Confucianism: History of Study
CONFUCIANISM: HISTORY OF STUDY
Any effort to describe Confucianism (ru, literally "weakling" but conventionally glossed as "scholar") as an object of study requires one to acknowledge that it is a historically related symbolic complex made from the fateful conjunction of early modern European and Chinese curiosity. The greater weight of the scholarly output of this conjunction has been borne by Western interpreters. The reason for this is obvious: ru was never actually a subject of conscious investigation by the Chinese until around 1900, and Confucianism is, as Lewis Hodous declared in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, "a misleading general term for the teachings of the Chinese classics upon cosmology, the social order, government, morals and ethics." A celebrated case of metaphor as mistake yielded four centuries of analysis, commentary, and most importantly, translations through which Confucianism and the essential China it metonymically contained were exactingly documented for purposes of admiration or attack. Over this interval the figure of "Confucius" acquired global fame, while the native figure, Kongzi, was revered for millennia as Chinese culture's greatest sage and teacher. In the context of this great encounter, the meaning of which was slowly distilled through Confucianism, the place of China and Confucianism has shifted within Western cultural self-consciousness. China's value for the West has changed, and along with it the significance of Confucianism; however, the one salient constant has been the global character of this complex.
The term Confucianism familiar to most early twenty-first century readers is the nominal equivalent of the expressions ru, rujia, ruxue, the meanings of which are scholar, classical tradition, and classical teaching, rather than the teaching of Confucius (Kongzi, 551–479 bce). Confucianism has meant, most notably: (1) a system of thought; (2) a mechanism of social control or state ideology; and (3) China's civil religion or ethos, in this sense being indistinguishable from China itself and thus a very worthy subject of study. Confucianism stands for a great number of things both enabling and disabling of any effort to compile a history of it as an object of study.
Prior to the eighteenth century and the intellectual debates between scholars of the new and old script traditions of Chinese classical scholarship, there was really no effective study of Confucianism. Instead, there were the manifold traditions of textual communities underwritten by exegesis and commentary on any of the jiujing, or nine classic works (Book of Documents, Book of Odes, Classic of Change, Spring and Autumn Annals, Record of Rites, Guliang Commentary, Gongyang Commentary, Zuo Commentary, and the Rites of Zhou) all believed to have been edited, inspired, or written by Kongzi. The work on these texts, the form of study about which one might write a history, is best understood as an inspired scholarly practice analogous to biblical hermeneutics in the West. The history of this engagement with texts in the interest of getting at the timeless truths of antiquity has been eloquently retold by John Henderson in Scripture, Canon and Commentary (1991) and Benjamin Elman in From Philosophy to Philology (1984), but it is not really about Confucianism per se.
Ru: A Chinese Context of Confucianism Study
The life Confucianism has lived as a form of study in the West was distinct, and until very recently largely different, from the scholarly history of ru in China. The epistemic status of the ru as an object of study was registered in the first "history" of China, Sima Tan (d. 110 bce) and Sima Qian's Shiji (Grand Scribe's Records, c. 90 bce). Here the category rujia was explicitly identified as one of the primary traditions of Chinese antiquity. Ru was a native tradition self-consciously attested to in the writings of the Warring States (479–256 bce) and achieved a degree of national prominence in the first two imperial dynasties Qin (221–206 bce) and Han (206 bce–221 ce), when scholars (boshi ) of specific classical works (Shijing [Book of Poetry], Shangshu or Shujing [Book of Documents ], and Yijing [Book of Changes ]) were appointed to government posts, a practice that continued, somewhat fitfully with well-noted interruptions, until the abolition of the official examination system in 1905. With the advent in the Han of an elaborate scholastic enterprise involving the cataloguing of all extant written works and the writing of an official history of civilization, ru —the de facto classicists of this time—assumed an official presence disproportional to their numbers among the plural intellectual traditions of the early imperial period.
The Chinese Empire was built upon texts—astronomical, divinatory, legal, medical, philosophical, ritual, and strategic—and was as much a semiotic system as a political entity. With classicists such as ru serving as prominent producers and interpreters of texts, they were, as Christopher Connery has argued, drawn into the care of the empire. In the Han capital of Chang'an an imperial academy, the Guozi jian, was founded with a syllabus organized around favored ru texts. An imperial sacrifice to Kongzi was initiated at his natal home of Qufu more than 750 miles to the east of the capital (in the second century bce) along with a panoply of other official celebratory rites, by means of which the emperor sought legitimacy with both man and nature. This particular cultural concatenation of the appointment of ru and the formation of the imperial Kongzi cult may be taken as the Chinese foundation of "Confucianism"; it was also a phenomenon that, at a much later period, drew the attention of the Jesuit missionaries and became the focus of scholarly inquiry, as some sought in this confluence evidence of so-called Oriental Despotism or of a distinctive modern conjunction of royal authority and religious tolerance.
The official rise to prominence of the previously undistinguished ru fellowship is dated at 136 bce, a moment that is considered epochal, because it is here that the monolithic myth of a two-thousand-year marriage of "Confucianism" and the Chinese imperium began. Beyond the nascent national prominence of metropolitan ru celebrated in the imperial cult to Kongzi, there were a number of other ru textual communities—eight according to Han Feizi (c. 280–233 bce)—all inspired by the memory of the culture hero. On evidence provided by the Shiji, it is also known that by the time of the Han dynasty's founding there were myriad autochthonous temple cults to Kongzi. By the dawn of imperial times, the tradition of ru meant classical study (jingxue ).
