Prof. Albert Welter is looking to organize an AAR panel on Confucian Secularism. Please contact him if you are interested.
The influence of the Confucian tradition throughout East Asian societies has been vast and extensive. Its secular humanist perspective is typically acknowledged, as its inspiration for European enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, which helped to spawn secular traditions in the West. In spite of this commonly acknowledged perspective, there has been little discussion about what Confucian secularism actually is and what it actually means. Even basic questions — Is there a Confucian secularism? — fail to elicit uniform agreement. I invite proposals for a possible panel to explore various facets of Confucian tradition with an aim toward answering questions regarding whether or not Confucian traditions may be regarded as a species of secularism. If so, what is the nature/character of Confucian secularism? What if anything, distinguishes it from other types of secularism? I particularly welcome proposals that engage the question in relation to Confucian attitudes toward “religious” traditions, as the secular/religious dichotomy most dominates discussion about secularism. While Chinese sources and contexts understandably play a large role in any discussion regarding Confucian secularism, I also welcome perspectives that draw on Korean and Japanese sources and examples.
Albert Welter, PhD
Professor and Head, Department of East Asian Studies
Associate Director, School of International Languages, Literatures, and Cultures (SILLC)
University of Arizona
Learning Services Building #102
1512 First Street
Tucson, AZ 85721-0105
“Confucian secularism” is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the Emperor of China regarded by the Chinese as the Son of Heaven? Just because their focus is on human-nature does not make them humanistic in the western sense.
Secularism is a western ideology. The concept of religion as opposed to that of the nation state may seem clear. However, the doctrinal separation of “church” from state, in practical terms, is a different matter. Robert Bellah, in his essay “Civil Religion in America” had this to say:
“The Durkheimian notion that every group has a religious dimension, which would be seen as obvious in southern or eastern Asia, is foreign to us. This obscures the recognition of such dimensions in our society.”
Maybe the idea is that it’s possible to have a kind of Confucianism that does not insist on a Son of Heaven as an article of faith. Then the question would be whether that kind of Confucianism remains sufficiently Confucian to be called “Confucianism.” And lo and behold we have a discussion on our hands.
I was writing the following to hamida when Paul posted the above, which I’m inclined to agree with.
– – – – – –
Each of those points seems right to me except possibly the first.
The things that people call “Confucianism” in English are very diverse. I don’t myself have the sense that there is any good answer to the question “what is Confucianism really?” or even to “What does ‘Confucianism’ mean?” – and I’ve generally failed to elicit responses when I’ve asked questions like that in this forum, so I think it’s at least not easy to show which elements of the tradition a group has to have in order for it not to be a linguistic error to call them “Confucian.” So I would hesitate to insist that there can’t be a Confucianism that insists on separation of church and state. If there are such folks I’m curious to know on which side of the divide they put their Confucianism’s concerns (or whether they think it divides their “Confucianism” into two arenas).
Paul Goldin, in his book Confucianism, gives the following account (p. 5f):
My sense is that the word ‘secularism’ too is kind of fuzzy. The panel prospectus above seems actually to use the word as an abbreviation for ‘secular humanism’. These aren’t words I use, but quick on-line sources say that “secularism” is supposed to be the view that religion and politics should be kept separate, while “secular humanism” is supposed to be something very different.
I suppose both Western terms are normally used against the background of a conception of religion that involves a personal god who gives concrete instructions, and/or the adoption of a detailed set of views and practices while acknowledging their lack of rational support. Thus we might take ‘secular’ to indicate the rejection (at least on some level or for some purpose) precisely of religion in that sense of the word. And then ‘Confucian secularism’ needn’t be an oxymoron. Yes?
So, you are inclined to agree with Paul that if we remove the “Son of Heaven”, it might be ok. Sounds like biotechnology to modify an organism for specific use. Some people are quite happy chomping up and swallowing down genetically-modified corn. The corn- producers are happy too. What is the market that is being targeted by Professor Welter in his search for a secular form of Confucianism?
