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Confucius and ConfucianismReview - Confucius and Confucianism
The Essentials
by Lee Dian Rainey
Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
Review by Vineeth Mathoor
Sep 21st 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 38)

An interesting aspect of western academic scholarship is the concomitant attention towards non-western traditions, religion and philosophy. West is engaging with ancient Buddha, medieval Rumi  and many modern philosophers. Also, the attempt to understand non-western systems of thoughts and traditions pursue scholars to committed engage in the (re)production of non-western knowledge systems. In today's globally-connected world, relationship of convergence and accommodation makes much sensibility in society and this tends people to listen to old civilizations and their teachings. We live in a world where we are so away from nature and therefore we are forced to be sophisticated. On the contrary, the aspects of oriental readings about the non-western cultures and civilizations are pertinent to western societies and the book opens up its enquiry at this crossroad. As people living in post-modern, post-industrial and post colonial times, we should not have looked back at a Confucius or Buddha for solutions. To put it crudely, we should not have encountered any such aspect of 'existential crisis' in this world and if we did encounter anything of such sort, we are then lost in the cynical reason of our post-modern civilization. And, the book tries to examine the possibilities of engaging with the past for our present and future.

Rainey, the author, shows that Confucius lived in an era of war, oppression, dishonesty, cruelty and torture but he could (re)convert certain ancient traditions for the common good of the entire mankind. The book argues in this direction of seeking plausible options of discovering the lost values and practices for the common good of mankind. Methodologically, the book has a rational outlook with the approach directed towards looking more into historical explanation of the life and teaching of Confucius. Two central methodologies can be detected in the book- Marxist historical interpretation combined with Psychoanalytical methods. However, the book does not simply engage in the Marxist or psychoanalytical method alone in a “closed-system” style of reading the life of Confucius. Of course, one could be reminded of E.P. Thompsons' simple but profound style and the book is a great source of inspiration for those who try how to write a historical biography. Beyond methodology lies the politics of the book, and here the author succeeded in managing a matured and “politically engaged” style of explanation. The book does not follow the framework of Orientalism but keeps the balance to be rational, without making Confucius a god-man. Structurally, the book is small in appearance but has thirteen brilliant chapters on the life, philosophy, teaching of Confucius with scintillating examination of the present relevance of Confucianism.        

The book opens up the debate by recognizing the role of colonialism in creating ideas, values and icons in society.  For instance,  by suggesting that the Chinese people do not recognize Confucius and non- Chinese Kong Fuzi, Rainey argues that  certain social institutions still keep closed and this is a barrier in grasping the real sense of life. The Marxist methodology of the book is exemplary identifiable in the various chapters and the book presents Confucius as a man who worked hard at bad times even to keep his words and deeds within morality. The book demonstrates that Confucius was born in 551 BCE in the city of Qufu in China in an era of turbulent socio-economic and political turmoil. At the time of Confucius' birth, the area was under the control of a declining but still powerful Zhou dynasty and these factors shaped the life of Confucius. Further, by employing the social-changes methodology, in agreement with Marxist method, Rainey slowly proceeds to hermeneutic approach to (re)construct the life of Confucius. The book suggests that the socio-political condition coupled with palace intrigues, conspiracies, murder, violence and authoritarian rulers complicated the whole discourse of humanity in the region and Confucius was a product of these turbulent social conditions.

That being said, the book proceeds further to historically locate Confucianism in the scholarly constructions. From the book, we get a picture of Confucius as a man who could achieve six virtues of the time-rites, music, archery, charioteering, the study of history and literature, and the study of mathematics and probably he was the first one to start the first school of the world by accepting fees from his students. The book also demonstrates that Confucius was a simple man who never cared for position and power. Rainey also goes on to survey the historical realities associated with the friends, followers and enemies of this great thinker to examine the role of emotional attachments and social pressures in shaping the thoughts of Confucius. Also, the book deals with the changing meaning of Confucianism as a religious and moral philosophy having the power to influence the masses. The book does not approach Confucianism as a product of European construction but a vital aspect of Chinese social life. Another important aspect of the book is its rigorous examination of the historical sources pertaining to the period of Confucius. The main texts of Confucius, such as Analects or sayings of Confucius is  examined to show that what we generally make out of sources could be far different in many ways from reality and this remains as  on of the central problems of historical construction.

At the end this book is a good source of inspiration and lucid explanation of world's one of the most brightest thinkers from China. By examining the contextual meaning of Confucianism and the modern usages of the term in China, the book suggests that it is not as easy as what we think to overcome the influence of the past ideas and teachings. Also, the book reminds that it is important to locate the historical and emotional enchantments that bound the human community together since ancient times, and the teachings of Confucius contribute to the development of human community. The interpretation of the ideas of Confucius and Mencius on war and totalitarianism can be  used to  suggest that the mind of rulers must always be controlled for the common goodness and what we need is not just laws but humanity and compassion.

In short, this book will appeal to Chinese scholars and to scholars and readers generally interested in ancient philosophical traditions. The author, Rainey, is a devoted scholar of Eastern, and especially Chinese philosophy and history. The author has succeeded in popularizing the Confucian ideas by interpreting them in profound and scholastic ways, and the present book under review is a   well-organized door to the teachings, life and ideas of Confucius. 


© 2010 Vineeth Mathoor


Vineeth Mathoor, Research Scholar, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India


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