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Max Weber is known for his studies on Daoism and Confucianism. But his famous journal article on the Protestant Ethic (Weber 1950), originally published in 1904, has had more impact on the development of the sociology of religion. It served as the point of departure and the background for his later research on the religions of Asia.

As Weber clarifies in comments he wrote on his own work, his ideal-typical1 construction of the Protestant Ethic is designed to explain how a specific type of rational modern capitalism came about as a novel type of economic activity. Once rational capitalism exists as a way of doing business and of making money, it can be carried on rationally through history without remaining attached to its religious origins, or – for that matter – to any religion or other specific value orientation. In other words, the Protestant Ethic was needed – according to Weber – to start a particular type of capitalism, not to continue its existence. In addition, it was needed to replace universalism and instead establish ethical exclusivity on a religious basis.

When we followed Fei Xiaotong in his interpretation of the reckless behaviour of throwing garbage into the canals of Suzhou, the quick disposal happened in the – presumed – interest of the family and against the general public. Such behaviour needed the ethical principle of exclusivity as justification.

Pre-reformation Christian churches in the West as well as Mozi in ancient China (see here the Introduction!), emphasized the brotherhood of humankind (universalism). Looking at what happened in the history of international as well as inter-ethnic relations it is not clear if this ethical position has ever been anything more than a vague hope. Confucianism in China as well as various ideas of elitism, nationalism and religious particularism in the West contradicted the notion of global brotherhood successfully and sometimes vehemently.

In the West particularly Calvinist Protestantism spread the notion among the baptized of being members of the Chosen Few, similar to the self-confidence of selection of the Jewish people (exclusivity). Max Weber points out that the Calvinist reversal of Christianity from universalism to exclusivity was crucial for developing that utterly successful business ethic oriented toward gainful investment as follows: The former rewarded merely conformity, the latter encouraged being different and having the courage of becoming an innovator and a stranger (Helle 2013: 36).

Societies that were consistently universalist had no ethical foundation for making any difference between persons: They all were children of God, regardless whether they acknowledged that or not (compare: Simmel on Christianity, Simmel 1997: 203). If one of them turned out to be poor or in distress it was the brotherly duty of his fellow Christian to come to his or her aid. Granted that this did not always happen in real life, it was nevertheless a referent to ethics with powerful implications: Do unto thy neighbours as you would have them do unto you, but who is that neighbour of mine? It is not the member of my own ethnic group or clan; it is the stranger from a looked down upon population nearby, like the inhabitants of Samaria who produce the proverbial Good Samaritan.

In the traditional universalistic cultures of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, in Italy, Spain, Russia, and Greece the specific rational type of capitalism did not originate, because everybody was everybody else’s brother in Christ, and had no right to witness his or her poverty unmoved. What was needed to justify the extraordinary wealth of some as compared to the poverty of others, was an exclusive ethic, following the example of Judaism: “You are not allowed to take interest from your brother. From the stranger you may take interest” (Deuteronomy 23:20). In this biblical text the stranger is not the fellow Jew, who is referred to as brother, but the stranger is potentially his partner in a business transaction. (Nelson 1969).2

So much for the religious foundations of the exclusive ethic. On the other side, in the tradition of ethical universalism there is this document from Roman Catholic teaching: In a letter of solemn teaching to the bishops of Italy, entitled: Vix Pervenit: On Usury and Other Dishonest Profit the then ruling Pope Benedict xiv decreed on November 1, 1745 the practice of charging interest on loans as usury. This was, however, simply a reminder of what had been the ancient ethical rule in the Catholic Church anyway.

Clearly there is the divide between universalism and exclusivity. In addition, on the side of exclusivity, there are two distinct sets of values which appear to be functional in overcoming sentimental feelings of compassion with a stranger, so inappropriate in commercial dealings. Those two are the Protestant Ethic and “tribalism” as follows:

Calvinist predestination made the Protestant Ethic possible according to which God in his unfathomable graced had chosen a few to be his children, to be saved, and to become successful and wealthy, and those poor “devils” (sic!) who remained poor, were simply not chosen by God. Who am I to worry about them, if even the Almighty has decided against them? So I am allowed to deal with them as strangers. This would be – in simplified words – the ethical consequences of high relevance for commercial dealings to be drawn from the belief in Calvinist predestination.