Based on your own doubts on what the original “organism” (i.e. Confucianism) actually is and Paul’s apprehension about the artificially-engineered mutant (Confucian secularism), I would have to say no to the final question in your response.
The Son of Heaven is the kingpin in China’s traditional cultural structure. He is the lynchpin that keeps the entire social enterprise in position and together. He is not just the head of state who can be dismissed, or a monarch who can be overthrown, or even an absolute ruler who can be assassinated. He is so much more than anything that can be imagined by the western mind. There was a time when he ruled China. It was a time when the chinaman did not regard his father as a dad that he could choose to either love or ditch. He was taught to venerate his forebears when they were alive and worship them when they were dead. He did not touch the lynchpin. He protected it with his life.
Today, the Chinese along with everyone else in the global digital network, see all that as backward cultural baggage and sentimental silliness. So, I am wondering why Professor Welter is intent on rummaging through that baggage to find a political model fit for the modern world.
hamida, you write,
I don’t understand what you are proposing, because I don’t understand your paraphrase of Paul. I think I understand Paul just fine, but I often disagree with your interpretations of your interlocutors. Can you clarify?
I don’t have the sense that “Confucianism” has the unity of a single organism or (as in your simile) a current species.
Neither Paul nor I have proposed modifying anything. We’ve proposed that there is actual or potential diversity within a fuzzy category.
In general, I think, academics setting up panels tend to be more interested in providing opportunities for interesting discussion than in selling any particular view. I don’t share your question’s assumption about the type or level of motives the man has.
Separately: I don’t see anything in the text of the proposal to support the idea that he is searching for a secular form of Confucianism. His text is quite consistent with the idea that his inclination is to challenge what he takes to be a widespread view that Confucianism in East Asia is in fact somehow “secular.” I think his text amply (and intentionally) fails to justify any conclusion about where his inclinations lie, but it suggests to me the latter more than the former.
As for what might attract Americans to the idea that in some sense Confucianism or some kind of Confucianism is “secular,” various things come to mind. One, certainly, is that in especially Christian regions and schools, a teacher can hope to get more of a hearing for Confucian ideas and texts if she presents Confucianism as not being “a religion,” hence as not necessarily an enemy of Christ. Another is that one might be attracted by certain aspects of Confucianism but disagree with others, and recognize the diversity of what has gone under that name.
“Based on X and Y, I would have to say Z.” – How would X and/or Y lean toward supporting Z? I’m not seeing it.
Perhaps what you mean is this: “Bill, in expressing ignorance you have recused yourself; and Paul has shown that something in him sides with me. So I don’t see anybody legitimately and wholeheartedly against my view here, so I’ll assert it. I’ll say No to the question.”
As for Paul, I didn’t see him expressing any such apprehension.
As for me, I didn’t grant that there is an organism (species) and express uncertainty or ignorance about what it is. I expressed skepticism about the idea that ‘Confucianism’ is a label sufficiently definite in application or meaning as to support the claim that “Confucian secularism” would be a contradiction in terms.
One of the arguments I gave for saying Yes was based not on disagreeing with your view that Confucianism is at once religious (in its way) and political, but rather on a reading of the word ‘secular’ that seemed to harmonize with your general points about Confucianism and about that word. To paraphrase, the idea was that in order to be “secular” something needn’t be irreligious in every sense; it might only have to do without certain features that Westerners specially associate with “religions” — personal gods, deliberate irrationalism. Welter’s mention of Confucianism’s significance for Voltaire suggests that this is the sort of thing Welter has in mind.
That is, insofar as Confucianism is anomalous for the Western category “religion,” it’s no more obvious that Confucianism is essentially “religious” than that Confucianism is essentially “non-religious” or “secular.”
I won’t accept the claim that some people lack by a long way the capacity to imagine the point under discussion.
