Should we use “Ruism” instead of “Confucianism”?

In a February 2016 blog post, Bin SONG makes a powerful case for switching from “Confucianism” to “Ruism.” This is not a brand-new idea; for instance, David Elstein has consistently used “Ruism,” including in his posts here at Warp, Weft, and Way, and Robert Eno advocated for such a practice in his 1990 book The Confucian Creation of Heaven (see here for relevant quote). Still, Bin Song raises some new arguments. To some degree, the things that Elstein, Eno, and Song are talking about may not be entirely the same: at least in the first instance, I take them to be referring to a modern philosophical movement, an ancient ritual-cum-philosophical movement, and a modern spiritual or religious movement of potential relevance in the contemporary US, respectively. (Admittedly, the application of these categories to Chinese practices can only be approximate; I just mean to gesture toward some possible distinctions.) Be this as it may, it may be that the arguments for using “Confucianism” in any of these contexts are weaker than many of us have assumed. What do you think: should we abandon the word “Confucianism”?

46 replies on “Should we use “Ruism” instead of “Confucianism”?”

  1. I’m a friend of Bin’s, and we share an interest in sharing Confucianism/Ruism with non-academics here in the West. Nevertheless, I held out for a very long time against the terms “Ru” and “Ruism.” For one thing, I argued, the term “Confucianism” already has some name recognition in the West. Sure, people might have a mistakenly narrow view of this thing called “Confucianism,” but at least they recognized it as an ancient Chinese something-or-other and it carried a sense of legitimacy.

    The word “Ru” on the other hand, tends to elicit either (a) blank stares, or (b) images of “Roo,” the character from “Winnie the Pooh”–neither of which fills folks with a sense of wonder and awe.

    Wouldn’t it be much easier to rehabilitate the term “Confucianism” than to build “Ru” from the ground up?

    Ultimately, what changed my mind had very little to do with the arguments Bin made in his Huffington Post article. Rather, as I became more deeply involved in learning, two things stood out to me: community and tradition.

    First, community. There are “Ru” all over the world, so why accept the label “Confucianism” here? If we want to connect with others who share some of the same values and goals, it makes little sense to choose such a radically different name from everyone else. (Though it certainly would be very American to do that. : )

    Second, tradition, which can be understood as a kind of community through time. Ruism certainly develops and changes, but why separate ourselves from the name accepted by so many great thinkers of the past? Just because it’s slightly more inconvenient?

  2. As I wrote to Bin: Western philosophy is frequently referred to as “footnotes to Plato,” but we don’t call it “Platonism”, because that would mislead people about its actual basis. “Confucianism” might be misleading for similar reasons.

    • Avery, I agree. In particular, the origin of Ruism went far beyond Confucius, although he is definitely a definitive figure. Confucius himself would be horrified if we call the tradition he transmitted as ‘Confucianism’.

  3. What a coincidence! I was just translating parting words
    Zhan Ruoshui wrote for a friend as part of a chapter on the two years Wang Yangming spent in Beijing after he had been recalled from Jiangxi, in the wake of Liu Jin’s dismemberment. When folks in his social circles discuss ru shi dao distinctions I decided to use Ruist they have in mind a tradition pre and post dating Confucius. Of course the
    Term has to be defined in context.

  4. The study of Chinese philosophy, as we know it, is a western pre-occupation. And we have come to know it mainly as Confucianism, Daoism, and – to some extent – Buddhism. Even the Chinese themselves, as religious devotees, accept identification as Confucianists, Daoists and Buddhists.

    Confucius was not a particular person but an image of an exemplary individual transmitting values of a tradition. What benefit accrues from changing his name to “Ru”?

    • When James Legge uses the name ‘Confucianism’ in late 19 century, he calls simultaneously Islam as ‘Muhammadism’ and Judaism as ‘Mosesism”. If you ask a muslim or a Jewish devotee whether he or she would like be called as such, the answer will be a definite ‘No’. Now, the world changed. If the other names have been changed, why not ‘Confucianism’?

