First published in Asian Philosophy 1:3 (1993), pp. 43-54; linked with permission of editor

Revised as Chapter Nine of Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives


It is fair to say that Confucius never ceased to be the object of the cult he had wanted: . . . [celebrating] the wisdom that causes men to turn away from mystical practices and theories, from magic and prayer, from doctrines of personal power and salvation.

Marcel Granet1


It is most interesting that [the] educated elite resisted all efforts to deify their Master and that in a land where it was commonplace to turn men into gods, Confucius remained a human figure.  Perhaps he could most aptly be called the spiritual ancestor of the literati.        

Laurence G. Thompson2   


[Confucius] was surely no deity figure, but a humanist and a scholar. . . It is interesting that later generations nearly made him a god, but actually made him a king. . . to highlight his wisdom [and] his moral claims to rulership.

Julia Ching3



Except for a miraculous birth story, Confucius was not elevated in the same way that Jesus, Krishna, or Gautama have.  The deification of Jesus and Gautama happened fairly soon after their deaths, but the glorification of Confucius by Chinese culture did not happen for 500 years.  An analysis of the ways in which Confucius was regarded by Chinese culture reveals instructive differences between him and the other saviors.  Mahoyona Buddhist and orthodox Christian philosophers rejected many popular notions about their respective saviors, but most accepted them as gods.  For the purposes of our thesis, it is significant that most Confucian philosophers never viewed Confucius as a deity.  Furthermore, popular notions of Confucius as a perfect sage differ very much from the modes of deification we have seen so far.  In summary terms, Confucius was not divinized as a savior; rather, he was canonized as the saint of the literati.

In this chapter we will investigate the development of ideas about the nature of Confucius' person.  First, we will review the relevant historical facts about how he was regarded in Chinese culture and politics.  Second, we will analyze two crucial texts which some claim support the divinity of the sage.  Here we will take issue with recent attempts by Roger Ames, David Hall, and Edward Machle to deify Confucius and the Confucian sage in general.  Finally, we will propose Confucianism as one of the most constructive Eastern answers to spiritual Titanism. 



The first phase of the cult of Confucius was the regular sacrifice made by his own family at Chufu in Shandong province.  In 59 C.E. emperor Mingdi initiated the second phase by making the ritual obligatory for all Confucian scholars.  In 72 C.E. Mingdi traveled to Chufu and offered sacrifices at the temple there.4  The aim of these sacrifices, following the dictates of the Liji, was to honor the deeds of a great man, not to propitiate a god.  James Legge explains the nature of Chinese sacrifices: "There is not, and never was, any idea of propitiation or expiation in them.  They are the tributes of duty and gratitude, accompanied with petitions and thanksgivings."5

The movement to glorify Confucius reached its peak at the beginning of the later Han dynasty, but, as Fung Yulan observes, "with the rise of the Old Text School . . . this literature gradually fell into disfavor and the position of Confucius reverted from that of a semidivine being back once more to that of a teacher."6  The literature to which Fung refers includes an amazing tale about a sexual liaison between Confucius' mother and the Black Emperor and her confinement in a hollow mulberry tree.  This material also portrays Confucius as an uncrowned king, a savior of the world, and a sage who could foretell the future.

It is a significant fact that the Tartars of the Wei dynasty (220265) forbade barren women from praying to Confucius to alleviate their condition.7  During the Tang dynasty, however, the pendulum swung back in the direction of glorification.  In 630, on the recommendation of Fang Xuanling, prime minister of Emperor Taizong, all districts had temples erected to Confucius.  His title was "The Late Sage" and Yen Hui, his favorite disciple, was called "The Late Teacher." 

The Tang era saw the third phase of the development of the cult of Confucius: its incorporation into the state religion.  During this period Confucius joined Laozi in the Daoist pantheon, which was headed by the Tang emperor himself.  The emperor also ruled over many other subordinate deities, including the kitchen god of every Chinese household.  (One might imagine that this religious system kept the masses in line far better than any actual spy network.)  Marcel Granet explains this system: "It had been so from antiquity in the case of the Heroes linked to the cult of a Holy Power.  Under the Empire, the gods themselves were promoted, demoted, or cashiered; they were merely the officials of a state religion whose true deity was the Emperor.  His will alone endowed all other gods with being."8 Although the emperor called himself "Heaven's humble servant," it is clear that he made himself a Titan by taking over divine prerogatives in this hierarchical system.  In the preface of his translation of Wu Chengen's Monkey, Arthur Waley observes that, of all people, the Chinese are most transparent in confirming the "theory that a people's gods are the replica of its earthly rulers . . . . Heaven is simply the whole bureaucratic system transferred to the empyrean."9 Confucius appears only once in this delightful tale, which involves practically every Buddhist, Daoist, and nature deity in Chinese religious history, and in this one appearance he is portrayed as a human teacher of virtue.10