(a) The question of degree.
That aside, let’s grant that the view you sketch is one important element of traditional Chinese culture. That doesn’t tell me that it’s the only old Chinese view, nor does it say anything at all about the relation between that view and the English label “Confucianism.” We can’t talk about whether any self-styled “Confucians” rejected the view, or whether it was peripheral for them; because there were no self-styled “Confucians” in old China.
Compare the following three arguments:
1. Although all the old Confucians thought the sun goes around the earth, so did everyone else in their milieu, so that doesn’t count as part of Confucianism.
2. Although all the old Confucians were very sexist, so was everyone else in their milieu, so that doesn’t count as part of Confucianism.
3. Although all the old Confucians regarded the emperor as the son of Heaven, so did everyone else (or many others) in their milieu, so that doesn’t count as part of Confucianism.
If we want to decide whether X is essential to old Confucianism, what matters is not just whether the people we take to be old “Confucians” all accepted X. A main thing that matters is how deeply the rest of what they distinctively accepted depends on X (and here what counts as “distinctive” depends partly on the current world, not just on old China). That’s a question of degree.
You address that specific question of degree, hamida, in two ways I think. (i) Your term ‘linchpin’ suggests the feudal diagram, in which all lines converge on one point, which convergence sort of looks like a picture of that one point’s necessity. (II) Separately, you point to the importance of filial piety (a core feature of Confucianism) and its analogy with feudal loyalty to an unchosen superior.
How essential is the idea that the emperor’s heavenly authority depends on there not being other emperors, independent emperors, in other places? Must the emperor be an only son – a 独生子? The stories one can tell about the nature and basis of the emperor’s authority can depend partly on there not being other emperors in other places, but that’s not the only basis, and there is surely room for disagreement about how sufficient, how adequate, is the rest of the story.
Now, even if we grant that some kind of “Confucianism” might be consistent with there being lots of neighboring sibling emperors or kings 王 – that is, even if we grant that the feudal diagram doesn’t lose its point if it loses its point of convergence – still, arguably, that doesn’t get to the religion question, because it doesn’t address the proposed role of Heaven in the kings’ authority. In other words: one might address Paul’s question by saying, “Even if there can be a ‘Confucianism’ that doesn’t demand a unique emperor, that doesn’t mean there can be a ‘Confucianism’ that doesn’t demand a son of Heaven as the head of government.”
Here are some dimensions on which different kinds of “Confucianism” might vary:
A. Where does “Heaven” fall on the scale between being a personal god and being impersonal nature?
B. To what extent is the proper heavenly authority of the emperor expressed by his playing an active role in government, rather than simply sitting facing south?
C. To what extent is the Heavenly authority of an emperor (when there’s a real one functioning as such) paralleled by the Heavenly authority of each person’s heart, in such a way as to make the emperor and indeed all government theoretically unnecessary?
The relevance here of A is plain.
The relevance of B here might be as follows: we might distinguish two kinds of state figure: one of them being like Queen Elizabeth, playing a symbolic (and, if you like, religious) role; the other making up the government that deals with (the other) political matters. One could thus see the ideal of the sedentary emperor as a kind of secularism.
The relevance of C is trickier. By itself it more easily suggests that some kind of “Confucianism” might dispense with the emperor, than that some kind of “Confucianism” might dispense with religion.
To (ii), the idea that filial piety encompassing ancestor worship is essential to Confucianism and essentially bound up with the religious character of state authority –
(I like to harp on the idea that LY 1.2 expresses a view Confucius himself never held (see my paper in PEW 58.4). I think the organization of the Analects gives a false impression of Confucius’ idea of the relative importance of filial piety among the virtues. This is part of why I’m personally not attracted by the idea that “Confucianism” can be defined by reference to the views of Confucius.)