    • Also, the benefit for the name-changing is huge. The minimal one is to urge people to understand the meaning of ‘Ru’. After this, a significant part of Ruist teaching will be spread. Second, because the radical anti-Ruist intellectual trend in early modern China, most of Chinese immigrants into America has no positive feeling about their own traditions. They can’t and are unwilling to teach ‘correct’ Ruism to westerners, and then some easily misunderstood and distorted version of Ruism will come back to China to continually exert its power. If we insist upon ‘rectifying the name’ for the tradition, this is a great chance for Westerners to rethink Ruism and then let the unjustified historical treatment of Ruism be rectified. I don’t say this from an ‘insider’ ‘s view. I say this from a scholarly view. If a tradition has been systematically misnomed and mistreated, why don’t we change it?

    • Although is there something especially pernicious about ‘Muhammadism’ and ‘Mosesism’ in that they imply these religions are focused on humans rather than God? If so, that doesn’t apply to the case of Ruism/Confucianism.

      It seems to me that the best argument for Ruism is that the tradition in question neither began nor ended with Confucius (or should I say Kongzi?). “Ruism” may suggest an on-going, developing tradition more than “Confucianism” does.

      This would, though, bring up the question of what to call Neo-Confucianism. There is no particularly satisfactory Chinese term that refers unambiguously, unproblematically, to the whole Song through Qing Confucian revival; I agree with Peter Bol and others that a foreign, analytic term is useful here. So…”Neo-Ruism”?

      Given that “New Confucianism” (or New Ruism) refers to a philosophical movement that began in the 20th century, and the Neo- / New distinction has never been very elegant, maybe this suggests we should choose a whole different term for the Song – Qing tradition. But I am not sure what a good one would be….

      I am unsure about all of this, and continue to be interested to hear other views and argument.

    • ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ means ‘surrender’. If you are a Muslim, you surrender yourself wholly to Allah. ‘Judaism’ originates from the name of the entire Isreali people, and thus, represents their consciousness of ‘chosen people’. I believe early Christian missionaries create these names in a more or less ‘random’ way. They haven’t yet fully understood the non-Christian religion, but have to name them in a more convenient and intuitive way.
      For ‘Neo-Confucianism’, this is definitely a problem. I use ‘Neo-Ruism’ or ‘Song-Ming Ruism’ instead. However, I am unsure about these terms.

    • Also, the logic behind Christian missionaries’ naming is that they try to find one figure in the named tradition who share the same status as what Jesus means to Christianity. In this way, that you call ‘Islam’ as ‘Muhammadism’ is actually a great ‘religious’ mistake for Muslims. Muhammad is a prophet, but not son of God. By the same token, we can’t think Confucius plays the same role in Ruism as what Jesus plays in Christianity. Ruism as a humanistic and rationalistic religion should avoid idolatry as much as it can according to its traditional teaching.

    • And yet if you spent time in the Middle East, it is far more likely you’d run into cultures and traditions based on the ‘hadith’ or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed and not the ‘Qur’an’ (supposedly divinely inspired). You can’t swing a dead cat in Saudi Arabia without having Mohammed quoted at you; indeed, it’s in the Hadith that Mohammed favored cats over dogs, so dog people beware! 😉 Mohammedism fits.

    • Thank you for your comment, J. For future comments, please assist us by abiding by our “first and last name” policy (see upper right on page, in bold). Cheers.

  5. I am actually happy with the term Confucianism because I am happy to be identified as a follower of Confucius who, according to Zhu Xi at least, epitomizes what the tradition (as a political theorist, I am actually uncomfortable with this term because it brings in a very strong sense of nationalism) stands for. For a religion that emphasizes personal exemplarity like Confucianism, why is it inappropriate for us to be identified by ourselves and others as Confucians, i.e., followers of our founding sage?

    Would we know what it means to be a true Ruist without Confucius the person? If the answer is no, then it seems to me that the term Confucianism does signify a tremendous deal about the religion itself.

    • When we follow Confucius, we Ruists follow a great teacher and his teaching, but not the ‘sheer existence’ of Confucius as a person. I definitely have tremendous devotional feeling towards Confucius. However, in order to correctly follow Confucius, we ought to follow his infinite ideal, to be Junzi-Ru, rather than his finite person.