After the uncertain years of the Tang dynasty, Confucianism regained its preeminent position during the Song dynasty.  This was due primarily to the brilliance of the neoConfucian philosophers of this period, and none of these thinkers saw Confucius as anything other than a great sage.  For example, Anne D. Birdwhistell observes that for Shao Yong "the sage does not possess any unique existence that excludes him from the class of humans.  He is not a deity or a spirit."11  The state cult of Confucius, however, continued.  Emperor Taizu (960976) sacrificed to him on a regular basis.  In 1008 records indicate that emperor Chenzong (9971022), who claimed to have had frequent heavenly visitations, set a precedent by kowtowing to Confucius at the temple in Lu.12  In 1012 Chenzong bestowed on him the title "Most Perfect Sage."

It was not until the reigns of Renzong and Shenzong (10231086) that neoConfucian influence was powerful enough to moderate the excesses of the cult.  In 1074 some officials proposed that Confucius be called di (God), but the Confucians of the Hanlin Academy and the Board of Rites rejected the proposal.  The official reason given was that di was not a title Zhou officials ever used for nobility, but John Shryock suspects that "the real reason was [that] the idea of divinity associated with the word. . . would have been obnoxious to the neoConfucians."13  As an obvious but instructive contrast, just think of the undisputed doctrine of Christ's divinity in the medieval church.

The Mongol emperors ordered that the spirit tablets of Zhuxi and other neoConfucian masters be placed alongside those of Yen Hui, Zengzi, Zisi, and Mencius.  (Other Confucian scholars were installed, and sometimes removed, over the centuries, with two added as recent as 1919.)  In his detailed description of the Confucian temple at Anjing, Shryock hesitates to translate the word shen as "god(s)" for this very reason, viz., that the Chinese could not possibly have considered all these men, including Confucius, as gods.  Significantly, the word di is used to describe Guangong, the "god" of war, and currently the most popular god in Hong Kong.  Shryock concludes that the "positions of Confucius and Guangong are different. The former is usually considered as the perfect man, while the latter is a god in full standing."14  Reflecting this distinction in recent centuries, Confucian temples have been called wen miao, rendered most appropriately as "civil temple," not sacred temple.  As Laurence Thompson states: "The entire complex was thus a memorial hall rather than a palace of gods."15

In 1530 further attempts to discourage the deification of Confucius were made.  It was decided that Confucius would no longer be called "prince" and that the buildings erected in his honor would not be called temples, but simply halls.  (Under the Manchus, however, the title "prince" was not only restored, but also applied to Confucius' ancestors.)  Furthermore, images of Confucius and his disciples, installed under Buddhist influence during the reign of Xuanzong (712756), were replaced by spirit tablets.  Because of this switch, the Jesuits, who arrived at the end of the 16th Century, had no reason to call Confucianism an idolatrous religion. 

The coming of the Jesuits offers some significant insights about how the Ming Chinese viewed Jesus visāvis Confucius.  It is obvious that the Chinese, however much they elevated Confucius, definitely did not see his nature in terms of anything like the Christian Incarnation.  Surveying passages of antiChristian polemics from studies of the JesuitConfucian encounter, one is struck by the surprise and incredulity caused by the claim that the Christian God became a man.16  A paraphrase of a recurring question found among these critics would be: "Who is minding Heaven while God is walking around as this carpenter's son turned religious fanatic and criminal?"  When Confucius is mentioned in this material, he is not a god, but simply a sage who knew what Heaven was.  The Chinese sages had a clear sense of the proper place and function of Heaven, Earth, and human beings.  God's place is in Heaven and the human task is to establish the virtues and cultivate social harmony on earth.  These antiChristian comments, combined with the previous evidence, lead to the conclusion that the elevation of Confucius cannot possibly be conceived as the presence of God in a human being.

