Chinese Tibetan Buddhists and the Confucian Revival in Contemporary China

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  • Historical rivalry between Buddhism and Confucianism in China.
  • Historical syncretism of these two traditions.
  • In contemporary China, propagation of Confucianism as part of CPC’s political ideology of ‘Harmonious Society,’ alongside ‘politically correct’ Buddhism.
  • Is there any Confucian influence among Chinese Tibetan Buddhists today?

Research Background

  • 80 interviews and participation in religious activities in 2011.
  • Site locations : Beijing; Gyalthangin DiqingTibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province; The town of Lijiang, Yunnan Province.
  • Informants:

Middle-class;Thirty-five to sixty years of age;Writers or artists, owners of hostels in Gyalthang.Majority of informants represented: Han, some of mixed ethnicity, Mongol and Baiminorities.

Historical Context

  • Chinese emperors propagated Buddhism, Confucianism or Daoism.
  • Chinese emperors and governments employed Buddhism in their foreign policy:
    • Sui (581-618)
    • Tang (618-907)
    • Qing (1644-1912)
    • Mao Zedong’s use of Buddhism when dealing with other Asian nations.

Intellectuals in Favor of Buddhism

  • Some intellectuals criticised conventional piety as ego-centred: earning one’s own salvation by doing good deeds.
    • E.g. Hui Yuan (334-416), one of the literati trained in the Confucian classics who turned to Buddhism.

Intellectuals Opposed to Buddhism

  • At the other end: Daoistwriter Han Yu (786-824) who wished to rid China of foreign Buddhist influence and to return to the teachings of the sages.

Historic Syncretism

  • Early period of Buddhist-Confucian interaction:
    • Terms for filial piety equated with those related to Indian Buddhist morality
    • Anything offensive to Confucian morality emitted or radically changed
    • Buddhist ideas and values equated with Confucian/Daoistapproximations

Zhu Hong (1535-1615)

  • Zhu Hong (1535-1615): revived Buddhism at both lay and monastic levels by adopting practical cultivation methods over doctrinal specialisation.
    • Concerned by monks dabbling in the ‘three genteel pursuits of the literati’ –calligraphy, poetry and the art of letter writing, at the expense of ultimate pursuit of Buddhist enlightenment.
    • Also concerned with the Chan tradition becoming overly intellectual, a ‘fabrication of sophistries’ influenced by Confucianism.

The Confucian Revival in Contemporary China

  • Confucianism in contemporary China: ‘an all-inclusive system’ of knowledge, ethical values, political philosophy, and a tool for international affairs.
  • A movement led by the middleclass, not a revolutionary movement led by the oppressed.
  • Tied with the recent efforts of the CPC under HuJintaoand recenltyXi Jinpingto promote ideology of ‘Harmonious Society’ (hexieshehui) based on Confucian political philosophy.

The Views of Informants: ‘Group’ A

  • Some were searching for their Chinese roots in different Chinese traditions, while also practicing Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Many had read Buddhist-Confucian works by popular Taiwanese Buddhist monks (e.g. Jingkongand Nan Huaijin), and believed Confucianism and Tibetan Buddhism can help with human relationships, good government and other ‘this-worldly’ concerns.

The Views of Informants: ‘Group’ B

  • Confucianism and Tibetan Buddhism cannot be merged in any shape or form, including Confucian-influenced Chinese Buddhism.
    • Chinese Buddhism is tainted by ‘worldly’ Confucianism, as well as dynastic and current political control.
    • “We want to make the rest of China like Tibet.”

Example: A

  • One Han informant in Beijing, a writer who follows the Nyingmatradition, reflected this trend:

‘Under the ‘Communist era’ Confucianism was destroyed, and I was told it was poison… But then I saw a documentary from Taiwan explaining why Confucius appeared when he did –to stop war; his theories were formulated to help people. So I feel this concern for others in Confucianism is like Buddhist Compassion. Jingkong, a Taiwanese master, also discusses Confucian theories in his books. Thus I believe my actions are informed by both Buddhist and Confucian theories.’

Example: A.

  • A Han informant, an owner of a Tibetan Buddhist artefacts shop in Beijing:

‘Buddhism emphasises harmony. The country now is talking about harmony, so they match. There is a book called ‘Harmony Saves Crises’ (HexieZhengJiuWeiji) [by Jingkong]…This book shows that both [Buddhism and the contemporary discourse on harmony] can be combined.’

Example: A.

  • A Han informant, an artist from a village outside Beijing who followed the Nyingmaschool, stated the following:

‘In my generation we didn’t study much about Confucianism (just the basics through my parents). We were just taught Communist Maoism. If they included Confucianism [more thoroughly?] in the education system there would be much benefit. This could help build a foundation for Buddhism to come back. When I was young I was influenced by, and followed atheism. Now I feel that was a big mistake.’

Example: A.

  • A Han-Mongol artist in Gyalthangwho followed the Gelugschool:

‘Nowadays it is important to study the principles of Confucianism such as respect for family and elders, and so on. After the Cultural Revolution many things were destroyed, but now Western influence is increasing and is destroying the soul of Chinese culture [again]. Foreigners come and learn from important Buddhist scriptures but China only gets cheap movies and a ‘plastic’ modernity in return.’

The Views of Informants: ‘Group’ B.

  • These informants reflect the views of puritan Tibetan Buddhist religious figures such as GelugscholarThu’u bkwanBlobzangchoskyinyima (བློ་བཟང་ཆློས་ཀྱི་ཉྱི་མ།)(ཐུའུ་བཀྭན་༠༣)(1737-1802), who saw Tibetan appropriation of Confucius as an invented tradition.
  • Their ‘puritan’ notion of Tibetan Buddhism also drawn from idea of Tibet as ‘Shangrila’.

‘Group’ B.

  • ‘Reverse acculturation.’
  • Reverse commonly held Han stereotypes of Tibetans as ‘uncivilised,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘ignorant,’ ‘superstitious’.
  • Seek to return to the Tibetan landscape and to reenchanta disenchanted world.

Example: B.

  • Han informant, a middle-aged follower of the Gelugschool, who owns a hostel and lives just outside Gyalthang:

‘Tibetan Buddhism cannot be relevant [for society] unless society changes. The world is too ‘worldly’, and people are too materialistic. This must change.’

Example: B.

  • A Baiminority ‘household monk’ (zaijiaheshang) in Lijiang:

‘Tibetan Buddhism doesn’t believe in [xiangxin] Confucian influence. Confucianism constrains people. Tibetan Buddhism is ‘outside the box’, while Confucianism is inside it.’

Example: B. Zhu Hong’s Ideas Continued?

  • An artist who followed the Nyingmaschool:

‘I don’t like to merge Confucianism and Buddhism, because cultural elements can affect your practice of Tibetan Buddhism. Confucianism is on the human level, so I don’t want to mix this with Tibetan Buddhism, which is on a higher level. I also try to avoid mixing Buddhism with art as such practice can make Buddhism too materialistic .’


  • Ideas of the former group: a continuation of the late Ming synthesis under such monks as Zhu Hong?
  • The latter group: represents the more apprehensive side of Zhu Hong and other reformers, concerned with the strong focus of Chinese Buddhist monks on the Confucian arts?
  • However, these arguments for and against religious synthesis thoroughly influenced by and located within the parameters of state discourse in contemporary China.

Thank You!



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