On February 5, 2012, the New York Times carried a story about a Confucian academy in South Korea. It is one of some 150 such academies (seawon) in the country. Their main program consists of retreats, especially for schoolchildren. The program, apparently quite rigorous, is to provide training in moral behavior and etiquette (the two are closely related in Confucian thought). Park Seok-hong, head of a large academy originally founded in 1543, explained the basic assumption of these programs: “We may have built our economy, but our morality is on the verge of collapse.”
It is not a new lament. It recurs in many countries, including Western ones, wherever modernization has led to economic development, but also to a weakening of traditional patterns of belief and values. Recourse to Confucianism is not new either. The government of Singapore has been worried for a long time that the phenomenal economic success of the city state has left a moral vacuum. To deal with this problem, the government at one point launched a program of moral education in schools, based on the teachings of the major religious traditions present in the country—Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity—adding Confucianism to this ecumenical mix, under the assumption that it would appeal to the ethnic Chinese majority in the state. That turned out to be a mistake: Parents were free to choose the curriculum to which their children were assigned; most Chinese parents chose Christianity. During the Cultural Revolution in China, Confucianism had been savagely attacked as superstitious and reactionary (like all religion). In recent years the (still nominally Marxist) government has rehabilitated Confucius as a great teacher of social virtue. His birthplace has been promoted as a place for pilgrimage and tourism. And the centers for Chinese culture throughout the world were called Confucius Institutes. Like all traditions with a history of many centuries, Confucianism has emphasized different values at different times. Understandably, authoritarian governments like the values of respect for authority and social order (conveniently ignoring other Confucian values, such as the one saying that authority must earn respect by behaving in a just and humane manner).
There can be no doubt that Confucianism has been a powerful cultural influence throughout East Asia, providing social and political values not only in China, but in Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. As a social ethic, it has indeed emphasized discipline and loyalty, exercised within a hierarchical order of society. Under modern conditions, especially in the Chinese diaspora, it morphed into what Robert Bellah has called “bourgeois Confucianism”, evincing a curious similarity with the famous “Protestant ethic”. The grueling Confucian examination system, which trained the ruling class in imperial China, has survived in the “examination hell” (a Japanese term) which characterizes schools in all the East Asian countries today. As a political ethic, both its proponents and its critics are justified in calling Confucianism a basically conservative ideology.
All these values are secular (Max Weber called them “inner-worldly”), in principle detachable from any religious beliefs or practices. Thus there has been the view of Confucianism as nothing but a secular, perhaps even a secularizing morality. There has also been the view that Confucianism, despite the overwhelmingly secular content of its teachings, is based on a worldview that is ultimately religious—indeed the view that Confucianism is a religion.
I am not a scholar of Chinese culture and religion, and therefore not competent to adjudicate between these two views. It seems to me that there are plausible arguments for each. As far as it goes, I am inclined toward the latter view, mainly due to the influence of Tu Weiming (of Harvard and Peking University), who has been a kind of missionary for an understanding of Confucianism as (at least potentially) a world religion for today. I am also indebted to conversations with two colleagues at Boston University, Robert Neville and John Berthrong, who have been associated with the somewhat nebulous group known as “Boston Confucians” (perhaps best understood as Protestant successors to Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary, who some 400 years ago maintained that Confucianism could be combined with Christianity).
