Confucianism: a religion?

Discuss literature (e.g. books, newspapers), educational studies (getting help or opinions on homework or an essay), and philosophy.

Is Confucianism a religion or a philosophy?

It's got the temples and the rituals - I'm going with option A.
2
15%
No gods, no ghosts, no afterlife, no creeds - no religion.
4
31%
Depends on which Confucian you're talking about.
6
46%
Who cares?
1
8%
 
Total votes : 13

Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby Lady Wu » Sun Apr 08, 2012 11:40 pm

WeiWenDi wrote:But perhaps it might be wise to note that Confucius constructed his ethical system within what would have been then considered a suspended transcendental: healthy human ends and human virtues (道德) were to be determined by their relations to 天地 (heaven and earth), as I believe you note below. I don't think it is necessarily appropriate to collapse the concepts to 'just acknowledging Man's role in the social order', since for Confucius, the social order came out of and was dependent on 天地 (as in, he didn't necessarily treat them as the same thing). Heaven was the ultimate source of the Good, even in exemplary human beings such as Yao (唯天為大,唯堯則之). It isn't the same concept as the Abrahamic God, though, since Confucius is consistently and emphatically silent on issues such as the personhood of 天 - and as far as he is concerned, such things are unimportant.

I think you're right in bringing up the beliefs surrounding 天地 "Heaven and Earth". As far as I'm concerned it's the only grey area in which one may argue that Confucianism appealed to something beyond the mortal realm.

My interpretation is that Confucius' 天地 is a part of natural order and not a supernatural order. That is, the functions of 天地 are bound to the mortal realm and do not extend beyond it; neither do they have independent consciousness (as in animistic belief systems) nor are they related to a transcended realm (a Heaven beyond this world, Hell, Nirvana, etc.). Honestly I think 天地 is really more of a postulate than a belief in a supernatural entity. Saying that there is some independent definition of goodness is different from believing in that independent definition as a transcendental entity, or that will be equivalent to saying that people who believe in an absolute and immutable set of human rights are necessarily religious.

Also, consider the classical Greek theory of the elements. The Greeks believed that the properties and interactions of certain fundamental elements give rise to the phenomena seen in the physical world. But that was not their religion. Similarly, the Confucianists believed that properties and interactions of heaven and earth give rise to the social order, but it doesn't necessarily mean this was their religion.

I think you're both right to the extent that it would be a cheat to ascribe the rites venerating 媽祖、財神、福神、土地公、關公 or any of the various other Chinese folk deities to Confucianism (even ancestral folk heroes like 黃帝 or 堯、舜、大禹), even though Confucian philosophy has undoubtedly had influence on the way the rites for these traditional gods were carried out. But there are Temples to Confucius and to his students, as well as particular rites which are performed at each, which I think it would not be a cheat to describe as particularly Confucian. I also admit difficulty in imagining a Confucianism in good faith stripped completely of considerations of 禮樂 (rites and music), given how much importance Confucius himself attached to these as formative elements of being a humane person (克已復禮為仁, for example, or 先進於禮樂,野人也,後進於禮樂,君子也。如用之,則吾從先進。). I also don't think Confucius was just about following traditions whilst making no reference to the content of the tradition - he was primarily concerned with whether the tradition was in following with humaneness. He was a great fan of the rites of Zhou (周監於二代,郁郁乎文哉。吾從周。), but apparently had little use for those of Zheng, for example (放鄭聲,遠佞人:鄭聲淫,佞人殆。).

Rites do not a religion make. We have a whole lot of rites in our secular world--etiquette and procedures for formal business meetings, rituals for university convocation (professors dressed up in ritual garb and carrying ritual items like maces; students dressed in special gowns), formalities for opening a parliamentary session, diplomatic addresses and communications, singing of the national anthems at the beginning of an NHL game... Confucius emphasized rites and music, but saw them as a way of self-improvement (as well as maintaining good social order), rather than something one must do to go to Heaven, be reincarnated into something good, have good luck in the future, etc.

