Billioud on the "Confucian Revival"

Several of us have written a bit on the blog about manifestations of the “Confucian revival” underway in China. I want to call readers’ attention to an excellent recent article by Sébastien Billioud of the University of Paris, published in Oriens Extremus 49 (2010), called “Carrying the Confucian Torch to the Masses: The Challenge of Structuring the Confucian Revival in the People’s Republic of China” Here is an except from the first paragraph:

…To a large extent, the “return” of Confucianism in Mainland China after the iconoclastic Maoist episode took primarily the form of intellectual enterprises, and particularly of philosophical projects often of the most speculative kind. At the same time, however, the progressive broadening of the population’s “space of experience” translated into a related enlargement of its “horizon of expectation” and in so doing facilitated the return of a reference to Confucianism within the “space of the people.” After a quick introduction about the so-called popular “Confucian revival” that took place in Chinese society in the 2000s and that was characterized by the high fragmentation of a patchwork of extremely different activities, the article discusses the possibility of structuring a religious Confucianism. For that purpose, two cases are explored: Firstly, the reactivated dream of establishing a Confucian church; secondly, the possible return in Mainland China of Confucianism-inspired “redemptive societies” and jiaohua organizations….

Billioud goes on to discuss, first, several “ideal types” describing different motivations for popular participation in the “patchwork” of scattered activities associated with popular Confucianism in the 2000s; second, the idea of a unified Confucian church, focusing on the Confucian Academy (some information in English here) in Hong Kong and related activities on the mainland; and third, on “redemptive societies” and their possible future in China, focusing on Yiguandao and Yidan Xuetang. Billioud concludes, in part:

…The attitude of the authorities will of course be a crucial factor in the possible emergence of larger-scale organizations and in the definition of the type of “Confucian NGOs” authorized. Negotiating properly their role with the Party-State (both at the local and central levels) will be of utmost importance for these organizations. Moreover, if Confucian societies manage to develop in the years ahead, we will also probably observe some profound differences between them. The frequently encountered expression of a “Confucian revival” is indeed very problematic: not only does it point today to very different social phenomena, but it also artificially gives the impression of a community of worldviews among Confucian activists and sympathizers….

It is a rich and fascinating article, strongly recommended!

26 replies on “Billioud on the "Confucian Revival"”

  1. It is interesting to see when translations of Chinese terms can go in some weird directions: e.g. the mention of “a Confucian church” – not sure if there was “ever” a Confucian Church in Chinese history comparable to the hierarchical structure of Christian churches. There were many Confucian temples, of course, whose main purposes was to promote popular respect for Confucius as it hosted some periodical ceremonies…. but never as rigid and hierarchical an institutional as Christian churches…

    • Hi Huaiyu–Good to hear from you! I don’t think this is mainly an issue of translation, but rather of conscious innovation on the part of some Confucians in the 20th and 21st centuries. One aspect of this (not the only side of it) is a feeling that institutional innovation is necessary if Confucianism is to thrive in a competitive ecosystem involving the churches and clergy of other religions.

    • To elaborate a bit: in 1898, Kang Youwei explicitly proposed not only that Confucianism by named the “state religion (guojiao),” but also the establishment of a Confucian “church (jiaohui).” The contemporary advocate of Confucianism, Kang Xiaoguang, has explicitly advocated the establishment of a plurality of Confucian “churches (jiaotang).”

  2. The Kongjiaohui (established in 1912) actually developped quickly and opened around 130 local branches (the Hong Kong Confucian Academy stems therefrom). The model was really christianity (and it is therefore possible to speak about a church). The person in charge was Chen Huanzhang 陳煥章, a disciple of Kang Youwei. Some contemporary advocates of Confucianism now attempt to start again this enterprise (a point discussed in the paper).

  3. Thanks for the corrections, Steve and Sebastien!

    I recognize then that there has indeed been a trend to incorporate Christian institutions for Confucius use in modern China – how beneficial it would be is of course another question.

    For Kang Youwei – I am still not sure if the Jiaohui he intended to establish was of a Christian nature – that may well be a mistranslation also (It might just happen that modern scholars used the term Jiaohui to translate the word church) – for there were many different kinds of ancient academies and teaching organizations that Kang might have in mind that were more liberal and loosely structured than the Christian churches..

