Confucianism in China

An Introduction

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Tony Swain
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As China’s economic and political clout continue expanding globally, the concurrent extension of soft power and an explosion of religious belief on the mainland have brought newfound interest, both popularly and politically, to China’s rich cultural heritage. This resurgent appreciation for traditional culture can be seen throughout China, from classrooms to boardrooms, Communist Party meetings to family gatherings, and almost everywhere in between. Remarkably, this period of increasing power and piety has also seen a veritable renaissance of Confucianism, which, only decades ago, was deemed a relic of the past—and one to be attacked vehemently, at that. This resurgence has not been limited to China, either, as a parallel surge of interest has occurred globally, with unprecedented growth in English-language publications about the ancient but dynamic tradition of Confucianism.

Within this context, Tony Swain’s Confucianism in China: An Introduction is a timely and illuminating presentation of Confucianism’s core teachings and history, focusing on the tradition’s religious aspects. While the book provides a sufficient overview of Confucianism—thus being one of the few texts to date that coherently organizes such a complex tradition in an accessible way—a couple of caveats are still necessary. First, in the body of the book, Swain actually uses the transliteration Ru and the related “Ruism,” not the problematic term “Confucianism.” For those frustrated with the continued use of “Confucianism” in the title, perhaps this should be seen as a necessary compromise for the purpose of recognition on bookshelves, as Swain persuasively undermines such persistent misnomers within the text. Second, the book focuses on the religious dimensions of Ruism, to the slight marginalization (though certainly not the exclusion) of its political and philosophical aspects. Some scholars who interpret Ruism as a primarily political philosophy will take issue with Swain’s presentation of the tradition from a religious point of view. In fact, within Chinese universities today, comparatively few scholars treat Ruism as fundamentally religious; rather, it is mostly being investigated for its political, philosophical, and cultural resources. This is a part of the picture to which Swain does not give sufficient attention in his assessment of Chinese Confucianism today. But this reality in Chinese universities is largely due to political factors and does not discount Swain’s view.

Confucianism in China is divided into four parts, with the latter three parts (chapters 3-10) expounding the history of the Ru in three epochs: Zhou to Han dynasties; Song to Qing dynasties; and modern China. This division, which follows current conventions among New Confucians, is not without its challengers (Swain admits as much on page 49), but it is practical for the book’s purposes and allows for clear organization. Chapter 1 tackles the contested issue of whether or not “Confucianism” is a “religion.” Here, Swain adopts the terms Ru and Ruism, maintaining that the label “Confucianism” is an inaccurate, foreign invention and stating outright that Ruism was historically not a religion, even if it “might yet become one” (19). Nevertheless, he claims Ru is a deeply religious tradition in multiple aspects, and this contention animates his entire approach. Chapter 2 summarizes core concepts and practices, situating them within the larger Ru program of “nurturing human nature so as to achieve moral perfection” while also accounting for a range of interpretations and developments over time (1). This provides a valuable key for the historical roadmap that follows, but some crucial concepts—namely, yi 義 (“righteousness”/“appropriateness”), junzi 君子 (“noble person”), and shan 善 (“goodness”)— are notably missing from this part (though they appear later on).

Moving to the history in parts II and III, chapter 3 outlines the context of sages and scholars preceding and directly following Kongzi (Confucius), incisively comparing traditional accounts with modern archaeological evidence. Chapter 4 focuses on Mengzi and Xunzi, the two most important Ru after Kongzi, and places them in conversation with the vying philosophies of their time. Chapter 5 looks at the ascendancy of Ruism in the Han dynasty and introduces important texts of the period, which have formed the Ru canon for millennia since. Chapter 6 traces the decline and reascension of Ru vis-à-vis Daoism and Buddhism from the end of the Han to the Song dynasty, focusing on the development of the “Way Learning” and the pivotal figure Zhu Xi. Chapter 7 then presents the Ming dynasty alternative to Zhu Xi—Wang Yangming’s “Heart-Mind Learning”—followed by a discussion of Qing dynasty Ruism. In the section on Wang Yangming, Swain follows Wing-Tsit Chan in translating liangzhi 良知 as “innate knowledge” (151-53); however, as Chang Tzu-li argued in his 2016 article “Re-exploring Wang Yangming’s Theory of Liangzhi” (in Philosophy East and West), Chan’s inaccurate translation causes misunderstanding about Wang’s true teaching, and it is more appropriate to leave liangzhi transliterated but not translated. Although technical issues of translation are understandably not the focus of Swain’s introductory text, it would be helpful not to perpetuate such mistranslations going forward.

In part IV, chapter 8 discusses the tumultuous events of the twentieth century up to the Cultural Revolution, showing how understanding this period is vital to appreciating Ruism’s contemporary realities. In this light, chapter 9 addresses the movement of “New Ru Learning” and its key proponents, such as Xiong Shili and Mou Zongsan. Finally, chapter 10 explores a range of contemporary movements and figures, demonstrating the great diversity of Ru beliefs in China today and concluding with Swain’s own speculations about the future of Ruism.

All in all, Confucianism in China is a tour de force, masterfully condensing a dauntingly complex tradition with clear, concise, and energetic prose. While hitting all the important notes and leaving abundant tidbits for those new students who may be inspired to dig deeper, Swain manages to offer his own arguments on debated issues without taking away from his presentation of the facts in any way. This is a remarkably insightful yet eminently readable book that new students and seasoned scholars alike will find engaging.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ryan Pino is a graduate student in Religion at Yale Divinity School.  He also holds an MA in Chinese Philosophy from Fudan Univeristy.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tony Swain was formerly senior lecturer in the department of religion, University of Sydney, Australia.



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