The reason why “Confucianism” is a misnomer unacceptable by Ru practitioners can be understood from this perspective:
When James Legge (1815-1897 C.E), a congregationalist Christian missionary who worked in China in the middle of 19th century, coined up the name “Confucianism” to designate the Ru tradition, he thought Confucius enjoyed the same authority as what Jesus did in Christianity. According to Legge’s misconception of the Ru tradition, this would imply that no one in the Ru tradition would have ever dared to critique Confucius in any conceivable way, just as no “religious” affiliates would have ever been thought of being obliged to critique the founders of their religious orders.
But this preconception of a founder’s role in a “religion” is just absolutely inapplicable to Confucius and the Ru tradition which he helped to transmit and enlarge. Ruism is a comprehensive way of life that furnishes a well-rounded and unique approach of spirituality, which has never given up scholarly critical thinking as its foundation and pillar.
Several, among countless, examples would suffice to make this case.
We hear Confucius himself teaches his students in the Analects 15.36 that “If the practice of the virtue of Humaneness (仁, ren) is at stake, you do not need to yield to your teacher.” Clearly, in order for them to move forward in the cultivation of Humaneness, the cardinal human virtue in Confucius’ moral philosophy, Confucius did not hope that his students blindly followed himself. Instead, students should “learn broadly, question carefully, think thoroughly, judge distinctively, and act persistently,” as another canonical Ruist classic, the Centrality and Ordinariness (中庸, Zhong Yong), summarizes Confucius’ expectation from his students.
Resonating with this teaching of Confucius’, Han Yu (768-824 C.E), who is generally thought of as the way-paving figure for the revival of Ruism in its medieval period, notices in his famous essay “On Teacher” that the reason why Confucius became such a learned and respectful teacher is that he once learned from so many teachers of his own. However, Han Yu also points out that in a historical hindsight, none of these Confucius’ teachers can be on a par with their student regarding his scholarly and cultural accomplishments. In this sense, Han Yu says:
“Therefore, pupils are not necessarily inferior to their teachers, and teachers are not necessarily more worthy than their pupils. People get to hear the Way sooner or later, and their talents and businesses are focusing upon varying areas. It is just from here that derives the relationship between teachers and their pupils.”
Obviously enough, for Han Yu, the fact that one learns from one’s teachers should neither entail the order of inferiority nor undermine one’s critical thinking. Most importantly, Han Yu thinks this way of thinking over the teacher-student relationship is taught and practiced by Confucius himself.
The last, also my favorite, example I would like to share is from Wang Yangming (1472-1529 C.E), a scholar, civil official and military commander in Ming Dynasty of China, who is acclaimed by the Ru tradition as one leading Ruist in Ruism’s Song and Ming period. Wang says:
“Learning pivots upon the conviction from one’s mind-heart. If words are examined in my mind-heart and found to be wrong, although they have come from the mouth of Confucius, I dare not accept them as correct. How much less for those words from people less worthy than Confucius! If words are examined in my mind-heart and found to be correct, although they have come from the mouth of ordinary people, I dare not regard them as wrong. How much less for those words of Confucius!” ( The Complete Works of Wang Yangming, 76)
In this sense, the principles of “sincerity,” “personal conviction,” and “independent critical thinking” that are so cherished by European Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke or Immanuel Kant, are doubtlessly Ruist!
Of course, when Confucius and Ru said these words about and towards their teachers, they meant no disrespect. Quite contrary to this, Ru would think of it as an unsurpassable joy to succeed in teaching a student who can be simultaneously committed to learning, critical thinking, and the cultivation of inter-relational virtues such as sincerity, humbleness, and respect that are all implied by the previous quotes. Because of this, Mencius (372-289. B.C.E), another Ru master, also indicates that it is one of the three greatest joys to “attract great talents under the heavens, and then, teach them!”
Nevertheless, this Ru way of understanding the role of teacher reminds us of two fundamental features of Ruism, which I hope any new Ru learner would never misapprehend.
Firstly, the fact that one once seriously learned from their teachers does not mean that the student ought to agree on everything with their teachers, let alone that the former is inferior. I have heard so many times from Daoist sympathizers who quoted the unverifiable historical account on how Confucius once learned from Laozi, and thereby, tried to prove that Confucius’ teaching is inferior to Daoism. Sorry, Daoist friends, I have to remind you: Ru frequently and routinely critiqued their teachers in a rational and respectful way. Even if Confucius learned from Laozi, this would argue for nothing about superiority or inferiority. Ruism is not a religion, and hence, fundamentalism and blind obedience have no footing in it.
Secondly, I have tried my best in my previous writings to indicate that Ruism is simultaneously deeply metaphysical and ethical, and in this sense, has furnished its own unique answers to varying questions that modern readers would like to term as “spiritual,” such as what is the beginning and end of the cosmos, what is the position of civilization in it, the meaning of human life, death and immortality, and so forth. Even so, the phenomenon of “revelation” in the forms of either unchallenged holy words or worshiped divine personhood has never taken any root whatsoever in the Ru tradition. Everything that is passed down by the Ru tradition must be intensively argued, sympathetically practiced and whole-heartedly confirmed before any sort of commitment to the tradition can be encouraged. In this sense, if we have to use a chic jargon to describe Ruism: it is deeply spiritual, but not religious.