From what I have observed amongst overseas Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongers (and feel free to call me out on this one if you feel my understanding is lacking), ancestor worship, even if it makes no knowledge-claims on the supernatural, nonetheless assumes a continuity beyond life and transcending time and space in ways which would make a 'complete atheist' (in modern Western terms, at least) rather uncomfortable.

I refer you to my answer to agga above. I don't mean Confucians are necessarily atheists. I mean Confucianism on its own does not affirm or dis-affirm the supernatural; it simply doesn't care whether you prayed to your ancestors for blessings or not. Confucius and his disciples did not teach about what happened to people after the die. They taught that you ought to honour your parents and your forebears, so at least you should go pay respect to them somehow. That happened to coincide with the traditional religion of praying to one's ancestors for help (something that had been part of Chinese culture since at least the Shang dynasty). If, somehow, one day it is proven scientifically that there is no continuity beyond this life, Confucius' teachings are not invalidated.

in relation to what may be a transcendent experience

What is this transcendent experience you speak of? Confucius dreaming (or not dreaming) of the Duke of Zhou?
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby Lady Wu » Mon Apr 09, 2012 12:15 am

agga wrote:according to her, they are the same; confucius codified and justified the chinese religion, so you have to consider his prescriptions as being attached to that same religion. and, she wouldn't say she's a confucian and neither would i (say she is).

Then I'm afraid she is incorrect. Confucius did nothing to codify Chinese religion. He did not say "Thou must worship thy ancestors and the God of Wealth and the God of the Earth." He did not say "This is why we worship spirits." He did not say anything about reincarnation, the life after death, the meaning of life, etc.

i think you can see that my definition is expansive; i'm one who agrees with the notion that humans are basically religious, all of them (not that that means i think atheism, e.g. me, is a religion, or science, or darwinism, etc.; i'm probably some sort of 'naturist' or something, maybe a sort of unitarian universal daoist.. or maybe a stoic, i really like marcus aurelius lately). chinese religion is complicated because it's so syncretic, having components from different traditions, all wrapped together; i guess i understand seeing confucius purely as a philosopher, but it's just not what i usually think of as 'philosophy': intellectualization of nature. it's a set of moral prescriptions and emphasis on ritual, and it grows in families, so i call it a religion.

Well, if you believe that humans are basically religious, than you can argue that human beliefs and behaviour are all manifestations of that religious instinct. In that case we have nothing to argue about, because anything can be a religion (organized or not).

I think here it is important to remember that in non-Western cultures, "nature" is often defined by relationships rather than by individuals. I can try to pull up some cultural psychology research if you'd like, but very generally speaking, non-Western ways of thinking tend to be more holistic, caring more about how things are related to each other instead of analyzing single entities. For example, one important concept for Confucians (first mentioned in the Book of Rites, and later picked up on by the Neo-Confucians) is 格物 "the investigation of things" (this is the closest Chinese philosophy came to observational science). They believed that there is a fundamental Order of Things (理) that governed natural phenomena as well as human nature and human relationships, and that by a thorough study of pretty much anything you can come to understand How Stuff Works. That is to say, moral and social order for the ancient Chinese was simply an extension of natural order. The reason why flowers bloom in spring is related to why you should honour your parents.

Confucianism may be a set of moral prescriptions, but it's not arbitrary, like "you have to do this because Allah/God/Jesus/Buddha says so" or "we don't know how but if you do this you will get good luck later". To Confucians, the moral rules are based on a rational system that is based on logic and not theology.
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby agga » Mon Apr 09, 2012 2:11 am

Lady Wu wrote:Then I'm afraid she is incorrect. Confucius did nothing to codify Chinese religion. He did not say "Thou must worship thy ancestors and the God of Wealth and the God of the Earth." He did not say "This is why we worship spirits." He did not say anything about reincarnation, the life after death, the meaning of life, etc.


ok, i don't think that's quite what i meant, i.e. i shouldn't have said 'codify'. i meant that a lot of his prescriptions were in the context of what is easier to recognize as 'religion', and they continued to be used as ways of arranging things in this context - he didn't invent anything, or bring up any sorts of supernatural ideas, but he did talk about how these sorts of things (among other things) should be properly carried out, and he did talk about why. and people listened to him, and carried on adhering to ways and patterns, within easily recognized religious contexts. so i still feel okay about saying that confucianism is a religion.