We might divide (ii) into two separate points. (一)One refers specifically to ancestor “worship” as prima facie religious. If an ancestor religion is essential to Confucianism, then religion is essential to Confucianism, quite apart from the emperor. (二)The other stresses that Confucianism revolves around the idea of utter devotion to unchosen superiors. Filial piety toward (living) parents is a salient example, but clearly the political view it harmonizes with is extreme feudalism.
Argument (二) argues that Confucianism essentially has emperors or at least feudalism, but it doesn’t argue that Confucianism has to conceive their authority in connection with an even slightly personal god or anything supernatural. On Durkheimian principles of analogy one might infer from the general social structure that the Chinese must have believed in a very personal father god, but that’s not how it was.
As for argument (一), well, I’m ignorant on some key points. Ancestor worship doesn’t have a prominent role in the Analects or the Mencius, and I’m not familiar with much else. I’m an ignoramus. I have no idea how far leading old Confucians stressed ceremonies of remembrance, respect, and even support for the dead – all of which seems to me to fall short of what I’d call worship.
(… except in a very weak sense that I might use in some kinds of quick anthropological classification, where the question isn’t so much “how religious?” as “what kinds of practices involving the supposed supernatural?” If your tribe believes in spirits of the dead, and believes that the main opportunity for interacting with them is in (through professional mediums) buying them the occasional lunch or betting with them on football games, I wouldn’t call that religion or worship; but if it’s the closest thing your tribe has to organized religion I might mention it in my taxonomy of tribal religions.)
Confucius seems to suggest that it’s OK to depart from the dao of one’s father after just a few years. That doesn’t sound like worship to me.
People like to distinguish between Daoism the religion and Daoism the philosophy. That’s simple; but it’s not a violation of linguistic rules for proper names or Ism names. We might similarly try to distinguish between Confucianism the cultural or sociological pattern, Confucianism the philosophy, Confucianism the tradition of masters, etc.
Paul, in his five-point definition (with which I disagree), seems to aim specifically at characterizing Confucianism The Philosophy without prejudicing the other possible topics or names. Obviously Welter isn’t using “Confucianism” in a way that simply abstracts away from religious issues. But my point is that here’s one kind of way in which “Confucianism” isn’t necessarily simply the name of a single object.
I don’t know what they do in the AAR.
A sociologist or historian would presumably aim to approach “Confucianism” as an object to be described and explained, and would have little motivation to look away from the naughty bits. A philosopher as such will tend to take a different approach. She’ll think Confucianism is worth discussing insofar as it is a live option, a live view: that is, conceivably worth adopting, or actually accepted by many (even if she thinks it’s obviously wrong). Or she might think it’s worth discussing insofar as it is an important predecessor to live views, so that studying Confucianism is especially helpful as preparation toward addressing the live views.
Certain aspects of the Confucian tradition are not live, as you point out. But the Confucian tradition is full of variety and internal disagreement, so it’s common sense to suppose that there are different kinds of Confucianism, and it’s good sense to be interested in which of them is most defensible, and to give most of one’s attention to those, even if they aren’t a representative sample of the ancient tradition that lies behind them.
When discussing the oxymoron claim, unlike Welter I didn’t mean to be limiting what I count as “Confucianism” to kinds that are mainly found in East Asia. Such a limitation, I think, would tend to reflect a sociological rather than a philosophical approach.
Thanks Bill for your response. I would like to review your paper (Bill said: see my paper in PEW 58.4). How do I access it as well as any other material of yours on Confucianism? Your comments compel me to “sit up” and address them with utmost care.
Hi hamida, if you send me an email I can help. I’m at hainesw, then two eights, through gmail.
That could be misleading. I don’t mean to deny that we’re talking about the possibility of describing kinds of Confucianism that haven’t been described or held before (though this isn’t what Welter is talking about).
A triangle is a kind of shape. I can describe a kind of triangle – a ratio of sides – that hasn’t ever been described before. That doesn’t mean I’m modifying something.