In 1700 Jesuit priests asked the emperor Kangxi whether the veneration of Confucius was a religious act, and his answer was that it was not.17   Kangxi explained the cult of Confucius in the following terms:

The sage, by the doctrine of the five human relationships, the virtues of Tao, and the cardinal principles of (the relationship between) ruler and minister, father and son, had handed down such eternal truths which inculcate in people the duties of honoring their superiors and ancestors.   This is why the sage should be worshipped.  You Westerners also have saints, and honor them because of their deeds.18

Confucius is "worshipped" not because of his divine nature, but because of his actions and thoughts.  Note, also, that Confucius is not compared to Christ, but to the Christian saints.

With this perspective in mind, let us look at the standard emperor's "prayer" to Confucius:

Great art thou, O thou of perfect wisdom.  Full is thy virtue, thy doctrine complete.  Mortals have never known thine equal.  All kings honor thee.  Thine ordinances and laws have come down to us in glory.  Thou art the model from the school of emperors.  With profound reverence the vessels of worship and sacrifice have been placed here.  Filled with awe we clash our cymbals and strike our bells.19

These words celebrate Confucius' unequalled moral virtue, but it no way implies that he is a god.  This constitutes the veneration of a saintsage, not a deity.

Let us now look at the accompanying mandarin's benediction:

I sacrifice to the philosopher K'ung, the old teacher, the perfect sage, and say: "O Teacher, like to Heaven and Earth in virtue, whose doctrine embraces past, and present, thou didst gather and put forth the Six Classics, and produced teachings for all generations. . . I present in reverential obedience to the ancient ordinances sacrifices chosen with care--animal offerings, silks, wines, and fruits. With thee are united the philosopher Yen Hui, the continuer of thy work; the philosopher Tseng-tzu, the interpreter of thy basic teachings; the philosopher Tzussu, thine own mediator; and the philosopher Meng [Mencius] next in dignity after thee.  Mayst thou be pleased with our offerings!20

Confucius is called a perfect sage, and his virtue is compared to Heaven, but he is not identified with Heaven.  The fact that sacrifices are also given for his favorite disciple, his grandson, and two other Confucian philosophers indicates that humans are being celebrated, not gods. 

During the Qing dynasty, Confucius was elevated to the second rank of official deities, determined of course by the emperor himself.  The first rank in the pantheon was reserved for Heaven, Earth, and the guardian spirits of land and harvests.  In addition to the sun and the moon, Confucius joined all preceding emperors and kings, the patron saint of agriculture, and the planet Jupiter.  The third rank of divinities was crowded with the patron saint of medicine, the god of war, a separate god of artillery, the North Star, the East Peak, the city god of Beijing, the dragons of the Jade Fountain (near Beijing) and Kunming lake, and a host of other luminaries.21  Again it is clear that we are dealing with a very different concept of deity than is found in the West.    

In 1907 Confucius was promoted to the first rank of divinity, making him equal to Heaven and Earth.  Here is part of the Empress Dowager's decree:

In view of the supreme excellence of the great Sage Confucius, whose virtues equal Heaven and Earth, and make him worthy of the adoration of a myriad ages, it is the desire of Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress Dowager, Tzuhsi, etc., that the great Sage shall in future be accorded the same sacrificial ceremonies of worship as are accorded to Heaven and Earth when sacrifice is paid by the Emperor.22

In a desperate attempt to thwart republican reformism, all mandarins were commanded to worship in Confucius' temple twice a month, rather than the previous monthly rite.

The rites at the Confucian temples were discontinued during the 1911 revolution, but in 1914 Yuan Shikai, warlord president of the new Republic, declared that they should resume. Harboring imperial ambitions, he performed the ceremony December 23, 1914, but he merely bowed at the altar rather than kowtowing and only parts of a bullock were sacrificed.23  Nevertheless, when asked if this meant that the Republic was now supporting a state religion, Yuan's answer was very much like emperor Kangxi's response to the Jesuits: the worship of Confucius was not a religious rite.  Some eminent Confucian scholarsKang Yuwei, Chen Huanzhang, and Yan Fudid orchestrate an illfated move to make Confucianism the state religion and Confucius its spiritual head. At the Constitutional Convention of 1915 the Kang group presented its bold proposal, but all it got, after much heated debate, was wording praising the moral superiority of Confucianism.