If this type of exclusive ethic makes it possible for some to feel righteous about their economic success and feel justified in their wealth even where faced with the poverty of others, then we can assume a similar effect to be tied to the Chinese family ethic. In China it is everybody’s duty to contribute to the wealth of one’s own kinship group. Thus, contrary to the ancient universalistic version of Christianity, the Chinese tradition is not universalistic, it is – to refer to the title of Benjamin Nelson’s book of 1969 – “tribal.”

In the context of religious universalism, it is striking how in recent years the monetary problems of Europe haunted mainly countries with a universalist ethical tradition: First Ireland (catholic), then Portugal (catholic), next Spain (catholic) and even Italy (catholic), but most seriously of course Greece (orthodox). No comparable difficulties were encountered in the primarily Protestant North of Europe with a tradition of ethical exclusivity: Britain, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Germany is the case of a compromise since its population was for centuries roughly half catholic, half protestant. Living as a Catholic among Protestants may have modified the conventional conditions and required courage to be different rather than universalistic even then.

During Chinese history Daoism and Confucianism are the two religions which have influenced the development of economy and society, according to Max Weber’s publications. But the tourist traveling China today may get the impression of being in a Buddhist country. Very few authors – Georg Simmel is one of them3 – question the religious quality of original Buddhism. A religion or not, its origin is of course India (or more precisely, Nepal4). Starting during the third century bce5 it was imported into China by Buddhist missionaries. Once it took root in its new cultural environment it changed significantly to became a distinctly Chinese version of Buddhism. As a result of those changes it clearly qualified as a religion even by Simmel’s criteria (Helle 2015: 48f.).

Apart from Buddhism, let us take a look at what Max Weber found significant about religions in China in general (Weber 1978a). As he did with his other studies of the economic ethics of world religions, he looked at the “practical motivations toward action” (ibid: 238). He assumed that in addition to other influences “the religious determination of leading one’s life” and particularly the “attitude of the person toward the world” (ibid.) decide what action will be taken.

In this context Weber was interested in the dogmatic contents of what in a given religion is recognized as true and as real. In addition, he concentrated on the educated and cultured classes who as the literati gave direction and served as examples for the other segments of society. They developed and required of their membership adherence to a specific ethic which identified them as members of their class (Standesethik, ibid: 239).

In comparing cultures, Weber saw the West as special because of its high level of rationalization of everyday life. But in China as in other countries of Northeast Asia, life in this world was imbued with the presence of immortals. If those were to be experienced as irrational, as liable to react with furor and violence, they might become negative examples for monarchs and other mortals in power. In order to avoid that moody and unsettled deities bring chaos to the public sphere in this world, Max Weber claimed that the East depended on gods who were aloof and contemplative. We shall come back to this East–West comparison below.

In China, Heaven, the son of which the emperor was supposed to be, had become a more and more abstract concept, similar perhaps as with the American referring to “the government” instead of to specific persons. It was impersonal Heaven who awarded a dynasty or withdrew from it the mandate to rule. In the West emotional immortals could be tolerated to a higher degree because they were defined away from the world of everyday experience and confined to a beyond to which only priests and shamans had access.

But further Western steps along the path of continued rationalization tended to make immortals generally inaccessible and therefore irrelevant as models for emotional conduct. But in Northeast Asia deities and ancestors are here in this very world among us. Accordingly, they must behave as model people and display an attitude of contemplation rather than on of fear or anger lest they introduce chaos into this world.

It is in this context that Max Weber explained the sacrifice celebrated by the emperor of China as dedicated not to a deity driven by emotions, but rather to the principle of order and harmony. This principle was not embodied in beloved or feared immortal persons but instead in living conditions into which this world, nature as well as government and society, were to be placed and maintained. The quality of sacredness was then inherent in those conditions rather than in certain people.

In the West Weber saw groups of persons as bearers of holiness, as the Chosen People according to Jewish faith or the Chosen Few following Calvin, regardless of how unholy they may conduct themselves here on earth. In China, by contrast, Weber identified the sacred as a way of life, not as following from membership in a certain group of people. Because of that, the divide between this world and the beyond looks quite different: In the West, only the “good people” make it to Heaven, in China there are good and bad persons everywhere, and there is order and disorder everywhere. What identifies the holy are not persons but conditions, or ways of life. On the other hand, where the unholy or evil prevails, it results from wrong behavior and from ritual mistakes that are made in government and nature.

