Confucian Fundamentalism?

As a follow-up to my earlier post regarding the controversy that has arisen around the proposed Christian church in Qufu, the following remarks from Prof. Peng Guoxiang of the Tsinghua University Philosophy Department are quite interesting (I quote his remarks with his permission):

…Some self-proclaimed Confucians…are trying to stop [the church] by launching a social movement. This fundamentalist attitude, mingling with nationalism, is embraced not only by the young people, but also by some scholars in Confucian studies. A typical feature of Confucian tradition, religious tolerance and open-mindedness, which we have been proud of and exactly from which that multiple religious participation and multiple religious identity has been developed, is now severely damaged by this extremism. How to redevelop a healthy and profound Confucian vision as one of the great spiritual traditions and make its contributions to humankind in a global context is really a painstaking project.


…What I am worrying about is the rising fundamentalism, which has actually not been a main stream in Confucian tradition, although people could pick out Han Yu and feature him as an example of Confucian fundamentalism. We can virtually find this fundamentalist dimension in almost every great spiritual tradition in the world. Comparatively and historically, however, Confucianism might be of the most tolerance and open-mindedness. Once Confucianism reemerges with such an exclusive face to the world, it will be a disaster for the real revival of herself. If we are really nurtured by and immersed in Confucian values, just as those great minds in Chinese history, rather than today’s self-proclaimed believers, why, I am wondering, we cannnot appreciate the possible Gothic church simply from a perspective of aesthetics if it is properly located and built? “

Professor Peng’s remarks are particularly intriguing because he seeks to make a distinction between two different ways of thinking about Confucianism today as a spiritual tradition. That is, Peng clearly does not think of Confucianism simply as an academic philosophy; he hopes that a “healthy and profound Confucian vision” will make a contribution both in China and globally. In this, he shares ground both with 20th century New Confucians (like Mou Zongsan and other authors of the 1958 Manifesto), and with some of the loudest voices calling for resistance to the Qufu church. “Fundamentalism”–in the sense of a firm commitment to the perceived “original” teachings of a tradition–may be relevant to the differences between Professor Peng’s vision and that of the critics of the church, but it is certainly not the only difference. After all, the critics have not tended to cite original Confucian teachings to show why the church should not be built, and however exactly we understand Qufu’s status, it is something that has emerged over many centuries. What seems to be at stake, therefore, is an effort by the critics to claim the tradition, its interpretation, and value judgments, and in so doing to try to (re)make Confucianism in a particular way, e.g. with an emphasis on particular beliefs. I suspect that scholars of religious studies and history would tell us that many so-called “fundamentalist” movements, whether Protestant, Islamic, or other, also share this creative impulse (as well as sharing an opposition to at least some aspects of “Western modernity,” such as the commitment to democracy–that was characteristic of the 20th century New Confucians).

10 replies on “Confucian Fundamentalism?”

  1. Hi Steve et al,

    Hmm! I hadn’t thought about whether Confucianism is an especially tolerant tradition in essence. As I lack knowledge, I’ve tried to think up some general ideas and questions in the neighborhood, in case anybody is interested.

    1. It’s one thing for Confucianism to be tolerant of (say) Christianity on the basis of the idea that Christianity doesn’t necessarily disgree with Confucianism; it’s another thing for Confucianism to be tolerant of views it regards as conflicting with or inimical to Confucianism.

    2. It seems to me offhand that Confucianism as such lacks very definite defining doctrines and even very definite defining practices, so that it would be diffficult to draw a line between the faithful and the heretical.

    3. Similarly, in Peimin’s first essay for the New York Times, he wrote: “a person who follows the Aristotelian metaphysics will clearly place more effort in cultivating her intelligence, whereas a person who follows the Confucian relational metaphysics will pay more attention to learning rituals that would harmonize interpersonal relations. This approach opens up the possibility of allowing multiple competing visions of excellence, including the metaphysics or religious beliefs by which they are understood and guided, and justification of these beliefs is then left to the concrete human experiences.”
    The thought here is perhaps that aside from the relational metaphysics itself, Confucianism does not have strong metaphysical or religious commitments, so that it can afford to be tolerant on abstract philosophical matters.

    4. Tolerance in the liberal tradition is aided by a sharp division between state action and non-state action, so that we can freely argue (and give each other the hairy eyeball) without oppressing or threatening oppression. I wonder whether Confucianism is unfriendly to that sharp division.

    5. Circumstances may make a big difference to whether a tradition is tolerant or not. For example, perhaps religions (or whatever) tend to be tolerant when they are very dominant in their territory (like Confucianism during much of Chinese history, and medieval Christianity and Islam)?

