care.Mere politeness, expressed in proper ritual observance, is not sufficient, however. One must also hold to moral considerations, based upon a cultivation of family ties and a sincere heart of respect and care for others. “Confucius founded his principles on the cultivation of one’s behavior, familial and social relationships, with the aim of preserving harmony.”We are then told that “the central theme of Confucius’ thought is ‘benevolence’ (ren) which originally refers to the mother-child relationship,” but then takes on the extended meaning of love, as the original intimate feeling between mother and child broadens out to other relationships. Mencius later developed this emotional sentiment into a “moral disposition towards the world.”How do we nurture benevolence? Through ritual propriety (li). Proper etiquette is not enough, however, for the moral considerations referred to above center upon genuine affection, while the ritual expression is secondary. “Thus was Confucius’ sharp and profound comprehension of the origin of human feelings.”The “exemplary person (junzi) mentioned in the Analects is a moral model or leader,” whose personal example, especially in the home, influences others to follow the pattern of his life. This, of course, is the basis of the Chinese preference for rule by moral men rather than rigid laws.Confucius “also introduced a method of ‘disciplining self and observing ritual propriety (keji fuli).’ One should understand that one’s selfish desire might affect others negatively,” “exercise restraint and follow the ritual proprieties.” He was quite confident that this sort of “gentlemanly conduct was within everyone’s reach.” Mencius would later state flatly that human nature is basically good.Of course, we should not only seek to cultivate our own virtue, but help others do the same, treating them as we would have them treat us.Though it was heavily criticized in the 20th century for being undemocratic, “many scholars have argued that it is possible for Confucianism to embrace modern democratic ideals of government based on the Confucian golden rule” – a point similar to the one that Daniel A. Bell made in China’s New Confucianism not long ago. Furthermore, as “Chinese cultural exchanges increase throughout the world” – largely through rapidly-proliferating the Confucius Institutes, “Confucian ideas are very likely to play a much more important role.

Religious Figure: From Nature to Human Life

Alert readers will have noticed that Prof. Wen referred to Confucianism as “this so-called religion” early in his article. From one standpoint, of course, the naturalistic humanism of Confucius does not make it a religion. Wen notes the Sage’s belief in “nature” which is his translation of tian, usually rendered as “Heaven.” He observed both the continuity and flux of nature, but did not seek to discuss, describe, or analyze it in detail, unlike Western thinkers.He also “avoided discussion of metaphysical or mystical questions; he seemed to feel there was enough in reality to absorb him.” He did not deny the existence of the gods, and taught reverence for them, expressed in ritual, but made human conduct, not relationships with deity, paramount. Nevertheless, “though Confucianism is not a religion in the strict sense, it functions as a kind of religion in the ordinary lives of Chinese people.” Confucius was even turned into a religious figure after the Han Dynasty, with temples built in his honor.And that brings us to the “confrontation” alluded to above. Wen notes that a protest was staged by Confucian scholars in December, 2010, “against a plan to build a Christian church in Confucius’ hometown, the heartland symbol of Chinese civilization.” This huge Gothic structure would overshadow the nearby Confucian temple, less than two miles away, and would hold about 3,000 people, “which is exactly the number of Confucius’ disciples.”Though they hope that “the Confucian spirit of harmony will spread all over the world,” and believe that “there is still lots of room in Confucianism to dialogue calmly and peacefully with Christianity, in China,” “Confucian scholars feel threatened by the soaring numbers of Christian converts and the potential conflict between Confucian and Christian values.”


One would have to be deaf not to hear that warning shot across the bow of the growing Christian church in China. Having identified Confucius as a “cultural sage,” and his hometown temple as “the heartland center of Chinese civilization,” Wen raises the stakes to the highest level: Will the Christians seek to displace Confucius and Confucianism, and thus radically re-define Chinese civilization? What would happen to the government’s comprehensive call for “harmonious society”? With Communism effectively sidelined as a viable “state orthodoxy,” the call for some sort of revived Confucianism has become increasingly insistent. Simply naming its “soft-power” centers around the world “Confucius Institutes” indicates the government’s awareness that it must identify itself as the guardian of Chinese culture in order to retain ideological legitimacy.We could comment on other interesting aspects of the article - such as the emphasis on what seems to be a “Daoist” carefree attitude of Confucius and the rather remarkable statement that he taught his disciples to be “unworldly,” as well as his re-casting of Confucius’s original statement to mirror the Golden Rule of Jesus – but the main point is that Wen is clearly nervous about the spread of Christianity among all strata of Chinese society, including many intellectuals, and announcing that a lunge by Christians for public prominence will provoke a strong reaction.Aside from re-thinking the obvious risk of provocatively erecting large church buildings in order to gain a “public presence,” a careful and respectful consideration of possible contact points between Confucianism and Christianity, without succumbing to compromise, would seem to be a high priority. Baby steps in that direction can be found at China Institute (

ReviewsJason Truell