Daoism handed down the belief in a harmonious nature. Nature is sacred precisely because of its presumed harmony. Weber reads the result of sinological research available in his days as explaining the power of the Chinese emperor not with reference to his military power – as was typically the case in the West – but instead he was powerful as the representative of a condition of peace, harmony and order. This the emperor manifested in his priestly activities. In performing those he created holy conditions.

There have been different opinions about Confucianism as to the question whether it is a religion or not. As we saw above, the Jesuit missionaries had good reason to portray Confucianism as a philosophy rather than as a religion. While Weber admits that there are areas of overlap between religions and other systems of orientation, he writes: “There is no other distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘profane’ conditions, other than the fact that religious conditions are exceptional (das Ausseralltägliche) and do not happen in everyday life.”6 (ibid: 250). Looking at it this way, Confucianism is clearly a religion to Weber.

Therefore, in combination with the tradition of ancestor worship, so characteristic for China, and building onto that shared ancient foundation, there co-exist three religions (宗教= zongjiao, zong means related to the temple in honor of the ancestors, jiao means teaching or knowledge): Daoism. Confucianism and Buddhism. If one considers the meaning associated with the two pictograms representing the Chinese word for religion, they represent three different ways of worshipping the ancestors.

As we saw, Weber asks if these three “teachings” have an influence on how the believers will act. With regard to concrete content of religious faith, Weber does not try to discuss if these dogmas are true or not, but asks instead what their impact is on how people behave economically.

Weber distinguishes between types of Gods as alternative ideas of the divine. How a population imagines its deity or deities is decisive for the kind of culture that develops there. On the one hand Weber writes about an emotional God who is “angry, forgiving, loving, and demanding” (ibid: 258), but on the other hand, one who is present only in contemplation and meditation (ibid.). Against this typology of images of the deity Weber then compares the West, which in his view is unique, with China, and more widely, including Korea and Japan, with North-eastern Asia. His results of the comparison can be summarized as follows:

In China and other parts of Asia, it was in the interest of the leading personages of the culture, to reduce the irrational components of the idea of God, such as anger, love, and other unreliable emotions. These non-rational qualities, if attributed to a deity, could otherwise be experienced as justified by a human, who, when acting in that way, could claim to merely imitate the God. This largely unwelcome variant of imitatio dei (imitating God) was potentially a threat to the stability of the state. A moody despot could rule, claiming to follow an equally moody deity. Jewish religion masters this problem by defining its God as a partner in contractual agreements. Like business people, God and the Israelites as it were sign an agreement which from thereon is binding even to God!

When the Israelites made for themselves the Golden Calve and pray to it as their new god, the Bible reports that their real God became so furious that, in a rage, he announced to Moses his intention to destroy the people as a whole (Bible, Exodus, Chapter 32, verse 10). Interestingly, God promises in the same context to make Moses the leader of a different, more worthy people (ibid.). Moses, however, reasons with God, explaining to him first that he would lose face with the Egyptians if he first rescues his people, then destroys them (ibid. verse 12). But maybe more importantly, Moses reminds God that he took an oath to lead his people to the Promised Land (ibid. verse 13). These argumentations have the result that God quiets down and abandons the idea to destroy the Israelites.

God flies into a rage high up on a mountain. Had this happened in the valley among the people, the intervention of Moses may have come too late. In accordance with these deliberations Max Weber sees the achievement of the West in rationalizing and disenchanting this world, defining all the unpredictable and highly emotional deities and spirits into the beyond, which is securely and clearly separated from everyday experience.

That procedure makes the secularized world of the West rational, predictable and therefore accessible to the natural sciences. It makes the discovery of reliable natural laws possible to scholars from Newton to Einstein. But while the West throws all irrational divine and spiritual powers out of this world, thereby preparing everyday life for the work of engineers and bureaucrats, North-eastern Asia, and certainly China keep the gods, ancestors, and spirits right here as part of the life we all lead.

