Request for Comments on the Dissemination of Confucianism

Professor Peimin Ni writes with an intriguing request:

A friend of mine works as a local policy making/consulting officer at Confucius’ hometown Qufu. I received a request from him, saying that he would like to get help from the international community of scholars in Chinese philosophy. He wants to know what we perceive as the current situation, problems, and difficulties in (1) disseminating Confucianism outside of China, and (2) the establishment and operation of Confucius Institutes in the world. He would also like to know that (3) on the basis of our assessment of these situations, what we recommend for promoting broader understanding of Chinese culture in the world, and (4) what particularly relevant material we would recommend him to read. Any idea or suggestion would be appreciated.

The call for help, I think, is a good sign that the local government is conscientious about the cultural heritage. It would be great if we can help, even if just offering him bits and pieces of information or opinions.

Anyone with comments or suggestions can post theme here as comments, and Peimin will collect them and summarize them for his friend (who does not read English). Alternatively, if you wish you can just write to Peimin directly. Of course, general discussion of the issues raised here (which may or may not be helpful to an official in Qufu) is also welcome.

11 replies on “Request for Comments on the Dissemination of Confucianism”

  1. I find that my students are very receptive to Confucianism. I try to treat Confucian ideas as live perspectives on contemporary challenges, and Confucian thinkers as active participants in a debate, whether that debate is primarily situated within the Chinese philosophical tradition, or includes Western voices as well. Students seem very willing to consider their views and study them seriously when presented this way, and it is not unusual for even students who have much more background in Western thought to find Confucian thinkers especially compelling, even more compelling on some issues than Western thinkers. Of course, to be able to both (a) understand the Confucian thinkers in their own terms, and (b) connect their ideas realistically with contemporary concerns, takes some work. I think the biggest challenge right now is a shortage of instructors who have the right background to be able to do this. The cultural and linguistic context is certainly a stretch for Westerners. Just as importantly, the scholarly concern to be careful about appreciating the uniqueness of Confucianism on its own terms and in its original cultural context can easily lead students to approach it as an exotic curiosity, rather than a live contender on the contemporary stage. Only once we see the similarities through the differences, and the differences through the similarities, do we really understand.

  2. The shortage of instructors, of course, will be hard to remedy without addressing the underrepresentation of Confucianism in high-profile philosophy graduate programs, a challenge that has been much discussed in the neighborhood of this blog. I do think it is important to approach Confucianism as philosophy, though, with real truth claims to be considered and weighed against competing claims, as a live option for us to be persuaded to. This is the natural approach in philosophy, but not the norm in, say, religious studies.

  3. When I taught the Analects and the Mencius in “World Religions” courses at the University of Central Arkansas, I found that the idea that Confucianism is a religion – not an idea I pushed, beyond what was necessary to enable me to teach the texts – was, for most of the students, a prima facie reason to refuse to take Confucianism seriously. My teaching stressed that Confucianism – and plenty of Buddhism – might well be perfectly compatible with Christianity.

    • You make a great point, Bill. I would add: Confucian moral philosophy is very compatible both with Christianity and with a completely humanistic, non-religious perspective on the world, and hence with both of the most common orientations of American college students. As young people are increasingly doubtful about organized religion, there is a real opportunity for Confucianism to help fill the vacuum. Personally I find Confucian thought both reinforces and enriches my own Christian perspective, while providing a powerful vocabulary to express many Christian moral aspirations (peace, justice, service, integrity . . .) in a manner that can be inviting both to religious and non-religious folks.

      I’ll add: the classical Confucians write in a way that is both morally serious and personally touching. In this way it can speak to the heart much more powerfully than many Western philosophical texts do. To draw on this power effectively, though, requires a professor and class who are willing to let the conversation take on that somewhat more personal and not merely academic tone–not necessarily typical of American philosophy departments.

  4. Actually I’m not sure I’d say now that “Confucianism” is compatible with “Christianity.” Neither term has any very definite sense or reference, I think.

    So here’s a question:

    What are the points on which “Confucianism” and “Christianity” might be thought, without utter implausibility, to conflict?

    This is a question one can explore without taking any position on whether the items proposed really are points of conflict: core, peripheral, or at all. For example, we can point to prima facie conflicts between versions of each C, quite aside from any claim about whether the versions are the correct versions.

    One potential conflict is in the importance of attention to the afterlife, or supramundane matters.

    Since each tradition arguably regards certain classics as being of core importance, another core conflict might be over which texts are the authoritative classics.

    What else?

  5. An item of Analects morality that struck several of my Arkansas students as especially unchristian – to my surprise – was the instruction, “Don’t have friends who are aren’t as good as you.” Jesus was thought to stand for a very different approach to life: associating with and loving even publicans and sinners.

