- Confucianism and Sacred Space: The Confucius Temple from Imperial China to Today by Chin-shing Huang
Is Confucianism a religion? It depends, of course, on what we mean by “religion.” State-sanctioned responses differ. In China, Confucianism is not officially recognized as one of the five official religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism). In Indonesia, by contrast, it is recognized as one of the six official religions, along with Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Whatever the attitude of the state to religion, it can’t help us to answer the question of whether Confucianism is a religion. At the end of the day, religion is a matter of subjective belief. But what kind of beliefs count as religion? Here we need a historical perspective. In the early twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals worked with a definition of religion as belief in a transcendent being and the afterlife. The Confucian tradition is rich and diverse, but it has hardly anything to say about the afterlife, and the idea of a godlike controlling power is foreign to the tradition. So influential thinkers such as Liang Qichao claimed that Confucianism is not a religion. But Chin-shing Huang argues that we need a broader and culturally neutral conception of religion because “many people confused the specifics of Western religions with the definition of religion” (p. 288). Huang does not explicitly define what he means by religion, but the more inclusive Encyclopedia Britannica definition of religion as “human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, absolute, spiritual, or worthy of especially reverence” can make sense of the way he uses the term in this book.
Huang emphasizes that Confucianism was regarded as a religion throughout much of Chinese history, along with Buddhism and Daoism, and “Confucian temples are obviously the holy grounds of Confucianism” (p. vii). In this impressively detailed account of the role of Confucian temples in Chinese history, Huang shows that the Confucius temple in Qufu (曲阜) has long been regarded as a sacred space that connects the Kong clan to its famous ancestor. From the Han dynasty onward, Confucian religion took a civic and public form: the temples also served as sites for sacred-like rituals to Confucius that conferred political legitimacy on the ruling dynasty, as well as sites invested with cultural legitimacy in the form of Confucian enshrinement. Starting from the Jin [End Page 241] dynasty, Confucian temples expanded to the rest of China as well as tributary states and allies such as Korea and Vietnam (Huang limits his investigation to the case of traditional China).
Even as a state religion, however, the role of Confucianism was not fixed. Throughout Chinese imperial history, there was always a tension between the Confucian literati who owed their ultimate allegiance to the moral Way and emperors who asserted that the official way is the Way, without the need for mediation by troublesome intellectuals. The Ming dynasty emperor Ming Shizong (明世宗) tried to undermine Confucians who questioned his legitimacy by removing the status of King (王 wang) from Confucius in 1529 and degrading his rank of worship in Confucian temples, but such efforts were not long-lasting: the “alien ruler” (p. 148), Qing emperor Kangxi (康熙), strongly promoted Confucius temple rituals. Huang shows that the role of Confucian temples became even more important under non-Han conquest dynasties because their relatively tenuous claim on legitimacy was strengthened via ceremonies in Confucian temples.
After the downfall of the imperial system in 1911, Confucianism’s loss of official status and religious fever resulted in the decline of the Confucian temple. Huang also blames “new Confucians” such as Feng Youlan (馮友蘭) and Mou Zongsan (牟宗三) for the downfall of Confucian religion and the decline of Confucian temples because they emphasized the value of humaneness (仁 ren) at the expense of ritual propriety (禮 li): “These intellectuals were blind to the fact that the soul of Confucianism as a religion resided in the performance of rites and rituals—the...