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Chen Ming: “On Confucianism as a Civil Religion"

Billet d'Olympia Lui

Chen Ming: “On Confucianism as a Civil Religion and Its Significance for Contemporary China” in Contemporary Chinese Thought, vol. 44, no. 2, Winter 2012–13, pp. 76–83.

Chen Ming is a professor of Philosophy and the director of Confucianism Research Center at Beijing’s Capital Normal University. He was one of the contributors for the book Contemporary Chinese Political Thought: Debates and Perspectives (Asian in the New Millennium”, by Fred Dallmayr and Zhao Tingyang, published by University Press of Kentucky (2012). He publications also include Ru Zhe Zhi Wei (The Dimensions of Confucian Thought) (2004) and “The Reconstruction of Confucianism to Incorporate Constitutionalism” (2007). He was recognized by Professor Fan Ruiping from City University of Hong Kong as one of the predominant figures of Mainland China’s New Confucianism .

Chen Ming’s main question is stated in the first sentence of his essay: “What role should Confucianism play in contemporary China?”. He provides 2 general opposing points of view from Confucian scholars; one which argues that it should be restored as a state religion, and the other which believe that it should be kept in people’s private lives. Chen Ming’s own point of view is that Confucianism should try to obtain the status of civil religion in China, to give the state a sacred foundation and to be established as a firm foundation and “cement” for the political system.

To support his argument, Chen reviews the definition and concept of “civil religion” from different philosophers and sociologists throughout history, namely Rousseau, Durkheim and Bellah. He demonstrates that “civil religion” brings public realm, with its civic nature, together with religion, with its sacred nature. He also believes that because “civil religion” is a broader term that doesn’t need religious and conventional structure such as Western Christianity, it can be fulfilled by Confucianism and can develop “more smoothly”. Chen also concisely explains how Confucianism was once a civil religion in China’s history.

Through these demonstrations, Chen brings up his own arguments as to why they should “try to explore Confucianism from the ‘civil religion’ perspective” in contemporary China. To do so, he also explores the remainders of Confucianism in the modern Chinese society. He sees both the difficulty as well as the hope of modernity in the people. Difficulty arises because traditional Confucianism’s relies on ancient systems that are no longer around, such as the patriarchal system; however, there is also hope and potential for Confucianism to grow today.

Chen argues 2 main and urgent reasons why contemporary China should “explore and restore” Confucianism as a civil religion. The first being that universally, a sacred foundation is required for politics, which would help the people rebuild a sense of cultural identification and through that, revive Confucianism as the civil religion. The second reason is that China’s political system needs a firm foundation to give it more legitimacy after it’s many dramatic transformations in the recent years.

Chen’s solution is to find a way to bring back Confucianism by reintroducing the past and integrating it with modernity.

Chen’s essay attempts to support a point of view for an existing question, but through his own arguments. In my opinion, he was probably able to strongly contribute to the existing arguments on the subject, especially in the academic circle. However, my doubt of its ability to affect China’s integration of Confucianism as a civil religion lies in the weight that an academic publication has on the government. Nevertheless,

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