    • From my own reading, Zhu Xi seems to think that Confucius is the perfect sage worthy of our complete devotion and emulation. Also see Tillman’s “Zhu Xi’s Prayers to the Spirit of Confucius and Claim to the Transmission of the Way.” Of course, we do not have to take Zhu Xi to be THE authority despite his tremendous influence. But if my reading of Zhu Xi were plausible, then Confucianism as a term could be defended from a towering Confucian’s perspective.

      On a more remote note, I am unsure if the dichotomy between infinite-finite (given its obvious Christian connotations) exists in the Ruist tradition.

      For full disclosure, I do not mind either way, Ruism or Confucianism.

  6. If there is no finite-infinite contrast in Ruism, humanity will be identical to ‘Tian’, and everybody can actually become a sage. However, there are verses in different Ruist classics to identify the difference between Tian and Sage, speaking vaguely to the Ruist consciousness of the finitude of human being and its contrasting infinite transcendent Tian. In the Xici of the Book of Changes, sage is depicted as someone who can’t get rid of anxiety and concern while Tian’s creativity is always effortless and without telos. This is one example. On the other hand, I believe Song-Ming Ruist conception of sage as a perfect human being who can fully manifest the creativity of is a deliberate reformulation of the Ruist tradition in response to the great deifying tendency of Mahayana Buddhism in China. Thus said, contemporary Ruists should follow more realistic teachings given by Mou Zongsan and Liu Shuxian, to claim the process of becoming a sage is endless, and thus humanity and Tian can be united, but never identical.

    • Sorry to have left out one word: ‘who can fully manifest the creativity of Tian’

    • I agree with you mostly. But I also think that realistic teachings of Mou and Liu, whom I DEEPLY respect, are their own innovations in response to European influences. (Prof. Angle makes this argument in his Progressive Confucianism book on Mou’s self-restriction. Liu himself admits that the Confucian Dao can no longer be the Truth in his lecture at Beijing University.) As such, if Zhu Xi, Mou, and Liu are all responding to foreign influences, then Mou and Liu’s teachings are not necessarily more authoritative than Zhu Xi.

      Indeed, if de-Christianization is the underlying motive for changing the name from Confucianism to Ruism, which seems to be the argument in your Huffington Post article, then I would actually go back to Zhu Xi because early Jesuits missionaries certainly do not think that 天人合一, which is a big theme among Song-Ming Ruists, is possible in any sense.

    • I believe tradition, scriptures and human reason are three great resources for us to correctly understand the tradition. I don’t think Zhu Xi’s standpoint is more authentic than Mou and Liu in the sense that they are all important masters in the tradition. However, according to human reason in general, which is definitely fallible and correctible, I back up Mou, Liu rather than Zhu Xi in this point. Also, if we pay attention to Confucius’ own teaching in the Anelacts, he never explicitly say he is a sage in any sense. In this way, we can back up our human reasoning with traditional and classical evidences. For the point of 天人合一, the way Christian missionaries think it is impossible is because they don’t understand 合一 meaning ‘unity’, rather than ‘identity’. They can’t understand the richly ‘mystical’ undercurrent in Ruism, and neither they appreciate an ontological endless creative act without an actor could be conceived as what is transcendent. Exactly because I want to get rid of the Christian influence, I don’t approve of Zhu Xi’s interpretation.

    • I see that we have very different interpretations of Zhu Xi, which seems to be the underlying difference here. But it was a stimulating discussion!

  7. 天人合一 implies “action without an actor”: the selfless state. Does this have relevance in a practical world?

    • The unity between Tian and Humanity means human beings could momentarily and partially realize the Ruist ideal of ‘Dynamic Harmony’ between human beings with all cosmic surrounding in particular occasions of life. For example, meditation, martial-art, calligraphy, all these traditional ritual performances could lead to the distinctively Ruist experience of ‘flow’ with everything else. However, the ideal can only be realized momentarily and partially, and thus, can never be realized fully. A ruist practitioner would continue to discipline, cultivate and practice so that he or she could expand this experience to other life areas: family, community, society, and even government, etc. For me, this ideal is highly relevant to modern society.

    • Modern society is dynamic and rejects tradition while Ruism is founded on the “old-fashioned” values of an ancient static culture. Could you explain what you meant when you said that “this (Ruist) ideal is highly relevant to modern society”?