Confucianism is a secular morality: Its teachings are almost exclusively concerned with behavior in the empirical world: ren—“altruism or “human-mindedness”; li—ritual and etiquette; xiao—“filial piety”. These are moral principles that are applied to the so-called “five bonds”—between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife; older and younger brother; friend and friend. The first four “bonds” are explicitly hierarchical; the fifth deals with relations between equals, but the assumption is that they are equal in status within the overall hierarchy. In traditional Confucianism, these were not virtues to which all could aspire; they were to be attained through education and self-cultivation (including music and calligraphy). The ideal was the Confucian gentleman, who looked down on the false comforts of religion and faced life with an attitude of stoicism. It is quite clear that these virtues (including the behaviors they promoted, as in ritual and etiquette) could be divorced from any specific religious beliefs. That conclusion was arrived at by Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the Jesuit missionary to China who believed that Confucian morality could be combined with Catholic faith. Ricci, who was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, dressed and acted like a Confucian gentleman. The Jesuits in China continued his approach for some decades, even arguing that ancestor worship was just an expression of “filial piety”, a secular virtue, which Chinese converts were free to practice. Dominicans and Franciscans also came to China, and they strongly disagreed with the Jesuits. The Pope ruled against the Jesuits and prohibited their more extreme chinoiseries (a term coined in France some years later, to make fun of a briefly fashionable imitation of all things Chinese). One may say that the Pope implicitly defined Confucianism as a religion.
Confucianism is a religion: I don’t think that the Papal ruling against the Jesuits was intended to be infallible, so even conservative Catholics may understand Confucianism as a secular morality. However, there is one classical and rather central Confucian belief that, I think, is unambiguously religious—that of tian, usually translated as “heaven”. It is not theistic, although gods are associated with it. Rather, it is a cosmic order, supernatural in that it transcends the empirical world, over which it presides and with which it interacts. It thus serves as the necessary, ipso facto religious foundation for all the secular virtues propagated by Confucian teachings. It seems to me that this religious character of tian is most clearly expressed in the notion of the “mandate of heaven”: A ruler has this “mandate”, the basis of his legitimacy, if he rules in accordance with the moral rules governing relations between him and his subjects. If he does not so rule, the “mandate of heaven” will be withdrawn, his rule becomes illegitimate and his subjects have a valid reason to disobey or even overthrow him. The distinctively Confucian institution resulting from this idea was that of the “imperial censors”—officials at court with the express duty to reprimand the emperor if he strayed from correct ritual and moral behavior. I take it that this did not happen very often: Emperors, in China or elsewhere, do not take kindly to being reprimanded.
However one comes out on the secular versus religious view of Confucianism, most people in East Asia (with the possible exception of truly self-cultivated gentlemen) have looked on Confucianism as a guide for social and political life—and not as an answer to the metaphysical questions with which religion has always dealt. Confucianism, be it in classical China or in the bustling cities of East Asia today, is not very helpful in the crises of personal life. Some of these crises are endemic to the human condition, notably those evoked by the Buddha’s Sorrowful Three Visions—old age, illness and death. In all East Asian societies traditions other than Confucianism have been available and indeed institutionalized to help people in such crises (as well as with the more mundane problems of ordinary life). In the countries of the region there are the temples and practitioners of folk religion—in China often associated with Daoism, in Japan with Shinto, in Korea with Shamanism. But above all there is Buddhism, with a rich variety of beliefs and practices, designed to meet the religious needs of both sophisticated and uneducated individuals. It is no accident that Buddhist monks have a virtual monopoly in the conducting of funerals: If someone you love has just died, you’d like to hear consoling Buddhist sutras, not Confucian prescriptions on proper relations between magistrates and petitioners.
One can agree with those who maintain that material prosperity does not provide answers to the deeper dilemmas of human life. Neither Marxism (which is pretty obsolete in the region) nor nationalism (which has been tried as a substitute ideology) can replace religion in crises such as bereavement—except, perhaps, when the object of grief has died on the barricades of revolution or on the battlefield. The new Confucianism has the same problem that this tradition has always had. The same alternatives are available today. Folk religion is robustly present. There have been strong Buddhist revival movements in much of the region. And there is one surprising phenomenon not mentioned in the Times story: the explosive growth of Christianity in China and the Chinese diaspora, and especially in South Korea.
Is Park Seok-hong right in his hope that Confucianism can fill the moral and spiritual vacuum that is felt by many people in South Korea and elsewhere in the contemporary world? Probably yes—in providing an eminently sensible (if unduly hierarchical) morality for social and political life. But to the extent that the vacuum has a spiritual dimension—probably not.