The term ‘Confucianism’ is arguably relevantly disanalogous to the term ‘triangle’. We have a definite idea what it is to be a triangle, independent of particular examples. It’s not so clear that we have an idea what it is to be a kind of Confucianism, beyond a mere list of examples.
Granted, there’s no sharp border to what counts as “Confucianism” – but that doesn’t mean there can’t be novel views that fall well within the range.
Part of what counts toward something’s being a kind of “Confucianism” is that it has some historical connection to a certain tradition. While it’s possible (I’d say probable) that people in the galaxy of Andromeda hold various kinds of Rule Utilitarianism we haven’t thought of, it’s not possible that any of them hold any kind of Confucianism. You don’t get to just make up a view and have it be a kind of Confucianism, however similar it might be to the old stuff in the abstract.
I think there have been Americans who, inspired by the tradition, offer their own versions and call them kinds of Confucianism. Robert Neville might be one. Tu Weiming might be another. (I haven’t paid much attention.) What kind of connection to the historical tradition is necessary, for something to count as a kind of “Confucianism”? Must it have lots of followers (so that it’s not a kind of Confucianism at first)? Must there be at least one person who accepts it and aims to practice it?
Further: if we’re talking about describing a Confucianism that is just like what some old master Xzi held except that it is missing four elements, then arguably this view was held by Xzi (who also held the four further things). Not everything Xzi believed should be counted as parts of his Confucianism (as Paul points out when discussing sexism); and since Confucianism as a label for a kind of view is vague, it may be fair to say of any number of selections from Xzi’s views that they are kinds of Confucianism that he held.
Of course none of this is very interesting because none of it addresses the questions: How essential to the rest of Confucianism is the idea that the emperor is the Son of Heaven? How central are other religious aspects?
Some potentially relevant previous material at WW&W:
What is Confucianism
Confucianism and “religion”
Bill, as each of us does not hold the same worldview and perception of reality, it would not be possible to find connection points in our respective visions to reach a consensus. The best we can do is articulate our beliefs even if we cannot share them.
“Chinese thought”, expounded as Chinese philosophy by intellectuals of academia, is an imagination that is thoroughly western in substance and form. What if this claim is categorically denied? Then, in accord with western tradition, both the claim as well as the denial must be supported by argument to prove which one is true. The approach of Chinese thought (as opposed to Chinese philosophy) to conflict resolution, however, is non-existent. There is no debate – you either get it or you don’t.
The use of reason to sort things out and arrange them in a logical fashion is the western way. If the proof yields a coherent and sensible picture, then it is acceptable; otherwise, it is not. And this is exactly the manner in which Chinese thought was made sensible through a western prism in the 16th Century by Jesuits who first laid hands on the classical literature of ancient China. Using reason, they perceived Chinese thought as backward, empirical folk wisdom that lacked abstraction and yielded none of the intellectual justification of western philosophy. Chinese thought of the original kind still exists today but it is not the sophisticated sliced-and-diced stuff expounded on, written about, and taught at Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne. And neither is it the grandiose superstitions of Chinese spiritualists and insidious machinations of Chinese intellectuals on both sides of the political divide: namely, those in power and the activists.
The use of Chinese thought, not its western trivialization or eastern corruption, is indispensable in the discussion of the Chinese Classics. It is, therefore, critical to be mindful that Chinese thought, in its true sense, is neither Chinese nor thought. Firstly, it has nothing to do with thinking (the tool of western philosophy and eastern chicanery); and lastly, being Chinese (as a person) has nothing to do with it. Fingarette was unwittingly pointing to the truth when he presented what he thought was secular as sacred.
Oops! I would have preferred sending the last post privately if I had seen your email address earlier. I value our discussion which cannot be meaningful without honesty.
