Teaching Confucianism

Teaching Confucianism

Teaching Confucianism

Teaching Confucianism


Even the most casual observer of Chinese society is aware of the tremendous significance of Confucianism as a linchpin of both ancient and modern Chinese identity. Furthermore, the Confucian tradition has exercised enormous influence over the values and institutions of the other cultures of East Asia, an influence that continues to be important in the global Asian diaspora. If forecasters are correct in labeling the 21st century 'the Chinese century,' teachers and scholars of religious studies and theology will be called upon to illuminate the history, character, and role of Confucianism as a religious tradition in Chinese and Chinese-influenced societies. The essays in this volume will address the specifically pedagogical challenges of introducing Confucian material to non-East Asian scholars and students. Informed by the latest scholarship as well as practical experience in the religious studies and theology classroom, the essays are attentive to the various settings within which religious material is taught and sensitive to the needs of both experts in Confucian studies and those with no background in Asian studies who are charged with teaching these traditions. The authors represent all the arenas of Confucian studies, from the ancient to the modern. Courses involving Confucius and Confucianism have proliferated across the disciplinary map of the modern university. This volume will be an invaluable resource for instructors not only in religious studies departments and theological schools, but also teachers of world philosophy, non-Western philosophy, Asian studies, and world history.


John H. Berthrong and Jeffrey L. Richey

Is Confucianism a religious tradition?” Each component of this question could be unpacked to reveal reasons why Confucianism is not a religious tradition. Yet as this chapter and the volume it introduces are intended to demonstrate, reasons to regard and teach Confucianism as an authentic East Asian religious tradition are both abundant and sound.

Problematizing Confucianism as a Religious Tradition

In the words of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “The question ‘Is Confucianism a religion?’is one that the West has never been able to answer and China never able to ask.”

Confucianism, as an English word used to denote a particular religious tradition, owes an obvious debt to Western terminology and worldviews. This is evident in the writings of famed Scottish missionary and pioneering Sinologist James Legge (1815–97), whose influential definition of Confucianism identified it as “first of all the ancient religion of China, and then the views of the great philosopher himself … much as when we comprehend under Christianity the records and teachings of the Old Testament as well as those of the New.”

Legge's seminal use of the term suggests a single system of doctrines revealed by or identified with a divine or otherwise . . .

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