    • The question you asked is the central concern of contemporary New Ruism. Although I may use my entire life to answer it, a preliminary reply may be good. First, the central commitment of Ruism is ‘sheng sheng’ (生生, birth birth), which means continuous creativity. Therefore, Ruism is an essentially progressive tradition, which can not only be adapted to modern society, but is able to correct its defects such as extreme and antagonistic individualism, spiritual disorder, eco-crisis, competitive international relationship, etc. More importantly, Ruism can be seen as a ‘meta-discourse’ guiding one how to make progress in different situations. There are many, many scholarship in this regard. However, the question you posed is indeed poking at the heart of contemporary Ruism. Now, Ruists need practice, as well as knowledge, to prove that the tradition is still relevant. Fortunately, I believe many friends in this forum are doing this, though not all, but still many of them are doing this.

  8. I don’t have a horse in this race (I’m sticking with “Confucianism,” but I won’t flip out if someone else says “Ruism”), but I do have to point out one issue that I don’t think has been addressed: the Chinese word ru 儒 can have non-philosophical/non-religious senses that don’t have much to do with Confucius or his teachings.
    I really don’t think such problems are shared by a term like “Christianity.” There are many contexts where ru doesn’t mean much more than “clerk.” For an evenhanded survey of this issue, I always recommend is Nicolas Zufferey’s To the Origins of Confucianism; Chen Lai 陳來 has written about this too. Certain other scholars have taken the point too far and deny that ru ever refers specifically to Confucius and his followers, but that’s clearly an overstatement.

    • Thanks, Prof. Goldin, this is indeed a new perspective. In my view, the fact that 儒 could have non-philosophical/non-religious sense speaks exactly to the ‘diffuse’ nature of Ruism as a philosophical/religious tradition in contrast with Abrahamic religions. That means the influence of the Ruist cultural-philosophical-religious bundle is so pervasive upon the Chinese social and ideological fabric that people wouldn’t even realize the elitist Ruist understanding of 儒 when they use the character in an ordinary way. This happens equally to many other concepts in Ruism, like Dao, Tian, Ren. People use it for granted common sense, without any clear consciousness of philosophical/religious affiliation. But the ultimate problem is still that ‘Confucianism’ is a western coinage, which runs counter to how ruist scholars traditionally identity their own tradition in contrast with other teachings such as Daoism and Buddhism. I definitely appreciate your recommendation. I will try to read Zufferey’s soon.

    • Yes, “Confucianism” is a Western coinage, but you have to be careful about that criterion, because if you decide that it’s enough to disqualify a term, then you also have to eliminate “philosophy,” “religion,” “ethics,” and any number of words that philosophers use every day. I’m not being facetious, because if you were to travel back in time and ask Confucius whether he thought his teachings constituted a philosophy or a religion (after explaining those concepts), I think his answer would be “neither.” (Of all the English words I can think of, “tradition” probably fits best. 述而不作.)

      My biggest concern with “Confucianism” is one that I’m sure you share: it’s not just a Western coinage, but a Western coinage with a distinct discursive purpose. It was a Jesuit invention designed to convince a skeptical European Christian readership that Chinese sources contained teachings comparable to those of the New Testament. And THAT is a serious falsification, even if a well-intended one.

    • Thanks for sharing further your thought, Prof. Goldin. The biggest concern you have is exactly mine. Besides, I am further concerned, even anxious about that fact that since many scholars have noticed this issue, they know ‘Confucianism’ is a misnomer, why do we still continue to use it? The only viable answer for me is that many scholars actually don’t care much about the ‘intrinsic’ or ‘subjective’ value of a term even when it is used to name a tradition. But this is very unfair to a philosophical/religious insider. In the study of comparative religion, there is a principle that through the objective description of a tradition, an insider should recognize him or herself. This is for the purposes of both academic accuracy and basic respect towards religious practitioners. Although Ruism doesn’t so emphasize the boundary between insiders and outsiders as Abrahamic religion, we have to acknowledge that some people could be very devotional to this tradition and that we, as philosophical/religious scholars, have to take their devotional feelings seriously. For me, since westerners could change ‘Muhammadism’ to ‘Islam’, and ‘Mosesism’ to “Judaism’ finally, why don’t we do the same thing to Ruism?
      For your concern that even ‘philosophy’, ‘religion’ doesn’t fit Ruism, I think these terms are on a different discursive level. Now, comparative philosophy/religion and inter-cultural communication are now continuously unfolding. As a consequence, these terms can be treated as ‘vague enough to allow different specifications in different traditions, and thus, we can still use these terms without bringing too much biases if we are alert to both the specificity and the commutability of compared traditions. However, ‘Confucianism’ is totally a different case. It has nothing at all to be qualified as a ‘vague’ term. It is so definite, and so distorting from a philosophical/religious insiders’ point of view. I don’t think we should show the same degree of tolerance to all of these cases.

