Confucianism: A great religion of mankind

© 1994 By Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

Abstract: Not only most Westerners but most Chinese (both ancient and modern) see Confucianism as a philosophy, not a religion. Yet, in the past 2000 years, no foreign religion could truly conquer Chinese culture. Now, there is no Buddhism in India, where it was born. Although there are Buddhist temples in China, ninety percent of the so-called Buddhists also worship in traditional Chinese style. Instead of conquering Chinese culture, Buddhism has been Sinicized. For the past 300 years, most Westerners thought that the Chinese were not religious people. Today, many theologians recognize that the Chinese are, in fact, the most religious people in the world. But what God do the Chinese worship? This paper will provide a complete answer.

I: A brief history

Buddhism is no longer a living religion in India. It is Chinese who keeps Mahayana Buddhism a living tradition. Many Mahayana scriptures were translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva (344 - 431 A.D.) who was trained in Afghanistan. When his fame as a scriptural scholar reached the Chinese court, the ruler literally plotted wars to kidnap him. He was brought to Chang-an (402 A.D.), honored with the title of national preceptor.

In 600s A.D.-- While England and German tribes were still far from being Christianized -- the Nestorian Christian monk A-lo-pen arrived in Chang-an. He were honorably received by Emperor Tai-tsung (Tang dynasty) . A monastery was built for him, followed by further monasteries here and elsewhere. An edict of toleration for Christianity was also issued.

This two historical events demonstrate two facts. Not only does Chinese people tolerate all religions but she yearns for all religious truths.

In 1692, the new Qing emperor Kang-hsi again issued an edict of toleration for Christianity. But, in Rome, Pope Clement XII (1700s) forbade the Chinese Christians to venerate their ancestors and Confucius. In 1701, Emperor Kang-hsi sent a special envoy to Rome to make clear that, in China, Confucius was venerated not as a god but as a teacher and that the veneration of ancestors was a commemoration, not a worship service. In 1710, over the objections of the Chinese apostolic vicars and the Jesuits, a new decree from the Roman Inquisition was issued to prohibit the Chinese rites, that is, to forbade Chinese Christians to be Chinese. Thus, the ruling of the nine highest courts in China was handed down in 1717: expulsion of the missionaries, proscription of Christianity, destruction of the churches, forced abjuration of Christian faith. In 1939, Pius XII finally published decrees of toleration regarding the veneration of ancestors, but it was too late.

After 1300 years since the first encounter with Nestorian Christians, in mainland China today only 1/2% Chinese are Christians. This misfortune of Christianity in China was, however, not caused entirely by the Communist government action which expelled all foreign missionaries in 1950 -51. This argument can be supported by the case in Taiwan. In spite of an enormous injection of personnel, money, and time, in spite of forty years of unhindered missionary work, only 3% of Taiwanese could be won over to Christianity, and a large proportion of these are from the non-Chinese aboriginal population. In fact, Christianity has failed dismally in the entire Sinicized world (Japan, Korea, Singapore and the overseas Chinese). Thus, the political situations are not the major cause for this dismal failure of Christianity in the Sinicized world. Something much deeper is at work.

For four hundred years, most of scholars who specialize in one or another aspect of China's traditional culture provide a simple answer for Christianity's dismal failure. That is, Chinese are not religious people. In 1958, four Chinese scholars published "A Manifesto for the reappraisal of Sinology and Reconstruction of Chinese Culture." They tried to point out that Confucianism indeed has religious dimension, although it, perhaps, cannot be called as a genuine religion. Many Western scholars even laugh at this line of argument. Only until the recent years, do some Western theologians recognize that Chinese culture (whatever that it is) is the third great world religious "river system" besides the Semitic-prophetic and the Indian-mystic. But, they are still unable to pin point where that river is, let alone to know how deep or how wide it is.

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II: What is religion?

The mistakes of those Western Sinologists are because that they tried to use those western terminologies to describe Chinese concepts. It is the same as trying to describe the entire mathematics system with music notes. It is the same as if they discovered that mathematics system cannot be described with music notes, and then, they would have claimed a great discovery that the entire mathematics system has no substance.

For the West, every religion must have at least three of the four components:

  1. An identifiable Creator God,
  2. A visible institution (temples, churches, clergies, etc.),
  3. A recognizable believer group,
  4. Some esoteric knowledge on prophecies or mysteries which defy the reach by science.