    For Chen Huanzhang and Kang Xiaoguang, yes, they appear to be adopting Christian institutional forms – the wisdom of this practice and its adaptability for the Chinese populace, who in my view have not been very favorable for strict hierachical organizations as Christian churches in history….

    • The way I see it, Christian institutions are actually surprisingly flexible, especially in their American incarnation.

      First, there are a plurality of denominations. If you don’t like one denomination, you can go to another.

      Second, it’s easy for anyone to start up his own congregation – Just find people who agree with you.

      I’m convinced that Kang Youwei and Tan Sitong’s vision was to restructure Confucianism based on Christianity. Tan Sitong’s Beiyou Fangxue Ji compared Christian and Confucian institutions and found in favour of the former.

      One can also compare Ye Dehui’s Yijiao Congbian. Ye Dehui felt that Kang Youwei was just creating another version of Christianity, and so was against this. (However, Ye Dehui also had no doubt that Confucianism was a religion. He just felt that Confucianism did not need to be reformed – It would naturally win out over Christianity.)

      The Indonesian Chinese Confucian Church, so far as I understand, uses the terms 牧师. Other established Confucian Churches, e.g. in Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc., also follow similar patterns.

      A personal anecdote – One time, I was planning on creating a Confucian congregation in Vancouver. I asked my friends to suggest an appropriate name. The title I originally came up with was 儒教社. My friends told me to use 儒教会 instead, because it was more explicitly religious – This way, people will know what we are about immediately.

      For another perspective, one may also reference historical and contemporary folk Confucian spirituality, such as the Taigu School (e.g. wandering preachers). The Japanese had similar ideas, too – For instance, Pureland Buddhism was restructured along the lines of Christianity when introduced to Hawaii and North America.

    • Also, one must keep in mind that the establishment of churches does not exclude other institutions – for instance, the master-disciple relationship.

    • Lastly, one must remember that late-Qing Confucian reformers were moved to action by the rapid expansion of Christianity. Although they disagreed with Christian tenets, they found the cause for its success partly in its institutions.

      Since the Reform, Christianity has once again gained a foothold in China. In my view, therefore, it’s difficult to maintain that the Chinese populace is not favourable for hierarchical organisations like Christian churches. A more reasonable objection would be whether many people would be interested in joining Confucian churches.

  4. Many thanks for your generous clarification and explication, Justice&Mercy.

    I take your points. I agree that Kang and Chen might want to take the Christian institution as one of their models – as the later was more effective and efficient in exercising social and political influences. However, when one examines the concrete transactions of the Kong Jiaohui that Kang Youwei (and Chen Huanzhang) operated in the early 20th century, it is more like a “social association” than a strict religious institution. (that is to say, e.g. the leadership and organization is based on moral personality than religious authority).

    Yes, Christian Institutions are much more flexible and open these days – but I take that as a good “reform” of the more orthodoxy way of operation in history – and in so doing it becomes more like the social associations in the Chinese sense than the other way around.

    *** INteresting point on Jiao-hui vs. Jiao-She: In my view, the word “Hui” may best be translated as “association,” despite the common translation of “church” as “jiaohui.” The word “she” on the other hand, refers to the altar for the gods of land and grains, and is thus carries a more spiritual implications – though in common usage, it may refer also to social communions now.

    Whether the Confucian congregations were aware of the original meanings of these words when changing the names from “jiao-she” to Jiao-hui”, of course, is another question…

    • Interesting point about jiaoshe and jiaohui. My intuition told me to go with jiaoshe. Thank you – I’ll keep this mind in the future.

      I wonder what you mean by “moral personality” vs. “religious authority”? Except for the Catholic Church, hasn’t American Christianity always been loosely organised? (The preacher’s authority stems from his knowledge of the Bible and associated theology rather than ordination.)

      I’m also interested in your understanding of Kang Youwei’s Kong Jiaohui. What do you mean by “social association”? Kang Youwei personally believed that Confucius was the incarnation of the Black Emperor – I would be surprised if his organisations did not stipulate religious creeds. (I remember reading about Zhang Taiyan’s complaint against Kang Youwei’s disciples. Apparently, when Zhang Taiyan denied the view that Confucius was an uncrowned King, some of Kang Youwei’s disciples wanted to fight him physically.)