The earliest uses of ru are found just before the formation of the first Chinese imperial state, when it meant "pliable" or "weak" in the sense of disinclined to physical work; yet the term was clearly associated with the story traditions of an honored teacher, Kongzi. An eponymous discourse or a school of thought, Kongjiao —"Kong teaching," with perhaps "Confucianity" being better—did not exist until the first years of the twentieth century, when it was an antidote self-consciously administered by the state to combat the effects of foreign religious and social doctrines. This later invention, more literally Confucianism, was conceived as a national ethos distinct from ru, which referred to scholars of the Wujing (Five Classics—Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Odes, Record of the Rites, Spring and Autumn Annals) and, later in the Yuan and Ming eras, the Sishu (Four Books—Selected Sayings [of Kongzi], Book of Mengzi, Doctrine of the Mean, Great Learning).
The Agonistic Relation of Ru and the Imperium
This political tradition of administrative dependence on ru texts and ethos was noted with admiration by Western observers, but there was even more evidence conducive to their judgment that Confucianism was the clavis Sinica, or key to China. In 1313 the Mongols, ruling as the Yuan dynasty, reestablished the metropolitan examination, which promoted the annotations and commentaries on the Wujing and the Sishu of the southern Song classicist Zhu Xi (1130–1200), founder of a fundamentalist ru sect called daoxue (learning of the path), as the required texts for preparation for official service. The vernacular quality of Zhu's commentaries made them especially suitable for use by conquest elites, and their particular recensions endured until the twentieth century. This six-century continuity of use, and especially the exclusive reliance on the Sishu, ensured the regnancy of daoxue —and by association ru— as an intellectual orthodoxy indefeasibly linked to the operations of the imperial bureaucracy. Moreover, the formal enshrinement of Zhu Xi and the elevation of daoxue and its prominent followers in the hierarchy of the Kongzi temple by the Yuan (1279–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties effected the canonization of ru as an orthodoxy whose transmission was a concern of the state.
For the most part, self-identified followers of the ru tradition filled the ranks of classical scholars, both independent and official; however, there was no systematic study of ru until perhaps the Mingru xue'an (Cases of Ming Scholars) of Huang Zongxi (1610–1695). Published in 1676, within the same interval as Jesuit translations in Latin of Chinese scriptural texts were first being published in Europe, the Mingru xue'an inaugurated a new genre of historical scholarship. The popularity of Huang's critical review of the lives and teachings of an apostolic succession of ru exemplars inspired similar compilations on the Song (960–1279) and Yuan periods (Song-Yuan xue'an ), all construed as records of intellectual descent, providing a historical sketch of the diversity and proliferation of ru over imperial time. In Huang's hands ru was a prominent object in an historical field, a tradition whose elaboration could be documented through subsequent generations of practitioners. His genealogical reconstruction used the methods of standard philology, not merely to parse obscure classical phrasing but to historicize the present ru as active appropriators of the traditions they received. This subtle shift in interpretive agency relocated authority to the reader and away from the government-sanctioned canon, and anticipated the remarkable intellectual developments of eighteenth-century classicism, developments advanced by ru but in a manner inconsistent with the honored synarchy of state and scholarship.
Yet just as late Ming ru, like Huang, moved to dissolve the heteronomy of research and regime and scholar-official and state, Jesuit missionaries—standing outside the reach of this emergent critical culture—reasserted the identity of ru and the empire while insisting that in an era of scholarly disenchantment with inherited tradition, they, too, could engage the texts of antiquity as legitimate readers. And from this point the story of the study of the Confucianism with which we are familiar develops.
Confucianism: Invention and Intercultural Communication
Since the mid-seventeenth century, when transmission of native Chinese texts to Europe became possible, Confucius and Confucianism have been interpreted as the core of the sapientia sinica, or the wisdom of the Chinese, a unique object of aesthetic and religious apprehension avidly sought by linguists, missionaries, philosophers, and scientists. Thus, to study Confucianism was to pursue even greater understanding of China itself, and with proper attention, to disclose the implicit theological unity of East and West. This meant that such scholarly attention was equally animated by the prospects of compatibility and dissimilarity on the grounds of reason and faith, entities of great value in a period of cultural crisis and religious conflict.
The study of Confucianism as we know it begins with the work of a handful of missionaries of the Society of Jesus, who between 1582 and 1610 insinuated themselves into southern Chinese life at the invitation of regional Chinese officials. The missionaries sought converts through a process of thorough enculturation (described by modern scholars as "accommodationism") by which they sought to prove the theological compatibility of Christianity and native Chinese faith. Indeed, it can be argued that the apologetic catechisms, letters, and translations generated by these Jesuits represented the origin of Confucianism. The first work demonstrating an awareness of the figure from whom the term Confucianism was derived was a Latin draft of the first Jesuit catechism for prospective Chinese converts, Vera et brevis divinarum rerum expositio (True and brief explanation of the divine things). The seventh chapter of this primitive xylographic pamphlet—produced between 1579 and 1583 by Michele Ruggieri (1543–1607) and Matteo Ricci (1552–1610)—was organized as a dialogue between a native philosopher and a Christian priest and included a single mention of "Confutius." Over a little more than a decade, missionary awareness of this cultural icon grew in proportion with the Jesuits' deepening interest in the original teaching of Kongzi and his disciples, who they described as the legge d'letterati (order of the literati), i veri letterati (true literati) and xianru (the primordial ru ). Throughout the second, and authoritative, catechism written and published in Chinese by Ricci in 1596, Tianzhu shiyi (The real significance of the Heavenly Master), Kongzi's tradition was assimilated by the missionaries who increasingly identified themselves as defenders of zhenru or the "real ru."