With this definition , they confidently labeled Buddhism as atheism. Without a deep understanding of Taoism, they very bravely labeled Taoism as pantheism. Again, without any true understanding of Confucianism, they all too courageously labeled Confucianism as a humanism, not even a religion.

What is the correct definition for religion, then? Every religion must have the following three components:
  1. A Creator gives rise to (or a cosmology explains the rise of): Although the 7 day cosmology in Genesis is completely unacceptable by science, it is a cosmology nonetheless.
  2. A metaphysics explains:
  3. There is a group people who live their lives (in terms of personal life, society and government) according to that doctrine.

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III: Confucian Cosmology

With this new definition, I can now show you that Confucianism is a great religion of mankind, although it neither has a concretized God, nor a visible institution.
Confucianism indeed has a cosmology which can explain the rise of universe and of the biological lives. It says, "There is Wu-Ch'i which begets Tai-Ch'i which produces Yin and Yang. Then Yin and Yang form Eight Kwa (Trigrams). The Sixty-four Kwa (Hexagram) can then be generated. These Sixty-four Kwa encompasses the entire universe."

The above saying was understood by the ancient Chinese. But, it is meaningless for the Chinese who have learned modern knowledge, especially, the science. Those terms of Wu-ch'i, Tai-ch'i are poorly defined and without any scientific meaning. Thus, in the early of 20th century (1920s), Confucianism was accused as the culprit for China's misfortune and was accused as the reason that China did not develop science. If Confucian Cosmology was just a meaningless mumbling, the Confucianism cannot even be a good philosophy, let alone to be a religion.

I have written two articles to show that:

  1. the theory of Wo-Hsing (Five Walk) is identical to the modern elementary particle physics,
    Note: Someone might not accept that Wo-Hsing is a part of Confucianism. This will be a different issue.
  2. by combining the Eight Kwa and John Conway's game of Life, the rise of biological life can be understood.
Please read the two articles below for a complete Confucian Cosmology. With the explanation of these two articles, the Wu-ch'i, Tai-ch'i Yijing cosmology is no longer a meaningless mumbling but is isomorphic to the modern physics and modern cosmology. It, of course, is a great cosmology for a great religion.

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IV: Confucian Metaphysics

Confucianism has a perfect metaphysics which can give meaning to human life. The word "perfect" does not connote correctness but means that that system is a closed system, and no open question remains. This metaphysics consists of only five words (concepts) -- Ming (Tien-Ming), Tao, Chee, Shu (quantity or number), and ming (jen-ming, fate or destiny of a person).

Tien has two meanings. Physically, it denotes sky. Theologically, it denotes the utmost, formless, providential, personal God. When Yen-hui (the number one disciple of Confucius) died, Confucius said, "Tien has forsaken me; Tien has forsaken me." See The Analects.

Ming has many meanings. Physically, it denotes life. Theologically, it has two meanings: 1) Will (or giving order), 2) Fate or destiny.

Tien-Ming is God's Will which gives rise to everything, including hsing (human nature) and Tao.

Tao is the principle which governs both Macrocosm and Microcosm. Tao is omnipresent, both transcendent and immanent. In Confucianism, Tao arises from Tien-Ming. In Laotse taoism, there is no conception of Tien or Tien-Ming. Laotse Tao is an impersonal, indifferent, apathetic God. Because of its indifference, it has no use to beg It for mercy. If you work against this indifferent Tao, you will fail dismally. Thus, Wu-Wei (not doing or no action) becomes the center point of Laotse taoism. Many scholars view Wu-Wei as doing nothing literally. It does not mean that you should not do anything. After all, everyone must somehow to make a living, at least to chew his own food. It means that you should not do anything to help (which is no use) or to work against (which will be a disaster) Tao.

Although a dynamic universe does obey the principle of Tao, Tao itself does not give rise to a dynamic universe. The dynamic universe is the result and the phenomena of chee. The word chee has many meanings. Physically, it denotes air or breath. Metaphysically, it denotes a dynamic force and a dynamic process. It has three forms. Its original form is chee, an invisible flowing force. Chee can condense and become substance (tsz) which is visible and tangible. The pure tsz is call jing. Chee can arise and become shen (spirit). Thus, the entire universe (material and spiritual) is composed of Jing (tsz) - Chee - Shen.