      Sorry for taking this conversation on this tangent. I’m always interested in new information on these matters, in case they come in handy later on.

  5. Thanks for your nice comments and questions, Justice&Mercy. Seems that you have done quite deep investigations on this issue and know much better than I do for the contexts of these events.

    My two cents:

    1) the kind of physical assaults by Kang’s disciples you mentioned are precisely the concerns one should have about establishing Confucianism after the model of Christian church – it provoke a kind of sectarian commitment that is in utter contradiction to Confucius’ own teachings (see Analects, 15:22,you may be interested in reading a fairer narrative on the role of Confucius as the emperor/leader of the DAO-Tong to be found in Fei Xiaotong, China’s Gentry, Ch. 1 &2:

    2) For the contrast between religious authority and moral personality, one can say that in Confucianism, even in the kind of Kong Jiaohui that Kang is promoting, divine sanction does not play a fundamental role – there is also no such kind of spiritual reward of “heaven” after death for Confucian followers that serves as the primary lure for Christians…

    • Interesting reference to Fei Xiaotong. Some of my friends have also recommended me to read it. I’ll definitely keep it in mind.

      With regard to sectarianism, it seems to me that Confucianism was rife with sectarianism since the beginning – e.g. Mencius vs. Xunzi.

      A few days ago, I was reading an essay on the use of the term 异端 in 王门后学. Apparently, 异端 did not refer to 佛老 in 王门后学. Instead, it referred to 程朱理学. Even though 王门后学 regarded 心学 as superior to 佛老, it saw 佛老 as closer to itself than 程朱理学.

      Other sectarian conflicts include 今文经学 vs. 古文经学, 汉学 vs. 宋学, 道学 vs. 蜀学 vs. 新学, 维新派 vs. 守旧党, etc.

      In my view, it’s impossible not to be sectarian if one is a Confucian. Different traditions make mutually-exclusive claims. For instance, is human nature good or evil? It can’t be both. Even if it were both, that would be another truth claim.

      I do not see Analects 15:22 as precluding sectarian commitment. Analects 15:22 seems to be more about (1) being able to see a person’s good points even if you disagree with his words, and (2) not letting a person’s character bias you with regard to his words.

      On the other hand, Mencius was not afraid to criticise extensively what he saw as wrong views. This illustrates, in my opinion, the level of commitment a Confucian should have to what he believes to be right.

    • With regard to “heaven”, I would suggest that many historical Confucians believed in heaven as a possible afterlife – e.g. 祖宗在天之灵. (In fact, most historical Confucians – according to a study I read a while ago.) Generally speaking, it’s the 宋明理学 fundamentalists who rejected the idea of heaven. Other Confucians saw folk beliefs as a natural extension of 儒教.

      黄宗羲’s 破邪论 has some relevant passages. (I don’t agree with much of it, though.)

      The following is copied from an internet dictionary (zdic):

      “文王陟降,在帝左右。” 朱熹集传:“盖以文王之神在天,一升一降,无时不在上帝之左右,是以子孙蒙其福泽,而君有天下也。”

      As can be seen, even 朱熹, who was unduly influenced by rationalism in my view, agreed that the Classics taught heaven as a possible afterlife.

      What actually happened with 朱熹 is this: 朱熹 believed, on the one hand, that the Classics were written by Sages and were always right. However, 朱熹 also believed in 二程’s “rationalism”. As a result, 朱熹’s teachings and personal beliefs were full of ambiguities. I remember reading in 朱子语类 someone asking 朱熹 whether heaven as an afterlife existed. 朱熹 replied, “It would not be entirely right to say it exist…It would also be wrong to say it does not exist. If it does not exist, then the Sages would not have talked about these things in the Classics.”

      The way I see it, Confucianism contains two layers. The first layer is what the Classics actually say (e.g. 四书五经). The second layer is philosophical explanations based on the Classics (e.g. 理学、心学).

      While the second layer has its uses, it’s important not to neglect the first layer. If one neglects the first layer, then it wouldn’t be Confucianism anymore.