but, i realize that a lot of this (what i just said) could be applied to e.g. aristotle (or maybe somebody more concerned with social, personal-level stuff, like marcus aurelius, although nobody ever really listened to him, at least not for long); philosophers who laid out ideas about how things work, within certain contexts - but aristotle was only allowed to be authoritative so long as he couldn't be superseded by some better ideas; i think that later philosophers competed with his thinking, with respect maybe, but not following and enforcing.

i.e., maybe what i'm getting at is that i think confucianism seems like religion because of the way it is perpetuated, the way it lives in society, rather than because of its contents. like i was saying before, i think religion is more identifiable as a social phenomenon, rather than as something that includes supernatural or theological ideas.

Lady Wu wrote:Confucianism may be a set of moral prescriptions, but it's not arbitrary, like "you have to do this because Allah/God/Jesus/Buddha says so" or "we don't know how but if you do this you will get good luck later". To Confucians, the moral rules are based on a rational system that is based on logic and not theology.


this is fine, but i don't think that arbitrariness can be a good qualifier for religion; a nihilist (or, really, an honest atheist) must definitely believe that his actions have an arbitrary basis in that it is up to some set of decisions or circumstances, arbitrary in a knowable sense, as opposed to arbitrary in the sense of some sort of grounded and unchangeable truth that can't be questioned. (obviously i believe that it's all arbitrary!).
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Mon Apr 09, 2012 3:31 am

Lady Wu wrote:I think you're right in bringing up the beliefs surrounding 天地 "Heaven and Earth". As far as I'm concerned it's the only grey area in which one may argue that Confucianism appealed to something beyond the mortal realm.

My interpretation is that Confucius' 天地 is a part of natural order and not a supernatural order. That is, the functions of 天地 are bound to the mortal realm and do not extend beyond it; neither do they have independent consciousness (as in animistic belief systems) nor are they related to a transcended realm (a Heaven beyond this world, Hell, Nirvana, etc.). Honestly I think 天地 is really more of a postulate than a belief in a supernatural entity. Saying that there is some independent definition of goodness is different from believing in that independent definition as a transcendental entity, or that will be equivalent to saying that people who believe in an absolute and immutable set of human rights are necessarily religious.

Also, consider the classical Greek theory of the elements. The Greeks believed that the properties and interactions of certain fundamental elements give rise to the phenomena seen in the physical world. But that was not their religion. Similarly, the Confucianists believed that properties and interactions of heaven and earth give rise to the social order, but it doesn't necessarily mean this was their religion.


... Okay, I can see that. The way in which 天 related to the human order was through immanent contact with it - according to the pre-Confucian ideology of Zhou, if Heaven was displeased, there would be calamities, floods, natural disasters and so forth, so one could say that Heaven was acting through 'natural' rather than 'supernatural' means. However, I tend to disagree with your analogy between the Greek elements and the Confucian conception of 天地 for two reasons: first, the pre-Confucian Chinese folk tradition already had much more directly analogous concepts to the Four Elements - namely, the 五行 and the 八卦 used in the Yi Jing (which were indeed related to 天地 but distinct from it); secondly, the way in which 天地 was used in Confucian philosophy / religion had a decidedly normative character on account of its relation to the human (and not just the natural) order, much more along the lines of the Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian conception of God or the Three Transcendentals.

And also, to some extent, with regard to your comparison to the ideology of human rights. Given the recentness of the entire discourse on 'rights', and its relation to the creation of a sphere of political economy independent of the authority of the Abrahamic religions (or of any other state religions one might care to name, including the Greco-Roman ones), I would argue that the depth of its 'secular' character is very much an open question. The Roman Catholic Church holds (and to some extent I think they have an arguable case) that the ideology of human rights, at its very basis, makes very little sense on its own without the religious conviction that human beings are created in imago Dei.

