Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Religious Beliefs

Is there such a thing as Confucian fundamentalism?

Confucian scholars have devised a wide range of methods for interpreting the classical sources. Many of the central concepts in Confucian thought are simply too large and subtle to interpret literally. Take the notion of the Mandate of Heaven, for example. Dynasties have come and gone frequently in China’s long history, and many have interpreted dynastic decay as a sure indication that the emperor had lost his contact with Heaven’s Will. That is an easy enough judgment to make in retrospect. But using the Mandate theory as a criterion for deciding whether the people are justified in bringing down this regime now is a much more complicated matter. Some interpreters have chosen to apply the criteria of the classical sources directly to current events. They have their Christian counterparts, for example, in those who have discerned portents of the Apocalypse in the world around them at various times in history. Some Confucian texts have lent themselves more readily to literal interpretation, so much so that their prescriptions have become the very fabric of life for countless Chinese who have never set foot in a Confucian temple. Those are books like the Li Ji, with its detailed descriptions of ritualized relationships across the full spectrum of human activity.


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