Their identification was occasioned by a belief that the texts attributed to Confucius—the Lunyu (Selected Sayings, or Analects), the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Daxue (Great Learning)—bore witness to an ancient belief in the one God, shangdi (lord on high), but more commonly referred to by the Jesuits' Chinese neologism, tianzhu (Master of Heaven). Between 1596 and 1608, when Ricci was asked to prepare a history of the Jesuit mission in China, ru, legge d'letterati, and the Jesuits were indistinguishable, so much so that interpretation of Chinese cultural phenomena was inflected with the Jesuit favor for this tradition, which in their eyes was so much like their own. The understanding of Confucianism as a body of texts and a discipline of study founded by Confucius slowly emerged from the Jesuits' Chinese enculturation and was documented in the history of the mission's entrance into China compiled by Matteo Ricci between 1608 and 1610, Della entrata della Compagnia di Giesù e Christianità nella Cina (On the Entrance of the Jesuit Company and Christianity into China), but not published until 1615, after Nicolá Trigault (1577–1628) had completed a tendentious Latin translation (De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas [On the Christian Expedition among the Chinese]). Here, in an exposition on the tre leggi diverse (three different orders) of Chinese religion, readers learned that:
the greatest philosopher among them is Confutio [Confucius], who was born 551 years before the coming of the Lord to the world and for more than seventy years lived a very good life teaching this people through words, works, and writings.… Not only the literati but the kings themselves venerate him through so many centuries measuring backwards in time … and they avow that they themselves display a soul grateful for the doctrine received from him.
What the early missionaries welcomed in Kongzi's teaching were those things they esteemed in their own sodality: the importance of undying fraternal affection; the role of rites in molding meaningful life; elected service to the wise in achieving social harmony; and study as a mechanism of moral self-fashioning. Such appreciation of what would later be called Confucianism as the religious doppelgänger of Christianity inspired subsequent efforts to illuminate Chinese religious understanding through translation of scriptural texts from Chinese into Latin and French. Indeed, from the first bilingual (Latin and Chinese) translation of the Sishu through the publication of the Reverend David Collie's The Four Books (1828) and beyond, the bulk of missiological and scholarly work on Confucianism consisted of efforts to translate and interpret these texts, often without the aid of Chinese commentary. This was the principal legacy of the Sino-Jesuit mission, something borne out well in the reliance of James Legge (1815–1897) on Catholic missionary translations in his encyclopedic translation of the Sishu and the Wujing between 1865 and 1895.
Less than a decade following Ricci's death in 1610, however, the interest in indigenous sources of Chinese Christianity was aggressively contested by a new generation of missionaries who, along with their Vatican patrons, believed that Confucianism had been willfully misrepresented by the first Sino-Jesuit translators and commentators. Consequently, in the early decades of the seventeenth century and continuing through the eighteenth, a theological debate raged over the possibility of regarding Chinese religion as compatible with Christianity, specifically the popular ancestral rites of Chinese families and the established native terms for God: shangdi, tian, and tianzhu. Strictly literal interpreters like Niccolò Longobardo (1565–1655), whose De Confucio ejusque doctrina tractatus (1623; A treatise on Confucius and his doctrine) denounced the apologetic tendency of Ricci's followers to accommodate Chinese and Christian conceptions of God in the term tianzhu. Longobardo's was the first of a number of texts devoted to the demolition of interpretative sympathy and the reaffirmation of Catholic orthodoxy, but accommodationist views continued to exist.
The favored texts of Confucianism, specifically the Lunyu, Zhongyong, Daxue, Mengzi, and Yijing, continued to draw the interest of theological and linguistic speculation. Accommodationism underwrote the production of substantial works of annotated translation such as Sapientia Sinica (1662; Wisdom from China), Sinarum scientia politico-moralis (1687; The politico-moral learning of the Chinese), Confucius Sinarum philosophus (1687; Confucius, philosopher of the Chinese), and Sinensis imperii libri classici sex (1711; The authoritative six classics of the Chinese).
As the first translations of selected texts from the Chinese canon appeared in seventeenth-century Europe, Confucius—the cherished Jesuit symbol of archaic monotheism—became a favorite figure among the educated. Very technical translations and interpretive works produced by the missionaries in China were hastily republished and even popularized. Many of these texts, translated from Latin to native vernaculars and republished, circulated widely. For example, the Sinarum scientia politico-moralis was translated into French as "La Science des Chinois" and republished in 1672 by Melchisedec Thévenot in a popular four-volume work of travel literature titled Relations de divers voyages curieux (Accounts of various strange journeys).
The increasing popularity of travel literature in the late seventeenth century was a consequence of the rise of something akin to ethnographic authority that was, in turn, part of a larger epistemological shift away from faith and insight to experiment and observation as the basis of reliable knowledge. In this intellectual context the Jesuits and their Chinese texts were construed as scientific authorities providing testimony on behalf of the universality of divinely authored creation. The local, self-constituting character of the Jesuit mission in China ensured that the Jesuits' texts were widely read, because their authority lay in their having been there "among the Chinese," as the message they were believed to convey about intimations of the divine in China transcended the particular.