Kang revived the New Text School of the early Han dynasty to support the spiritual nature of Confucius (e.g., Kang retold the story of his miraculous birth), and he reintroduced the idea of the Three Ages, but now with a distinctively evolutionary and progressive meaning.  Yet even Kang stops short of deification:

            But there was one in whom was concentrated the excellence of all the other philosophers, and whose surpassing godlike sageness was such that all men rallied around him, so that he bound them into one great unity, this way becoming the model for a myriad ages.24

In the next section we will argue that there is a subtle, but important difference between a person having godlike qualities and actually being divine. 

In arguing that China should have a state religion like Japan's Shintoism or Italy's Roman Catholicism, Kang made a telling distinction between his Confucian ren daojiao and a Christian shen daojiao.  The former would be humanistic and civil, and the latter was theocentric and sacred.  Kang argued that Confucianism is superior because it eliminates divine authority, for a ren daojiao society would be ruled by a human king not a divine one.25   What we see in Yuan's rejection of a Confucian religion and Kang's quasiscientific humanism is essentially a fulfillment of the Confucian view of, as Herbert Fingarette so aptly phrased it in a book title, the "secular as sacred."  On such a view, where the idea of a transcendent deity is not  functional, the word "deification" has no meaning at all.



In their excellent book, Thinking Through Confucius, Roger Ames and David Hall reformulate Confucius' genius in a brilliant way, especially with regard to the issue of aesthetic ordering.  But it is both disappointing and puzzling to read that Ames and Hall want to deify Confucius, something most Confucian philosophers, as we have seen, always resisted.  Their argument is not taken from Confucius himself, where obviously no argument can be found, but from Mencius and the Doctrine of the Mean.26  From the Mencius 7b25, Ames translates the following: "Being sage, to be unfathomable, is called 'divinity' (shen).@  Ames has probably mistranslated this passage, for it is clear that the character shen is predicative not substantive.  If shen is predicative, then a standard ChineseEnglish dictionary dictates that the sage is "wonderful, marvelous, miraculous," not divine.27  In his annotated Mencius Yang Buojun lists five instances of the character shenthree substantive and two predicative, and 7b25 is definitely one of the latter.28  

Tu Weiming quotes this passage from the Lau translation ("to be a sage. . . is called 'divine'"), but qualifies it by observing that "the idea of spiritual in this connection by no means signifies a 'spiritual being' (shen ren) which rises above the sage."29 Even if Mencius actually meant to divinize the sage, this is clearly not the original position of Confucius.  It is consistent with his position to call the sage "goodness itself," but neither the Analects nor the other early literature support the deification of the sage.

Ames and Hall's use the of the Doctrine of the Mean is also problematic.  They quote the famous passage: "So earnest and sincerehe is humanity!  How deep and unfathomablehe is abyss!  How vast and greathe is Heaven (tian).  Who can know him except he who really has quickness of apprehension, intelligence, sageliness, and wisdom, and understands [the] character of Heaven?"30 Ames and Hall's interpretation goes wrong for at least two reasons:  (1) they ignore the obviously figurative nature of this passage; and (2) they do not read the passage in its own context or the context of traditional and contemporary commentary.  On the first point, Ames and Hall overlook the nature of the text's language.  Just as we are not to believe that the sage is actually an abysshe is only "deep and unfathomable" as an abysswe are not to think that the sage is literally Heaven.  Charles Muller=s translation does not even hint at the sage=s divinity: ASo sincere is his ren, so unfathomable is his depth, so vast is his spaciousness.@31

On the second point, Chapter 31 describes the sage in human, not divine terms:  "Only the perfect sage. . . has quickness of apprehension, intelligence, insight, and wisdom, which enable him to rule all men. . . . All embracing and extensive as Heaven and deep and unceasingly springing as an abyss! He appears and all people respect him, speaks and all people believe him, acts and all people are pleased with him. . . . Therefore we say that he is a counterpart of Heaven."   The attributes of the entire passage are elevated and exaggerated, but they are not to be taken as divine.  Furthermore, we see the source of the similes with Heaven and the abyss.  Finally, we see that the sage is the counterpart of Heaven, not identical to Heaven.  This passage reinforces the Chinese view of the Cosmic Triad, in which each member maintains its own place, role, and integrity.