Yet, China too finds a way that leads toward coping with irrationality. The emperor represents the divine in this world; he is believed to be the Son of Heaven. He offers the supreme sacrifice to Heaven and is himself the pontifex (bridge maker) as the pope is in the West. But in the history of Chinese culture Max Weber sees heaven not as driven by unpredictable emotions. The emperor directs his sacrifice and religious ritual not to a heaven, that is a beyond in the sense of being separated from inner worldly reality as in the West, instead the emperor addresses heaven as the principle of order and harmony. What Weber points out, and what is hard for a Westerner to understand: Order and Harmony are not represented by certain good personages who guarantee those principles, rather order and harmony are conditions which mortal as well as immortal persons can enter into, or which they can fail to adopt and drop out of.

If Max Weber is right in observing that the dichotomy of sacred versus secular in China is not a distinction between things and persons who can both be one or the other, but instead between conditions which things and persons have the potential of entering into, then this has fundamental consequences. It means for instance that the dividing line between the realm of inner worldly experience and the beyond looks quite different in the Orient from what it looks like in the Occident. The Jewish faith as well as the Calvinist variant of Protestant Christianity promise that the world of everyday experience becomes more and more reliable and predictable, not only for projects of science and technology, but also for ethics. In China there is no such promise.

In the West, the bearers of economic progressivism perceive themselves as holy, not on the basis of the conditions they enter into during their lives, but on the basis of their being members of the Chosen People or of the Chosen Few as Calvinist sect. Being holy to them is something they – as it were – inherited like the color of their hair or the size of their nose. As pioneers of a new economy they can powerfully promote business activities without risking their status of salvation, or to put it more psychologically, they are equipped with a healthy quantity of religious self-confidence.

According to Weber, in the world view of North-east Asia too there is the distinction between this world and the beyond. This world is what we experience every day, the beyond is the extraordinary that we can experience only in rare and special situations. But in China here in this world as well as in the beyond, there can prevail a state either of harmony or one of disorder. The so-called evil cannot easily be identified as the quality of this person or of that thing, it is a state of being one can enter into and one can hopefully leave again. Government as well as nature can be in order or in disorder. It depends in part on whether or not mistakes were made when performing religious ritual.

But these fundamentals of cultural evolution far surpass the scope of economic ethic. On the basis of the research results of sinology available to him at the time, Weber sketched a social history of China. The imperial power which pacified the regional princes against their tendencies to quarrel with each other became a principle of order and harmony. The emperor was not primarily the ruler who forced the smaller monarchs to surrender to his overwhelming military power; instead he was experienced as representing the principle of peace and harmony in the vast country. This he guaranteed not merely by secular, military activities but primarily by religious ritual.

Weber sees a division of labor between the different levels of government: “The sacrifice to heaven whose ‘son’ the emperor was supposed to be, was the prerogative of the emperor, the local princes performed the sacrifice to the spirits of the region and to the noble ancestors, and the heads of families sacrificed to the ancestors of their clan.” (ibid: 300). The heaven is the address to which the emperor’s sacrifice is directed, and he alone worships the heaven ritually.

Weber believes that in the course of time the concept of heaven became more and more impersonal, while parallel to this change the emperor became more and more divine. As heaven loses the quality of a personal god, which Weber believes it had in the distant past; the emperor himself is increasingly seen as the incarnation of the sacred. As we have seen before, the concept of the sacred refers to a state of being which a person can enter or leave. A human can thus enter the state of the divine without ceasing to be fully human.

Since, in the context of his duties a professor, Weber teaches students of economics, his research is in part also geared to conditions of achievement or performance. In traditional societies abilities to perform among males is frequently measured as military prowess and fighting ability. Max Weber, however, concludes from his insights into the culture of China that early in the history of that people military fighting ability was replaced by other, more peaceful activities.

Of course China is famous for Gong Fu, and the English language version of Wikipedia describes it as a “Chinese term referring to any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete, often used in the West to refer to Chinese martial arts.” But even further removed from physical fighting is the emphasis on the study of literature, particularly the texts of the classics, which, in combination with ritualized skills at arms, like archery, constituted membership in the ranks of cultured and respected Chinese gentlemen (ibid: 302).

