When a man is asked to write an article on Confucianism, his immediate question is: “Which Confucianism? Now, of course, it is genetically true of every religion that it has many aspects. Always there is the distinction between the religion of the “fundamentalist” and the religion of the “liberal”: always there is the contrast between the lofty but nebulous creed of the philosopher and the workaday faith of the plain man. Yet of no religion is this more true than of Confucianism, which at certain levels ceases altogether to be a religion in any sense of the word. Instead, it becomes at once an ethical system and a pattern of life. Curiously enough, this tendency, which might at first seem to be its weakness, has proved to be its strength in old age; for in the twentieth century, with the collapse of the organized Confucian cult, Confucianism still persists. It survives not only as a deliberately chosen way of life, but even more as an unselfconscious, pervasive attitude of mind, which is, by one of the ironies of history, more common now in the Western world than in the Eastern. Therefore, among the world’s religions, the study of Confucianism is still valid, though today there are no sacrifices or incense burned before the tablets or statue of the sage K’ung Ch’iu, better known to the West by his honorific title of “K’ung the Maestro,” K’ung Fu-Tzu, early Latinized as Confucius.


This collapse of the cult has a certain appropriateness. Confucius was no Confucianist, and would certainly have deplored such virtual deification. It is doubly appropriate that there is nowadays a renewed interest on all sides in Confucius the man, for it is first as a man, and second as a teacher that he has left an abiding mark on the East. For millennia he has been regarded as an expert in “lifemanship,” to use a useful neologism from contemporary humorists; and it is as such that others have looked to him for guidance.

Setting aside then those works which are mere “debunking” in the modern tradition, and those “higher critical” studies which deny Confucius any independent existence, we find remaining many recent studies which represent a serious attempt to recover the man himself, to see him directly instead of through endless stacks of commentaries, as has been his fate for two thousand years at least. For the serious student, Creel’s books will repay study. For an easy, readable, yet scholarly exposition of the modern “slant,” the busy pastor could not do better than read the paperback copy, A Short History of Confucian Philosophy, by Liu Wu-Chi (Penguin Books, 1955).

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On the writer’s shelf before him are two small Chinese books, taken at random, which serve as a reminder that this revival of interest in Confucius is by no means confined to the somewhat artificial atmosphere of Western universities with their departments of Chinese studies. Were this so, it would indicate that Confucianism was already dead and had reached the point of being worthy of study as a branch of “spiritual archaeology,” like the religion of the Incas or the Totemism of precolonial New England. No, these books, and numerous others, are written in a living situation, to meet a living need. One book is titled, A New Discussion of Confucianism, by Ch’en Chien-Fu, and the other is Criticism of Confucian Philosophy, by Chang Shen-Ch’ieh, published in Formosa in 1953 and 1954 respectively.


Now, in spite of what detractors may read into the last clause of this sentence, such continued study of Confucius in the periphery of the Chinese world is not mere “stubborness,” nor can it be dismissed as merely “reactionary”—although it is true that Confucianism was as much a part of Old China as the Orthodox Church was of prerevolutionary Russia. Such books are published not simply because Confucianism was part of the old and loved as such; they are published because, for better or worse, Confucianism was the motor spring of the old. If the old is to survive in the same recognizable form, it must therefore be with this motivation. The Chinese of the Dispersion may dress and eat like the Americans or Australians around them without ceasing in any way to be thoroughly Chinese; but once they cease to live by Confucian ways of thought, then they cease to be distinctively Chinese. Thus the resuscitation of Confucianism, no doubt artificial in some of its aspects, is not alone a conscious protest against that un-Chinese way of life which is communism; it is equally an incoherent protest against the invasion of the old China by all modern corrosive values. As Christians, we may well see dangers in this attitude, for the Gospel is certainly a solvent, if not a corrosive. As realists, we may feel it a vain attempt to plug the dikes of modern thought; but we must at least try to understand it.

