Cult of Confucianism

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Cult of Confucianism



State Cult. Beginning in the Song dynasty (960-1279),there was a reassertion of the classical Confucian religion centered on the supremacy of Heaven and the position of the ruler as the true son of Heaven. This state cult, based upon a reexplanation of traditional Confucianism by neo-Confucian intellectuals, who had been greatly influenced by the beliefs of Buddhism, continued as the official religion for the following dynasties, with the exception of a short period of Mongol rule (1279-1368) when Buddhist influence dominated the government.

Rituals. Since state rituals were performed for the benefit of all people, the emperor himself, assisted by his high-ranking officials, performed the state sacrifices. At the same time, regional and local officials performed lesser sacrifices in their prefectures and counties.

State Ritual. The emperors recognized the existence of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, but they tried to keep an eye on all public religious activities. Since emperors and their officials had to contribute crucially to the well-being of the empire, which was believed to be the entire civilized world, they asserted that a harmonious relationship should be upheld among Heaven, Earth, and man. This relationship could be maintained undamaged only if the emperor performed as the son of Heaven with deep respect and with careful attention to the details of the

sacred and sacrificial rituals, which were said to have originated in ancient times. And only the emperor, as a unique man, could perform those highly religious functions.

Ceremonies. Since the ceremonies of the state cult were many and complicated, they not only required much of the ruler’s time and attention but also demanded the founding of one of the most significant departments of the government, the Li Bu (Ministry of Rites). There were three classes of ceremonies. The first was performed by the emperor himself—the worship of Heaven, Earth, the emperor’s ancestors, and the gods of soil and grain. The second class was the middle sacrifices made for the worship of sun and moon, the emperors and great men of former dynasties, the patron of agriculture, the patroness of silk-worms, and the many spirits of land and sky. The last class covered the lesser sacrifices, comprising some thirty smaller ceremonies, in which the emperor did not participate personally. There were sacrifices to minor gods, such as patrons of medicine, water, writing, mountains, lakes, rivers, winters, glacial stars, and cities. Most spirits represented in imperial sacrifices were also worshiped on a lesser scale by administrators on the emperor’s behalf in special shrines throughout the provinces, prefectures, and counties.

National Worship. The highest act of national worship, vital to the imperial cult, was the great yearly sacrifice to Shangdi (Supreme God) performed at the altar of Heaven during the winter solstice. It was held on an open altar in the early hours before sunrise in the light of burning torches. The altar, made of shiny white marble, was located in a park south of the ancient city walls. This area featured three circular terraces of remarkable simplicity. Everything was first prepared with great care under the supervision of the Ministry of Rites, and officials and prayers were submitted to the emperor for his endorsement several days before the ceremony. A three-day fast and vigil was compulsory for the emperor, princes, and officials who were scheduled to participate in the ceremony. The ruler observed the third day of the vigil in the Hall of Self-denial, located close to the great altar. After observing the altar and holy tablets in nearby temples and examining the sacrifices to see whether they had any imperfections, the emperor purified himself and then went to the great altar.

Local Ceremony. Religious responsibilities of local officials were many and difficult. At certain times of the year a city magistrate had to visit places of worship of different public divinities and there perform somber acts of worship. In times of catastrophe—such as drought, famine, or plague—he had the duty of finding where local gods had been affronted and of inaugurating suitable ceremonies for their placation. Comprehension of rituals and sacrifices was part of the scholarly equipment of a local official.

Worship of Confucius. On the whole, the scholar class followed Confucianism, a philosophy adopted in schools as well. While each family sacrificed and prayed to the spirits of its ancestors, and each guild paid annual reverence to its patron god, scholars honored Confucius in the temples because he was deemed to be the source of all Chinese education and wisdom. Just as veneration was paid to Confucius as the great master, respect was paid to his pupils and to all celebrated intellectuals of the past whose teachings had made a distinguished contribution to learning and morality.

Halls of Celebrity. In 630 the Tang emperor Taizong decreed that temples in honor of Confucius be set up in all districts and that intellectuals offer sacrifices in their capacities as government officials. In 647 he put the tab-lets of twenty-two worthies in these sites for the first time and converted these temples into Halls of Celebrity. Confucius was represented in these early days by images. After 720 ten additional images of a seated Confucius were put in the main halls of temples, while pictures of Confucius’s seventy disciples and the worthies were painted on the walls. Up to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the cult of Confucius was treated as if the city-gods were divinities, and Confucius was seen as a god himself. To many rationalistic scholars, this idolization of Confucius constantly clashed with those who recognized him as merely mortal, albeit the greatest of human beings. It was not until 1530 that the more rationalistic attitude prevailed; the images were forbidden to remain in the Confucian temples and were replaced by tablets. Simultaneously, the term “temple” was replaced by “hall.”

Significance. When the Jesuit mission was in Beijing (1601), the missionary Matteo Ricci contended that wor-ship paid to Confucius was not different from that shown to ancestors. He claimed that there was no trace of worship and no superstition because the respect shown was only to identify him as a great man. The imperial governments promoted the cult of Confucius in an effort to bolster public morality and to maintain the power and authority of the intellectuals who remained throughout Chinese history as principal members of the bureaucracy.


The famous historian Ouyan Xiu was one of several scholars who advocated the revitalization of Confucianism and condemned Buddhism.

Tung Chung-shu was concerned at this and retired to devote himself to the practice of Confucianism, for he knew that when the way of Confucius was made clear, the other schools would cease. This is the effect of practicing what is fundamental in order to overcome Buddhism.

These days a tall warrior clad in armor and bearing a spear may surpass in bravery a great army, yet when he sees the Buddha he bows low and when he hears the doctrines of the Buddha he is sincerely awed and persuaded. Why? Because though he is indeed strong and full of vigor, in his heart he is confused and has nothing to cling to. But when a scholar who is small and frail and afraid to advance hears the doctrines of Buddhism his righteousness is revealed at once in his countenance, and not only does he not bow and submit, but he longs to rush upon them and destroy them. Why? It is simply because he is enlightened in learning and burns with a belief in rites and righteousness, and in his heart he possesses something which can conquer these doctrines. Thus rites and righteousness are the fundamental things whereby Buddhism may be defeated. If a single scholar who understands rites and righteousness can keep from submitting to these doctrines, then we have but to make the whole world understand rites and righteousness and these doctrines will, as a natural consequence, be wiped out.

Source: William Theodore de Bary and others, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, I960), p. 445.


Carson Chang, Development of ’Neo-Confucian Thought, 2 volumes (New York: Bookman, 1957, 1962).

Thomas A. Metzger, Escape from Predicament: Neo-Confucianism and Chinas Evolving Political Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).

D. Howard Smith, Chinese Religions (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968).