 Tu Weiming, even though cited favorably by Ames and Hall, offers a less monistic, less pantheistic view of the cosmic triad of Heaven, Earth, and human beings.  For Tu human beings constitute a trinity with Heaven and Earth, in which they "form a coincidence with Heaven," but they maintain a "conceptual separation" within "an unbreakable organismic continuum."32  This has to be the correct view of the Cosmic Triad.  "Coincidence" and "conceptual separation" clearly do not indicate identity of any kind.  Ames and Hall even quote Tu's warning that the Doctrine of the Mean "does not mean to suggest that Confucius is, in a sense, being 'deified.'"33  Nevertheless, Ames and Hall, going against the texts and the tradition, claim that "the fact is, however, that Confucius is deified, or rather deifies himself."34  Ironically, Ames and Hall fight gallantly against the Christian idea of transcendence all throughout their book; but then, by raising the issue of deification, which makes sense only within a view of divine transcendence (or human transcendence in the case of Yoga Titanism), they undercut their otherwise innovative reinterpretation of Confucius.      Ames and Hall's deification of Confucius is especially baffling because they argue persuasively that tian should be defined in a completely naturalistic way.  Tian is "the cosmological whole"; or it is "a general designation for the phenomenal world as it emerges of its own accord."35  On this view a person aspires to become tian by extending the self into nature, not identifying the self with a god.  Within the context of Ames and Hall's own rendering of tian, the verb "deify" is totally inappropriate.  If tian is not a deity, then there can be no discussion about deification.

Ames and Hall's insightful analysis of de leads us to the same conclusion.  For them "accumulating de" allows us to integrate ourselves with our environment so that we act effortlessly and harmoniously with nature and society.  Ames and Hall quote the Yi Jing on this point:  "The greatest person is one whose de is coincident with the heavens and earth, whose brilliance is coincident with the sun and moon, whose ordering is coincident with the four seasons. . . ."36  Again there is modelling, complementarity, and interpenetration, but there is not identity or deification.  In the Analects Confucius says: "It is Heaven that is great and it was Yao who modeled himself upon it."37

If not interpreted too monistically or mystically, Ames and Hall correctly define the Confucian religion as one which attempts to achieve "a quality of integration in the world which dissolves the distinction between part and whole, and makes of one a peculiar focus of meaning and value in the field of existing things," but then they reiterate their claim that tian ren means "the human being becomes 'deity.'"38  At least they qualify "deity" with quotation marks, but their choice of words is still wrong.  Except for mystical traditions East and West, a central message of the world religions has been to respect the qualitative difference between Creator and creature, between  ground of Being and beings themselves. The Confucian tradition maintains this distinction in a more acceptable way, using what I call a doctrine of "relative" transcendence, while the JudeoChristian tradition makes the distinction problematic with their view of "radical" transcendence.

Even so, we can learn a lesson from the prophet Isaiah. When he describes the Messiah as "mighty God" ('el gibbor),39 he is not deifying him; rather, he is only saying that the Messiah will act with the power of God.  The Hebrew word 'el (God) is  sometimes used to make superlatives, such as harere'el"towering mountains" not divine mountainsand 'arze'elthe "towering cedars" of Lebanon.  Just as the Confucian sage is great like Heaven, so too will the Messiah be mighty like God.  Ames and Hall are making the same mistake as Christian commentators do, when they claim that the Hebrew prophets spoke of a divine Messiah.  Most Confucian philosophers have resisted the deification of Confucius with the same fervor that the Jews have rejected the divinity of Jesus, and we should do the same.

Edward Machle's innovative rereading of Xunzi (discussed in the next chapter) is also marred by his view that the sage is a supernatural being: "The sages may thus justly be considered godsand greater gods than most, since a sage is 'equal to Tian and Earth.'"40  Machle claims that "such an apotheosis of human into godhead is, of course, no great problem for Chinese culture,"41 but in the previous section we have seen that there was a general waxing and waning of the elevation of Confucius and the other sages.  Most important, however, is that the philosophers themselves, except for Kang Youwei, Chen Huan Chang, and Yen Fu early in this century, resisted the deification of Confucius.  Not one of the medieval Confucian scholars, as we shall see in the next chapter, supported such a notion.  Buddhist and Christian philosophers appeared to have no problem with the deification of their respective figures, but Confucian philosophers obviously did.  On this issue especially it is important to keep Chinese popular culture and religion separate from Confucian philosophy.

