Free «Confucianism and Christianity: Impossible to Merge» UK Essay Sample

Confucianism and Christianity: Impossible to Merge

Before a new religion enters a country, some similarities in the existing culture and on the basis of that to promote its own agenda should be found. Christians came to China in the late sixteenth century. They were mostly Portuguese and Italian priests, Jesuits, who came together with merchants. Even though China has never had a religion based around one god, there were certain common features between Confucianism and Christianity, some of them were loyalty, piety, and righteous lifestyle, and these traits could bring two significant religions together. However, in the long perspective, it turned out impossible, as such concepts as God, virtue, worship, and others have different meanings in the two religious teachings and cannot be reconciled.

One of the most famous Jesuits in China was Matteo Ricci. Together with his colleagues, he arrived to China, disguised as Confucian monks, realizing that they could not act straightforwardly without exploring the turf first. Studying the Confucian texts, Ricci has attempted to link Catholicism and Confucianism. He saw that the Chinese worship Heaven and have a high regard of Nature and their ancestors. However, for Ricci, Chinese worshipping ancestors, Heaven, and Nature is not the same as idolatry of the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Roman religions and it could be tolerated. At the same time, Ricci regarded Buddhism as idolatry and was against it.

As a rule, Christian monks were well-educated. Ricci had extensive knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, and languages. Therefore, the Chinese saw him as an esteemed man with deep faith, extensive knowledge, which was rather virtuous. At that time, some Chinese scholars felt frustrated with Buddhism. Zhang Xingyao writes that Buddhism muddled people’s head and they no longer could tell one religion from another and simply do as they were asked to (Xingyao 153).

Xingyao saw that Ricci respected and conformed to Chinese main virtues, such as “Humaneness, Rightness, Ritual Decorum, Wisdom, and Trustworthiness” (154). So, he regarded Ricci as a wise man who came to help Chinese to straighten up their ways and clear Confucianism from the muddle of Buddhism. The Chinese noticed that Ricci acted the way he preached. He was loyal, pious, and moral. Therefore, he was like a reflection of Confucian teaching. However, Ricci had to not only find mutual ethical similarities, but to solve the major theologian discrepancies.

Even though, for a Western person Confucianism does not look like a religion, it still is one. The majority of Western religions and denominations are focused around God and worshipping Him (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Meanwhile, Eastern religions are human-oriented (Buddhism and Confucianism) and nature-oriented (Taoism and Shinto). This basic difference is the reason why it is difficult for Confucians and Catholics to understand and accept each other’s teachings.

Because Confucianism does not have a figure of god, it does not require worshiping someone. Ricci has attempted to link Catholicism to Confucianism through the concept Heaven. In order to introduce Jesus Christ, the name “the Lord of Heaven” was made up. However, it could be difficult to explain the Chinese who the Lord of Heaven was and why they should worship him because the concept was absolutely new. Ricci was helped out by Fang Yingjing, who simply wrote in the Preface to Ricci’s Ten Discourses by a Paradoxical Man that the Lord of Heaven is God. In his book, Ricci tried to explain that the concept of “the Lord of Heaven” was not foreign to the Chinese. He quoted from the Confucian classics and pointed out that “Lord of Heaven” in Catholicism and “God” in Confucianism are the same ideas but they are just named differently. Ricci mentions “the existence of a supreme personal “God” in ancient China” (Tang 182).

In his book Introduction to The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven, Ricci further explains what God is pointing out that God is one and it could not be both Heaven and Earth (or Nature). He refers to the classics that did not favor being “faithful to two lords” and insists that worshipping both Heaven and Earth means being “faithful to two lords” (Tang 182). Furthermore, if there is a ruler for each state, Heaven and Earth should also have a higher being that rules them.

Ricci’s next step was to complement Confucianism with the Catholic teachings. Believing that even pagan philosophies can have kernels of truth (and Chinese religions were believed by Catholics to be pagan) Ricci began finding ideas that “should be taken into account, accepted, or approved if they were really reasonable” (Tang 183). Thus, he said that Christ was born much later after Confucius, so Confucius simply knew nothing about him. There was a point in the history of China when Emperor Qin Shihuang destroyed many books. Ricci used this as an explanation for the fact that the teaching of Paradise and Hell was absent from the Chinese teachings, while being present in Christianity. Thus, Ricci clearly works in the mode to accept what good was in Confucianism and explain it further with the Catholic religious thought.