      With regard to the first layer, there are teachings about 鬼神、上帝、天命、灾异、祭祀、占卜, etc. With regard to the second layer, there are teachings about 天人感应、修心养性.

      The problem with the public understanding of Confucianism post May-Fourth is: (a) 四书五经 were no longer read as a whole – People decided that the Analects represent the whole of Confucius’s teachings, without considering that Confucius was 述而不作, e.g. Confucius transmitted the Way of the Former Kings; and (b) the second layer was taught without a foundation in the first layer.

      That is okay – 夫子之设科也,往者不追,来者不距。苟以是心至,斯受之而已矣 – If a person fully applies the teachings of 四书 in his life, that’s good. If he only reads a chapter of the Analects and becomes inspired, that’s good, too.

      Also, I agree that there is an ambiguity inherent in Confucianism, such that it’s not clear whether it’s religion, culture, or philosophy. Some historical traditions are definitely religious, while others are less clearly so. However, it’s undeniable that Confucianism, both in terms of the Classics and historical traditions, contains certain deeply religious elements – e.g. Even 理学、心血’s 格物致知 is not something completely secular.

    • Lastly, it’s commonplace to say that in traditional societies, religion and philosophy were not separated. However, it’s also true that religion and morality were not separated.

      Actually, I wonder what a person in traditional China would have thought about this – e.g. Can a person be moral without religion? (How would we even phrase the question?)

      It seems to me, though, that it’s precisely in the realm of morality that Confucianism’s religious character becomes apparent. This is because mainstream Confucianism, whether 汉代儒学 or 宋明理学, has always believed that moral principles are built into the fabric of the universe. 宋儒, btw, believed in 天人合一 and 天人感应 just as much as 汉儒.

      (1) 王安石 was expelled from the Qufu Temple precisely because he said 天变不足畏.

      (2) 宋明理学 generally believed in the anthropocosmic vision – e.g. human and cosmos were reflections of each other. This can be found for instance in 陈淳’s 北溪字义.

      From a metaphysical standpoint, human and cosmos are the immanent reality. They reflect each other, because they derive from the same transcendent reality. Humans are born with an innate nature, which is perfectly good. Because of imperfect qi, however, this goodness cannot be made manifest…

      How can one speak of Confucian morality without reference to these concepts?

  6. Jucetice&Mercy – thank you for your open-minded responses and provocative thoughts. Apparently, you have raised many intriguing and controversial questions that I am afraid are beyond what my confined knowledge and vision may be able to answer satisfactorily in this limited space. Below are just a few crude thoughts of mine:

    1) Apparently we have different editions of Analects, for your version, maybe the passage I am referring to is 15.21 instead of 15.22 – that’s where Confucius says a gentleman is distinguished by his ability to harmonize with all kinds of people but not indulging in sectarian/partisan arguments/fights.

    2) You raised good and valid points on the different opinions within Confucianism. I tend to have a different understanding of the word “sectarian” though, which I take to mean “bigoted, parochial” adherence to one’s religious commitment. I trust most of the follows of different schools of Confucianism you summarized above still maintain a basis respect and interests in different opinions – and their final judgment on a controversial issue relies on open-minded/rational discourse or fundamental moral sentiments, rather than dogmatic and sacred decrees of some pre-established authorities.

    3) Your exposition on the importance of “heaven” for Confucianism is certainly relevant. But the exact meanings of “heaven (tian)” in classical texts is also one of the most controversial issues today. In my view, heaven for Confucius may mean nothing more than the propitious cycle of cosmic events (such as four seasons) that sponsored the lives of all beings. It would thus be deeply prejudiced to impose on Confucianism a personified God like the Christian Godhead who would “consciously” punish human beings who violated His Supreme and indubitable Doctrines.

    4) With regard to the openness of Confucianism and its open-minded reception and tolerance for other sects of thoughts, you may find interesting some preliminary studies I presented in my recent article for DAO: . Feel free to write to me to get a copy if you cannot get one easily via other means (

    • I believe my university library does allow access to your article. I’ll read it as soon as I can.

      With regard to your third point, I would like to clarify my position: The way I see it, the several different understandings of Tian are not contradictory. In fact, when one achieves a truly 豁然贯通 kind of understanding, they will all be seen to converge at the transcendent reality.