Machle shows that previous commentators have underplayed the use of the words shen and shenming in the text of the Xunzi.  As a result they end up overemphasizing Xunzi's naturalism. The shen or divinity of Tian is shown only indirectly in the cycles of the heavens and the seasons.  As the Xunzi states: "It is to be called shen because though we do not see its workings, we see its effectiveness."42  As we shall see, this is how Machle is able to distinguish between Tian and nature: Tian is the invisible spiritual force behind nature.  As there is no plural in Chinese, shen can be seen as both the singular divinity Tian and the plurality of its spiritual effects.  "Not seeing the actual workings, we see the effects, and for this reason [the agents] are properly called spirits (shen)."43  But surely we are not to call these spiritual effects either God or gods.  If we are to use the word "God," we should reserve it exclusively for Tian, which according to Machle is at the "top of the cosmic hierarchy, as perfect yang and as preeminent shen." 44

As in the Hebrew uses of ruah (spirit) and nephesh (lit. "breath"), the Chinese soul can also be called shen, this time "human spirit" not a divine being.  (Machle correctly relates this usage to the Greek psych>.)  Therefore, Xunzi has no problem celebrating departed shen, but he does reject superstitions about ghosts (gui).   It is clear that in stating that the natural effects of Tian, including the actions of the sage, are shen, Xunzi is in no way saying that they are divine beings.  This conclusion is consistent with Machle's insistence, in a dispute with Robert Eno,45 that Tian and the sage kings must be seen as distinct beings.  This criticism also applies to Ames' and Hall's monistic tendencies to identify or merge Tian and the sage. 

The parallel to the Hebrews and the Greeks is instructive: neither human nephesh nor psych> can be called a divine being.  A Christian parallel is also appropriate:  Confucians are born with the shen of Tian in the same way that Christians are created in the image of God.  Tian gives humans mind (xin), sensibilities, and feelings, and the Christian God bestows reason, conscience, and righteousness, but the resultant beings are not gods, even if they are saints or sages.  (The Christians are closer to Mencius on the presence of conscience in the human soul.)  Sages then become "host[s] of a divine manifestation (shenming)"46 so they can do Tian's work on earth.  (Consistent with Confucian humanism, they do this by learning, not by original divine endowment or by grace.)  But in neither Christianity nor Confucianism does the knowledge of GodTian result in becoming God, especially since, in both traditions, complete knowledge of God is impossible. 

A grammatical analysis of the Xunzi also supports my position, and Machle himself supplies the data.  In Xunzi's usage of shen, it "is often more adjectival in force (eight times) or part of an adjectival or adverbial phrase (eight times); twice, as a noun, it refers to one's vital functionings.  The rest of the time it clearly indicates 'supernatural' beings or forces. . . ."47  We have already discussed Mencius' use of shen as a predicate adjective, so we must use the meanings  "wonderful, marvelous, miraculous"not "divine"for the adjectival uses that Machle finds in the Xunzi. If Tian's natural effects are shen, then that means that its effects and the sage's actions are "spiritual," just as "Tian in us" or the "image of God" might be called our "spiritual" natures.  Therefore, the claim that the sage is "the equal of Tian and Earth" is not to say that she is same as Heaven; rather, it means that each of the members of the cosmic triad are equally valuable, although Heaven and Earth can claim supremacy in the fact that they both produce human beings.  On the other hand, Heaven and Earth cannot be truly fulfilled without the sage.  "TianandEarth produce the junzi. . . (who) is the 'general manager' (ling) of the myriad things."48  Even Xunzi's "perfect man" (zhi ren) does not "compete with Tian" by encroaching on "Tian's province."49

Although we can understand his reasons for using the first two terms, we must reject as misleading Machle's characterization of the sage as "unnatural, artificial, and indeed, supernatural."50  Machle's defense of Xunzi against Mencius and his later Confucian supporters is a compelling one.  Mencius believed that the sage was a natural development from innate potentials in human nature.  Xunzi rejected this potential goodness, and his critics were justified in asking about how the sage could ever come about.  Machle, after presenting the deficiencies of the Mencian position,51 believes that the answer to this question is implied but obvious: the Confucian sages learned virtue from the great sagekings.  This, then, is the reason for the two misleading terms "unnatural" and "artificial" to describe the sage's education.  Machle believes that the sage is "supernatural" in part because "Xun[zi]'s idea of the sage's 'transforming like a god' goes far beyond mere modelemulation."52 Machle does not give references for either "transforming like a god" or "as if he were a god,"53 so I was unable to check the context, but the simile obviously weakens the attribution of divinity in the same way that it does in the passage from the Doctrine of the Mean discussed above.  Furthermore, when Machle refers to "nothing is more divine than to be transformed according to the Dao,"54 the adjective shen would be better translated as "wonderful, marvelous, or miraculous."  Finally, with such weak evidence for the divinity of the sage, we must stand by the "modelemulation" as the essential foundation of Chinese virtue ethics.