    6. The civil service examination tradition is arguably a long tradition of Confucian intolerance, yes?

    7. One might expect in the abstract that a religion (or whatever) would be more tolerant insofar as it thinks that (a) everything that happens is in the hands of a good strong god, and (b) the afterlife is what really matters. That a priori speculation, however, doesn’t seem to be borne out by the facts. Still, a tradition that aims at results in this world, and doesn’t trust a god to set things right, arguably has special reasons for competing vigorously against conflicting views. Mencius fought Mohism and Yangism to keep the rhinoceri out of the petunias.

  2. 8. What Confucian reasons are there for tolerance of views (and of powerful complexes of belief & practice) that conflict with Confucianism? Which reasons are the most specific, and the most cogent, and the most central to Confucianism as a tradition? For example, the Golden Rule may or may not be central to the tradition. It is not very specific to tolerance (of doctrines or practices): it is widely thought to be consistent, for example, with punishment of crimes, though one would not want to be punished. The lack of clarity and specificity limits its cogency as a reason for tolerance.

  3. 9. With item 2 above in mind: one way of understanding the heart of the Confucian tradition is that its main concerns are not universal. Rather, it might be thought, the tradition’s outlook is primarily, as one might say, “relational,” in the sense that its main concern is the concern within a particular community to cultivate that community as a great family (compare Judaism). This view of Confucianism arguably harmonizes with tolerance of what foreigners do overseas, and with opposition to the church as plausibly tending toward internationalism in China and toward aesthetic or cultural dissonance in China: ritual disharmony. In my (ignorant) view this reading of the Confucian tradition is no more than a half-truth, but perhaps also no less.

  4. I’m glad to see some sense being championed by Prof Peng. I think, as I suggested in the prior post and discussion, that much of the weight of the protest against the building of the church is carried more by a xenophobic reaction against the “foreignness” of Christianity than by a considered antipathy toward Christian doctrines or practices. It seems to me that this isn’t just “mingled” with nationalism — it is entirely an aspect of nationalist sentiment.

    So, I’m not sure “fundamentalism” is quite the right term for this reaction since that term, as Bill’s questions show, invites speculation about doctrine or praxis differences between some form of Confucianism and Christianity. The current hub-bub seems driven genuinely by little, if anything, of that sort.

    That’s not to say the questions about Confucianism and its compatibility with a religion like Christianity are uninteresting. They’re just not the prime movers in this controversy.

    This reaction to the proposed church, again, reminds me of the reaction by Hanyu and others in the Tang Dynasty who attacked Buddhism in part by citing praxis differences (Buddhists require disruption to patrilineal identity and filial piety, and so forth) but also by explicitly invoking Buddhism’s foreignness as a polemic against it (without providing reasons for the inherent objectionability of foreignness, of course).

    Let me reiterate my thought from the previous post that tacitly or explicitly regarding Christianity to be foreign disregards the perspective of Chinese Christians, particularly the ones who propose to build this church. No one would doubt that there were and are Chinese Buddhists after all, despite the Tang Dynasty and later charges of Buddhism’s foreignness.

  5. A few quick comments on some of the issues that have been raised by Bill and Manyul.

    (1) I think it is true that Confucianism has been one of the world traditions most open to “multiple religious participation and multiple religious identity,” as Peng Guoxiang puts it. This was manifested in many ways, from the plural practice of individuals to fully worked-out systems that sought to “unify the three teachings” (that is, Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism) in the later imperial era. We should not take Han Yu’s polemics or efforts to suppress Buddhist institutions to be representative, even of the Tang; for the most part, the Tang was a period of a high level of religious tolerance and pluralism.

    (2) Several of Bill’s questions/observations are relevant to the question of *why* Confucianism was historically open in this way. In the interest of posting something rather than nothing, I’m not going to get into this right now, though. Hope to return to it later!

    (3) I don’t disagree that there is an element of nationalism in the reaction to the church, but I don’t agree with Manyul that the reaction has much to do with foreignness. The original open letter says, “考索历史,今曲阜市范围内不曾有道教的道观;佛教的寺庙虽有若干所,但皆远离城区,且规模甚小 [If we look at history, the area corresponding to today’s Qufu has never had within it a Daoist temple; although there have been some Buddhist temples, they have been distant from the city district and small in scale].” Now I do not know to what degree these claims are true, but I think it shows that the concern is not just about foreign religions (which the letter goes on to discuss after the bit I’ve just quoted).

    To me, the main goal of the letter-writers is to insist that Confucianism is a religion that deserves the same kind of respect as other religions. I think the reasoning runs like this: just as other religions have their spiritual homes–in which other religious’ institutions are absent or at least very low-profile–so Confucianism has or should have such a spiritual home, and it is Qufu. Therefore a prominent, obviously non-Confucian (because of the Gothic style) religious institution does not belong in Qufu.

    (4) If I am right about this reasoning, then we can go on to question its premises: for instance, is it the case that a spiritual home is important, and must be visibly dominated by the “home” religion? Might a different attitude be better, and still consistent with respect? And so on.