    I think Jesus’ instruction and example on this matter was an important part of how the Christians in central Arkansas understood their faith, at least when I was there: 1997-8.

    It’s a poor area. Downtown Conway Arkansas was a dozen square blocks of mom and pop stores: I went downtown to walk those blocks one Saturday midafternoon soon after my arrival, to see what was there, and after a while a policeman stopped his car to ask me what I was doing. Aside from him I was about the only person downtown. A mile or two away was one of the earliest WalMarts. My students told me drug gangs were powerful in all the little towns: specifically the Crips and Bloods. Very traditional rules about sex were generally accepted and violated.

    The general practice of not having friends worse than oneself would involve evaluating people, and the Christian injunction against judging people was felt to be very important (even though in the Gospel it comes immediately before the injunction not to set one’s pearls before swine).

    (Of course, the Analects’ Confucius too speaks against evaluating people, or anyway against an excess of that; and he affirms the possibility and importance of learning from one’s inferiors in virtue, age, or rank.)

  6. Some “Christianity” stresses extreme humility. In the Gospels, Jesus washed a woman’s feet with his hair, and even offered himself to be eaten. “He who is last shall be first…”

    In the Confucian tradition, are there any rituals depicting reversal of status relations?

  7. Jesus on filial piety (NRSV):

    “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.” (Mt 23:9)

    “To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ (Lk 9:59f; similarly Mt 8:21f)

    “Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” (Lk 9:61f)

    “As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James … and John … in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” (Mt 4: 21f)

    “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Mt 18:29)

    “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Lk 18:29f)

    “He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” (Lk 14:12-14)

    “Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” (Lk 14:25,26)

    “‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
    For I have come to set a man against his father,
    and a daughter against her mother,
    and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
    and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
    Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’” (Mt 10:34-38, similarly Lk 12:49-53)

    “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mk 3:31-35; similarly Lk 8:19-21)

    “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’” (Lk 2:41-49)

    “Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ (Mk 6:4; similarly Lk 4:24)

    One reported incident stands opposed to those above, at Mt 15:1-7 (similarly Mk 7:9-13):

    “Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.’ He answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honour your father and your mother,” and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that whoever tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God”, then that person need not honour the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites!’”

  8. Here’s my own most direct reply to the OP’s question about hurdles.

    Most large American bookstores have an “Eastern Philosophy” or “Eastern Religion” section, focusing mostly on Buddhism, next on Islam and Hinduism and Daoism, maybe a book or two on the Yijing, and possibly one copy of the Analects. This section will be right next to, or will include as its main part, books on palm reading and on how the Martians built the Egyptian pyramids to predict the stock market and cure warts.

    There are two main kinds of “Confucianism” some Americans might have an opinion about:
    (1) earliest Confucianism (the Analects and maybe Mencius), and
    (2) the long tradition.


    A few American philosophy teachers are familiar with some Confucianism. I think most of these teachers are familiar mainly with the Analects, and maybe the Mencius. Some students encounter this material because it is sometimes taught in introductory-level philosophy courses, for two reasons.

    First, it is widely thought, especially by non-philosophers who influence funding, that philosophy departments should increase the cultural (and racial) diversity of what they teach.

    Second, in large part the Analects presents many fairly uncontroversial moral ideas in a homespun way without theory, and thus helps remind adolescents of their own views on these things.

    Such reminding is important because of the nature of Anglophone moral philosophy and philosophical teaching. We aim at explanation, justification, theory. For the world is full of moral disagreement, and full of change in the basic frameworks of life that morality tries to cope with. And we’re unsure of many things. So we need all the explanation, justification, theory that we can properly get. Now, Anglophone philosophers like to test moral theories against core points of supposedly pre-theoretical common sense (which we sometimes call “intuition”), and most early Confucian discourse is at a non- or pre-theoretical level.

    When you present theories to adolescents and ask them to evaluate the theories and present their own views, they tend to balk. The oversimple things that most adults say to keep authority over children have stopped working, and the teacher says the real philosophers disagree with each other. So the students are likely to tell themselves that morality is fake, and that they rightly don’t have any other moral views. The teacher may treat that line with respect, and it’s an effective defense against the frightening demand to articulate or defend anything more specific. Only, it’s not what the students really think. To teach the students properly, the teacher has to get them to recognize that they do have lots of moral views, however vague. A text like the Analects is very useful for that; it (sort of) articulates lots of moral views that the students are likely to share because the views are fairly obvious, and it does this without mentioning theory. It effectively encourages the students to exercise some moral judgment. (I’m not sure it would do that if we told them the text is authoritative.)