In the West, to this day, leading members of the recognized nobility and certainly ruling monarchs tend to appear in public wearing military uniforms with the insignia of generals or admirals. The emperor of China, however, became the highest and even transcendental representative, not of the military, but of the peasant culture, performing the ritual of plowing the fertile ground. As a result of that, by performing “the ritual of plowing, he had become the patron (saint?) of agriculture and for quite some time had no longer been a ruling knight” (ibid: 303). Weber believes that defining agricultural activities as sacred, creates a cultural similarity of China with the ancient cultures of Egypt and of Mesopotamia. At the same time, it creates a contrast to the Jewish religion and to the Protestant version of Christianity.

Weber asks the question, if not the social distance between the emperor and the common peasant in China has been so enormous, that ritual plowing by the monarch could not have had much meaning to the commoner. But then Weber explains why he believes that this was not the case. The image according to which the distance between emperor and peasant resulted in utter powerlessness for the latter is false for this reason: Weber claims that the highest and the lowest member of the Chinese culture share the religious cosmos composed of heaven and earth. In this all-encompassing transcendental reality any simple common peasant could complain about the emperor and his officials, and he or she was believed to have the ability to direct such a complaint to heaven directly.

Max Weber writes that because of this, in imperial China among all ranks of the ruling persons, “the curse of the commoner suffering oppression and poverty was greatly feared” (ibid: 303). Such fear was grounded in the conviction that a curse by the lowly constituted a fundamental loss of harmony. Accordingly, the actual event of such a curse, and even the fear and resulting behavior anticipating and possibly avoiding being cursed, have likely reduced the number of uprisings and civil wars in China (ibid: 304).

Weber then generalizes this insight and concludes that according to these religious ideas of peace and harmony in imperial China civil wars are not possible there (ibid.). In relation to the size of the total population, the military has been small in numbers. The traditional belief in the harmony granted from heaven and in the emperor ruling as the son of heaven meant to Weber, that the military could only be used to battle exterior enemies who were not Chinese.

To disturb the condition of peaceful and quiet harmony inside the people was an act against heaven.7 Therefore, Weber concludes, that the absence of such disturbances was not the result of a peace loving population typified by persons who liked to be left alone in their private enterprises, but rather it was the result of a sacred condition, of the peace that heaven preformed and prescribed: “The guarantee of quiet conditions and inner order can best be given by a power who precisely by being impersonal and thus aloof with regard to any specific worldly power, is free of passion and particularly free of anger, one of the attributes so characteristic of the God of the Jews” (ibid: 305).

The sacred power of heaven manifests itself to the simple people in China by what they experience in their lives every day. The sometimes dreadful separation in the West between the secular world and the holy beyond does not exist in traditional China. The sacred manifests itself also in how the simple people experience their government. If their lives are happy and peaceful it proves that they are ruled according to the order of heaven. If, on the other hand, fighting, disharmony, and even chaos prevail in everyday life, then that proves to the simple people that “the rulers lack charisma, that they have turned away from heaven and that therefore they must be called to order or be replaced” (ibid: 307).

But provided the emperor is endowed with the religious charisma he is expected to have at his disposal, then he is not a ruler under god, or under heaven, instead then he is himself in charge of the affairs of heaven and earth. There are many powerful gods and spirits making their will felt, and the emperor is one of them, competing with them for influence and even commanding or if necessary, criticizing them. Weber found that “in the year 1455 the emperor delivered a punishing address to the god of the Tsai mountain” (ibid: 309). The emperor could also order rituals and sacrifices to be ended if the spirit, to whom they had been directed, had proven unreliable. On the other hand the monarch could also praise and promote (give a more advanced positions to) gods and spirits if they had performed well to the benefit of the humans who worshipped then.

All this describes the enormous power of the emperor of China, because from a Western perspective he was a religious, a military, and a political leader combined in one individual. Yet, as we saw before, his sacredness was not seen as a quality of his person, but of a condition he could enter into or drop out of. He was expected to bring about peace and harmonious living conditions for the common man, to provide enough rain and a generous harvest. In order to ensure that, the emperor had to fulfill the “ritual and ethical prescriptions and live according to the rules of the old classical texts” (ibid: 311). In case he failed in bringing his empire into a state of affairs that meant comfortable and happy lives to his people, then he was required to publicly confess his sins (ibid: 312).