Lady Wu wrote:Rites do not a religion make. We have a whole lot of rites in our secular world--etiquette and procedures for formal business meetings, rituals for university convocation (professors dressed up in ritual garb and carrying ritual items like maces; students dressed in special gowns), formalities for opening a parliamentary session, diplomatic addresses and communications, singing of the national anthems at the beginning of an NHL game... Confucius emphasized rites and music, but saw them as a way of self-improvement (as well as maintaining good social order), rather than something one must do to go to Heaven, be reincarnated into something good, have good luck in the future, etc.


That is all very much true, but (I think) a little bit tangential to the point I was making. Confucius was concerned both with the content (質) and the form (文) of specific rites, music and traditions, in addition to believing that they were key both to self-improvement and improvement of the household / country. Apparently, he thought the states of his day were much too obsessed with the form of their rites and music, whilst paying too little attention to their content, meaning or character. Confucius wanted his rituals to have a clear 'why' associated with them, but wasn't such a reductionist as Mozi when it came to the utility of ritual. As I recall from your post earlier, the 'why' question when associated with ritual was a key determinant of that ritual's religious character (or not).

Lady Wu wrote:I refer you to my answer to agga above. I don't mean Confucians are necessarily atheists. I mean Confucianism on its own does not affirm or dis-affirm the supernatural; it simply doesn't care whether you prayed to your ancestors for blessings or not. Confucius and his disciples did not teach about what happened to people after the die. They taught that you ought to honour your parents and your forebears, so at least you should go pay respect to them somehow. That happened to coincide with the traditional religion of praying to one's ancestors for help (something that had been part of Chinese culture since at least the Shang dynasty). If, somehow, one day it is proven scientifically that there is no continuity beyond this life, Confucius' teachings are not invalidated.


Lady Wu wrote:You're making the assumption that your wife practises that out of her Confucian values (and is she a self-professed Confucian?), rather than out of her Chinese tradition. What about people who keep a moment of silence or take their hats off and bow in remembrance of the dead (Veteran's Day, death anniversaries, etc.)? Are they all necessary praying or believing in the spirits of the dead? Are they all religious by your argument?

Also, to put some perspective on that practice: I am a Chinese Catholic, and my family on my father's side has been mostly Catholic for at least 4 generations, and those deceased are buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Hong Kong. Twice a year my family goes to visit the graves, and we bow thrice respectfully to those who were born before us and who were gone before us. But we are not worshipping our ancestors--we worship only one God, and we bow to our ancestors to show solemn respect. Some may pray for the souls of the departed at that moment. This is one way how a non-religious Chinese tradition can be compatible with a non-Chinese religion. Of course, we don't do things like burn incense or burn paper money for the deceased--those are parts of traditional Chinese religion that are not compatible.

Similarly, ancestor worship fits in nicely with the values Confucius promoted, but is not fundamental to Confucianism.


Fair enough; I think that's a valid point to make.

But do you believe that making donations to the Temple of Confucius, participating in the memorial processions on his birthday, or offering incense or prayer tags (許願標, not sure how you'd call them in English) at the Temple of Confucius for success on an examination or for the well-being of a relative, are religious or social rites? And if they are religious rites, are they Chinese folk religion or are they peculiarly Confucian? These are the sorts of rites I'm referring to. I've seen plenty of people - and not just tourists - do these sorts of things at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing.

And I'm not arguing that you can't be Confucian without doing these things, only noting that these things are done.

Lady Wu wrote:What is this transcendent experience you speak of? Confucius dreaming (or not dreaming) of the Duke of Zhou?


Confucianism places a great deal of emphasis on transformative self-cultivation; as such, I think Confucian teachings and Confucian ethics do open themselves to a certain type of religious experience, such as the one Ms D, described in this article, had.

agga wrote:
Lady Wu wrote:Confucianism may be a set of moral prescriptions, but it's not arbitrary, like "you have to do this because Allah/God/Jesus/Buddha says so" or "we don't know how but if you do this you will get good luck later". To Confucians, the moral rules are based on a rational system that is based on logic and not theology.


this is fine, but i don't think that arbitrariness can be a good qualifier for religion; a nihilist (or, really, an honest atheist) must definitely believe that his actions have an arbitrary basis in that it is up to some set of decisions or circumstances, arbitrary in a knowable sense, as opposed to arbitrary in the sense of some sort of grounded and unchangeable truth that can't be questioned. (obviously i believe that it's all arbitrary!).