Upon its publication in 1687 the Confucius Sinarum philosophus was met with intellectual excitement from its lay audience, despite its conceptual sophistication and awkward Latin equivalents of Chinese terms. The work was immediately abridged and translated into French, appearing the following year in Amsterdam as La Morale de Confucius, Philosophe de la Chine. An English translation of the French abridgement, The Morals of Confucius, A Chinese Philosopher, was published in 1691 in London. Both books were reprinted and, like the first editions, were published as leather-bound parchment pocket books. Each was less than 125 pages and offered an abbreviated sampling of the Jesuit translations of the Daxue, Zhongyong, and Lunyu, a shortened biography of Confucius, a preface by the editors, and an introductory essay titled, "On the Antiquity and Philosophy of the Chinese." This abbreviation and publication of significant portions of the Confucius Sinarum philosophus occurred alongside the abridgment and republication of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which were translated into national vernaculars. So, in the same way that the multilingual European scientific community was sustained by the rapid circulation of the summary volumes of the Royal Society, an educated lay community was joined through the movements of an information network.
Confucius could offer more than a political vision of reasoned stability and civil order; in fact, Confucius and the written language of which he was the most learned representative were conceived of by some natural philosophers and scientists in Europe as features of a semiotic system analogous to mathematics, a universal system of real characters. As an unmediated reflection of nature or the universe, the cogency of this system was dependent on textual evidence of the very sort provided by Philippe Couplet (1623–1693) and others in the Confucius Sinarum philosophus.
Confucianism, Comparative Theology and the Confucius Sinarum philosophus
The Confucius Sinarum philosophus, or Scientia Sinensis (Chinese learning), like Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica that was published in the same year, sought to establish the one-to-one correspondences between God's providential order and other signifying systems. It represented the accumulation of one hundred years of translation and exegesis in its demonstration of China's archaic monotheism and offered the first documented use of the descriptive term Confucian. Earlier missionary scholarship had similarly focused on history and geography, cartography, or language and grammar, but this work was different: it was a massive annotated translation in service to a more ambitious ecumenical program of comparative theology. It contained detailed chronological tables of Christian and Chinese history, an incomplete translation of a recension of the Sishu, an exhaustive critical introduction including a disquisition on popular religion, and a biography of Confucius.
The Jesuit compilers assembled this heterogeneous fund of plural schools, practices, texts, and interpretations into a system identified as the legacy of the mythic philosopher-hero. It was just this metonymic reduction of the many to the one that was responsible for the political significance of the Confucius Sinarum philosophus for new states seeking to articulate, justify, and enforce absolute claims to nationhood. Confucius was, in fact, China, and so too could Louis XIV (r. 1661–1715) be France or William III (r. 1689–1702) be England. The Jesuits could not have foreseen such an interpretation of their work, but they did believe that China could be reduced to Confucius, offering at least two reasons that would justify this equivalence.
First, they argued that because he was the author of the libri classici (the classics), which are the literary summation of China's ancient culture, Confucius had been immemorially honored. While he was described by Ricci and Trigault as the Chinese equal of "ethnic philosophers" like Plato or Aristotle, a living icon of a system of thought, the authors of the Confucius Sinarum philosophus compared Confucius to the Oracle at Delphi, though in higher regard than the latter because he enjoyed more authority among the Chinese than that attributed to the Oracle by ancient Greeks. In this way they presumed Confucius's teachings were a good propaedeutic to Christianity, suggesting the necessary evolution of one into the other.
Second, like the early accommodationists, they saw Confucius's teaching, ju kiao (rujiao ), as a distillation of the ancient belief in Xan ti (Shangdi ), or what the authors now called Religionem Sinensium (The Chinese religion.) Here they exceeded the ground-level ethnographic notations on religious practice made by Ricci, demonstrating a compelling cognate philological link between Xan ti, Deus, Elohim, and Jehovah. The authors claimed that these four terms were etymologically derived from the same source. It was just such curious philology in support of ecumenism that especially appealed to Leibniz, whose efforts to create a characteristica universalis (universal system of characters) were justified by the testimony of these translations.
Revealing something of the indistinguishability of theology and contemporary politics, the authors remind us that the Chinese monarchy had been in place for more than four thousand years, seventeen hundred of which were continuously under the Magistratum Confucium (Magistracy of Confucius). The essential equation of China and Confucianism and Christianity as the inevitable singular belief system of China was reinforced in the European imagination by the testimony of "Siu Paulus," or Paul Xu (Guangqi, 1562–1633), that "[Christianity] fulfills what is lacking in our Master Confucius and in the philosophy of the literati; it truly removes and radically extirpates nefarious superstitions and the cult of the demons [Daoism, Buddhism, and neo-Confucianism]." In the instability of Europe after the religious wars of the sixteenth century, a reasoned defense of national faith in a single religion or ideology, such as the Jesuits described for China, was read politically as a justification for the peaceful coexistence of national singularity and religious uniformity.
