Confucius is a homegrown chinese icon-- one of few to survive centuries of dynastic and communist rule--and a unifying symbol of the country's past. Peddlers hawk his sayings; restaurateurs name establishments after him; the communist government puts his likeness on a postage stamp. But, in an upcoming book on the ancient sage, Lionel M. Jensen, a historian at the University of Colorado in Denver, reveals that Confucian philosophy may not be quite as Chinese as we've thought.

While in graduate school, Jensen was struck that "Kong Fuzi," the Chinese term Jesuit missionaries transliterated as Confucius in the sixteenth century, never appeared in the writings of the ru, China's educated and bureaucratic class. "There was literally nothing in ru literature that ever used the term 'Kong Fuzi,'" Jensen says. Instead, there existed a cult around a great, ancestral teacher called Kongzi (551?­479? b.c.), whose followers had collected his sayings. This teacher was revered simply as a wise philosopher, not a prophet.

When Italian Jesuits Matteo Ricci and Michele Ruggieri established their mission in Zhaoqing, China, in 1583, all that began to change. In Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions & Universal Civilization (Duke), Jensen argues that the Jesuits, looking for a way to penetrate the closed corridors of China's intellectual elite, discovered in Kongzi both a reassuringly familiar figure and an irresistible opportunity. At the time, Kongzi's teachings on how to live a proper life had been virtually obscured by centuries of voluminous ru commentary. By focusing on the particular precepts attributed to Kongzi (such as: "To regard knowing something as knowing it, to regard not knowing as not knowing--this is knowing"), the Jesuits began the process of remaking Kongzi through Christian eyes. After all, the Old Testament was littered with the words of prophets that foreshadowed the coming of Christ. Why couldn't Kongzi be comparable to, say, Isaiah?

But the Jesuits' mission was not simply an instance of Western cultural imperialism. Indeed, as they mastered the language and habits of the ru, the Jesuits were accepted as members of that intellectual elite. Practicing what has been termed "accommodationism" by modern scholars, the Jesuits adopted indigenous dress and learned the local Chinese dialects--a sharp departure from the behavior of Western missionaries elsewhere in the world. (While Ricci and Ruggieri were donning the regal garb of the ru, Jensen writes, missionaries at the Jesuit headquarters in nearby Macao were trying to "Portugalize" the natives, insisting the converts assume Western names, clothes, and customs.)

Along with a half dozen fellow Jesuits, Ricci and Ruggieri (the latter left the mission in the late 1590s) began to interpret ru doctrine as a kind of revealed theology, a divine light that prefigured the eventual embrace of Christianity by the Chinese. "Ricci and his fellow missionaries began to sermonize a Christianized ru advocating the resurrection of the true teaching of Kongzi," Jensen writes. In reports of their work that they sent back to Europe, they identified the ancient progenitor of the ru as "Kong Fuzi," a rare honorific for Kongzi that could be found on the spirit tablets of certain regional temples but nowhere in ru literature. This Kong Fuzi--or Confucius, as the Latinization read--was the avatar of a proto-Christian natural theology.

Surprisingly, the Jesuits' Confucius was enthusiastically received by Chinese of all classes, including, ultimately, some of the ru. Their message reached the unlettered peasants through sermons delivered in the countryside, while the literate classes, inspired by the Jesuits' teachings, printed books devoted to the Heavenly Master. (Envious of the Jesuits' success, one ru scholar complained, "Their poison is spreading everywhere and threatens to contaminate myriad generations.") Apparently, the Jesuits' triumph was due to their talent for cultural assimilation and their skill at respecting indigenous ways of thinking. "Rather than arguing that Chinese difference from Christianity constituted falsehood, as would later Catholic and Protestant missionaries," Jensen writes, "Ricci presumed their complementarity and drew the metaphysical presumptions of contemporary ru into dialogue with his own faith."

The enthusiasm was mutual. Reading the Jesuits' letters in the 1590s, European intelligentsia were taken with reports of this pre-Christian philosophy. Enlightenment philosophers, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu praised Confucius in their work. In 1690 François Fénelon wrote a philosophical dialogue between Confucius and Socrates, and in 1700 Leibniz offered this eulogy to the Jesuits: "I praise the foresight of Matteo Ricci, a great man, for following the example of the church fathers who interpreted Plato and other philosophers in a Christian fashion."

Contemporary scholars might want to be less hasty with their accolades. "We can't know for sure that the Jesuits were the first to use the term 'Kong Fuzi' in ru literature," cautions Haun Saussy, chairman of the department of Asian languages at Stanford University. " Jensen is asserting a negative. Someone may get mad enough to dig up a previous reference to Kong Fuzi." Indeed, there are already indications that Jensen's revisionist look at Confucius won't sit easily with everyone. At a Columbia University conference last year, a fellow historian accused him of "making fun of Confucianism." Overall, however, Saussy praises Jensen's approach: "If we cut the Jesuits loose from the moorings of both Eastern and Western traditions, and see them as creating their own eclectic school, they become much more interesting."

Skeptical Sinologists are likely to be reassured by the second half of Jensen's book, in which he applies his theory of cultural accommodation to the work of two Chinese scholars central to the Confucianist revival in this century. By 1900, he writes, the Jesuits' ecumenical vision of Confucius had largely disappeared, supplanted by a set of highly parochial, narrowly religious practices. With the hope of resurrecting a more cosmopolitan ideal, Zhang Binglin published The Etiology of Ru in 1910, which was followed by Hu Shi's An Elaboration on Ru in 1934. Both men turned to Western sources to accomplish their task. Zhang, an aficionado of British evolutionary theorist Herbert Spencer, gave Kongzi a determinist spin, arguing that his contribution marked the ru's transition from primitive shamanism to a more sophisticated intellectual vocation. Hu's work, on the other hand, was influenced by the years he spent at Cornell, when he briefly converted to Christianity. Relying in part on the work of Ricci and Ruggieri, Hu argued that Confucius and Jesus, who lived within a few centuries of each other, represented the Eastern and Western teachers who brought religion into its modern phase.

Relations between China and the West have long been strained. (Witness the recent contretemps over the making of the new Brad Pitt movie Seven Years in Tibet.) If Lionel Jensen is right, cooperation between the hemispheres has an equally proud history; not all of it has been told.


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