When Chinese says, "She has a good Chee-Tsz," it means that not only does she have a beautiful body (the tsz) but also has an amicable atmosphere (chee) around her. "My Jing-Shen is good," means that not only is my body healthy but my spirit is high.

Because chee is a dynamic force, a substance and a spirit, it must be measured by a quantity or by some number. This measurement of chee is called shu (quantity or number). Shu has two meanings. Mathematically, it denotes numbers or quantity. Metaphysically, it denotes the amount of chee, of life force, of spirit. When the shu of chee (chee-shu) of a life becomes zero, it is dead. If a person has good chee-shu, he will have a good future, perhaps, a good fortune too.

If you know your own chee-shu, you know your own future, that is knowing your fate and destiny. Your chee-shu comes from two sources. The original Chee (Yen-chee) comes with you at birth. The conception of Yen-chee between Confucianism and Laotse taoism is completely different. In Confucianism, the yen-chee cannot be cultivated -- how much you brought with you at birth, and that it is, no more. On the other hand, Laotse insisted that Yen-chee can be cultivated. Thus, in Laotse Taoism, not only is a person able to stay young and even to return old age to youth but is able to become an immortal by cultivating the Yen-chee.

Although the Yen-chee cannot be cultivated in Confucianism, the chee which governs our daily life can be cultivated. We can try to align our chee with God's virtues (Jen, i, Li, etc.) and thus reach the sagehood.

In Laotse taoism, it lacks a providential God (Tien) and His Will (Tien-Ming), thus Laotse taoists believe that they can reach immortality by cultivating Yen-chee. That is, they cannot be hindered or stopped by their fate. Or, Laotse taoists simply deny that there is a fate or destiny for individual. On the contrary, because there is a personal and providential God (Tien), God's Will (Tien-Ming) will determine the fate and destiny of every individual. This fate and destiny of every individual is called ming (the same character as Tien-Ming's ming).

The metaphysics of Laotse taoism has no head (Tien-Ming), nor tail (personal ming, fate or destiny). The metaphysics of Confucianism is a perfect system, from Tien-Ming to Tao, to Chee, to Shu, then to ming. It links the ming (fate) of every individual back to God's Will (Tien-Ming). Although the personal fate cannot be changed by the effort of individual, everyone can still perfect his life to reach sagehood, and thus make his life meaningful not only to himself but to mankind as well.

So far, no Western Sinologist has ever heard about this Ming-ming theology because no Chinese scholar (from ancient to present) described it. The conception of chee is meanly valued by martial art practitioners. The conceptions of Shu and ming is believed by un-educated Chinese. Thus, the learned Chinese scholars of ancient time despised the conceptions of chee, shu and ming. The learned Chinese scholars of modern time see the conceptions of chee, shu and ming are superstitions.

However, I did not invent this Ming-ming theology. It is understood by every un-educated Chinese. Although you cannot find this Ming-ming theology in any written book (in Chinese or in other languages) in terms of an organized doctrine, it is imbedded in many folk novels, such as: "The Brotherhood in the Marsh," "The Dream of a Red Mansion," and "The List of Ordained gods."

This Ming-ming concept is in the every page of the folk novel "The List of Ordained gods." I will demonstrate this with three short stories from that book.