This same interpretive mechanism of unequal complementarity—Christianity as the "high religion" supplemented by the "lower religions" of ethnic others like the Chinese—would soon be found in a host of works on pagan religion and world chronology written by figures like Isaac Newton and David Hume as the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns raged among European philosophes. The semiotic taxonomies of the imperial genealogy and the Tabula Chronologica (a comparative chronology of Chinese and biblical time) included as appendices of the Confucius Sinarum philosophus were readily admitted into the rhetoric of authentic representation of the physical world that occupied the energies of seventeenth-century lay intellectuals. The perplexing chasm they faced between the fallen languages of man and the work of God provoked a search by way of linguistics, experimental science, mathematics, and natural philosophy to invent new semiotic forms capable of representing God's creation while avoiding the sin of hubris.
And, once Chinese scriptural texts of Confucianism were understood as semiotic forms representative of nature, then the Jesuits' translations and interpretive commentaries could serve the same pious function as the strategies of Leibniz and Newton. Moreover, Jesuit translations of the "real characters" of Chinese offered evidence of the reasonableness of the contention of European scientists that real characters, the calculus, or a universal language could be deduced from the "natures of things" as unmediated expressions of God's intention. In so doing, the Jesuits named the Chinese system that some Europeans believed was isomorphic with nature and about which, as Umberto Eco has shown, the Europeans increasingly expounded in a search for "the perfect language." These missionaries called this religious system "Confucian."
In inventing this eponymous term the accommodationist compilers of the Confucius Sinarum philosophus achieved the fateful reduction of China to Confucius. The "Dedicatory Letter" addressed to Louis XIV that opens the work asserts that "by the blood of Chinese rulers, he who is called Confucius … is the wisest moral philosopher, politician, and orator." Elsewhere, Couplet and his coauthors chronologically document the transmission of the genuine ru teachings from the heralded moral philosopher to themselves when they write, "the lineage of this one [Confucius] has been propagated with a not-uninterrupted series in this year 1687." At the close of the Confucii Vita, the compilers summarize Chinese dynastic descent from the Han dynasty to the present, taking care to note the millennial tribute to Confucius paid by a succession of imperial families. Further, in obvious deference to the self-conception of le Roi Soleil (the Sun King), they report that, although Confucius was symbolic of Chinese religion, the rites performed to him were thoroughly secular—"civiles sunt honores ac ritus illi Confuciani " (civil are the honors and those Confucian rites)—and here the authors deliver the inevitable neologism, "Confucian."
A paragraph below this phrase, a similar formulation appears. It reads "vero magis confirmat ritus illos Confucianos merè esse politicos " (he confirms those Confucian rites are truly political), which again affirms the secular character of the rites in honor of Confucius. These were assurances that the worship of Confucius was not idolatrous and therefore worthy of comparison with the cultlike adulation rendered to Louis XIV by his people. Consequently, the invocation of Louis XIV, "MAGNI LUDOVICI [LOUIS THE GREAT]," in the summary paragraph of Confucii vita, was intended as a way for Couplet and colleagues to pay homage to their monarch and benefactor by deliberately drawing a comparison between the undying symbol of the Chinese people and the living icon of the French and their enlightened culture. In this way the Chinese dependency complex of ru and imperial government was reproduced by Jesuit missionaries. Confucianism was the key to China and it was the language of God among the Chinese. For this reason, above all, whether one wished to extol or repudiate Chinese civilization, Confucianism and Confucius influenced Europe's intellectual agenda.
Confucianism: The Willful Divergence of China and the West
In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works, Confucianism and China were either lionized as exemplifying the light of reason, as in Novissima Sinica, Nouveaux mémoires sur l'état présent de la Chine (1696), Portrait historique de l'empereur de la Chine (1698), China Illustrata, and Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinois (1773), or denounced for superstitions as in Lettres Persanes (1721) and De L'Esprit des lois (1748), or extolled for enlightened despotism in "Despotisme de la Chine." Nevertheless, Confucianism remained a touchstone from which Chinese civilization was judged to be enlightened or retrogressive. By the time Leibniz penned his "Remarks on Chinese Rites and Religion" (1707) in which he defended the secular, performative quality of Chinese rituals, the century-long war that had broken out within the church itself over the heretical qualities of Chinese rites and terms (the Rites and Terms Controversy) was resolved with the Nanjing Decree against Chinese practice by papal legate Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon (1668–1710), coinciding with a decline in European interest in Confucianism as antidote to the poisons of religious war and inchoate linguistic nationalism.
The two views of Confucianism persisted through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the sympathetic one grandly proclaimed in 1758 with the publication of a French edition of Diogenes Laertius's (fl. third century ce) Lives of the Philosophers, which included a ninety-page exposition of the life and doctrines of Confucius. Yet, this Enlightenment encomium of Confucius did not easily endure as the changing politics of global contact and of the Vatican caused the less sympathetic view to supersede accommodationism. A rising tide of authoritarianism and the active repression of popular cults and Western religions under the Qing moved in sequence with the insistence of Catholic authorities on the fundamental incompatibility of Christianity and Chinese religion, culminating in Pope Clement XIV's (1705–1774) ruling Dominus ac Redemptor (Master and Redeemer) of 1773 that dissolved the Society of Jesus.
When Protestant missionaries made inroads into China's hinterland in the early decades of the nineteenth century, arguments for a global theologico-cultural compatibility were silenced by the gunships of China's colonial trading partners; Confucianism, with its deference to patriarchal authority, was identified as a fundamental cultural weakness. By the first years of the twentieth century, China was no longer the site of exotic imaginings, wanderlust, and curiosity it had been for Jesuit missionaries and European accommodationists. It was "opened" by the Western nations that had established a commanding economic, political, and religious presence along China's coast. The meaning of Confucianism and the nature of its study changed. Confucianism became a symbol of local obstruction of a vast cultural space made continuous through the operation of the market. The Jesuit melding of native Chinese practice and Christianity, which undergirded the seventeenth-century search for the perfect language and drew China and the West closer, was replaced by nineteenth-century ideas of greater currency and scientific weight—nationalism, imperialism, and evolution—making the imaginative space between China and the West as great as their geographic distance.