(Comments can be removed upon request, usually. This goes for anyone. The only exceptions are among cases in which comment removal would render any subsequently built up discussion incoherent. So email me somewhat soon after a comment in order to request its removal. email@example.com)
Thanks Manyul. Now that I have posted what I have said, it behooves me to explain any perceived untenable biases in my post if called on the carpet to do so. Also, my comments do put in perspective the positions I take in discussion to fathom the cultural phenomenon of Confucianism.
Bill, I have gone through the previous WW&W material at the links you cited and have gotten up to speed on the pretty thorough brain-stormings on Confucianism by you, Manyul and others. With that, as well as, the comments in your last couple of posts in mind, I would like to address some of the things you said. This is one of them:
“As for what might attract Americans to the idea that in some sense Confucianism or some kind of Confucianism is “secular,” various things come to mind. One, certainly, is that in especially Christian regions and schools, a teacher can hope to get more of a hearing for Confucian ideas and texts if she presents Confucianism as not being “a religion,” hence as not necessarily an enemy of Christ. Another is that one might be attracted by certain aspects of Confucianism but disagree with others, and recognize the diversity of what has gone under that name.”
No other animals, except us, have shown signs of awareness of their existential predicament, not anymore than the trees, the mountains and the rivers have. Would teacher find it curious that instead of aligning with the American vision that people are alive and can think while rivers or mountains are not alive and trees cannot think, Chinese thought makes no distinction between Nature and man. While the western mind regards man, an ape-like specie, as a part of Nature, Chinese thought treats man as Nature itself .
Furthermore, while westerners (e.g. Emmanuel Kant) believe that only God is capable of knowing directly what reality is, the Chinese (e.g. Mou Zhongsan) believe that human beings are equally capable and that it is incumbent upon us all to attain that knowledge through self-transformation so as to bring Heaven on Earth (harmony).
Self-cultivation is predicated on the definition of the self. What am I? This is a central question in western philosophical inquiry. Yet, none of the Chinese Classics, including the Tao Te Ching, addresses the nature of the self.
Bill, this is another thing you said:
“Of course none of this is very interesting because none of it addresses the questions: How essential to the rest of Confucianism is the idea that the emperor is the Son of Heaven? How central are other religious aspects?”
My first impulse was to focus on “Confucianism” to pin down what exactly it is. Manyul (What is Confucianism
link to warpweftandway.com ) tried that but changed tack because he surmised “trying to answer the related question: ‘Who is a Confucian?’ is more fruitful”.
Why is it a “difficult issue” to figure out what Confucianism is? One reason could be the fact that while there is no ambiguity about being a Christian or a member of any other organized group, the poor minnow swimming upstream in a humongous shoal of like-minded souls for the last two thousand years never bothered to figure out what it was all about. And I don’t mean just the lowly peasant of imperial China. The state of ignorance ran all the way through the scholar-officials right up to the Son of Heaven – in the embrace of three hundred concubines – facing south.
The guiding principles of traditional Chinese society are as explicit, and the workings of the Confucian state as regulated and documented, as America’s financial behemoths such as Citibank and Lehman Brothers. And yet all the boughs broke and the babies fell. So, how essential is the Son of Heaven? How central are the other religious aspects? I don’t think Americans would care to wait two thousand years to find out. This is why they limit the Son of Heaven to just two terms regardless of the spin.
My worry about this topic, by contrast, is the approach to understanding chinese thought, i.e., viewing Chinese thought with Western framework. If a choice be required, I will say that Confucianism is not religous, but secular in nature. So Confucian Secularism is simply Confucianism.
My comments (which also address Will’s point of view above) on one more thing Bill said:
“One of the arguments I gave for saying Yes was based not on disagreeing with your view that Confucianism is at once religious (in its way) and political, but rather on a reading of the word ‘secular’ that seemed to harmonize with your general points about Confucianism and about that word. To paraphrase, the idea was that in order to be “secular” something needn’t be irreligious in every sense; it might only have to do without certain features that Westerners specially associate with “religions” — personal gods, deliberate irrationalism. Welter’s mention of Confucianism’s significance for Voltaire suggests that this is the sort of thing Welter has in mind.