    • I’ve been wondering about the relation between e.g. Confucius’ “述而不作” and the claim that “the central commitment of Ruism is ‘sheng sheng’ (生生, birth birth), which means continuous creativity.”

    • Continuous creativity is an organic type of creativity, maintaining a subtle balance between inheritance of the old and breaking-through of the novelty. In this regard, the humble word, 述而不作, said by Confucius is a perfect example of how ‘continuous creativity’ was conceived and executed in his case. Actually, Confucius 作 a lot. He inherits a rich legacy of Zhou rituals, modifies it according to its practicability in his time, and most importantly, grounds it upon his moral philosophy centering upon the concept of ‘humaneness’ (仁). If this is not creativity, I don’t know who is the decisive founder of the Ruist tradition.

    • OK … I find it hard to have a view about how innovative Confucius was, because I don’t know – I think we don’t know – very much about his antecedents and contemporaries. I thought part of the reason for using “Ruism” was the thought that Confucius was not the founder, or not quite?

      I don’t have a problem with using Ruism rather than Confucianism – or Ru rather than Confucian. I use both, for different things maybe – I’m not sure which I have used more often in recent years, when it’s just up to me. My longstanding worry about “Confucianism/”Confucian” has been that it looks like it’s supposed to be the name of a cluster of doctrines or views, but there is immense disagreement about what the main views (or practices) would be. (Way more disagreement than there is even over “Christianity”?) With “Ruism” considered as a name for something potentially alive in the U.S. today, I feel even more at sea, if that is possible. I worry that it approaches being up for grabs, meaningwise.

  9. I’m coming late to this discussion but I too agree that it is time to make the shift to Ruism or Ruxue or Rujiao, depending on the discipline. I think there is another consideration that has not yet been discussed here. The term Confucianism, albeit a westernized term, has some negative connotations in China and now even in America. It has not been that long since there was a furor of protest over a prominently displayed statue of Kongzi in Beijing. I have been associated with one of the Confucius Instiutes (CI) both as an employee and a volunteer for a number of years. I have long questioned why the Chinese govt. wanted to conscript the term Confucius for an institution which really has nothing to do with Kongzi at all. The CI as I know them have a primary function of teaching language and sharing a little culture. rarely do they touch on issues of philosophy or ethics. In recent years there have been several controversies with various CI in the US and in Europe. In my opinion it is not a bad choice to choose a term that can only be associated with self-cultivation and humaneness and distances those of us who identify as Ruists from any possible implied connection with the CI. Of course those who are knowledgeable would always associate Ruism with Kongzi and his teachings, but perhaps it is time to re-identify ourselves as we seek ways to apply Ru to our modern society.

    • Thanks, Pam! Another benefit for the switch ‘Confucianism’ to Ruism is that actually Ruism can cover 儒学, 儒家 and 儒教. In this way, any one who understands Ruism either as a philosophy, a religion, or a cultural cluster can find resonance in this term. This benefit doesn’t happen to either ‘Confucianism’ or its Chinese correspondents. By the way, I definitely agree that CI is loaded with guidelines that are at least non-Ruist, but at most anti-Ruist, so contemporary Ruists ought to try their best to promote Ruism in a correct way.