The Confucian sages Yao and Shun were not gods, they were great humans, who ordered themselves according to the seasons, shone like the heavens, and attuned themselves with the cosmic harmonies.  They were mighty like Heaven, not Heaven themselves.  In the Doctrine of Mean we read that "the highest integrity is 'godlike'. . . . Integrity is not simply completing oneself, it is the means of completing things and events."55  Again great persons are not gods, but simply leaders who have wisdom, the perspicacity to get things done, and to expand their influence in the world.  This is the meaning of Mencius' profound remark that "everything is complete here in me.  Can there be any greater joy than in plumbing oneself and finding oneself true."56  What Mencius means is that all of us in our original natures have the potential of "completing things and events"; we all have the potential of becoming sages, but not gods.  Confucius is "cosmic" only in the sense of the extent of his influence, not because of any special divine nature.  The lives of the sages are, like nature, expansive and productive, and this is a key to understanding a crucial text in the Analects: "It is the person who extends the Dao, not Dao that extends the person."57   As we have seen, this passage sums up beautifully the nature of Confucian humanism.

Without ever approaching anything like the Christian idea of transcendence, Confucian philosophers nevertheless recognize a qualitative difference between humans and the divine.  Therefore, Confucian thinkers do not humanize God nor do they divinize human beings.  Even the ancient sage kings, although great, were not considered gods.  Confucius, himself humble about his own achievements, clearly recognized the necessity of balance, accepting limitations, and concentrating an earthly moral life.  Even though they are mediators between heaven and earth, the Confucian sages are still rooted firmly in the earth, their physical selves, and the body of society.

Confucius offers the best answer to Titanism for the following reasons: (1) He rejects the distinction between theory and practice as well as the bifurcation of heart and mind; (2) he believes that the purpose of knowledge is not for power or control, but for edification and pure joy; (3) he has no concept of rational autonomy, a dominant idea in Western humanism, but operates with a relational, social self; and (4) he proposes an aesthetic, rather than rational, ordering of human lives.  Like an artist, the Confucian sage seeks harmony among human selves and attunement with natural things.  This contrasts significantly with mere agreement, or what is worse, bureaucratic enforcement of rules and shortsighted exploitation of the environment.  Like an expert performer, the Confucian participates in the holy rites of li and is thereby humanized, not divinized, by them.


1. Marcel Granet, The Religion of the Chinese People (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975),  p. 118.

2..  Laurence G. Thompson, Chinese Religion: An Introduction (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 3rd ed., 1979), p. 78.

3..  Julia Ching, "Who Were the Ancient Sages?" in Julia Ching and R. W. L. Guisso, eds., Sages and Filial Sons (Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1991), p. 17.

4..  See D. Howard Smith, Confucius (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1973), p. 124. 

5..  Quoted in ibid., p. 176. 

6..  Fung Yulan, A History of Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), vol. 2, p. 168. 

7..  E. H. Parker, Studies in Chinese Religion (London: Chapman and Hall, 1910), p. 221. 

8..  Granet, op. cit., pp. 11011.   

9.. Wu Chengen's Monkey, trans. Arthur Waley (New York: The John Day Co., 1943), pp. 78. 

10.. See ibid., p. 284. 

11..  Anne D. Birdwhistell, Transition to NeoConfucianism (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), p. 168.  In her excellent study of sagehood, Julia Ching states: "The word 'sage' clearly refers to a great and superior being: not necessarily a god, but a human being whose understanding and virtue may be described as godlike."  Ching adds that there were deity symbols in the sageking tradition, but these were demythologized by Confucian philosophers.  See Ching, op. cit., p. 17. 

12..  See Raymond Dawson, Imperial China (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1972), p. 141.

13..   John K. Shryock, The Origin and Development of the State Cult of Confucius (New York: The Century Co., 1932), p. 155.

14..  Shryock, The Temples of Anking and their Cults (New York: AMS Press, 1973), p. 55.

15..  See Thompson, op. cit., p. 78.

16..  See John D. Young, Confucianism and Christianity: The First Encounter (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1983); and Jacques Gernet, China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures, trans. Janet Lloyd (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

17..  See Shyrock, The Temples of Anking. . . ,  p. 57.

18..  Translated by John Young, op. cit., p. 121.

