As background, Sun provides some history, touching on Confucius and his disciples, the examination system, and Song neo-Confucianism. She surveys different positions on Confucianism in modern scholarship, as philosophy, as "thought", as a social and political ethos, as religiosity and spirituality, or as rituals and practices. And she looks at four historical controversies: the 1579-1724 "Rites and Term" controversy, on the translation of Deus and whether Catholic converts could continue to venerate their ancestors; the late 19th century "Term" controversy, again over Deus but also over whether Confucianism should be considered a religion; the possible adoption of "Confucianity" as a state religion after the Republican Revolution of 1911; and current controversies over the nature and status of Confucianism. The second and especially the fourth of these are her primary focus in Confucianism as a World Religion.
An account of the Term controversy, and in particular of missionary and Chinese specialist James Legge's role in that, segues into Max Müller's role in producing the Sacred Books of the East series and the origin of the "world religions" concept. "Their shared strategy of boundary work helped settle the Term Controversy for Legge as well as established Max Müller's reputation as the founder of comparative religion."
The current reach of the paradigm of Confucianism as a world religion is explored by looking at the terminology used in book titles and at the syllabuses of university courses in the United States. A rather different academic controversy in China has centred on whether Confucianism is a religion or not, and if so whether that is, following Marxist theory, to be interpreted negatively.
Moving away from academia, Sun looks at attempts to count Confucians, in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea as well as in China. Surveys of affiliations and beliefs suggest very low numbers of self-ascribed "Confucians"; ancestral rituals are much more widespread, but the extent to which they are Confucian is unclear (though they are clearly more so in South Korea than Japan). This leads naturally to an exploration of what it might mean "to become a Confucian" in the absence of any kind of liminal conversion ritual. Sun suggests this is a gradual process involving self-cultivation through ritual practice, spiritual exercises, and education.
Despite the patriarchal traditions of Confucianism, women are playing a significant role in its modern revival: Sun looks at populariser Yu Dan, at the gender balance in online scholarship, and at the role of women in ritual practice. Turning to the reinvention of rituals and innovation more generally, she explores their connection with the organisation and finances of different temples.
A final chapter explores some of the possible political futures for Confucianism. "2004 marked the turning point of the official revival of Confucianism in ideological, ritualistic, and cultural terms. Explicitly symbolic and political uses of Confucianism on the international stage soon followed and have increasingly intensified."