    • I always assumed the name CI was in imitation of Germany’s “Goethe Institutes,” Goethe standing for everything good and nonthreatening about German culture. In that sense Confucius seems an apt enough choice. I don’t imagine the name CI has any effect on the connotation of “Confucianism,” but if it did, the main effect might come by way of the suggestion that Confucius, like Goethe, stands for everything good and nonthreatening about Chinese culture—perhaps a useful corrective against the pop image of him as one Yoda among others.

    • I’m all for the de-Yodafication of Confucius, but the CIs institute rules and restrictions that are decidedly anti-Ruist.

      To use your parallel, this would be like using the Goethe Institutes to promote the tenets of strict institutional Christianity.

  10. So here’s a concrete question, for anybody. Suppose Smith wants to learn to use the term “Ruism” correctly, as a name for something that might or might not exist in in the U.S. today.

    Are there things she can read that would give her that ability? Or, things she could read in conjunction with the instruction to take them (or certain things or people mentioned in them) as adequate paradigms of Ruism, for purposes of distinguishing correctly between what’s Ruist and what isn’t? If so, what are those things to read?

  11. I like that essay very much. Thank you.

    I think there might be some disagreement about the living room – it’s how mine would look if I lived alone; the image is instantly pleasing to me. That living room of mine would be unwelcoming to others and would encourage disorder in my mind. Here’s an alternate image:

    There might be lots of people around the world, past and present, who fit the whole description except that, like Confucius and those he might have identified as Ru, they have never read the Analects. I take it they are not Ru according to your understanding of the term. If they are Ru, the question arises whether it is true that the majority of Ru have read the Analects.

    • Thanks for the comments, Bill. The “living room” picture was my attempt at humor. (Though it does look a lot like my living room!)

      The intent of the essay was to lay out the broad outlines of Ruism for people new to the tradition, so it’s not going to have the kind of discriminatory precision that you seem to be looking for.

  12. Then my question is still on the table, for you and anybody.

    Of course any answer is going to be imperfect, and should be open to refinement.

    This one detail about having read the Analects seems to me to make a huge difference. Do we know there were no Ruists at all among Westerners before 1680, or might there have been a hundred thousand? In Western society today, are Ruists very scarce, or are they as common as rain?

    Another issue might be about family, one of the few doctrinal points you list. I suppose most people have always thought that family is important in itself and as a basic moral training ground, a training ground for love and respect. For my part I’m inclined to think that Confucius and even Youzi would have assigned family a far lesser degree of importance as a training ground than most scholars seem to think nowadays, and I suspect that Confucius assigned to parenting a far lesser degree of importance than most people assign to it nowadays. Perhaps what is more distinctive about Ruists is to stress family relations among adults?

    Another set of issues might be about government. For example, does a Ruist as such aspire to high political position?

    One difference between the term “Ruist” and the term “Confucian” could (if we let it) be this: if scholarship uncovers something surprising about what Confucius believed, that should change our mind about what it is to be a “Confucian” but not about what it is to be “Ruist.”

    • You ask some good questions, Bill, but I think we’ve drifted away from the point of the post. If you happen to be on Facebook, I’d love to continue the conversation in our group (Friends from Afar: A Confucianism Group).

    • It would indeed be a drift to address the side-question of the interpretive proposals about Confucius and Youzi.

      Drifting is the ritual here, I like to think …

      I’m not on Facebook, but I’ll post here on those interpretive issues, after a decent interval.

    • I mean, I’m not yet convinced that “Ruist” isn’t way too much up for grabs, meaningwise, except as a replacement label for the same conventional boxes into which we sort the dead masters.

  13. I came across this site by accident looking for material on Ruism for an assignment and was fascinated by the debate. I have to ask myself this. Does the label or title define the philosophy or is it the content? Its content is interpreted at the individual level which may or may not have a majority consensus and one simple study of philosophy will quickly show that whatever one man says another will disagree with. The titles of many philosophies originate from many sources, a name, a place, a book or a word or two. So who really owns the ‘correct’ definition? The originator or subsequent interpreters? Does changing the name actually succeed in ‘modernising’ a philosophy or does it just bend the definitions to suit a particular interpretation. One last question is why, when I try to print this page to read at leisure, does it print all black? I now have 12 pages of black letters on a black background and looking like the manual for a certain spaceship in “the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”.

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