      (天、上帝、天理、道、太极 are in fact different aspects of the same thing – the transcendent reality. Because words can never truly represent the transcendent reality, all explanations thereof are merely provisional, e.g. 方便法 – useful in particular circumstances but misleading when taken too far.)

      I would also suggest that traditional Confucians (e.g. before May Fourth) generally shared this understanding. A few times I tried reading the works of New Confucians such as 牟宗三, where they said that certain segments of 诗经 and 尚书 were products of 三代’s 巫鬼文化 and therefore were superseded by Confucius’s own teachings. The way I see it – this approach is precisely one which traditional Confucians would not take. Instead, while a traditional Confucian would believe that some Classics are more important than others, all are authoritative because they were passed down by Sages. The only way to deny the authority of a passage is to prove that it is a forgery (in which case it would not have been passed down by Sages).

  7. Thanks for your interests in my article, check the second half of the first section for the discussion that is relevant.
    It is an interesting insight to use the concept of “transcendental reality” as the underlying ground of such important words as taiji, tian, or dao. Revealing as it is, one may wonder whether this metaphysical line of interpretation might cover up more than it aims to disclose. There may at least be two major concerns.

    1) It ignores the “subjunctive/as if” mode of thinking with regard to the so-called “ultimate/transcendental reality” that was supposed to be a provisional ground for the Confucian moral teachings and institutions. (Check Seligman, Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity – for an insightful treatise on this position.

    2) It ignores a fundamentally different understanding of the occurrence of things and events in the human and natural world in the ancient Chinese mind – but just imposes a metaphysical paradigm of Western (Christian/Greek creative/causation model). You may be interesting in Mote, Intellectual Foundations of China, Ch. 2 for a helpful discussion on this difference.

    A quick note on the word “reality” derived from Latin res, meaning a “thing.” It reveals the Western mentality that the ground of all beings is a supreme being/thing (such as God) that is the first cause of all beings. It may be helpful to note that the primary meanings of such words as “taiji “ or dao refers precisely to “nothing” instead of a “thing.” (Cf. Laozi, Ch. 40). That is to say, for the Chinese there is no “ultimate/transcendental” reality – things just come and go out of a spontaneous mode of eventuation. Dao does not make thing, it let beings be.

    • My paradigm comes from Rene Guenon and other perennialist writers.

      Some people believe that western philosophy and Chinese philosophy are intrinsically different. After reading some perennialists, I’m convinced this is not so.

      (In fact, when some Confucian scholars came into contact with Islam during the Qing Dynasty, they reported that Islam was the religion closest to Confucianism. This was because the kind of Islam they came into contact with was not today’s salafism or wahhabism, but the theoretical gnosis derived from Ibn Arabi.)

      I disagree that Dao does not make things. What about 道生一,一生二,二生三,三生万物?

      Furthermore, isn’t the entire 理学 enterprise based on the view that there is such a thing as 天理, and isn’t 理 defined as logically preceding 气? What about 太极图说?

      I’m not sure what you’re trying to say with point (2).

    • Actually, with respect to Daodejing chp 40…

      First, it is not the only explanation of Dao. This, in fact, was the explanation opposed by Neo-Confucians.

      Second, 有生于无 does not detract from the existence of a transcendent reality – In this case, 无 would be the reality. Reality, in this context, refers to what is underlying.

  8. Aha, the perenialists!

    The perennial truth that is able to universalize the manifold versions of the ultimate reality – A supreme God who has many faces

    Or should we say – drawing upon the Chinese vocabulary:

    The Dao, which is unspeakable by itself, has yet many names such as Nothing, Being, God, or Heaven?

    But which of the formulas above (ie. dao vs. truth) should we adopt as the ultimate paradigm of truth (or dao)? Or does/should it matter which formula we choose?

    For one thing, I am not sure I know any significant work by Rene Guenon on Chinese thoughts, or do I miss something?

    Now if Heidegger is right to say that “language is the house of being,” and if it is important to study a tradition “in its own terms,” then the most revealing thing in studying a tradition is not to impose a pre-established paradigm, but to listen attentively to invocations and significations of such key words as “wu, wuji/taiji, and dao” that are still left in obscurity in modern scholarship.