If even that did not help, he needed to be deposed and replaced by a successor who could convincingly display through his performance as ruler, that he had the Mandate of Heaven. Max Weber concludes is reflections on China with the remark that the sacred duty not to disturb the harmony of nature was an impediment to the development of modern rational capitalism.

Maybe the sudden return to the question, which economic ethic promotes capitalism and which one hinders it, characterizes Max Weber’s sociology of religion. As a teacher of economics he has an interest and feels responsible to find answers to that question. However, as a theorist of cultural and social change in this world, he finds answers that go much deeper into the essence of culture. Of course religion is to him the foundation of culture. He has also done research on Islam, but never published a coherent text devoted particularly to that faith.8

Max Weber’s younger brother Alfred Weber has also done research and published on China. However, he was not very interested in religion. Accordingly, Alfred’s approach leans in a different direction: It is more geared toward explaining how culture evolves over time. In two of his books the passages on China are highly relevant: First in Alfred Weber’s book The History of Culture as Sociology of Culture of 1935 that was reprinted in 1950 (A. Weber 1963), and secondly in the book The Tragic and History, published in 1943 (A. Weber 1943).

In the revised edition of his first book of 1935 Alfred Weber adds the footnote: “For a more detailed analysis with regard to China and India compare The Tragic and History” (A. Weber 1963: 69, footnote). Already in the 1935 publication Alfred referred to the French Sinologist Marcel Granet and his book La civilisation chinoise, Paris 1929 (ibid: 72 footnote). In the later work of 1943 Max Weber’s younger brother again uses research insights from Granet and quotes Granet’s Book Danses et legends de la Chine ancienne, Paris 1926 (A. Weber 1943:101). For reasons that are not professional but political, German sociology has largely ignored the work of Alfred Weber since the 1970ies.

The construction of “ideal types” is a non-normative, methodological tool used by Max Weber in his work.

On the book by Benjamin Nelson John F. Hickey wrote the following brief book review for Amazon.com on August 5, 2015: “This book conveys critically important information about the intertwined history of Jewish-Christian (and, implicitly, Muslim) relations, the history of lending as an essential part of world capitalism, the biblical roots of these intertwined histories of conflict, and the psychology of modern man as shaped by the way Christianity has wrenched us from tribal brotherhoods to universal otherhood. I learned more from this book than maybe any other book I have ever read”.

“Nun aber ist der Buddhismus auch keine Religion.” Georg Simmel, Die Religion, in: Gesammelte Schriften zur Religionssoziologie, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1989, S. 127.

Siddharta Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, (according to dates that are contested) was born 563 bce in Nepal and died 482 in India.

Extending Chinese influence to central Asia under Emperor Wu of Han (156–87 bce) enabled more contacts with India.

German original: “Es gibt keinerlei Scheidung von ‘religiösen’ und ‘profanen’ Zuständlichkeiten anders als durch die Außeralltäglichkeit der ersteren.”

Reference to “heaven” is also not unusual in the Bible, as in the parable of the Lost Son who confesses to his father: “I have sinned against Heaven and before you” (Luke 15, 18 and 15, 21).

The Max-Weber-expert Karl-Ludwig Ay writes (in a personal communication): “If I remember correctly from reading Weber’s letters (in the meantime his correspondence 1898 to 1920 has been edited completely) I did not notice any significant reference to Islam or to related intentions pointing to research or publications. However, in his letters Weber hardly ever wrote about his own research or the progress he made with it anyway. Also, I do not remember any text by Weber which explicitly deals with Islam. But: “Economy and Society” is full of very learned references to Islam, references which would be unthinkable without a thorough study of that religion. In addition, the title of the sequence of articles “Economic Ethic of the World Religions” as well as the first paragraph of the introduction to that, mention Christian and “Islamic religious ethic” as fundamental parts of that project. Those remarks make sense only if in Weber’s head – or even in his desk – half finished or completed texts existed on the subject. Treatment of Christian ethic may have been omitted because Weber’s neighbour and friend Ernst Troeltsch published a related work in 1912 (The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches and Groups). But with regard to the Islam-Project we are faced with a strange empty place” (translation mine).

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China: Promise or Threat?

A Comparison of Cultures