That is, insofar as Confucianism is anomalous for the Western category “religion,” it’s no more obvious that Confucianism is essentially “religious” than that Confucianism is essentially “non-religious” or “secular.” ”
Let’s, for a change, apply Chinese thought to the appraisal of western thinking and values instead of the other way round (i.e. western intellectuals continually making sense of Chinese peculiarities in thought and deed).
“Secular” in Chinese, to me, means “rejection of learning” (反教). This amounts to the renouncement of family, culture and country. This is just not doable. Not in China. Not anywhere. The western mind sees the world as a sum of discrete parts that can be re-arranged, replaced or removed to bring about a better world. And this is how it sees Confucianism through the kaleidoscopic looking glass.
I do not accept that the Welter project has no motives. I don’t mean either Professor Welter personally or his project directly. I am referring to the faceless movement to advance the legitimacy of secularism as a valid political ideology that has traceable “familial connections” to the holistic wisdom of ancient China.
“My sense is that the word ‘secularism’ too is kind of fuzzy. The panel prospectus above seems actually to use the word as an abbreviation for ‘secular humanism’. These aren’t words I use, but quick on-line sources say that “secularism” is supposed to be the view that religion and politics should be kept separate, while “secular humanism” is supposed to be something very different.
I suppose both Western terms are normally used against the background of a conception of religion that involves a personal god who gives concrete instructions, and/or the adoption of a detailed set of views and practices while acknowledging their lack of rational support. Thus we might take ‘secular’ to indicate the rejection (at least on some level or for some purpose) precisely of religion in that sense of the word. And then ‘Confucian secularism’ needn’t be an oxymoron. Yes?”
In order to communicate, it is necessary to enter a person’s belief system. Empathy is the key to connecting; and by empathy, I mean being in and sharing the same paradigm. Secularism, in the western experience, may mean nothing more than not taking seriously whatever the priest says and neutralizing his power over how we want to live our lives. In the Confucian tradition, secularism would necessitate giving up being Chinese. But then, we would be talking about Confucianism as the Chinese lived it. I suppose it is possible to give up a personal god: One moment, He is Lord and Savior; and the next, he is just a man dying on the cross. But how does one give up one’s father and mother? In comparison, Confucianism is, by far, a religion of great sophistication. It places the human experience at the center of worship.
Yes, “Confucian secularism” needn’t be an oxymoron if we are talking about western Confucianism (such as Boston Confucianism?) or “Confucian Christianity” even given the “portability” of the Chinese sage. This leads into your following observation:
“I think there have been Americans who, inspired by the tradition, offer their own versions and call them kinds of Confucianism. Robert Neville might be one. Tu Weiming might be another. (I haven’t paid much attention.) What kind of connection to the historical tradition is necessary, for something to count as a kind of “Confucianism”? Must it have lots of followers (so that it’s not a kind of Confucianism at first)? Must there be at least one person who accepts it and aims to practice it?”
Practise what, exactly? Boston Confucianism, like Pooh Bear Taoism, is made in America. To some people, it would be as authentic as an iPhone knock-off made in China. Unlike the smartphone, there is no “real deal” to compare Boston Confucianism against. All we have is the Chinese textual blueprint that lends itself to myriad philosophical interpretations. And the empirical evidence out there – in terms of “human flourishing” within the East Asian cultural sphere – is not convincing as proof.
To be sure, the above-named American exegetes (I learned this word from the Kai Marchal Taipei Workshop excerpt) of the Confucian texts are in no way inferior to their contemporaries in China. It’s always a pleasure to watch and listen to Tu Weiming’s lectures on youtube. In one of them, to my surprise, he asserted that he was not a Confucian. This places him in the category of a Confucianologist (Manyul’s term). And yet, he does speak with as much authority and passion on Confucianism as the Pope does on Catholicism. But His Holiness practises the faith.