Interesting. I'm agreeing with agga here - arbitrariness isn't really a good qualifier for religion as opposed to logic. Catholic social teaching is based on logic - very careful and well-developed logic, in fact. That logic stems, of course, from a certain set of base claims with their roots in theological assumptions (like that human beings are created in the image of God, that the healthiest state of human existence is in a community, particularly the community that is the family, etc). I'd say that the logic of Confucianism also is solid, and based on theological root claims - such as the idea that Heaven approves and demands just rulership (a theological position contrary to that of the Shang, which proclaimed that Di approves and demands rulership from the house of Zi, even if the heir is a debauched, sadistic ass).
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby Starscream » Mon Apr 09, 2012 12:11 pm

I think in Confucius' era, the concept of heaven is an arbituary force of nature that deals out justice and judgment. Zhou Wuwang ovethrew Shang on the pretext that he received the Heaven's Mandate to do so. Realistically speaking, it was more likely the commoners' support for him that ended the Shang dynasty but to attribute it to Heaven's doing gave him better justification for his action than mere rebellion against the rightful rule.

The Zhou central government weakened during Confucius' era and many warlords fought over the lands given to them by the Zhou kings and they disregarded the central rule. Hence, Confucius lamented the lack of social order and his philosophy was to inculcate the proper social behaviour that commoners, subordinates and rulers should adopt in order to maintain social harmony. If every individual according to Confucius, does not carry out his rightful role and duty in society, the world will be in chaos and full of vices.

Confucianism might have touched base on some religious elements, but imo these are very superficial and at best, the concept of heaven was merely to justify and promote certain social behaviour in his era. Perhaps during his era also, the worldview of people were not as complex and people could only use an arbituary concept like heaven to explain the greater force that even their earthly rulers had to fear and obey. It was convenient, I would say, to make rulers conform with his ideals that they should be just and wise otherwise they lose the divine right to rule (and not because they might be overthrown by unhappy peasants, mind you).

Likewise for ancestral worship, Confucius like Weiwendi mentioned, was not happy with the way people performing rites for the sake of performing. They lacked the piety and respect to the ancestors that brought them what they have today. According to Confucianism, if parents show filial piety to their ancestors, their children will emulate the behaviour and accord the same piety to themselves. If this is a neverending cycle, the society will be in harmony.

In a simple conclusion, I feel that Confucianism when it first appeared was a social school of thought. There were several other competing philosophies that were known back then, e.g. Taoism, and Han Feizi's Infamous Legalism. Scholars like Confucius travelled around to spread their ideas on how to rule the lands and warlords took their pick on whichever suited their needs best. In short, Confucianism is a philosophy built to empower the central rule and Confucius was only interested in the political and sociological aspects of the mundane world.

In the later periods of Chinese history, Confucianism was widely adopted since the Han dynasty and it evolved and it became deeply ingrained in the fabric of the Chinese society. However, we must make it clear that Chinese people do not worship their ancestors because Confucius said so. Ancestral worship long existed before Confucius' time. Nowadays if you ask Chinese why they worship their ancestors, you will get 2 answers, one, filial piety and love; two, hoping that the ancestors will protect their descendants. But no one will say it is because of Confucius. The values that Confucius tried to promote is already so well meshed with the "rites" of ancestral worship now that you simply cannot take it apart.

The only clear signs I think that make Confucianism a religion is when a follower conscientiously attributes saintly or godly statuses to Confucius and his disciples, to treat the teachings or Confucius as somewhat above the status of most social ideas (e.g. Like Marxism, one of those philosophies which has a frenzied and religious following though it was not intended to start off this way....) and to practise rites to mark certain significance of an object or event.

