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Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, Le Sage et le peuple. Le renouveau confucéen en Chine (The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China),

Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2014, 436 pp.
Zhe Ji
Translated by Jonathan Hall
p. 74-75

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  • 1  Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China, Oxf (...)

1This book, which has been recently translated into English,1sets out a new paradigm for studies on Confucianism. Unlike currently available works, which despite their high quality tend to reduce the complex “Confucian” phenomenon (an all too accommodating, not to say ambiguous, label) to various partial aspects such as philosophy, ethics, official ideology, or worship practices, this book stands out for its approach to the phenomenon as a whole, which enables it to avoid reductionism. Based on ethnographic material garnered over several years’ research in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the two authors provide a panoramic description of the many social expressions of Confucianism in the first decade of the twenty-first century, along with a critical analysis of their moral and political preconditions. The two authors call these manifold expressions “popular Confucianism,” which is a term borrowed from Chinese activists but in no way refers to a purely anti-elitist or simply unofficial movement. On the contrary, elitist initiatives and governmental interventions are closely involved and are therefore given equal weight by the two authors. Their insistence on the “popular” aspects corresponds above all to their purely heuristic stance. This enables them to take into account the polarity of a “popular” component, which on the one hand comprises a value term and a complex of many-facetted forces, and on the other the image of a “sage,” which having been refracted through many cultural inputs in the past and badly abused in the twentiethcentury, continues to haunt Chinese modernity. But there is also an anthropological ambition here: to study “the confrontation of individuals from popular social milieus with their image of Confucius and, in addition, to identify the practical lessons for life that they attempt to restore and put into practice” (p. 18).

2This rich material is carefully organised into three sections corresponding to the educational, religious, and political dimensions of the phenomenon being studied, and this tripartite division itself amounts to a clarification as it displaces the customary framework. The first section, comprising three chapters, deals with educational projects claiming to be based on “Confucianism.” After a brief survey of the development of the role of education in Chinese society during the first half of the twentieth century, the authors expound on various attempts to re-institutionalise Confucian education in the early 2000s, from the “Confucian studies” and “national studies” projects in the universities to the movements for “children reading the classics” launched by the Taiwanese. To these they add the “traditional” education offered by private schools as an alternative to official education, as well as associations for cultural self-cultivation among adults. They also study the appropriation of similar projects by private firms and government bodies. Finally, the authors show how these different educational projects (particularly those outside university structures) contain an implicit anti-intellectualism that gives weight to “the people’s” capacity to incorporate a traditional form of knowledge, rather than the theoretical studies of the elite.

3The second section tackles the religious dimension of Confucianism, starting with individual case studies in the fourth chapter, which show how “conversion” to Confucianism comes about, and is narrated through lived experience in which Buddhist faith may sometimes play an intermediary role. The fifth and sixth chapters constitute a study of the “religious question” posed by the contemporary Confucian phenomenon: namely, why is it difficult to correlate its actual initiatives with the imported Western norms for classifying a “religion,” and what are the terms used by its proponents to make their claim for the religious nature of their undertakings? Attempts at a religious institutionalisation of Confucianism in contemporary China, which form part of its ongoing history, are diverse and creative, as well as problematic. While projects aimed at restoring Confucianism as a “state religion” or a “civil religion” are still largely theoretical, some new religious movements (especially the Yiguandao) have already recycled Confucian elements among their fundamental tenets. Yet none of these attempts has gained legal recognition from the PRC state, and there is still a long way to go before reaching a consensus on the relationship between Confucianism and politics, or between Confucianism and other religions.

4The four chapters comprising the third section begin by following the shifts in the cult of Confucius, from his “deritualisation” under Republican and Maoist rule to the return of the “sacrificial rites” in the reform period. This is followed by a detailed report on the development of the Festival of Confucius orchestrated in 2007 by the Chinese government, in which the authors draw attention to both official handiwork and initiatives deemed to arise from “popular” sources. In the first case, the aim is to make use of Confucius without any real respect for Confucianism, which reveals the continuing “Maoist habitus” or mind-set of political campaigning. The second set of initiatives embodies a historical ideal that goes far beyond the current political horizons by seeking to ground their legitimacy in recognition by the people. These two ways of restoring ritual are both mutually competitive and mutually supportive. The last chapter compares politico-religious rituals in Mainland China and Taiwan, and analyses the different possible ways of correlating the traditional cosmology with modern politics. This comparison allows the authors to give further consideration to the socio-political implications of pronouncements on the religious nature of Confucianism that they discussed in the second section.

5Finally, in the epilogue the two authors throw light on recent developments in popular Confucianism in its quest for continuity and autonomy. They argue that the state, Buddhism, and the associations promoting syncretism are without a doubt the major external factors exerting pressure on the reshaping of the relationship between the Sage and the people.

6Thanks to its richness and its detailed descriptions (supported by a large number of photos taken in situ), as well as the pertinence of its insightful and lucid analyses, this erudite but accessible work is invaluable for any reader concerned with the attitudes currently prevalent in the “Chinese world.” In 2015 it was awarded the Bernheim Prize in the history of religions by the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, and it sets a new benchmark and encouragement for the anthropological study of China as it faces the challenge of grasping the direction taken by the great traditions in an immense society undergoing transition. The authors’ proposal for an “anthropological reflection on the present” (p. 400) will be an inspiration for historians of both Confucianism and Chinese religion in general, because there is no doubt that the “popular” movement and the relations between the state, the Sage, and the people studied in this work have long been present in the ancient traditions of China.

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1  Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015, 352 pp.

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Electronic reference

Zhe Ji, « Sébastien Billioud and Joël Thoraval, Le Sage et le peuple. Le renouveau confucéen en Chine (The Sage and the People: The Confucian Revival in China), », China Perspectives [Online], 2015/4 | 2015, Online since 01 January 2017, connection on 23 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Zhe Ji

Ji Zhe is an associate professor at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales(INALCO) (

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