The history and politics here are quite complex, but they tell us little about Confucianism, that is until Max Weber (1864–1920) turned his attention to the sociology of Chinese religion. The publication in 1915 and 1920 of his two-volume Konfuzianismus und Taoismus —more commonly known by the problematic title of its English translation, The Religion of China (1951)—drew benefit from the equation of China and Confucianism and from the interpretive predilection to hold Confucianism accountable for China's cultural stagnation. The Religion of China marks a turning point in the study of Confucianism. It returned China to meaningful engagement with the West as it cast the specific history of Confucianism's mediation of capitalism against the backdrop of world secularization. Weber's comparative sociology was motivated by an historical interest in determining the specific conditions for the rise of rational capitalism in Europe. His study of China was premised on a negative question—why rationalization did not give rise to capitalism—the answer to which cast light on both Europe's Protestant and China's Confucian spiritualities.
Weber's conclusion that the development of rational entrepreneurial capitalism in China was undermined by Confucianism's distinctive ethos of rational, world accommodation, in contrast with Protestantism, whose impulses toward transcendence displayed a productive, world-renouncing tension, has been contested for a century. And yet by calling attention to Confucianism as a mediating spirituality by means of which the Chinese, especially the literati (ru scholar-officials), processed the dramatic changes in consciousness and material life brought by modernization, he provided the analytical tools used in all subsequent study of Confucianism, especially the scholarly work on neo-Confucianism of the 1950s through the 1970s and even the contemporary intellectual movements of xinrujia, or New Confucianism.
Twentieth-Century Repudiation and Recovery
Even though the twentieth century may be considered the most productive period of scholarly work on Confucianism, its scholarship has displayed a certain defensiveness due in part to the collapse of the Chinese dynastic state and its reactionary ru -infected ideology, Kongjiao. Nativist, nationalist radicals and student revolutionaries between 1880 and 1919 saw in ru the entire sordid history of their civilization's cultural effeteness and political sterility. For these pro-Western, "New Culture" intellectuals, insofar as ru and Kongzi were symbolically wedded to the ritual theater of Chinese autocracy, they could not be recuperated. China's humiliating position vis-à-vis the world was attributed by these figures to the inherent weakness of Kongjiao, which they saw as lying at the center of the Chinese imperium, a bulwark against the advance of modernity. Nothing symbolized this national helplessness more than the ceding of Chinese territories to Germany and Japan in the Treaty of Versailles ending the Paris Peace Conference.
On May 4, 1919 the May Fourth Movement was launched with the cries of more than 3000 of Beijing University's students and professors who took to the streets to protest this imperialist compromise of Chinese national sovereignty. Seized by a populist urge to forge a new culture governed by science and democracy, they inveighed against the regressive traditionalism of Confucianism, calling on the nation to "smash the shop of the Kong clan" (pohuai Kongjia dian). Still, in the first years after World War II, cultural defenses of Confucianism and ru were advanced by Chinese and by Western scholars of Chinese intellectual history. The effort to restore dignity and respect to a once-vital intellectual tradition was aimed at reversing the rueful, dismissive trajectory of May Fourth and to counter the conclusions of Max Weber on Chinese religion.
For the radicals, ru symbolized a culture so corrupt it required eradication. Against these impulses of rejection, scholars like Hu Shi (or Shih; 1891–1962) contended that the demonization of ru, not ru itself, was a pathology. In "Shuoru" (An explication of Ru ), an essay notable for its courage and insight, Hu advanced a theory that ru was a religious force, a fount of world civilization on a par with Christianity in the West. This striking reformulation, based on a creative reading of the Book of Changes, selective interpretation of key Warring States' texts, and a critical exegesis of the Bible, was provocative among a circle of Chinese scholars writing from the late 1930s to the 1950s. However, this inspired reconception of ru would not secure wider scholarly favor until the 1980s, when Western scholars of Confucianism appropriated the vestiges of Hu's argument and redefined ru as a religion definitive of Chinese and East Asian modernity.
Since the 1950s the study of Confucianism has prospered in the United States in particular. Works in the early 1950s on intellectual history focused on Chinese thought, though sometimes without sufficient context, but always to the greater credit of Confucianism. In 1953 alone, several significant publications appeared. Studies in Chinese Thought, edited by Arthur Wright (1913–1976) under the auspices of Robert Redfield (1897–1958) aimed to bring about "intercultural communication" through a thoroughly historical account of the dispositions of the Chinese mind in a broadly comparative context. A complete translation by Derk Bodde (1909–2003) of Feng Youlan's (1895–1990) magisterial history of Chinese philosophy, Zhongguo zhexue shi (1934; A History of Chinese Philosophy ), provided Western readers an organized interpretation of certain key figures and texts in Chinese thought. Also in 1953, Études sociologiques sur la Chine (Sociological studies of China), by Marcel Granet (1884–1940), was similarly comparative yet more analytical.