  1. When the last emperor of Shang dynasty went to a temple to pay respect to a goddess according to the tradition, her spirit went up to Heaven for some official business. Seeing her image, the emperor was greatly moved by her beauty and wrote a lyric poem on temple's wall to express his admiration on her. Upon her return, she saw the poem and was outraged. She wanted to revenge this insult immediately. When her cloud carried her to emperor's palace, she saw that his chee-shu was still very strong. Although she has an infinite magical power, she was unable to change his chee-shu which was given by the Almighty God (Tien). After returning to her temple, she plotted a plan to help him himself to use up his own chee-shu. Her plot started the story.
  2. At the midpoint of the book, readers very, very slowly realized that all plots of this goddess was, in fact, written by three Patriarchs (from three different religious schools) since time immemorial. The spontaneous acts of free will by both the emperor and the goddess are inevitable consequence of their fate. The entire story was acted out at present with free will by hundreds characters on the one hand, but on the other hand all their acts are, in fact, following that script word by word, comma by comma, period by period.
  3. But, at the end of the book, something went wrong. The three Patriarchs were also drawn into the conflict. They are no longer script writers or story directors but are actors themselves. They were no longer able to direct what the next event is going to be.
This very popular folk novel clearly points out three very important theological concepts of Confucianism.
  1. One, the Ming-ming theology -- the fate of every individual is determined by God's Will.
  2. Two, any deity (goddess or Patriarchs) who can be imagined by human mind and thus has an image, regardless of how infinitely powerful his or her magic is, still cannot determine his or her own fate. Therefore, there must be an Almighty God who is above all imaginations.
  3. Three, because the fate of mankind is only in the hand of a loving, providential God (Tien) and cannot be controlled or directed by any person (mortal or immortal), the future of mankind remains to have an infinite possibility (an open-end Cosmos).

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V: The rise of goodness and evil

We must first know what goodness and evil are before we can discuss how they arise. Aristotle and his followers said that happiness is good. But, what is happiness? "Happiness is pleasures," they said. Then, they distinguished between lower and higher pleasures. The pleasures of the intellect are more desirable than the pleasures of the senses. But, what is more desirable and how to determine it? Those who pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of their health may regard the sensual pleasures as the greater good and are willing to sacrifice their own health to pursue sensual pleasures. How can we provide a rational argument to persuade them that they are wrong? How can we prove to them that health is indeed a greater good than sensual pleasure?

Consequentialist distinguishes 'good as an end' from 'good as a means,' or 'intrinsically good' from 'extrinsically good.' Thus, the sensual pleasures is only extrinsically good but intrinsically bad. But, how can we distinguish and define what are intrinsic and extrinsic? Goodness corresponds to a cluster of properties, none of which are necessary or sufficient for goodness.

Augustine came up a different idea. Since he with his dogmatic faith believed that God is infinitely perfect, he concluded that there cannot be any evil. He made two arguments. One, everything that is evil in our view is indeed good, especially in God's view. For example, scorpions often kill not only animals but also humans; so they are evil. But, they are good for themselves. The male scorpion is good for a female one, and vice versa. Two, he thought that every evil is the corruption of something good. But, what is corruption? How does corruption work?

Most of Chinese scholars discuss goodness and evil in terms of hsing (human nature). Mencius (372 - 289 B.C.) insisted that human nature is good. Hsuntse (335 - 238 B.C.) insisted that human nature is bad. Their doctrines are two extremes of the teaching of emperor Yao (about 4000 years ago). Yao said to emperor Shun, "Jen-sin (human desire) is unstable, Tao-sin (the moral craving) is very minute." That is, the human nature possesses both seeds of goodness and evil. But, the seeds themselves cannot become good nor evil. What is the process which allows the manifestation of goodness or evil from their potentiality? This process is the center point of the book of I-jing (Book of Change).

The word 'i' in I-jing (Yijing) has three meanings:

  1. simple;
  2. change;
  3. not change (invariant).
Perhaps, you are shocked and confused that "How can a word has contradictory meanings at the same time?" Well, they do in Chinese. I-jing sees this world having two parts: an eternally unchanging structure which is covered by a forever changing dynamic phenomena. Most of I-jing scholars describe Eight Kwa (trigrams) as the arrangement of Yin (broken line) and Yang (unbroken line). It is only half correct. Every Trigram has three seats which Yin or Yang sits in. The "position" and "relationship" of those seats is fixed, forever unchangeable, but whether an Yin or an Yang sits in it is forever changing.

By the same token, there are seats and a proper way of sitting in society. For example, when a general won an election to sit in president's seat, he did a good thing. If he launched a coup to become president, he has done a bad thing, even an evil thing. The president's seat is neither goodness nor evil. How a person gets in that seat determines whether that act is good or evil. Thus, although there is no goodness nor evil in terms of this eternal unchanging seats (structure), goodness and evil arise from the proper or improper ways of sitting. In Confucianism, although the hsing (human nature) possesses the seeds of both goodness and evil, it is the proper or improper relationship (the way of sitting) which gives rise to goodness and evil. Thus, Confucianism strongly emphasizes to maintain a proper social order.