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So Confucius, like some modern King Canute, is doughtily fighting on two “fluid fronts” today. The materialistic Western world “debunks” him, or considers him hopelessly impractical. The Communist world simply points to him, shrugs its shoulders, and says in effect, “There you are—we told you so!” No need for “debunking” so far as they are concerned (although there have been some very crude attacks on him); he is already the quintessence of all that communism opposes. He is feudalistic to his backbone; he is aristocratic in the true sense of that maligned word. Worse still, he holds incurably “bourgeois” concepts of virtues and vices. The maligned hymn verse, “God made them high and lowly, He ordered their estate,” would have found a stout defender in Teacher K’ung. He would have stood for no egalitarian nonsense, though his sense of superiority might be measured in terms of learning or virtue as well as birth. He would have accepted as axiomatic the attribution of such strata to Providence if not to a personal God, whereat the Communist would again shrug his shoulders, in helplessness and in triumph. In the Communist’s mind, Confucius belongs to a paternalistic age, past and outmoded, and there is no need to attack him now. They may condescend to use him at times as an example of good vulgar proletarian virtues that peep shyly through the rents of a fur-lined bourgeois gown, much the same way Nazi Germany was pleased to use Martin Luther as a national figure long after they had denied him his position as religious leader.


The attitude of the Communists to Confucius is not, of course, important to us except insofar as we may ask ourselves whether they were right in regarding Confucius as the epitome of the Old China, the destruction of which they felt to be their immediate mission in the East. If that was the case, then we have a valuable confirmation of the view of the Chinese periphery—that Confucius is the very matrix from which came traditional China with all its weakness and strength. But we as Christians ought to carry this analysis further. Confucius is to us not only the epitome of Old China, but of old natural man—lovable, inconsistent, easygoing, with a neat pattern of virtues and vices, rights and duties, and regarding the whole of life as a pattern of human relationships. Thus it is that for the man educated by the old “classical” system, the transition from Greece and Rome to Confucius is easy and natural; he is conscious of no break because there is none. Confucius breathes the same air and oves with the same grace and dignity as the Olympians. He finds an answering, if unwilling, echo in us all simply because he is the fine flowering of all that is best in the old pagan world. In other words, he is something of our father. In our hasty Christian rejection of the pagan world, we do well to remind ourselves that there are worse things than a good pagan. We can recollect with humility that it was not even Christian theology that swept Parnassus from the educational curriculum, but statics, dynamics, and physics—that worthy trinity of the Machine Age. Communism denies, as sheer subjective folly, the “ought feelings” that were self-evident to Confucius, as indeed they were to most Western philosophers and moralists until recent centuries.

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But communism is not alone in this denial: the neo-pagan of the modern West, for all his antipathy to communism, yet agrees with it here. And is this modern pagan in any way preferable, from the evangelical Christian point of view, to the traditional Confucian type of pagan?

If, from this point of view, we should be tempted to consider Teacher K’ung as a Christian ally, we must remember that, as Christians, we can none of us believe in the inherent goodness and decency of man. As an explicit doctrine, this is more characteristic of Mencius who played a Chinese Aristotle to the Confucian Plato; but it is an ever-present, yet unexpressed element in every Confucian syllogism, be it in philosophy or ethics.

So, in the twentieth century, the Sage has no ally—Marxist, Western materialist, or Christian theologian. Canute has stemmed the waves all in vain; the Chinese of tomorrow, whether inside or outside the Bamboo Curtain, can scarcely be a true Confucianist. He must instead choose between two brands of materialism, unless indeed he has come to that complete distrust of man and complete trust in God which is Christian faith.

Where, then, does Confucianism live? It lives unconsciously in the hearts of many an educated “decent pagan” of the West who has absorbed insensibly certain moral standards from the pervasive Christianity of which he knows little and wants to know less. Wherever the old liberal humanism prevails, with its tranquil and deluding beliefs about the nature of Man—there Confucianism lives, recognized or unrecognized. Good-natured pagans, dignified and cultured, coming from the “best” of families, going to the “best” colleges, secure and confident in their own benevolent “mission,” still dressing for dinner as did the ship founders beneath them—these are the true sons and daughters of Confucius. The fondness of the modern world for translations of Confucius shows that at least some of these pagans recognize the pit from which they have been dug, and the rock from which they have been hewn.

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Alan Cole is a native of Dublin, Ireland, and holds the B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Trinity College, Dublin, and the B.D. and M.Th. degrees from King’s College, London. After teaching at Oak Hill Theological College, London, and Moore Theological College, Sydney, he went to the mission field in 1952. Currently he is engaged in a Lay Leaders’ Training Scheme of “Schools of Discipleship” in Singapore Diocese.

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