19.. Quoted in K. L. Reichelt, Religion in Chinese Garment, trans. Joseph Tetlie (London: Lutterworth Press, 1951), p. 55.

20..  Ibid., p. 56.  Another version of this benediction contains the phrase "the efficacy of the Master matches that of Heaven and Earth," but this is the only allusion that might imply that Confucius has divine powers.

21..  E. T. Williams, "The State Religion of China During the Manchu Dynasty," Journal of the North China Branch, Royal Asiatic Society 44 (1913), p. 151; quoted in ibid., p. 75.

22..  Quoted in Friedrich Starr, Confucianism: Ethics, Philosophy, Religion (New York: Covici Friede, 1930), p. 232.

23.. Quoted in ibid., pp. 233-34.

24..  Kang Yuwei, Confucius as a Reformer 2.12, quoted in Fung Yulan, op. cit., vol. 2, p. 678.

25..  Ch'u Chai and Winberg Chai, eds., Confucianism (Worbury,  NY: Baron's Educational Series, 1973), p. 162.

26..  David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Thinking Through Confucius (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987), pp. 24-23.

27..  A Chinese-English Dictionary (Beijing: Commercial Press, 1980), p. 608.  I am grateful to Chen Lai of Beijing University and Tang Yi of Beijing's Institute of World Religions for making me aware of this mistranslation.

28..  Yang Buojun, Mengze Yi Zhu (Mencius Annotated and Translated into Modern Chinese) (Beijing: Zhong Hua Press, 1984), p. 417.  This means that every translator of 7b25 that I consulted has missed this predicative meaning of shen.  Lionel Giles:  "A sage who is beyond our comprehension may be called a divine man";  James Ware: "What remains unknown despite the fact that one is a sage is called divine"; WingTsit Chan: "When a sage is beyond our knowledge, he is called a man of spirit"; and D. C. Lau: "To be sage and to transcend the understanding is called 'divine.'"

29..  Tu Weiming, Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1985), p. 152.  Tu calls on the authority of Zhuxi on this point.  Tu also uses another unidentified translation of this passage which is does not deify the sage: AHe whose sageliness is beyond our comprehension is called spiritual@ (p. 96).

30..  Doctrine of the Mean, chap. 32 (Chan trans.).

31..  Charles Muller, The Doctrine of the Mean at www.acmuller.gol.com/contao/docofmean.htm.

32..  Tu WeiMing, Confucian Thought, p. 129.  In his commentary on the Doctrine of the Mean, Tu makes it clear that "this godlike creativity of Confucius must not conceived as the demonstration of some superhuman quality inherent in his nature.  Far from being superhuman, what Confucius was able to manifest can be characterized as a 'refinement' of his humanity" (Centrality and Commonality: An Essay on ChungYung [Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1985], p. 86).

33..  Tu, Confucian Thought, p. 135.

34..  Hall and Ames, op. cit., p. 243.

35..  Ibid.,  p. 207.

36..  Yi Jing 3.1

37..  Analects 8.19.

38..  Ibid., p. 243.

39..  Isaiah 9:6.

40..  Edward Machle, Nature and Heaven in "The Xunzi" (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993), p. 162.

41..  Ibid., p. 163.

42..  Xunzi, chap. xvii, quoted in ibid., p. 168. 

43..  Ibid., p. 92.  In a letter to me P. J. Ivanhoe contends that Machle is overplaying divine agency in this passage.  Graciously accepting my rendering of shen, he would  translate the last phrase as "and for this reason we regard this as marvelous."

44..  Ibid., p. 152.

45..  Ibid., p. 21.

46..  Xunzi, chap. xxi (Machle).

47..  Machle, p. 168.

48..  Xunzi, chap. ix, trans. in ibid., pp. 150-51.

49..  Xunzi, chap. xvii, trans. in ibid., p. 86.

50..  Machle, p. 155.

51..  Ibid., pp. 185-87.

52..  Ibid., p. 103.

53..  Ibid., p. 133.  In a personal communication Machle mentioned several more phrases like this in chapters 10, 11, 14, 16, 18, 22, 24, and 26.

54..  Xunzi, chap. i, trans. in ibid., p. 161.

55..  Doctrine of the Mean, chap. 24 (Ames).

56..  Mencius 7a4 (Ames).

57..  Analects 15.29.  This is Ames' translation as found in his "Nietzsche's 'Will to Power' and Chinese 'Virtuality (De)'" in Nietzsche and Asian Thought, ed. Graham Parkes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 139.