Manufacturing Confucianism

Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization

Manufacturing Confucianism

Book Pages: 472 Illustrations: 13 illustrations Published: February 1998

Asian Studies > East Asia, History > Asian History, Religious Studies

Could it be that the familiar and beloved figure of Confucius was invented by Jesuit priests? In Manufacturing Confucianism, Lionel M. Jensen reveals this very fact, demonstrating how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Western missionaries used translations of the ancient ru tradition to invent the presumably historical figure who has since been globally celebrated as philosopher, prophet, statesman, wise man, and saint.
Tracing the history of the Jesuits’ invention of Confucius and of themselves as native defenders of Confucius’s teaching, Jensen reconstructs the cultural consequences of the encounter between the West and China. For the West, a principal outcome of this encounter was the reconciliation of empirical investigation and theology on the eve of the scientific revolution. Jensen also explains how Chinese intellectuals in the early twentieth century fashioned a new cosmopolitan Chinese culture through reliance on the Jesuits’ Confucius and Confucianism. Challenging both previous scholarship and widespread belief, Jensen uses European letters and memoirs, Christian histories and catechisms written in Chinese, translations and commentaries on the Sishu, and a Latin summary of Chinese culture known as the Confucius Sinarum Philosophus to argue that the national self-consciousness of Europe and China was bred from a cultural ecumenism wherein both were equal contributors.


Manufacturing Confucianism is a deeply learned and richly theoretical work. It both teaches us about the Chinese past and raises questions that we would do well to consider as we seek to interpret and assess Confucianisms.” — Stephen C. Angle , Philosophy East and West

“[A] salutary effect of Jensen’s book might be that no serious scholar in Chinese studies will [again] use the term Confucian or Confucianism except in the most guarded circumstances.” — , Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies

“[A] welcome contribution to the study of Chinese philosophy and to the pursuit of East-West cross-fertilisation. By portraying modern perceptions of Confucianism in the West and in China as the outcome of western imagination and Chinese aspiration, Manufacturing Confucianism can indeed be referred to as a true ‘dispeller of myths.’ ” — Lars Peter Laamann , Royal Asiatic Society

“It’s of considerable importance to the modern world if the most recent rewriting owes as much to sixteenth-century Italian Catholicism as it does to Chinese imperial history. China and the West are closer than they have ever been, closer surely to each other than either culture is to its antecedents 400 years ago. When the Asian economies were flying high, one often-cited reason was ‘Confucian values,’ generally understood as a willingness to subordinate radical individualism to the good of society. Jensen’s work opens the possibility that those values are more deeply shared than we have realized.” — , Rocky Mountain News

“[R]efreshing and challenging. . . . [A]n important book in that it reminds us that much of our ‘knowledge’ of Confucius and Confucianism is hand-me-down and reductionist, informed by prejudices and assumptions which uncritically appropriate Confucius/Kongzi and Confucian/ru to serve the ends of the religious, philosophical, politcal, and cultural agendas.” — John Makeham , Journal of Religious History

“[U]ndoubtedly one of the few recent books on Chinese religions that has the potential to change the way that subject is studied. . . . [T]his book deserves . . . high praise . . . both for its scholarship and its insightful treatment of timely issues. . . . Manufacturing Confucianism . . . calls into question some very important dogmas that surround the reading of Chinese history. . . making several nuanced points and thereby an enormous contribution to the field.” — Mark Csikszentmihalyi , Journal of the American Academy of Religion

“[W]ritten with much humor, some irony, and, despite disclaimers, a little ‘post-modern’ irreverence . . . all the more interesting for readers interested in Confucianism as a catalyst for East-West cultural exchanges. This reviewer has no doubt that the argument of re-invention of culture is historically and universally accurate.” — , The China Quarterly

“If the New Confucians are wrong about Confucius—if, that is, he never was the humane sage and ethicist of popular imagination, and Confucianism as commonly perceived is largely a mythical concoction—their theories and platform would suddenly rest on a shakier base. That is precisely the premise of a new strain of Confucian scholarship that has stirred excitement and controversy. The scholarship takes on traditional understandings of Confucianism in two ways: by questioning its origins and by questioning its Chineseness. . . . The second big issue—the Chineseness of Confucianism—is the focus of Lionel M. Jensen. . . . Jensen contends that there was no such thing as Confucianism until Jesuit missionaries entered China in the late sixteenth century. . . . [A]mong younger Chinese-born scholars who have no ideological stake in Confucianism as a counterweight to Maoism, efforts like those of Jensen . . . to place the reputed sage in the historical context of the culture that produced him come as a relief.” — , Atlantic Monthly

“In Manufacturing Confucianism, 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. . . . Relations between China and the West have long been strained. . . . If Lionel Jensen is right, cooperation between the hemispheres has an equally proud history; not all of it has been told.” — , Lingua Franca

“Perhaps the most important work on Confucianism ever published in any language. With erudition and probing reasoning, Jensen presents a challenging and unprecedented reassessment of the category of ‘Confucianism,’ revealing its historical origins as a joint Chinese/Western cultural construct. . . . [Jensen] demonstrates with acute precision how specific Western and Chinese interpretations shaped each other, from the normative claims of late-imperial Chinese intellectuals to the perspectives of leading Western scholars today. This fascinating, monumental study should be required reading for all who study Asia or who endeavor to understand other cultures.” — Russell Kirkland, Religious Studies Review

“This is a remarkable book. . . Nothing short of a scholarly tour de force. . . . In this splendid history of the idea of Confucianism, Jensen cogently demonstrates the fictiveness of tradition, fictive in the sense that it is perpetually reinvented with the intervention of presentist concerns and urgings. . . . Once in a long while, a provocative book comes along and demands us to take a long and hard look at its subject matter. Lionel Jensen’s work is one such creature. It prods our flaccid complacency and asks us to reexamine our conception of Confucianism. We should happily comply.”
— On-cho Ng , Sino-Western Cultural Relations Journal

“A thesis that will scandalize cultural purists: the ‘Confucius’ we love, honor and emulate springs from the intercultural trafficking of seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries. Jensen argues his case on many planes, with nuance and bedrock affection for both China and sinology.” — Haun Saussy, author of The Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic

“Jensen makes his case with a forceful combination of detailed sinological research and rigorous reasoning. It is certain to be a focus of discussion for many decades to come. Indeed, it will be a significant milestone in the field.” — Hoyt Cleveland Tillman, author of Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi’s Ascendancy


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Lionel M. Jensen is Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Program in Chinese Studies at the University of Colorado at Denver.

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Winner, American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book in the History of Religions Award

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2047-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2034-0
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