Because of the missionary activities of Jesuits in late imperial China and the world religions paradigm that emerged in the late 19th century, scholars tend to view Confucianism as a world religion. However, Confucianism does not fit into disciplinary boxes neatly. Accordingly, Confucian religiosity has been the subject of much debate among scholars. The answer depends largely upon how one defines religion and Confucianism. However, Confucianism and religion are not self-evident categories, but historically conditioned entities. Central to the theoretical discussion of Confucian religiosity has been the idea of transcendence. To many, Confucianism does not seem a type of religion because it does not put God at the center of attention. To others, Confucianism upholds immanent transcendence as its ideal, which does not impose an other-worldly standard but instead suggests human perfectibility. By invoking the notion of immanent transcendence, scholars caution us not to take European Christianity for granted and not to close our eyes to the array of alternative forms of religion. In addition to this theoretical debate, there have been other types of study on religious aspects of Confucianism. Anthropologists and historians have been studying practices of Confucian religious rituals in Chinese history. Rituals were a powerful method that rulers, throughout the dynasties, have employed to legitimize their rule. As with other rituals, imperial authorities patronized various rituals in the hope of attaining the support of their subjects. However, from its inception, Confucian rituals became complex interpretive arenas in which various social actors disputed, accommodated, negotiated, and rearticulated the Confucian orthodoxy according to their interests. Throughout the 20th century, mainland Chinese politicians and intellectuals often stigmatized Confucianism as the cause of China’s downfall. However, Confucianism, which had been regarded as only a hindrance by the Communists, currently appears to be a resource with which to remake China.
Youngmin Kim, Se-Hyun Kim, and Ji Hye Song
Youngmin Kim, Ha-Kyoung Lee, and Seongun Park
Confucianism is a principal category and term of analysis in most discourses on Chinese culture. However, when it is defined in very stylized terms, it turns out to be of little use for understanding long-term historical changes, as its meaning varied greatly over more than a millennium. The Confucian tradition has fluctuated primarily because rulers and elites made use of inherited Confucianism for their ideological ends. In this light, Confucianism, Chinese elite, and politics are closely interconnected. Confucius, who has often been regarded as the founder of Confucianism, did not entertain a chance to materialize his political vision through a powerful government office, even if he had wished to do so. However, after his death, the early imperial rulers of China actively appropriated the textual tradition of what would later become Confucianism and used it to legitimize their political powers. Throughout the late imperial periods, Neo-Confucianism gained wide currency among those who did not hold governmental office and yet sought to engage in public matters at a local level. At the same time, donning the ideological garb of a Confucian sage-king, late imperial rulers instituted the civil service examinations and adopted Neo-Confucian commentaries on classical texts as the official curriculum. As there was almost no other access to office except through these examinations, Neo-Confucianism had become required knowledge for anyone who aspired to become a member of the elite until the early decades of the 20th century. In the late 19th century, China found itself in a disadvantageous position in the new world order, where aggressive European imperialism advanced across Asia. At that time, Chinese reformers regarded Confucianism as a cause of China’s failure to industrialize as adeptly as Western countries had. During the Mao Zedong era, Confucianism continued to be held responsible for the static nature of Chinese society, which robbed it of the possibility of progress. As Communism ceases to be a satisfactory model for China, the country’s politicians and intellectuals have sought a new identity and model whereby they can fashion their future. As a consequence, although discarded at the beginning of the last century as the cause of China’s demise, Confucianism has been gaining new currency as the model for modern China.
China’s economic rise has been accompanied by the maturation and increasing professionalization of academic disciplines in China, including the discipline of international relations. The emergence of an indigenous international relations discipline in China has led to an intense debate about the development of a distinctive “Chinese School” that draws on China’s intellectual traditions and historical record to inspire the development of new international relations theories. While the debate continues, the outlines of a Chinese School are becoming clear. The Chinese School of international relations theory draws on Confucian concepts of relationality and hierarchy to theorize the character of the relations between countries rather than focus on the attributes of countries themselves. It also highlights the historical existence of interstate systems organized in a hub-and-spoke pattern around a single, central state. The premodern East Asian world-system in which China was embedded and classical Chinese scholars developed their ideas was a central state system. Premodern China was always by far the dominant state in East Asia, with the result that international relations in the East Asian world-system exhibited a hub-and-spoke pattern centered on China, as in the tributary system of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Moreover the Confucian worldview that ultimately came to be China’s state ideology served in effect as the governing moral code of the system as a whole. The combination of a central state structure with a universal moral code created what in Chinese is called a tianxia (“all under heaven”), a world-embracing system of governance centered on a particular state, in this case China. In a tianxia system international relations tend to be hierarchical because of the clear power differentials between the central state and other states. They can be either expressive (showing social solidarity) or purely instrumental, depending on the stance taken by the central state. Chinese School international relations theorists tend to assume that the “best” (most stable, most peaceful, most prosperous, etc.) world-system configuration would be a tianxia system dominated by expressive rationality and centered on China, but this is no more self-evident than the widely held Western preference for a liberal, rules-based order. What Chinese School international relations theory really offers the discipline is a new set of concepts that can be applied to the theorization and empirical analysis of today’s millennial world-system. This postmodern interstate system appears to be a central state system with a universal moral code, an American tianxia based on individualism. The historical Confucian Chinese tianxia may be the best precedent for modeling this system.