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  • The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China by Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval
  • On-cho Ng (bio)
Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval. The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. viii, 332 pp. Paperback $29.95, isbn 978-0-19-025814-6.

That Confucianism, variously construed and constructed, has made a spectacular comeback in the last two or three decades is indubitable. Scholarship produced on this remarkable phenomenon has been legion; however, it tends to focus on the philosophical and intellectual content and import of this system of thinking as a great tradition in Redfieldian terms, such that we have had much rumination and speculation on its potential usage as a present-day political theory and global ethics. There have been relatively far fewer studies on Confucianism as a little tradition, that is, a way of daily living for the ordinary folk. It is one thing to ponder the profundity of the Confucian canon and its ideational utility; it is another to find out just how people at the grassroots level embrace diurnal iterations of Confucian teachings. Thus, we should understand the Confucian revival as a two-faced reality and two-way process — the universalization of Confucianism as a contemporary philosophy and its parochialization in the form of quotidian practices among the masses. Anna Sun’s Confucianism as a World Religion: Contested Histories and Contemporary Realities (2013) does much to depict Confucianism as a social and political reality, primarily as a popular religion and ritualistic complex. The book under review, thanks to its anthropological research and insights, offers us another much needed, vividly drawn picture of what was happening on the ground from 2005 to 2013, something that may be collectively understood and labeled as minjian rujia (literally, Confucianism in the space of the people), or simply put, popular Confucianism.

This popular Confucianism, populated and propelled by what the authors call “Confucian activists,” comprises three dimensions, which are addressed respectively in the three parts of the book. Part 1, with three chapters, is titled “Jiaohua” (literally, to educate and transform) and examines the educative activities and [End Page 110] functions of this grassroots Confucianism, the goal of which is the realization of the ideal of morally transforming the self and others through learning that transcends mere bookish, discursive knowledge. Chapter 1 is a brief history of Confucian education in the twentieth century. Chapter 2 details the growth and proliferation of a wide variety of institutions devoted to promoting Confucian learning, such as research institutes at universities, classes on the classics for children, academies for adult learning, and centers set up by business firms and corporations. Chapter 3 parses the nature of this educative enterprise, characterizing it as a form of “anti-intellectualism,” by which is meant “a sort of suspicion toward intellectual speculations and a certain caution regarding the possible role that could be played by intellectuals in the current revival” (p. 76). Specifically, this anti-intellectualist orientation is manifested in the emphasis on transforming and working on the body, especially that of the child, as well as on the importance of the people, as opposed to the intellectual elite.

Part 2, “Anshen Liming” (literally, protecting the self and securing destiny), is similarly composed of three chapters that address popular Confucianism from religious perspectives, paying due attention to the transcendent and ultimate concerns of human life. Chapter 4 uses the life experiences and existential commitments of a female restaurateur in the southern city of Shenzhen to showcase the ways in which Confucianism, supplemented by Buddhist tenets, furnishes the religious referents for a flourishing life, that is, a cultivated life lived in the proper spiritual state (jingjie). Chapter 5 traces the vicissitudes of modern notions of religion in twentieth-century China and shows how the varieties of popular Confucian religiosity today, a genuine quest for spiritual uplift and solace of the soul, are premised on the rejection of modern categories. Chapter 6 investigates the manifold efforts and imaginings of establishing Confucianism as a civil religion and even a state religion, underpinned by a theology and doxology that is based on inner-worldly wisdom.



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