Confucianism, A Habit of the Heart

Bellah, Civil Religion, and East Asia

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Philip J. Ivanhoe, Sungmoon Kim
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , January
     246 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Building on Alexis de Tocqueville’s characterization of a “civil religion” as “the underlying, unofficial, often unselfconscious assumptions, orientations, beliefs, practices, symbols, and styles of reasoning that inform, shape, and guide life in society (Democracy in America, Anchor Books, 1969, 287), and on Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton’s development thereof in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (University of California Press, 1985), the present edited volume discusses the way “habits of the heart” shape contemporary East Asian societies, and poses the questions of what the potential of these “habits” is for the development of an East Asian “civil religion” and what the possibilities might be for a greater global civil order.

The contributions to this volume either address theoretical aspects of these questions, or engage with contemporary East Asian societies, or draw lessons from historical examples. As regards the latter, the examples of Korea and Japan—two countries in which a government-organized refocusing on traditional values has shown to be a failure—are informative for evaluating the contemporary valorization of Confucianism in China and the possibilities of East Asian thought to form what might become a global civil religion. Kim Sungmoon (113-38) blames the failure to revalorize Confucianism in Korea in the late 1990s and early 2000s on the fact that “Confucian democracy must be centered on a robust democratic citizenship,” which was “not the concern of participants in the New Confucian movement in Korea” (132). In a similar vein, as shown by Do-Hyun Han (139-18), the original success of the Saemaul Movement, a Confucian inspired village experiment in 1970s South Korea, has been made obsolete by the general development of Korean society. In his contribution on Japan, Takahiro Nakajima (169-81) likewise points to the failure of the current use of the Confucian Analects to restore the essence of the Japanese nation. These three examples have in common that they show that (1) an idealized past is not a self-evident means for the future, and (2) that, as stated by Anna Sun, “A civil religion cannot be established […] it has to come from the sovereign power of the people” (94).

Confucianism may be an important element of Chinese culture. However, as stated by Yang Fenggang, it is not “synonymous with Chinese culture” (33). Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, and Christianity have also shaped China’s “habit of the heart.” Yang Fenggang’s suggestion to build a civil religion in China based on Confucianism and Christianity surprisingly negates the constructive civic values of other streams of thought. Moreover, as remarked by Richard Madsen (99), when it comes to creating a new global civil religion, Daoism and Buddhism spontaneously have a much larger global reach than Confucianism has. This does not deny what Sébastien Billioud (65-66) notes, namely that there exists in Confucianism a “thin religiosity” that could definitely contribute to the creation of a Confucian-inspired common or civil religion with a social orientation. Peng Guoxiang in some sense shares this standpoint when he claims that it is not Confucianism as such that can serve as civil religion, but the Confucian classics, which are a rich moral and spiritual resource not only for the Chinese people, but for all the people of the world (71).

The possibilities for Confucianism to build a new civil religion for China or to create a new global civil religion are also jeopardized by the fact that Confucianism has traditionally and in its modern and contemporary revaluations been intricately connected with the state and thus with political agendas. The fact that Confucianism has, as Richard Madsen (107) states, “been transformed into a political ideology for authoritarian governments,” implies that the importance of Confucianism will diminish in a further individualizing China. This observation is in line with David Elstein’s claim (in “The Future of Confucian Politics in East Asia” Dao 15, 2016: 437-45) that, even granted that it would be true that East Asian political cultures are still substantially Confucian, this does not necessarily imply that this is what they should be, what people want them to be, or that they would have to remain so. Moreover, the precise interpretation of Confucian values and concepts has changed throughout China’s imperial history, and in the contemporary period, liberal values are a far greater aspiration for young people.

In a China in which, as is the case in the rest of the world, the dominant “market” may be seen as the center of a new civil religion, and in a situation in which a “world civil religion” might already have been superseded by a market-driven “world civil society” (214-15), one might, with Sébastien Billioud (63), wonder whether a Confucian civil religion—at least in its civic form or with a political orientation—may in the end benefit Confucianism and not be totally counterproductive. Indeed, as the editors of this volume state in their introductory chapter, the endeavor to make Confucianism the official national religion of China often misconstrues and corrupts Bellah’s conception of civil religion, as “it would align it with the government, official culture, and law, which are some of the most important forces against which civil religion stands as a moral judge and practical challenge” (5-6). When a Confucian civil religion in contemporary China is already problematic, the broader possibilities for a Confucian East Asia or a Confucian global order seem all the more so.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bart Dessein is Professor of Arts & Philosophy at Ghet University, Belgium.

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

Philip J. Ivanhoe is chair professor of East Asian and comparative philosophy and religion at City University of Hong Kong. His many books include Mortality in Traditional Chinese Thought (coedited with Amy Olberding); Taking Confucian Ethics Seriously: Contemporary Theories and Applications (coedited with Kam-por Yu and Julia Tao); Religious and Philosophical Aspects of the Laozi (coedited with Mark Csikszentmihalyi); and Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi (coedited with Paul Kjellberg), all published by SUNY Press.

Sungmoon Kim is professor of political theory at City University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Confucian Democracy in East Asia: Theory and Practice and the editor of Confucianism, Law, and Democracy in Contemporary Korea.


Fenggang Yang

The reviewer seems to have a misunderstanding of civil religion or a misreading of my chapter on civil religion, or both.


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