TO many educated Westerners, Confucius is the very emblem of Chinese civilization and religious belief. If the dates that historians have assigned to him -- 551-479 B.C. -- are correct, he was a contemporary of the Greek poet Pindar, the tragedian Aeschylus, and the philosopher Heraclitus. According to tradition, Confucius was easily their equal. In addition to having written or edited parts of a diverse body of literature that includes the (Book of Changes) and the Book of Poems, classics to this day, he was a scholar, a minister of state, and an accomplished horseman and archer. Confucius is said to have taught his disciples the cultivation of personal virtue (ren, usually translated as "goodness" or "humaneness"), veneration of one's parents, love of learning, loyalty to one's superiors, kindness to one's subordinates, and a high regard for all of the customs, institutions, and rituals that make for civility.
So appealing is Confucius that his Lunyu, or Analects, a collection of 497 sayings and short dialogues written down by his disciples after his death, has been translated again and again, especially during this century. Ezra Pound tried his hand at the manuscript; Arthur Waley published a famous English translation in 1938; and two years ago Simon Leys (the pen name of the Australian Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans) translated it into strikingly spare and elegant English prose. One reason Confucius has resonated with twentieth-century intellectuals is that his religiosity -- or lack thereof -- is remarkably congruent with our time. He appeared to encourage obedience to the will of "heaven" and reverent observance of religious rites -- the ancient Chinese practice of offering sacrifices to the spirits of one's ancestors, for example -- while remaining agnostic on the question of whether a supernatural world actually exists. One of the analects declares (in Leys's translation), "The Master never talked of: miracles; violence; disorders; spirits." The Analects contains a version of the Golden Rule ("I would not want to do to others what I do not want them to do to me"), but Confucius' real concern seems to have been the Golden Mean: all things in moderation, even moderation itself. According to another of the analects, "Lord Ji Wen thought thrice before acting. Hearing this, the Master said: 'Twice is enough.'" Such anecdotes prompted the novelist Elias Canetti to observe, "The Analects of Confucius are the oldest complete intellectual and spiritual portrait of a man. It strikes one as a modern book."
In short, ever since the Enlightenment, Confucius has been widely regarded in the West as a Chinese personification of humane, tolerant, and universal ethical principles. In his Age of Reason, Thomas Paine listed Confucius with Jesus and the Greek philosophers as the world's great moral teachers. A figure of Confucius in flowing sleeves joins Moses, Hammurabi, and Solon among the lawgivers in the marble frieze encircling the Supreme Court's hearing room in Washington, D.C.
But what if this familiar image is completely untrue? The answer to this question is of more than academic significance. The portrait of Confucius as the leading Chinese sage, together with the traditional holistic and moralistic reading of the Analects that Leys's translation exemplifies, has an important ideological constituency: intellectuals of the Chinese diaspora and their Western admirers, who have used Confucianism to assert a non-Maoist but thoroughly Chinese identity. For several decades these self-described New Confucians -- a group consisting mostly of university professors -- have been promoting "Confucian values" as the driving force of the non-Communist Chinese cultures of East Asia. Behind the recent economic boom in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and elsewhere, they contend, lay a "Confucian ethic" of respect for family, hard work, and the social order equivalent to the Protestant ethic that Max Weber postulated as being responsible for the rise of capitalism in Northern Europe. The New Confucians have been promoting an updated Confucianism -- minus such atavistic features as the ancestor cult and an offhand attitude toward women -- as the underpinnings of both the human-rights movement in China and a communitarian version of modernity that affords individual liberty without encouraging the libertine excesses that, as they see it, plague America and Europe. 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 first issue has been powerfully addressed by E. Bruce Brooks, a research professor of Chinese at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and A. Taeko Brooks, his wife and co-researcher. They argue that the "historical" Confucius, far from being a scholar, was a warrior of noble birth but slender means who had the misfortune to live at a time -- toward the end of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1123-221 B.C.), which saw the collapse of feudalism and the rise of mass-conscripted armies -- when his skills as a charioteer and bowman were becoming obsolete. Although he was not a teacher in any formal sense, his forceful personality attracted followers among younger warriors, the Brookses hypothesize.