The Sage and the People

The Confucian Revival in China

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Sebastien Billioud, Joel Thoraval
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     2015.
     352 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190258146.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China, written by Sebastien Billioud and Joel Thoraval, provides an overview of how Confucianism has been received, initiated, and represented “in the space of the people (民间, minjian)” in post-Maoist China, focusing on the 2000’s. Instead of delving into the theoretical differences among the modern Confucian scholars or comparing the current revival to the one in imperial China, The Sage and the People treats certain aspects of Confucianism (i.e., educational and religious dimensions) that were highlighted in the 2000s. In order to do so, the authors, not only introduce interviews with various activists, scholars, and government officers, but also provide a brief trajectory of Confucianism throughout history in every section, which broadens the readers’ horizon regarding the revival of Confucianism in the 2000’s. 

The Sage and the People is subdivided into three sections: The Confucian Revival in China as an Educative Project (part 1); The Religious Dimension of Confucianism (part 2); Between Rites and Politics (part 3). As one might expect, participation in rites usually falls into the category of religion. However, Billioud and Thoraval strive to show the somewhat paradoxical position of the government toward Confucianism as a religion and Confucian rites by dividing these into two different sections. 

Part 1 deals with people who consider Confucianism a tool of “education-transformation (教化, jiaohua)” of the self and others. This section shows the popularity of Confucianism for educational purposes through promoting the reading of classics (27). However, interestingly enough, these projects often focus on the rote memorization of classics in both adult and child education (82), the impregnation process of silent transformation using music (85), and the therapeutic value of self-cultivation by the means of slow reading (85). It is noteworthy that all these projects are “devoid of intellectual ambition” (82).  

Part 2 describes how Confucianism is understood as a religion and the efforts people make to promote its religious dimension. People who accept Confucianism as a religion embrace syncretistic elements in it (157). Billioud and Thoraval inform readers that Confucian activists, scholars, and organizations, such as The Way of Pervading Unity (or Yiguan Dao,一贯道), not only emphasize the spiritual aspects of Confucianism, but also strive to expand its influence in society (e.g., by obtaining the status of religion for Confucianism, establishing Confucius’s birthday as a national holiday, and so on.) (149). These people try to have a close relationship with local government officers, but it is hard to develop Confucianism as a religion since the government opposes proselytization of any religion. The government limits the influence of religious movements in Confucianism and intends it to be under the control of the government. 

In contrast to the government’s reluctance to posit Confucianism as a religion, part 3 shows that Confucian rites are promoted and supported by both local and central governments. This is because the rituals that are practiced in the name of Confucianism can be used to commemorate a cultural heritage often separate from Confucian identity. Ironically, in these ceremonial events, the identity of Confucius becomes ambiguous; he is presented as an ancestor, educator, thinker, or deity (chapter 9). 

Overall, this book is successful in showing the multifaceted dimensions of the Confucian revival during the 2000s in China. Whether it is used as a tool of educative projects or whether its religious dimension is emphasized, receptions of Confucianism in China vary. However, the uniqueness of the Confucian revival in the 2000s displays people’s interest in “self” and “emotion” more than ever before. On the popular level, self-cultivation or religious feeling are the focus. On the official level, the government makes use of collective feeling, highlighting Confucius as a symbol of Chinese traditional heritage to strengthen its regime. This book will be a valuable addition to the collection of any reader who wants to understand the Confucian revival of the 2000s on both the popular and official level.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ha Yeon Shin is a doctoral student in East Asian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Date of Review: 
September 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sébastien Billioud is professor of Chinese Studies at University Paris-Diderot, Sorbonne Paris Cité and Head of the East Asian studies department. Based on a cross-disciplinary approach in anthropology and intellectual history, his research explores the multi-faceted development of contemporary Confucianism.

Joël Thoraval is senior researcher at the Research Center on Modern and Contemporary China, School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS), Paris. Specializing in social anthropology and intellectual history, he has also written extensively on contemporary Chinese philosophy. He has spent nearly 20 years in Eastern Asia and is the former Head of EHESS's China Center.

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