The Invention of Indonesian Confucianism

Ira Chuarsa | CRCS | Wednesday Forum Report

Confucianism was acknowledged as one of the six officially recognized religions in Indonesia in 1965 under the Sukarno administration; derecognized in 1979 by Soeharto’s New Order regime, forcing most Indonesian Confucians to register as Buddhists or Christians; and eventually acknowledged again as one of the six officially recognized religions after Reformasi.

Regarded as a religion (agama), Indonesian Confucianism is different from the Confucianism of today’s China, where it is considered a philosophy of national significance but not one of China’s five recognized religions. The influence of Europe and China in the early twentieth century during the Dutch colonial era and contacts with various religious traditions have shaped the ritual practices and understanding of Confucianism in Indonesia. This was the topic of the presentation given at the CRCS-ICRS Wednesday Forum on November 1, 2017, by Evi Sutrisno, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, about the making of Indonesian Confucianism.

Sutrisno began her presentation by explaining the differences between Confucian temples and Chinese temples in Indonesia. She showed a Confucian temple in Surabaya called Boen Bio which was established in 1887 and renovated in 1907. It was said to be the oldest temple in Indonesia and even in South East Asia. At first it was dedicated to the God of Literature, but later the God of Literature was replaced on the main altar by Confucius.

In her presentation, Sutrisno shows the standardized ritual practiced by Indonesian Confucians. People come and pray together routinely at a specific time every Sunday, and at certain additional times, on the 1st and 15th day of lunar calendar. The ritual starts with a ritual leader ringing a bell three times and erecting joss sticks under the command of three leaders and is followed by reading or declaring the Eight (Verses) of Faith Creed (Delapan Pengakuan Iman).  Then a preacher gives a sermon to the congregation.

Sutrisno explained that rituals one can see in Chinese temples (kelenteng) is different. People come and pray individually and there is no specific time for it. They pray to Tian and many other deities. After praying, they often take one of the 72 sticks numbered in a bamboo that will give an information or answer about one’s problem. Because the figures worshipped are identified with Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, these communities organize themselves under the Tri-Dharma Association.

Why are these differences? Sutrisno then explored the history of Confucianism in Indonesia during the Dutch colonial era.  In the mid 1890s, Confucianism was commonly known in Indonesia with the name Khong Hu Cu (the Hokkien pronunciation of the name of the Chinese philosopher Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子) (Latinized as Confucius)). She explained that it took so long for Chinese Indonesians to define Confucianism for themselves because of the social and political situation when there was pressure by the Dutch colonial rulers against Chinese. There was a racial segregation policy toward Chinese along with Arabs and Indians.  In addition, because of language barriers, Chinese Indonesians had access to Confucian texts through European sources.

After independence, the Confucianism introduced by Chinese Indonesians was not strictly following that of China. There were influences from Lim Boon Keng, a Singaporean and a rationalist who believed in modernity and progress and is therefore against the rituals he regarded as superstitious. Another influence was from Kang You Wei from China, who argued that Confucianism should be the state religion with a new interpretation. Despite seeing Christianity as a competitor, he admired the structure of Christian churches. Therefore, he used the Christian model to introduce rituals for Confucianism involving communal congregations, a preacher, and a liturgy. As a consequence of this new interpretation, Sutrisno explained that a split arose on what the authentic Confucian rituals must be like.

In 1955, the National Confucian Association, which was later renamed the Supreme Council for the Confucian Religion in Indonesia or Majelis Tinggi Agama Konghucu Indonesia (MATAKIN), was established.  It sought official recognition as a religion to the government and were successful in their consolidation and standardization of Confucian rituals in Indonesia.

This ritual standardization project has caused disputes among Confucians. The split between Confucian practitioners and the Tri Dharma followers was also because of this, a division which continues, especially after Confucianism was reacknowledged as part of the six officially recognized religions by the state. There is a challenge for Confucian communities to resolve the ethnic boundaries as there is a common view that Confucianism is practiced only by Chinese.

During the Q&A session, responding to a question on the influence of Indonesian politics of of religion, Sutrisno acknowledged that Indonesian political discourse of religion was very influential to how Indonesian Confucians understand their Confucianism. This applies, for instance, to their understanding about the concept about God, which marks one of the main differences from Confucianism in China. Tian (the Chinese term for heaven) has been used as the Confucian equivalent of Tuhan Yang Maha Esa. Many people coming from monotheistic background may regard it as something like God. But Tian has no personal attributes; it does not intervene human life like the monotheistic God does.

*Ira Chuarsa is a CRCS student of the 2017 batch.

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