Interview: Dr. Rodney Taylor on why Analects of Confucius remains an important influence on China today

SHIZUTANI SCHOOL in Japan. This is a second image from the world heritage site shown in part 1 of this series. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.Want to know China?
Read the Analects of Confucius.
Think Confucianism is a dead ethical code? Turns out, billions may be influenced by Confucian assumptions today—perhaps even you.
In a nutshell, that’s the message of Part 1 in our two-part series this week with Dr. Rodney Taylor, one of the world’s top English-speaking scholars on Confucius. Today, we welcome Rodney (who prefers that we refer to him by his first name) for our weekly inteview …


DAVID: Let’s start by dispelling the myth that Confucianism is a relic of the past—maybe something for historians to study, but irrelevant in our modern world. That’s not true, you argue in your new book.

RODNEY: First, I can say that Confucianism has profoundly affected my own life. As I describe in the book: Years ago, I had this extraordinary encounter with one of the last major living Confucian sages in Japan. Dr. Okada Takehiko had a huge influence on the rest of my life.

DAVID: We will share that story of your meeting with Okada in Part 1 of our story about your new book. I enjoy that story, because Okada surprises you. You’re there just doing some translation work—pretty much academic stuff—yet he immediately jumps into discussing major concerns in our world. He feels this great urgency about using our spiritual wisdom to bring the world back into alignment.

RODNEY: Yes, that’s right. What we’re really talking about here is an old question in the halls of academia: Is Confucianism a religion? If you read any of my pieces for the Huffington Post, you’ll find occasional responses where someone will say that I’m completely wrong because Confucianism is not a religion.

On the one hand, you have people arguing that Confucianism represented a breaking away from traditional religion. Some intellectual leaders in 20th-century China have described it this way: China was bogged down with traditional religion and Confucianism was a break with that and a move toward humanism. So, one standard interpretation is that Confucianism is a form of moral philosophy. It’s a social ethic. It’s an ideology that’s almost entirely political.

On the other hand, my own work comes from a different perspective. When I began my doctoral work at Columbia, my mentor took me aside and said: “I think there is a tremendous—a profound—religious quality within Confucianism and nobody is looking at that adequately today.” I had entered Columbia with a background in Asia. So, my job in working with this material was to look at whether Confucianism is religious. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the history of religions was emerging as an important discipline in U.S. colleges and universities. Comparative religion courses were beginning to appear. But, when professors and students looked at world religions and then reached Asia—what were they to do? Some of this was easy. Buddhism in China is relatively easy to understand and teach, for example. But Confucianism? This required a lot more work!

Throughout my doctoral studies and then throughout my entire career, I have worked to find avenues for discussing Confucianism as a religion.

DAVID: One big challenge for Americans is that we like to compare religions across categories easily recognizable to Christians, Muslims and Jews: What about God? What about scripture? What about prayer? Reading your new book, I would say that Confucianism answers deeper questions—ancient questions—about this realm we call religion. I’m talking about: Why are we here? How shall we live? What is the nature of good and evil in the universe? These are the truly timeless religious questions.

RODNEY: Oh yes, that’s certainly true with Confucianism. Ultimately, it rests on profound religious insights into human nature, the cosmos and the interrelationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm. That’s distinctive in the Chinese way of looking at the world. 


DR. RODNEY TAYLORDAVID: Earlier this summer, we included your new book in a list of 12 Summer Gems we recommended. In that Summer Gems mini-review of your book, I told readers about working in Asia as a journalist in 2008. At a conference, a group of the world’s top China scholars were assembled. These were experts on politics, economics and geography for the most part—not religion in particular. But they all told journalists that, if we wanted to understand China today, we should read the Analects. Why is that so important?

RODNEY: Because the Analects articulate the most basic values that run through Confucianism—and that we can see influencing life today in China and other parts of Asia, too.

For example, at the very beginning of Confucius’ teaching—the very first passage has this extraordinary focus on the role of learning. Why is learning so important? Because from a Confucian point of view, the universe is an understandable entity. The universe operates not in capricious ways, but through understandable, rational processes—and these are available to the human mind and heart. So, the Analects begin with what may seem like a simple instruction: We must learn and, at times, we must repeat what we have learned. That’s where Confucius begins. That’s the building block of Asian cultures. This spins itself down through the centuries and, today, of course we see Asian students especially committed to their studies. That’s a direct ramification of that value. And think about the fields in which many Asian students pursue learning. There is a sense that we can learn about the processes that run through the universe. And this relates to the nature of the individual, the self—and what we are supposed to do in life. We are to be open and available to this understanding.