    It would be interesting, e.g., to see if you can give a coherent and consistent interpretation of Laozi 40 & 42 (e.g. what do you take to the one, two, three?) by resorting to the Christian model of creation/making without contradicting the description of dao in other passages (e.g. that dao is not namable/determinable etc….)

    • Although Guenon ultimately became a Sufi, in his earlier life he had been a Daoist initiate. He wrote The Great Triad, which was an exposition of the Confucian and Daoist Classics.

      After reading The Great Triad, I came to believe that Rene had a far deeper understanding of the Confucian Classics than any Chinese post-May-Fourth writers. Other perennialist writers on the Chinese tradition include Toshihiku and Murata. Chittick also quote Tu Wei-Ming liberally in some of his works.

      I do not believe Jiang Qing has read perennialist writers. However, many of his ideas seem to parallel Guenon.

      Personally, I’m not familiar with Daoist philosophy. However, I have no doubt that traditional explanations of the Daodejing did not rely upon complicated explanations so fashionable nowadays. Traditional explanations, e.g. 想尔 and 河上公, taught that the Dao is the origin of all things.

      Below is the 河上公 explanation:


      The explanation for Chap 40, which I won’t copy below, posits that 有 refers to 天地, which depends upon 无. (无 is said to be 无, because it is 无形.) Rene Guenon said that 天地 should be interpreted metaphysically – e.g. the two poles of existence.

      As for the authority of 河上公, it has been repeatedly proven by Daoist Studies scholars in the West, such as Livia Kohn.

      One should not get too bogged up in the distinction between emanationism and creationism. Both are provisional truths which shed light on the nature of the universe and are based on the Classics.

    • Now, as for which paradigm should be used to describe Dao. The correct answer is – whichever paradigm has been left to us by tradition.

      I do not believe that Being, Nothing, God, Heaven all refer to the same thing. However, I know how traditional commentators understood these terms. This is what should be relied upon.

      It is permissible in some cases to come up with new explanations, but these experiences must be grounded either on direct experience or on tradition. This is not the case with many more fashionable writers today.

    • I haven’t made a full reply to your comments about “for the Chinese there is no “ultimate/transcendental” reality”, because I’m not particularly familiar with the Daoist tradition.

      Here, I will demonstrate however that you’re wrong – (1) with regard to the Chinese tradition, and (2) with regard even to modern scholarship.

      From Kohn, Early Chinese Mysticism, p. 61, explaining the Wang Bi commentary:

      “The one in the Daode jing is one aspect of the Tao, the germinal state of the world as it develops from the underlying ground. For Wang Bi, the One is the Tao; or rather the Tao is the One…

      “For Wang Bi, the Tao is not only the One. He also identifies it with original nonbeing and with the Great Ultimate. As such, the Tao is the clearly understood root and origin of the world. It relates to the world of being as silence does to language…Similarly, nonbeing lies beneath all being. It is its absence and yet more; it is its cause and its reason. As Wang Bi says in his commentary to the Daode jing…

      “Wang Bi thus establishes a definition of the relation between the Tao and the world. He describes them as the underlying basis and its surface effect. To clarify his point, he speaks of nonbeing and being, the root and the branches, substance and function…[Later authors] They speak of it as nonbeing and emptiness; they call it vague and obscure.”

      Furthermore, Kohn offers one excerpt from the Wang Bi Commentary:

      “All being originates from nonbeing. Therefore, the time before there were physical shapes and names is the beginning of the myriad beings. When shapes and names are there, [the Tao] raises them, educates them, adjusts them, and causes their end. It serves as their mother. The text means that the Tao produces and completes beings on the basis of the formless and the nameless. They are produced and completed but do not know how or why. Indeed, it is mysterious and again mysterious.”

      As one can see, the Dao, according to Wang Bi, is not only the ground of all being, but it creates and produces beings.

      I’m not sure which commentary you subscribe to, but if we’re talking about the “Chinese tradition”, then you should be able to verify your statements with respect to at least one traditional commentary. (Otherwise, we’re talking about modern academic scholarship rather than the “Chinese tradition”.)