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VI: Mandate of Heaven

Combining the Ming-ming theology with the seat-sitting moral doctrine, the result is the concept of Mandate of Heaven. In order to have a perfectly good society, the proper sitting in the entire society must be maintained or controlled by somebody. Who can be the one to take up this awesome responsibility? He must be no one but is the one who is chosen and appointed by the Almighty God (Tien). The length of the term of his rule depends on how much chee-shu he received from Tien. When he does good to people, his chee-shu increases. When he does evil to people, his chee-shu decreases. When his political chee-shu is depleted, his political life is over.

Since the ruler of Chinese people is chosen by Tien, only Tien can judge his performance or remove him from office. But how does Tien perform these tasks? Of course, it is through the hearts and lives (not hands or mouths) of people.

Chinese people deeply believe that only righteous BLOOD can defeat the evil deeds; only righteous blood can deplete bad ruler's chee-shu. In Chinese history, there were many very famous persons who sacrificed their own lives to right the ruler's wrongs. For Chinese, talking is cheap, life is precious. If anyone really got something to say in politics, say it with his life. Thus, no one in China sympathizes someone like Wei ****. If Wei is righteous, it is the price he must pay, and that price he paid will reduce those ruler's chee-shu. If he is an opportunist, it is a punishment he deserves. That is, Chinese people has 100% faith in God that God will right all wrongs, and she will not make any judgement by herself. When foreign countries step in to make those judgements for Chinese people, she will immediately wonder how can those foreigners know it more than she herself. Of course, she can never accept that she knows her own affair less than those foreigners. It is then very obvious to her that those foreigners must have some untold intentions. Thus, when foreign countries condemns Chinese government of human right issues, it always gets an adverse effect. The majority of Chinese will support her government to fend off those foreign evil intentions. Thus, the actions of this kind by foreign countries always increase Chinese government's chee-shu at least on the short run. On the long run, no one can right the wrong or wrong the right for anyone else; the doer must face the consequence himself.

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VII: The invisible institution

There is no visible church in Confucianism. The Confucian church is its moral structure which emphasizes five relations: ruler - subject; parents - children; husband - wife; brothers - sisters; and friends. Three of such relations are inside of family. Thus, Confucianism has only one church (the government) and billions temples (one in each family). The entire Chinese people believe in this Ming-ming theology and live by the seat-sitting moral doctrine.

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VIII: The reasons for Christianity's dismal failure in China.

Theologically, many points in Christian dogma run against Chinese mentality (the collective subconsciousness) and her way of life. I will just list two of the most obvious ones here.

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IX: A great religion of mankind

In Confucianism, the Five Walk theory is identical to the modern elementary particle physics. When Yin-Yang and Eight Kwa theory combine with John Conway's game of Life, it can explain the rise of biological life, and it is much more advanced than the modern physics and modern biology. Please review my book The Divine Constitution for more details. The Ming-ming theology describes the nature of a true almighty God, the relationship between God and human, and gives meaning to human life. It is a closed system; no open question remains. The seat-sitting moral doctrine on the one hand explains the rise of goodness and evil, on the other hand gives hope for human perfectibility. The Confucian institution includes government and every family in China. Every Chinese were born in this institution, lives and dies in it. Thus, not only is Confucianism a religion but is a great religion of mankind.

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X: The ming (fate) of mankind

If you have not heard about this Ming-ming theology and the seat-sitting moral doctrine, you ought to sit back and do some thinking. China has been here for many thousand years, and the first East-West encounter was 1300 years ago, but the West is still ignorant about the Chinese culture and Chinese ways of thinking. At nuclear age, this kind of complete lacking of understanding between nations, between people is not only very dangerous but is a nightmare for mankind.
Confucianism is not a missionary religion. Chinese has no intention to convert anyone to be a Chinese, let alone to annex any land into Chinese territory. The entire Sinicized world Sinicized themselves.

Note: This article was presented at two conferences:

  1. Ninth biennial meeting of URAM, August 1997, at University of Toronto, Canada
  2. The 10th International Conference for Chinese Philosophy, July 1997, at Dongguk University, Seoul, Korea

Please review these two articles after you have finished this paper.

Taoism in the eyes of modern physicists

Laws of life in Taoism

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