But there is a punch-line to this teaching in Confucianism. This is not only a teaching about learning and scientific inquiry. The punch-line is: If we do come to understand the nature of the self and of the cosmos—the micro and the macro—we will see that it is moral. This all is governed by a force. Judeo-Christians call this God. The Confucian will call it Tian or the heavens. In Confucianism, this is the moral force that shapes the cosmos.

The need to learn is seen as valuing certain disciplines, especially science, math and this is straight out of a Confucian instruction—but it’s also natural theology in the way Confucianism understands this process. As you learn, you are learning the very nature of the heavens—something like what Judeo-Christians would call God. As you learn in this Confucian context, you are trying to learn the ultimate moral structure of the universe. This is deeply imbued with a sense of ultimate purpose.

So, when those experts were telling you and the other journalists to read the Analects as a way into Chinese culture, they were emphasizing the way that this gives us an insight into Chinese  understanding of human capability and purpose. Center stage for the way this tradition understands life’s purpose is this instruction from the Analects: Engage in learning, never give up learning—and, by that process, we will bring order to the world and will find understanding of the self.

DAVID: Should we call these pillars of Confucianism?

RODNEY: I don’t like the word “pillars” in this case, because people begin doing comparative religion and compare this to other pillars in world religions. Confucianism is not creed-based. To be a Confucian, you’re not really going through some particular rite of initiation, for example. You are simply accepting certain basic features from Confucius’ teachings on how humanity is defined within the cosmos—and what our purpose is in finding connections from microcosm to macrocosm.


DAVID: OK, you’ve just given readers a fascinating summary of a couple of basic Confucian precepts that I hope will move them to get your book and read the whole thing. (Click on the cover at right, jump to SkyLight Paths and get a copy.) But, I’ve got a few more questions I want to raise before we close this interview. One big question is this:

Some critics of Christianity have challenged whether Jesus ever existed. Today, taking all of the historical research into account, it’s virtually certain that Jesus was a real historical figure. I’ve seen the same challenges posed about Confucius. Your new book does point out that there’s precious little known about his life. So, are you certain that he was real?

RODNEY: Yes. Clearly he was a historical figure. There is no doubt. One of the defining features of Chinese tradition is its extraordinary record keeping. It’s not unlike the record keeping we find in the Hebrew Bible in sections like Deuteronomy or Judges. The Chinese were all about recording the actions of Tien, or the heavens, throughout history—so the notion of chronicling becomes a much larger force in Chinese tradition.

DAVID: Next question: We’ve been talking about the Analects of Confucius, but we should clarify that this ancient document is not like a Western scripture, right? Confucius himself wanted people to become acquainted with other, even older, Chinese Classics.

RODNEY: Everything focuses on learning from the sages of antiquities, which were before Confucius, and their Classics, which came before him. Those earlier writings, the Classics, are the object of the learning that is the focus of his teaching. He wants people to learn from the Classics. That’s where you’ll begin to learn about heaven’s ways, Confucius taught.

DAVID: Another topic: Many of our readers want the movie version. We’re publishing at least one movie review each week, now, and readers seem to enjoy that coverage. We follow world cinema pretty closely—but, I’ve got to tell you: I can’t find anything worth recommending concerning Confucianism. Have you seen anything out there that’s available to American viewers?

RODNEY: No, there really isn’t anything I can recommend. I haven’t seen anyone try to elaborate this in film, either in a drama or a documentary.

DAVID: There are lots of great films on China in general! Just nothing on this theme, so far. Maybe some filmmaker will step forward and pick up this gauntlet.

RODNEY: Well, this is an area of extreme sensitivities about how to understand and portray these values. This is difficult material for a filmmaker.

DAVID: In the end, I know you care very deeply about promoting a greater understanding of Confucianism. Clearly, you feel that Confucianism holds great value for our world today.

RODNEY: There is a very personal side of all of this for me. There are not a lot of us in North America who study Confucianism. We’re a pretty small number. But what we study is very important. We study these figures who taught that, no matter how bad things may seem, the world can be rectified. How can that happen? It can happen if we all roll up our sleeves, get in there and work hard at it.

Get a copy of Rodney Taylor’s book via SkyLight Paths.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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