Lesson: Confucianism and Christianity

Note: Certain Chinese terms are in Chinese unicode encoding.

Confucianism ( 儒家思想 ) forms the basis of the Chinese civilization.  Do our accepting of Jesus Christ mean abandoning our Confucian roots?  What does it mean to be a Chinese Christian?  Can we be a "Confucian" and a Christian at the same time?

What is Confucianism?

Confucianism generally refers to the teachings of Confucius ( 孔子 ), but over the centuries it has been modified by others who came after him.  Scholars sometimes added or modified Confucius's teachings to make it more relevant to life or more consistent with the newer trends in the intellectual community.  Politicians modified it to promote their aims.  Religious people modified it to make their religion more acceptable to the people.  Thus the Confucianism we know of today is quite different from the actual teachings of Confucius.

What did Confucius really teach?

Fortunately, Confucius's teachings are faithfully recorded by his disciples in what came to be known as The Analects ( 論語 ).  From The Analects we find the basic teachings of Confucius which we need to use to compare with Christianity.

The basic underlying principle as stated by Confucius is reciprocity ( ) -- the two-way relationship between two people.  It is exemplified by the Confucian Golden Rule: "Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you" ( 及所不欲勿施於人 ).  The proper way of interpersonal relationship is called jen, ( ) which is a character made up of two characters, "two" and "person" ( , ).  A person is jen when he is fully "concerned with the state of the other person, hoping and helping the other person to improve but without sacrificing himself."1   The proper conducts are called rituals or rites ( ).  Rites include proper roles, ranks, music and dances.  The power behind real, honest rites is virtue ( ).  Rites are not the same as law; rites are rules of virtue which one voluntarily chooses to follow.  Rites are inherited from the past, so people have to study the ways of the past.  Confucius believes that through the proper and sincere observance of rites one can get closer to being jen, and who reaches that stage is called a morally noble man ( 君子 ).

Confucius claims that the Way2 ( ) has been lost, and people should strive to rediscover the Way.  Since the Way was lost, the way to rediscover it is to return to antiquity through the observance of ancient rites.  Righteousness ( ) means diligently working to do the right things and rediscover the Way for himself.  He believes that all the observances of rites and acts of righteousness will help one rediscover the Way for himself.  In short, the basic premise of Confucian teachings is that the Way is lost and we can rediscover the Way through self-cultivation, which is done by sincere observance of rites and doing the right things.

What Confucius did not teach...

Confucian teachings were not adopted by the ruling authority during the Ch'in Dynasty ( 秦朝 ).  Starting with the Han Dynasty ( 漢朝 ), Confucian teachings were made into part of the official educational curriculum, which means that people aspiring to government positions must study Confucian teachings.  This also had the side effect of government intervention into Confucian teachings, generally done so the power of government and social order could be strengthened.  For instance, the three bonds ( 三綱 ) -- absolute obedience of subjects to the ruler, children to father, and wife to husband -- was made and became part of what came to be known as Imperial Confucianism.  Some of these are quite contradictory to what Confucius taught.  For instance, Confucius advocates reciprocity, not blind obedience.  As Confucianism became more dominant in the society, these modifications became more and more frequent.  Many intellectuals in the early 20th century called for a revision of the Chinese culture because they think the Chinese civilization will not progress fast enough if it continues to be based on Confucianism.  Many of their problems with Confucianism, however, are really concerned with later modifications of Confucianism, not with the actual teachings of Confucius.

The religious aspects of Confucianism

Another issue that Confucius did not teach is the religiosity of his teachings.  He acknowledges a governing power, the Heaven ( ), and he actively participates in the sacrifices made to the Heaven.  Heaven, however, is more like an unknown deity, just like the Way is an unknown set of principles.  Once a disciple asked him about afterlife, and Confucius told him why worry about the afterlife when he doesn't even know to live the current one.  He told them to revere the spiritual things but stay away from them ( 敬鬼神而遠之 ), for he knows that the "spiritual" things around him (e.g., sorcery and fortune-telling) were all fake.  Neither did he ever claim to be a deity himself.  Confucius-worshipping was done by later generations as a way to honor him, but eventually it became a cult.

Confucius advocates proper worshipping of Heaven.  Although he admits that he knows very little about Heaven, he knows that it is part of the reason why the ancient people were great.  Confucius keeps telling people to refer to the ancient days when the Way was known and people live sincerely.  Hundreds of years later when Buddhism was introduced into China, it experienced a period of very little activity.  It finally became widely accepted after the Buddhists reconciled their beliefs with Confucian teachings and claimed that Confucian teachings and theirs are not in conflict.

Comparison of Christianity and Confucianism

The real Confucian teachings and Christian teachings are quite consistent, and many have speculated on the reasons why the two cultures separated by thousands of miles would be so.  For instance, the Confucian Golden Rule, "Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you," is very similar to Jesus's Golden Rule, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31).  But Jesus's teaching is far more demanding.  Confucius defines a jen person as concerned with others but not sacrificing himself for them; Jesus sacrificed himself.  One day, a disciple came and asked Confucius what should Shun (舜, a legendary sage king in ancient China) do if his father commits a murder.  Confucius said that he should resign from office and take his father to hide at a distant place so his father won't be caught and punished.  His reasoning is that filial piety ( ) is more important than justice ( 公義 ).  Jesus's solution to the similar problem is to take up the punishment in place of the actual murderer, for by doing so, he would have fulfilled both love and justice.

Confucius sees the Way as lost and needs to be rediscovered.  Christians know the Way -- Jesus Christ -- and know what to do to be saved (Confucius teaches nothing about redemption for sins but he does not condone sinful lifestyles).  He and his disciples were doing the best they knew how, for Jesus did not come until hundreds of years later.  Perhaps Confucius knows that there is a God and knows that the ancient people know how to reach Him, but since he and his contemporaries do not know Him, the best they could do is to follow the examples of their ancestors in their worshipping of God.  Some scholars see this as an example of a natural religion -- longing for God and will make one if necessary.  But Confucius is very different: he seems to acknowledge that there is a God but does not make one out of nowhere or out of himself.  Unfortunately, the later generations made him into a semi-deity for his contributions to the Chinese civilization.

Discussion questions:

1.  Do you think the original teachings of Confucius is contradictory to Christianity?  Why or why not?
2.  Confucius advocates distancing ourselves from spiritual matters.  Why?  Do you think this applies today?  What makes the difference here?
3.  Do you see a problem with the Confucian emphasis on rites ( )?  Why do you think they emphasize it so much?  What is the danger of observing rites without being jen ( )?
4.  Do you see any conflicts between Confucianism and Christianity?  Are those conflicts part of Confucius's original teachings, or are they modifications made after his death?
5.  How can we revere Confucius without betraying God?
6.  The governments after Confucius added to or modified Confucius's teachings to facilitate their own purposes.  What is the analogy for churches today?

(1) Most of the teachings of Confucius stated here are taken from course materials of Prof. Wei-ming Tu and Prof. Peter Bol of Harvard University.
(2) Some interpreters see the Way ( ) as equivalent to the Truth ( 真理 ).

This lesson was developed by George Huang.  Got a question or want to publish this lesson?  E-mail me.

Last updated: 2/10/2000