These several volumes succeeded in establishing the fundaments of the Chinese worldview within a larger history of ideas, avoiding the narrow equivalence of Confucianism and Chineseness, thereby advancing scholarship beyond the earnest exploration of religio-cultural common ground by Jesuit missionaries and proto-sinologists. Later conference volumes, beginning with John K. Fairbank's (1907–1991) Chinese Thought and Institutions of 1957, were to unfold the elaborate, diverse and interlocking connections of time, space, and community in China. Instead, works such as Confucianism in Action (1959), The Confucian Persuasion (1960), and Confucian Personalities (1962) displayed a striking preponderance of the unitary cultural ideal metonymically encapsulated in Confucianism and its nominal derivative, Confucian. A chrestomathy of the essays from these Confucianism collections was produced under Arthur Wright in 1964, bearing the title Confucianism and Chinese Civilization, thus revealing the limits of scholarly imagination to compass a grand territory of Chinese experiences. The reduction of Chinese diversity to ideological unity represented by these anthologies provoked a countermovement to explore the full range of China's unrepresented popular cultures that would not come of age until the new social history of the early 1980s.
Confucianism Restored: Indigenous Values and Religion
William Theodore de Bary (1919–) and Wing-tsit Chan (1901–1994) together inveighed prolifically against the notion that Confucianism accounted for China's weakness. They reasserted Confucianism, or more specifically, neo-Confucianism, as definitive of Chinese modernity, a resource of humanitarianism and liberalism denied by the iconoclastic excesses of early twentieth-century radicalism. Their work was challenged by the common twentieth-century revolutionary conclusion that the great tradition of China's ancient civilization was irrelevant and that Confucianism had failed—a failure doubly reinforced by the iconoclastic ideology and politics of the nation's two national parties, the Communists and the Nationalists. Also, the rediscovery of a materialist, scientific Marx and the intellectually creative rage of protesting students in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and the United States problematized the notion of a broad civic culture of Confucian shidafu (scholar-officials) that, through the universality of civilization, overcame the particularity of class.
Furthermore, the trend of postwar area studies scholarship encouraged by the U.S. government was toward social science and contemporary politics, with a focus on the causes and consequences of the Chinese revolution. Chan and de Bary's work bucked all these trends in claiming that the cultural context of twentieth-century China was generated in the Song era with the advent of Zhu Xi's daoxue, otherwise known as "neo-Confucianism." The study of Confucianism via neo-Confucianism accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, with additional conference volumes as the principal vehicle for its development. Politics and cultural struggles drove U.S. scholars to advance a defense of Confucianism and the Chinese civilization through a reappraisal of neo-Confucianism and the compensatory redescription of Chinese philosophy through common western philosophical terms.
Picking up on Hu Shi's early-twentieth-century view, while developing Chan and de Bary's interests in neo-Confucianism, Tu Weiming (1940–) has become one of the principal representatives for the creative reinvention of Confucianism as religion. Tu and other Confucian-values advocates place themselves self-consciously in what he has termed a "Third Wave" of rejuvenation of the ru tradition. This contemporary incarnation of the tradition must be recognized, he insists, as a new ethical world religion on par with Islam, Judaism, and Christianity and capable of generating a similar fundamentalism: "Confucianism so conceived is a way of life which demands an existential commitment on the part of Confucians no less intensive and comprehensive than that demanded of the followers of other spiritual traditions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism."
In this particular context Tu's argument for equal theological status with world religions resembles the formalistic equating of Chinese and Western philosophy found in Wing-tsit Chan's Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy, where one learns that "in order to understand the mind of China, it is absolutely necessary to understand Chinese thought, especially Neo-Confucianism." The Tu Wei-ming fundamentalist reading of a "New Confucianism" (xinruxue ) has been embraced by social scientists as definitive of late-twentieth-century Asian modernity and is fully in evidence in recent essay collections such as Joseph B. Tamney and Linda Hsueh-Ling Chiang's Modernization, Globalization, and Confucianism in Chinese Societies (2002) and Daniel A. Bell and Hahm Chaibong's Confucianism for the Modern World (2003). Such works regard China's impressive economic transformation as caused by its system of values, that is, "Confucianism," thus using Weber's own conception of mediating spirituality to turn on its head his argument about the lack of capitalism in China.
Consequently, the term Confucianism, meaning here traditional values of social hierarchy and familial tranquility, exerts considerable influence over academic commentary on the political and economic reforms that have brought China unforeseen prosperity, as seen in recent works by André Gunder-Frank, Samuel Huntington, and David Landes. This common reading has achieved conceptual assent in the West and elaboration in China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong as an ideology of sensible capitalist development under the watchful eye of Kongzi/Confucius and managed by authoritarian governments. An editorial in Renmin ribao (People's Daily ) in 1996 declaimed the harmony of Confucianism and China's market Leninism, asserting that "Confucianism's rule of virtues and code of ethics and authority" were "the soul of the modern enterprise culture and the key to gaining market share and attracting customers." Such is the complex and sometimes contradictory rhetorical context of today's New Confucianism.