      Previously, I quoted Heshang Gong rather than Wang Bi, because I regard Heshang Gong as more authoritative, with regard to both the Daoist faith and modern Daoist Studies. (Kohn has a nice book on how Wang Bi actually misunderstood some key Daoist concepts.)


      I previously stated that different concepts should be understood as aspects of the same thing. This you denied.

      (The reason I said different concepts should be understood as aspects of the same thing is because my Confucian teacher said so when I asked about this.)

      Later I thought about this – In fact, this is not really a theoretical problem, but something quite factual and provable with respect to the Chinese tradition.

      I quote from 北溪字义:





      I’m just randomly pulling out quotes from 北溪字义. There are so many quotes which prove this that I don’t even have to look for them.

      Personally, I believe that Zhuxi was wrong. In my view, Dao comes before Tian, Taiji, Shangdi and Li. I also believe that Wuji comes before Taiji. (I side with Zhou Dunyi, whom I believe Zhuxi misunderstood. This also has implications for correct ritual, of course.)

      However, there is no doubt that traditional Confucians understood different terms as describing the same thing in different contexts.

      Have you read any of the Neo-Confucians?


      With respect to how the Chinese tradition works, Kohn has a nice passage on p.6:

      “The Lao-Zhuang tradition is above all a textual phenomenon, identified mainly by the use of phrases from the ancient philosophers. At the same time, whenever an ancient expression or metaphor is used, the meaning of the original term is developed – continuing yet transforming the thought of the ancients. This primarily philological delimitation allows the inclusion of such radically different textual sources as philosophical commentaries and discourses, poetry, and meditation manuals into one tradition. All these texts share the same language; moreover, they take their clues from one another.”

      This process of elaboration and development – This is how the Chinese tradition actually works. The Chinese tradition is a commentarial tradition, with one commentary building upon another. (As a side feature, philosophical terminology cannot be captured in definitions the way modern western philosophy can. Instead, terms are defined in terms of each other (often as aspects of the same thing) and dependent upon context.)


      When I have time, I will elaborate on the above and then prove (2) – That your contention is wrong not only with respect to the Chinese tradition, but also in terms of modern scholarship.

    • I’ll be brief with my explanation of modern scholarship.

      With respect to modern scholarship, the Daodejing is not the original system of a lone philosophical genius in ancient China. Rather, the antecedents of the Daodejing can be found in texts such as Neiye from Guanzi. In particular, a tradition of cultivation was passed down around the Kingdom of Chu. This tradition at first consisted of disparate proverbs. Both Neiye and the Daodejing began as collections of such proverbs. However, Neiye is far clearer than the Daodejing as to the significance of the sayings – as a guide for cultivation.

      Only toward the end of the Warring States were the political sayings added on.

      Therefore, from the perspective of modern scholarship, the Daodejing as a system of “Chinese philosophy”, particularly as done by some analytical philosophers, is illegitimate.

      First, since the Daodejing was at first a collection of disparate proverbs, it was quite possible that different proverbs referred to different things by the same term. It is quite fruitless to search for a consistent definition of terms (as is done with analytical philosophy).

      This is in contrast to traditional philosophy, where the same term can emerge in different aspects depending on the context. While the Daodejing began as a collection of disparate proverbs, these proverbs came from the same tradition. Therefore, there is an intuitive coherence to them – which can be illuminated by the way of traditional commentaries but not analytical philosophy.

      Second, since the Daodejing was at first meant as a guide to cultivation (cf. Neiye), it is quite misleading to rework it into some kind of analytical philosophy and then asserting the product of such effort as the “original Laozi”.

      (This is in contrast to commentaries such as Wang Bi. Although Wang Bi is commonly thought to be a “philosophical commentary”, this kind of philosophy is organically connected with the original goals of the Daodejing.)

      To summarise, the type of modern scholarship which you advocate is illegitimate on two grounds: First, the original intent of the Daodejing was not “philosophy” – at least, not philosophy in the western analytical sense. Second, the Daodejing was not meant to be a system, especially not one formulated by a single person. Instead, its came from traditional proverbs.

      More information on the current state of Daoist Studies can be found in Russell Kirkland’s “Taoism: The Enduring Tradition”.

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