Though I’ve been interested in Confucianism for much of my life, I’ve only relatively recently begun seriously working through the Confucian canon, namely the Four Books and Five Classics. Now, working through the canon seems like a logical start to understanding the philosophy, much like working through Scripture to understand Christianity, but there is a drawback. That is, the canon by itself does not tell us how Confucianism was understood and put into practice within China. For me it’s still more-or-less an abstraction, and I fear reading my own ideas into the texts too much and ending up like a Confucian equivalent of SWPL “Buddhists,” who refashion that faith in their own image with no concept of what the religion actually involves.
So on an acquaintance’s recommendation, I picked up Xinzhong Yao’s An Introduction to Confucianism, which Yao wrote primarily as a textbook for a course he teaches on Confucianism. His approach to understanding religion is close to my own, as he says in the preface, “[T]he inquiry into religious phenomena should involve empathy to some degree, and […] an inquirer should be able to enter into the doctrine and practice of a religion almost as an ‘insider’, as well as to step outside as a critical observer.” He also directly addresses my concern with being overly focused on the canon, quoting W. E. Soothill:
A study of a religion which limits itself to the teachings of the early founders, and which ignores the present condition of its development, will give a very imperfect presentation of the religion as a whole. On the other hand, a study which is limited to its expression in practice, without doing justice to the ideals of the founders, equally fails to do justice to the religion as a whole, for the religious ideals of a people, while they may be written on the tablets of their hearts and conscience, often find very imperfect expression in their lives.