  6. 1a. It’s one thing to say Confucianism is tolerant of other views; it’s another thing to say that a society in which Confucian views are prominent is tolerant of other views than Confucianism.


    I don’t have an opinion about the motives of those protesting the church. It seems to me the lines Steve quoted could easily be mere debaters’ moves. Anyway I think people often have very simple or petty motivations (sorry about my crankiness!), and that we often rewrite our narratives as we go, however inaccurately. A relatively productive way for this forum to respond to this specific protest might be to look at the more general issues Professor Peng raises. I don’t mean looking only at the history of Confucianism to see what it has been.

    For the constructive project Peng mentions at the end of the first excerpt, it seems to me that my items 4, 8, and 9 are most directly relevant, and I’m especially interested in 8: specific positive Confucian reasons for tolerance and/or liberty. I don’t know what the tradition has to offer along those lines, except to endorse very general and largely uncontroversial premises on the basis of which tolerance/liberty can be defended, such as that society ought in general to promote the happiness of its members.

    To the question at the end of his second excerpt – why can’t Confucians as such appreciate a beautiful gothic church? – I want to say that more than other religions (or whatever), Confucianism seems to value aesthetic coherence. Perhaps as a result, the aesthetic coherence of Chinese culture seems to me quite striking. (Not to confuse “Confucian” with “Chinese.”) So I sympathize with the idea that even the most intrinsically beautiful gothic church, placed in surroundings that evoke traditional Chinese Confucianism, would be a great false note. I imagine I would find it quite jarring, depending of course on how close and big it is, and on whether its gothicity has Chinese characteristics.

    Seeking a geographical sacred home for Confucianism looks to me like imitation of bad foreign stuff. (But I’m not familiar with the importance of places such as Mt. Tai in the Confucian tradition.) Also I wonder whether Confucius wouldn’t be distressed at the choice of Qufu.

    One view of the significance of distinguishing sacred spaces (as at Jerusalem, Amritsar, and Mecca), or distinguishing certain days as specially holy, is that doing so is an attempt to make transcendence vivid. It is also perhaps a way of drawing a line in the sand (cf. the Tree of Knowledge), to establish discipline.

  7. interesting posts, Steve.

    May I ask where can Mr. Peng’s comments be found? Is it published on the Internet at all?

    By the way, I happen to find Prof. Cheng Chungying’s comment on this issue which contains some sensible analysis and good comparison with how a church/temple can be built in USA. It appears that compared with the procedure one has to follow in USA, the Qufu government’s decision seems not only too hasty, but also irresponsible.

    Confucian Fundamentalism? – Wow, that is a big claim – but I don’t find anything improper with a peaceful petition – no violence, no hatred – the COnfucians should have their own freedom of expression, right?

    • Hi Huaiyu–These remarks of Prof. Peng’s come from an email conversation he and I had; he has not posted these thoughts on line anywhere (in English or Chinese), so far as I know.

  8. Thanks Steve.

    Judging from the part you quote from Prof. Peng, I believe his remarks are mostly fine. I actually like what he said about the openness of Confucian tradition and I think I know what he meant by “Confucian Fundamentalism.”

    My concern about the term, however, are mainly two fold:

    1) fundamentalism is a very loaded term and one should use it with good caution – it might be more appropriate to describe the certain Confucians as “religious” than “fundamentalist.” After all, even the more forward advocated form of Confucian religious practice today falls far short of the traditional form (say. family based ancestral worship – which has died out mostly because of communist suppression.

    2) It is not clear at all that the current petition represents anything like a fundamentalist movement.

    I agree with Prof. Peng that the Confucians and the Chinese SHOULD appreciate the possible Gothic church simply from a perspective of aesthetics if it is “properly” located and built?

    But the current issue is precisely that the location and size of the church were most likely to be quite improper. Overall, thus, the name “Confucian fundamentalism” may turn out to be inaccurate and unhelpful.

  9. Just passing by…

    First, it’s not just Confucians who oppose the Qufu church, but also other Chinese people, including Buddhists, Daoists, agnostics, and atheists.

    Second, even though the debate is framed as protecting the sacred space of Confucianism, a big part of this is opposition to Christianity. The basic idea of Christianity is that either you believe in Christ or you go to hell, which a lot of Chinese people find unacceptable. Also, Christians in China often act foreign – e.g. thinking they are better than other people because they believe in a foreign religion.

    Anyway, the spread of Christianity has raised a lot of alarm bells for a lot of people. The claims of many Christians to Christianise all China add fuel to the fire. They see themselves as a special group within Chinese society, which makes for unfriendliness on both sides. Their doctrines are viewed with distaste by a lot of people. This is the main reason why everyone is so against the Qufu church.

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