The Root and Flower of Chinese Culture: the origins and renaissance of Confucianism

How is Confucianism going back to its roots? By looking back at the concept of the Way and of the Celestial Emperor before the Spring and Autumn period (722-481 BC) and the deep-seated religious and transcendental concepts in Chinese society. And how can Confucianism be ‘re-born’? Through a dual process of ‘outward’ expansion to embrace Christian theology and traditional Western thinking, and ‘inward’ expansion to embrace popular wisdom and social realities.

The transcendental nature of mankind is at the origin of culture; religion expresses this human transcendence and reveals that belief in a higher being and faith in general, are the root of culture. If we compare Chinese culture to a tree, Confucian philosophy is the flower and Confucian faith the root. The Celestial Emperor concept is indeed the origin of Confucian philosophy.

For the ancient Chinese, the Celestial Emperor was the embodiment of transcendence. This is both an essential archetype in the Chinese collective unconscious and the basis of the Confucian faith, which represents the root source, while Confucian philosophy represents the river or flower. Religious theory is rooted in the philosophy while the spirit of the latter is found in religion. Confucianism is an underlying feature of the Chinese subconscious, while Confucian philosophy shapes the conscience of intellectuals.

Very detailed writings about the Celestial Emperor represent the first attempts at religious conceptualisation in China. The Book of Odes (Shi Jing) and the Analects of Confucius are oracular texts that depict the Celestial Emperor as being guided by his own freewill, virtuous, humane and compassionate; a powerful and fair deity with a unique personality. Even if the term ‘celestial’ has since come to mean ‘natural’, the idea of ‘supreme sovereign’ has been kept. As Confucianism developed to dominate elite culture, the notion of ‘transcendence’ progressively disappeared and there was a shift away from the religion’s original teachings.

Certain major Neo-Confucian concepts can be found in Christian theology, and the former can look to the latter for inspiration. Where theory is concerned, Confucian philosophy and religious theory – as taught by Confucius and Mencius through to Zhu Xi, Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao – evolved towards Christianity and to a certain degree away from Buddhism. As a result, Neo-Confucianism is open to outside influence. Confucianism can and should look to Christian theory for inspiration. In Neo-Confucianism, looking ‘inward’ involves incorporating ‘celestial justice’ and academic theory into social institutions for the benefit of all – a move that embraces both society and the individual.