I don't think I sound entirely coherent now. Essays are a major turn-off nowadays. :|
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby Korin » Sun May 05, 2013 5:59 pm

Confucianism and Taoism are philosophies. End of. - I am not making long post because I already read on religion sites that they debunk it as a religion, just search it on google for proof.
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby Shuyouryo » Mon Jun 10, 2013 3:26 pm

Problem is parts of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism are tied intristically with the Chinese Folk religion. Chinese Folk religion is essentially a form of animism or shamanism, as Chinese society grew, various Chinese Emperors (who is the head of the Chinese Folk religion) needed to evolve (mordernize) the religion. They picked and chose popular schools of thought at their time and merged them all into a huge pantheon. For most modern Chinese, Buddhism and Taoism is a religion not a philosophy for example, as it also incorporates parts of the Chinese Folk religion.

Confucianism however is a bit different - there is no equivilent word to Confucianism in Chinese - the closest is the "Teachings of Confucius". No modern person i can think of refers to himself as a Confucianist. As a Chinese I never even knew that some of the values I have are from the teachings until I read them up. To most Chinese these are not a philosophy (we do not philosophize or think over it) - they are values we were taught growing up with and have kept - they are a way of life.
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby Shozuhn » Thu Nov 20, 2014 6:24 am

Confucianism has always interested me. However, I know next to nothing about it.
I have read the Analects; but other then that book, I don't really know anything about what it actual means to be Confucian.
Are there people today that are Confucian? If so, how does that impact their lives? What does it mean to be Confucian?
It's a "religion" that has always intrigued me. From having read the Analects, I believe that Confucianism is in some ways an acceptance that humans don't (and perhaps can't) understand "the Heavens". Thus benevolence must be obtained for it's own sake, not in pursuit of some divine reward.
I've always considered myself Christian, and probably always will. But after reading the Analects, I'm also very intrigued to learn more about Confucianism.
Can anyone help me understand?
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby WeiWenDi » Sun Nov 23, 2014 6:35 am

Shozuhn wrote:Confucianism has always interested me. However, I know next to nothing about it.
I have read the Analects; but other then that book, I don't really know anything about what it actual means to be Confucian.
Are there people today that are Confucian? If so, how does that impact their lives? What does it mean to be Confucian?
It's a "religion" that has always intrigued me. From having read the Analects, I believe that Confucianism is in some ways an acceptance that humans don't (and perhaps can't) understand "the Heavens". Thus benevolence must be obtained for it's own sake, not in pursuit of some divine reward.
I've always considered myself Christian, and probably always will. But after reading the Analects, I'm also very intrigued to learn more about Confucianism.
Can anyone help me understand?


First off, Shozuhn, let me welcome you to the forum. I hope you enjoy the discussions around here - I know I certainly do. :)

I'm also a Christian, but I have been heavily influenced by Confucian and Daoist thought. The Classics and the Books all contain good common sense, as well as profound insights and clear moral thinking, much of which is compatible with (or at least not intrinsically opposed to) Christian doctrine.

If you're already familiar with the Analects, then you probably have a pretty good grasp of the basics of Confucian ethics. As for further reading, I'd recommend Mencius and Xunzi - Xunzi is probably easier because his essays follow a much more logical and straightforwardly argumentative format that would be familiar to contemporary readers in the West. Doctrine of the Mean, Great Learning and the Book of Rites are also recommended (I'm working on reading the Rites at the moment).

As for contemporary Confucians? I guess, Chen Rongjie and Tu Weiming, maybe, are good places to start? With Jiang QIng, of course, on the other side of the equation.

Anyway - sorry, kind of did a book-recommendation pile-on for you there. :P

Some of these are pretty hefty, but I guess Chen Rongjie and Xunzi are probably the most accessible. Maybe start there?

Again, welcome to the forum, and happy reading!
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Re: Confucianism: a religion?

Unread postby Shozuhn » Tue Nov 25, 2014 4:33 am

WeiWenDi:
Thanks for the warm welcome.
Thanks too for the links, I'mma look into these books.
Seems I've heard of Mencius somewhere... not sure where tho.
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