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  • Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities by Anna Sun
  • Erin M. Cline
Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities. By Anna Sun . Princeton : Princeton University Press , 2013 . Pp. xix + 244 . Hardcover $35.00 , ISBN 978-0-691-15557-9 .

Some philosophers might pass over this book after seeing the title, expecting it to present an argument that Confucianism is a religion—an argument that most philosophers who specialize in Confucianism would reject or at least want to qualify. However, Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities by Anna Sun does not aim to address how Confucianism should be classified; rather, in this fascinating and detailed study, Sun examines why Confucianism has been and continues to be regarded as a world religion, both in China and in the West. For, as Sun points out, [End Page 1103]

it has already become a social fact that Confucianism has been understood as a world religion for over a century. . . . It exists independent of what competing definitions of religion we as scholars use. The truth is that we can no longer go back to a time when Confucianism was not seen as a world religion; we are living with the very concrete legacy of this historical classification and its lasting legacy.

(p. 8)

As a sociologist, Sun is interested in analyzing “the processes through which the state and other social actors—including scholars of Confucianism, social scientists, Confucian practitioners, and other activists—contest, negotiate, and construct Confucianism” (pp. 7–8). She identifies three main sources of the confusions and controversies over the religious nature of Confucianism, and these serve as the three central organizing themes for the book: (1) the conceptualization of Confucianism as a world religion in late nineteenth-century Europe (when the “world religions” paradigm first emerged), (2) the problematic nature of social-scientific approaches to studying Chinese religions (represented by survey research that is based on a Judeo-Christian framework that fails to capture accurately Chinese religious life), and (3) the complex development of Confucianism in China today, where Confucian rituals are experiencing a revival among ordinary people, while the state promotes Confucianism as a possible source of political ideology and social ethics, and as a way to legitimize its rule in the twenty-first century.

The first three chapters focus on how Confucianism became a world religion, beginning in chapter 1 with the role of Jesuit missionaries in the Chinese Rites and Terms Controversy during the 1500s and continuing in the nineteenth century with scholars in the emerging discipline of comparative religion. Sun goes on to explore the failed movement to make “Confucianity” (kongjiao) into China’s state religion in the early twentieth century, as well as contemporary debates over the religious nature of Confucianism in China. In chapter 2, “The Making of a World Religion,” Sun presents impressive archival research showing how Max Muller and James Legge helped to promote the discourse of world religions—of which Confucianism was an essential part—within the emerging field of comparative religious studies. Chapter 3 analyzes the contemporary debate in China over whether Confucianism ought to be classified as a religion, from the formation of the Five Major Religions in the 1950s to a debate among Chinese intellectuals in 2000–2004 which had significant academic, social, and political implications.

The second part of the book focuses on the difficulty of studying Confucianism in empirical research. Chapter 4 examines Confucianism’s classification as a world religion in both popular and academic texts over the past one hundred years, and the impact of this classification. In chapter 5, “Counting Confucians through Social Scientific Research,” Sun addresses the difficulties involved in identifying Confucians using social-scientific research methods, often due to survey questions that fail to reflect the complexity of Chinese religious life. For instance, in response to the question “Do you belong to a religious denomination?” in the 2001 World Values Survey, 93.9 percent of Chinese respondents answered “No” (p. 113). In contrast, in a different survey, 84.8 percent of respondents answered “Yes” to the question “Have you [End Page 1104] ever worshipped gods (baishen) or worshipped ancestors (baizuxian)?” Arguing...