    But American philosophers’ enthusiasm for earliest Confucianism is limited. The main problem is the apparent vagueness of early Confucianism’s ideas, and in general its intellectual immaturity. People who teach introductory philosophy courses focus primarily on introducing a set of elementary tools for thinking, because (they tend to suppose) these tools are absolutely necessary for any kind of serious thinking. Confucius and Mencius seem to have possessed few or none of the tools the teachers focus on.

    The tools I have in mind include certain approaches to language and argument:
    which Anglophone philosophers see as valuable especially because they think the best thinking is collaborative:
    The main tools Western philosophy teachers try to impart are the norms and forms, habits and tastes, of friendly vigorous debate.


    The long Confucian tradition. Americans know little about this (and most are unaware that it differs from (1). Most people who think they know a little about it will tell you it’s mainly about obedience in (four or five of) the Five Relationships, supporting extreme patriarchal feudalism, and that it is therefore badly wrong on many of the basics of social organization and common human decency.

    I’ll try to make the point painfully vivid:

    In “Catholicism’s Curse,” a Jan. 26, 2013 Op-Ed column in the NY Times, Frank Bruni wrote:

    “It takes no particular sophistication about matters of mental health to intuit that a child molested by an adult — in these cases, by an adult who is supposed to be a moral exemplar and tutor, even a conduit to the divine — would be grievously damaged.”

    I gather footbinding is this: A small child’s own parents, or those they have set over her, break some of the bones she most often relies on, and then subject her to constant pain for years, for the acknowledged purpose of half-immobilizing her so as to make vivid to her and others throughout her life that she is a subordinate kind of creature. They do this because otherwise she would be defective merchandise, unwanted.

    Upon learning of this happening to one or two people you don’t know, I think, the natural human reaction would be immediate horror ( ). I think it takes sustained training and social support to develop and maintain the kind of character who would react differently.

    (As an aid to the philosophical imagination, I strongly recommend the brilliant video, available on YouTube, for the song “Prison Sex” by the band Tool. Watch with some imagination, because of course it’s not quite the same thing. )

    I am told that in a society in which there was a somewhat powerful educated elite that may fairly be called Confucian, this practice came in and was applied to half the people in their circles (the females), and the Confucians for centuries barely questioned it, but rather applied it in their own families, to their own children. The apparent implication is that the moral sensibility, moral understanding, and “family feeling” of most (and the leading) Confucians in those centuries were unnaturally broken, stunted, semifunctional.

    How is it possible for a human community to remain in that state for a significant period? Did Confucianism help generate the moral damage, or was it merely impotent to save human decency and “family feeling” from being swept aside by fashion? Either way, I submit that the problem was in part a failure of imagination: of how things are for others, and of how things could be different.

    Half a mile down another thread I wrote (answering the claim that “Confucian Role Ethics” emphasizes imagination vastly more than Aristotle did):

    “Imagination more properly so-called may be starved in a culture of permanent ascribed vertical relationships, because real imagination requires open discussion, logos, as its stimulus and soil. And it might require a sense of open possibilities, an outlook that is not fundamentally conservative. Imagination tends to require the sharing of power, e.g. taking turns. A permanent lord is unlikely to take up in imagination the point of view of his subordinates. Long-term power tends to corrupt one’s vision, as one relies for insight and feedback on people over whom one has power. … Conversely, permanent subordinates are everywhere good at seeing themselves through the eyes of their immediate superiors.”

    * * * *

    Now back to Jesus. His unconcern about the family, I think, came partly from his idea that the Day of Judgment was only a few years away.

    But I think the basic idea behind the anti-family passages is about the limits of the authority of human authorities (yes, I mean to put it that way). That’s an easy idea for someone who thinks he has access to God’s revealed truth. A very common assumption among American Christians is that the only source of moral knowledge is revelation. Indeed, one of the most striking themes in the Bible (old & new testaments) is the inevitability of human sin. You can’t take your eye off us humans for two minutes. Moral knowledge does not come through a person’s inner faculties.

    Atheist liberals don’t have revelation, but we have another authority superior to any individual’s authority over another individual: we have reason, the partly collaborative thinking process that depends on strongly guaranteed liberties, the rule of law, limited material inequality, etc.

    More generally, Western institutions of thinking generally aim to hold open, and honor and protect, the permanent possibility of radical rethinking, a radical break, the creation of the wholly new. So we value a certain amount of rebelliousness. That sensibility pervades Western culture. Insofar as Confucianism seems not to do that, Confucianism has a major PR problem in the West.

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