Nativism and New Confucianism
The term xinrujia (or xinruxue ), loosely translated as "New Confucianism," refers to an intellectual and cultural phenomenon of the last decades of the twentieth century, coinciding with the Chinese economic reforms begun in the early 1980s. Cited by foreign pundits and Communist Party officials as a significant determining factor in China's rapid and largely successful economic transformation, this postmodern Confucianism has growing numbers of followers and advocates, principally in academic institutions in Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, and the United States. The increasingly self-proclaimed existence of these dangdai xinrujia (contemporary New Confucians) is evidence of a revolution in cultural politics and emergent global intellectual affinities generated by the search of a deracinated intelligentsia for moral justification and the accidental advent of the Chinese economic miracle. By turns considered a matter of cultural identity, religion, philosophy, and social ethos, "New Confucianism"—in its vast range of contemporary cultural reference— is, not unlike its predecessor, "Confucianism," everything and yet no-thing.
Arguably, any Confucianism put forward with good faith at any time after China's twentieth-century revolution must be "new"; there have certainly been currents of ru advocacy running in the broader tumultuous stream of Chinese culture in the twentieth century and indeed in previous centuries. Nevertheless, New Confucianism in China at the turn of the twenty-first century is a distinct product of China's economic reforms, particularly the capitalist triumphalism of the Deng Xiaoping era (1979–1997). It unites the diverse contemporary constituencies of the meta-national entity that is wenhua Zhongguo (cultural China), while explaining in a mild chauvinist temper the rapid economic expansion of China and the four "mini-dragons" of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.
In the creative convulsion of the 1980s, Ruxue or "Confucianism" returned to respectability as China opened (kaifang) to the outside world while looking inward in search of cultural resources that might offer moral solace and regenerate indigenous models for community in the wake of a broader spiritual crisis (jingshen weiji ). Ru revivalism first took its place as a discrete movement to reassess cultural identity, quickly thereafter metamorphosing into a state-supported research institute in Beijing, the China Confucius Research Institute (Zhonghua Kongzi yanjiusuo). And, of the manifold cultural exuberances of this anxious era, New Confucianism, perhaps because of its alignment with the party-state, was one of the few that survived the massacre at Tiananmen in 1989 and the subsequent campaign against bourgeois liberalism. It endured and became a discourse with multiple constituencies as scholars in China who had long worked on the subject in isolation or self-censorship learned of a larger academic dialogue in East Asia and the United States over the restitution of Confucian studies.
This late-twentieth-century frenzy of reinvention followed a longer interval of multiple forms of conceptual invention by Chinese scholars. The very term New Confucianism may be traced to He Lin (1902–1992), the Chinese idealist who, writing in the early 1940s about xinrujia, saw in the unfolding of a "new" Confucianism (that is, the xin xinxue [new learning of the mind] of Wang Yangming, 1472–1529), a cultural path for China's reconciliation of subjective and objective spirit in a manner parallel to that sketched out by Hegel's phenomenology for Europe. His vision was blocked by decades of oscillating violence against "revisionism," bourgeois sentiment, and tradition, most spectacularly the prolonged national campaign of the 1970s to criticize Lin Biao (1908–1971) and Kongzi (piLin piKong ), wherein everything that was wrong with China was placed at the feet of Confucianism.
Owing to the simultaneous emergence of the revival of Confucianism (fuxing ruxue ) and of Asian regional hypergrowth, many Communist Party officials have concluded that this coincidence indicates causation. This view directly and fiercely confronts Max Weber's argument that late Qing Confucianism exhibited an ethic of accommodation with the world that inhibited the growth of capitalism and its modern rationality. The capitalist Confucians contend that Confucianism, properly understood—that is, New Confucianism—is as world transforming as Puritanism, but without its otherworldly, transcendent yearnings. Capitalist Confucians, then, represent but one of a growing number of xinruxue manifestations in the post–Cultural Revolution era, in which the urge for a secure native identity by Chinese both at home and abroad is paramount.
The faith of this form of New Confucianism is likely to remain prominent in explaining the eminence of Asia in the twenty-first century, given the widespread acceptance of the facticity of Confucianism and of its principal explanatory role in the sophisticated accumulation of Asian capital and Chinese modernization. However, China's capitalist Confucian achievement, that some characterize as "harmony above all," or of the "pervasiveness of the Confucian mentality in contemporary East Asia," occludes a broader vision of the nation's definitive religious pluralism. In this way the scholars of New Confucianism, whether in Boston, Hong Kong, Beijing, or Taipei, commit the grievous error of Han-era orthodoxy—namely, aligning themselves and their readers with the official country, as Kristofer Schipper has pointed out, against "the real country, the local structures being expressed in regional and unofficial forms of religion."
This, of course, was the legacy of Matteo Ricci's elevation of la legge d'letterati above the sects of Buddhism and Daoism, as it was the logical interpretive consequence of Max Weber's valorization of the Confucian life orientation over that of Daoism. So it is that all turn-of-the-twenty-first-century talk about a "spiritual Confucianism" or of "Confucian humanism" and any of the other manifestations of essentialist cultural self-definition in fact continues the four-century-old tale of intercultural (transnational) communication. The invention of Confucianism is one of the significant moments in the cultural politics of modernity. Our instinctive familiarity with the figure of Confucius and the ethics and social order for which it stands is testament to the conjoined cultural consciousness of the modern era. Confucianism's invention and reinvention at the hands of its many makers, West and East, has occurred in circumstances of crisis or tumultuous change—late-sixteenth-century Europe, seventeenth-century Europe, late-nineteenth-century China, mid-twentieth-century United States, and late-twentieth-century China. Its development as a field of study thus bears the marks of these times and conveys past and present interpretation forward, with the religious lives of authentic China just beyond our representative reach.
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