The Confucian Body
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The Confucian Body
Thomas A. Wilson, editor. On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics, and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius. Harvard East Asian Monographs 217. Cambridge (MA) and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2002. xvi, 424 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 0-674-00961-4.

There was a time, as late as the first half of the twentieth century, when Western academic readers were likely to come across the statement that Buddhism was not a religion but rather a secular system of philosophy or mental cultivation. Such a claim would be based on a very selective reading of Buddhist texts; an absence of other kinds of investigation, such as observation of Buddhist practices other than meditation; and a set of assumptions about what constitutes religion that was based on a Western, primarily Christian, standard. When religion is defined as the belief in a supreme being, for example, Theravada Buddhism clearly falls outside that category—especially if one limits investigation to normative religious texts. (Asking ordinary lay Buddhists in Sri Lanka what they believe might yield different conclusions.)

Those days are, happily, over. The Western understanding of Buddhism has grown broader and deeper, while implicit theological agendas informing scholarship, when they exist at all, are no longer as simplistic as they once were (although they will probably seem so to our successors). But to those scholars who consider Confucianism to be a religious tradition (and I am one), the current state of scholarship may still seem like the dark ages. Precisely the same conditions that gave rise to the misunderstanding of Buddhism in the past are today continuing to reinforce old notions of Confucianism as merely a socio-ethical-political system of thought. We occasionally find this even in sophisticated sinological scholarship on Chinese religions.1 Further reinforcement often comes from Chinese from the People's Republic—where there are five officially recognized religions, and Confucianism is not one of them—many of whom have grown up under a regime that had very specific things to say about Confucianism.

There are two ways of examining this question, one falling roughly under the humanities disciplines and the other under the social sciences. The humanities approach often starts by proposing or choosing a definition of religion and then proceeds to demonstrate that Confucian writings—not limited to the Analects or the Classics—display the necessary characteristics of a religious tradition. An example of this kind of approach is Rodney Taylor's collection of essays, The Religious Dimensions of Confucianism (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990). Taylor, relying primarily on Frederick Streng's definition of religion, shows convincingly that [End Page 351] Confucianism can usefully be analyzed as a "means of ultimate transformation," the goal of which is Sagehood, defined with reference to the transcendent realm of Heaven. This approach relies primarily on phenomenology and hermeneutics to analyze and interpret the religious meanings of Confucian texts and to situate them in the discursive framework of the cross-cultural study of religion.

The majority of the essays in On Sacred Grounds address the question of the religious dimensions of Confucianism from a social science perspective. Four of the contributors, including the editor, are historians; the others represent the fields of anthropology, journalism, history of music, history of art, and religious studies. The general aim of the collection is "to return ritual (as theory and practice) to our thinking about Confucianism" (p. 35) and to "draw attention to Confucianism's corporeality and religiousness" (p. 36), and in these respects it succeeds admirably. As the title suggests, the central focus of the book is really the Confucian temple as the chief ritual site. The cluster of specific topics around this focus includes the music that always accompanies Confucian ritual; the mythic and iconographic figure of Confucius, who is the chief recipient of ritual sacrifice; his flesh-and-blood descendants (the Kong family), who during Imperial times were responsible for keeping the cult alive (in exchange for extraordinary state-mandated favors and wealth); and the politics surrounding the temples, especially in the Ming dynasty and the early years of the People's Republic. By fleshing out these aspects of the history of Confucianism, On Sacred...