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Such an approach was supported by Zhang Xingyao who wrote “Heaven and Earth naturally possess correct principles, already present in Confucian teaching, but, with some things still not completely understood by Confucian teaching, it would not do to be without the added benefit of the teachings of the Lord of Heaven” (Xingyao154).

The idea of Paradise and Hell was especially difficult for the Chinese to grasp. They got used to doing good for the sake of building their own righteousness, for the so-called self-cultivation. However, Ricci explained that they should do good for God, only because He said to do so. As a reward, righteous people will go to Heaven after death.

In his book Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, and Chinese Culture, Yijie Tang explains that the major difference between Catholicism and Confucianism lies in the different transcendences that each pursues. Whereas for Confucians self-cultivation and rituals serve for “inner transcendence,” Catholics strive to gain “outer transcendence” (Tang 184). Confucians believe that they have everything they need in order to become better people. They need to pursue virtue, perform rituals, do good to other people, etc. Meanwhile, Christians believe that they cannot achieve anything significant in the realm of spirit without God’s help. Only being moral and ethical is not enough.

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However, Ricci’s stretching of both religious teachings did not bring the long-term results. Eventually, Rome issued its orders, forbidding Confucianism for Chinese Catholics and showing little tolerance with Confucianism and other Chinese practices. Soon after Ricci’s death, Emperor Kang Xi prohibited Catholic monks to enter China. The problem was that Confucian and Catholic notions and practices were too different from each other. Ricci’s stretching and accommodation could not last any longer.

For example, Ricci did not view Confucians’ offerings as idolatry because Confucius was not believed to be god and they did not want anything for him. Ricci reasoned that it was simply a mechanistic action without any religious filling and, therefore, there was no point in prohibiting it, if people favor it. However, it was not a position of Catholic Church.

Similarly, the terms “God” and “Heaven” also allowed certain ambiguities. As a result, Catholic Church ordered to stop using on the territory of China any names for God, except for “The Lord of Heaven” because this variant is the most encompassing and less able to be interpreted vaguely.

Besides, the concepts of Heaven (tian) and God are very different. While Confucians pursue self-cultivation, Catholics see their religious mission in worshipping God. The Confucians could not understand it because they saw it as “abandon[ing] cultivating their virtue in order to concentrate upon cultivating favors from Heaven” (qtd in Hoad). To expect something in response to one’s prayer was not only a foreign idea for the Chinese but even “a very unrighteous action” (qtd in Hoad).

It was very difficult to accommodate the idea of sin into Chinese mentality. According to Confucianism, each person is righteous by birth, which is the opposite of what Christianity holds. Catholics believe that each person is sinful by birth and no amount of righteous deeds can purify a person until Christ cleanses him or her with His blood. It is an utterly unclear concept for the Chinese. Ricci has attempted to explain it in the following way: “[L]earners should first of all get rid of evil before they could be virtuous. Only by standing aloof from worldly success can they be successful” (qtd in Tang 187). It can be done through “reasoning about virtue and morality” (Tang 187). However, it was impossible to marry the opposite concepts.

Eventually, Chinese literati reasoned out that Jesus Christ was simply a wise man. If He could achieve something in the religious sphere, why other people could not? If He could have special connection with God, it means that all other people could too. On the whole, Chinese scholars were open to new experience but they never reacted to it as was expected. In case with Ricci, they were charmed with the force of his personality and knowledge. Others wanted to learn what he knew. Even when they accepted something from Catholicism, they did it through the lenses of Confucianism.

As a result, in the 1860, the differences between the religious thought in the West and East were formulated as “Chinese learning as body and Western learning for use” (Tang 188). However, Tang argues that “body” (ti) and “use” (yong) are a pair, rather than opposites. While ti serves to explain something transcendental, yong “refers to the various functions demonstrated by” (Tang 188). Tang’s conclusion is that Western and Eastern religious thought should not be considered as in the opposition. They “should be unified rather than dual” (Tang 189).


Indeed, there are many similarities in the pursuit of virtues and a righteous way of life in Confucianism and Christianity. However, the basis and reasoning behind them are very different. History knows many examples when initial religious ideas were distorted beyond recognition. The younger brother of Jesus during Taiping Civil War is just one example. Among the modern examples, the ubiquitous yoga teachings can be cited, as real yoga masters in India will not be able to recognize their own teachings in glamorous pastimes of Europe and America. It should be remembered that religious teachings and culture, in general, develops in accordance to the conditions, where it originated from. Therefore, when it is taken to another soil, it cannot remain unchanged.


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