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  • Confucianism as Religion: Controversies and Consequences by Yong Chen
  • Clemens Büttner (bio)
Confucianism as Religion: Controversies and Consequences. By Yong Chen. Religion in Chinese Societies, vol. 5. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013 Pp. ix + 207. Hardcover $133.00, isbn 978-90-04-24373-6.

In Confucianism as Religion: Controversies and Consequences, Yong Chen takes an interesting approach to the subject of Confucian religiosity: he concentrates on analyzing the intellectual and academic debate about the question of whether Confucianism is a religion and highlights its cultural as well as socio-political implications for contemporary China, assuming that this debate coincided with a transition from the predominance of Confucian paradigms to those of modernity. Without this paradigmatic shift, argues Chen, the past and ongoing controversy about Confucian religiosity could not be fully appreciated.

To verify his assumption, the author first examines the Chinese reception of the Western concept of religion and relates it to the most common Chinese terms associated with the Confucian tradition (rujia 儒家, rujiao 儒教, and ruxue 儒學—remaining untranslated throughout). In China at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century, the necessity to acknowledge and adapt to a new and modern world manifested itself in (among other things) attempts to reconcile the Confucian tradition with the notion of religion. Yet, as Chen shows, the Chinese interest in such a reinterpretation of Confucianism was not epistemological in nature. The real question was whether Chinese culture fit these modern times and could contribute to them. According to the author, the answer to either question—the religiosity of Confucianism and its suitability for modernity—is complicated by the "ambiguity of terms" (p. 29) with which to label the Confucian tradition in the Chinese language, either as rujia, rujiao, or ruxue. While the generic Western term "Confucianism" epitomizes the feature of holism striven for by proponents of a Confucian religion, the respective Chinese terms are characterized by slightly differing and limiting connotations that tend to emphasize either the religious (rujiao) or secular (rujia, ruxue) qualities of the tradition.

For Chen, such ambiguity becomes equally apparent on the level of values and implications associated with the debate in China and the West, respectively. In brief fashion, he juxtaposes Kang Youwei's 康有為 (1858–1927) interpretation of Confucianism in religious terms ("Kongjiao" 孔教) with the fundamental rejection of all matters religious in the May Fourth Movement. Since the late 1970s, participants in the debate such as Ren Jiyu 任繼愈 (1916–2009), Jiang Qing 蔣慶 (b. 1953), and Kang Xiaoguang 康曉光 (b. 1963) have declared the Confucian tradition a religion in order to either deny (Ren) or assert (Jiang, Kang) a continuing relevance of Confucianism to China's culture and politics. [End Page 569]

By contrast, in the Western discourse the main issue is whether the assertion of a religious dimension of Confucianism is sufficient to identify it as a religion. After introducing the varying perspectives of, among others, James Legge (1815–1897), Julia Ching (1934–2001), and Rodney L. Taylor (b. 1944), Yong Chen suggest to take a holistic and contextual perspective when attempting to define Confucianism as a religion: the Confucian tradition as a comprehensive system ought to be taken into account, as should the specific context within which one endeavors to assert the religiosity of Confucianism. Correspondingly, if Confucianism is perceived as a religion (or something else), it should not be taken as a "universal truth" (p. 87).

Chen bases his demand to divest the conception of religion from any claim of definiteness and universal applicability on a pragmatic turn in defining religion in religious studies (from the late 1960s onwards): approaches like Martin Southwold's suggestion to render religion as a "polythetic class" (p. 100) allow for a more open definition of "religion" that facilitates the transculturation necessary for gainful application of the concept to the Confucian tradition. Furthermore, argues Chen, in order to fit the requirements of modernity, Confucianism as a religion has to be clearly demarcated from its cultural context. Only then can the question of the definability of Confucianism along religious lines be posed and the epistemological significance of the ensuing debate be assessed. In that respect, the Confucian tradition comes to be defined in pursuit of either a modernizing agenda—could...


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