Neo-Confucianism Movement

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Neo-Confucianism Movement



Revival. Even after Buddhism triumphed as the major religious, scholastic, and aesthetic influence in the Tang dynasty (618-907), the family ethic and political ideology of Confucianism never completely disappeared. During the Song dynasty (960-1279) Chan and Pure Land Buddhism, as well as Daoism, thrived, but Confucianism was particularly appealing to a new generation of intellectuals. This revival of interest, known as neo-Confucianism, gave meaning to the life of the individual, developed an ideology to uphold state and society, and created a philosophy that presented a convincing structure for understanding the world. Neo-Confucianism regarded the world as an organic whole that constituted a system in which each aspect of life reinforced the others, both in theory and in practice.

Old Roots. Confucianism, the philosophy based on the teachings of the sixth and fifth century B.C.E. teacher and reformer Kong Zi (K’ung Ch’iu, Confucius), permeated Chinese society. A secular state religion, the main purpose of its ethical and moral teachings was to produce educated, well-mannered, virtuous men. People were considered good from birth; environment played a heavy role in deter-mining one’s character. A man who accepted Confucianism had to strive for knowledge and to set a good example; he was expected to be sincere, benevolent, and obedient to his superiors (especially his parents); and he was to be honest, just, and kind. A Confucian observed rites of passage (coming to adulthood, marriage), was responsible for the members of his family, and carried out feasts and celebrations in honor of the ancestors. The system was patriarchal and hierarchal; the head of the family (or the state, in the case of the emperor) was expected to lead by example.

Background. The renewal of Confucianism resulted from a nationalist reaction that followed the An Lushan Rebellion (755) and from a movement that advocated a return to the ancient ways of doing things. Han Yu, a famous Confucian scholar, advocated that it was necessary to adopt traditional Chinese sources; he believed that the classics, deserted since the acceptance of Buddhism, included a hidden philosophy that, once understood and utilized, would make it possible to guarantee social harmony and public order. In addition, Song thinkers expressed their desires for systematization—the search for a total interpretation of the universe that could be substituted for the clarifications provided by Buddhist religion and philosophy.

Reaction. The revival of Confucianism in Song times was a chauvinistic reaction to alien influences on Chinese politics and thought. Confucianism for many centuries was dominated by the examination-recruited civil servants who attempted to apply the principles they learned from ancient writings to the realm of practical governance. These thinkers believed that they could answer the stunning metaphysical questions with which Buddhism and Daoism had long been preoccupied. They contended that they could find these answers by restudying classical Confucian texts and by using traditional Chinese ideas for the proper organization of state, society, and individual lifestyles.

Criticism. The effort by differing sects to create opposing metaphysical outlooks, which was clearly obvious in Chinese Buddhism, was the most important factor in sparking the rise of neo-Confucianism. Some Chinese philosophers had been extremely critical of Buddhist ideas ever since they were introduced to China. They attacked the emphasis on overcoming suffering and death, which to Confucians looked like little more than selfish dodging. The monastic aspect of Buddhism, which involved the renunciation of family and society, seemed foolish because it was undoubtedly impracticable that human beings could ever escape these responsibilities. They were also critical of the Buddhist belief that all things were empty of reality. To Chinese scholars this concept was contradictory. The Buddhists considered all things, such as food and clothing, as unreal, but they had to depend on them. Perhaps the deepest difference between Chinese philosophers and Buddhist schools was that Confucian scholars stressed social and moral reality as fundamental, while the Buddhists concentrated on consciousness and metaphysical reality. Given these differences, the emergence of neo-Confucianism was not difficult to understand. This new movement was an attempt by Chinese thinkers to offset Buddhism with a more broad and superior philosophy.

Major Philosophers. The neo-Confucianism movement began with Han Yu, but a comprehensive and definitive formulation of his philosophy was not completed until the School of Reason was promoted by the Chen brothers (Chen Hao and Chen Yi) and the great synthesis of Zhu Xi was accomplished, both achieved during Song times. The School of Mind, which leaned in the direction of idealism, was later created by the philosophers Lu Jiuyuan and Wang Yangming.

New Truths. Neo-Confucianism was not a reassertion of ancient Confucian political and moral values supported by cosmological and metaphysical ideas adapted from Buddhism and Daoism. New truths were produced from old learning, which philosophically undercut otherworldly Buddhism and unworldly Daoism and gave vibrant life to the positivist, optimistic canons that human fulfillment would be found in life as people knew it and that everyone had the potential of realizing such fulfillment. Thus, like the revival of classical learning experienced centuries later in Europe, neo-Confucianism during the Song period refreshed almost all facets of life, initiating a transformation that greatly influenced changes that distinguished China in the later dynasties. Neo-Confucianism took several forms: a revival of classical scholarship, new accomplishments in historical learning, a fresh departure in speculative thought, and a more-serious devotion to Confucian principles.

Historiography. Confucianism had always stressed the study of history, and the revival brought a renewed interest in historiography. Exceptional among the new generation of historians was Sima Guang, who looked to the classics for counseling. He had confidence and vision to do what no scholar had attempted since the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.)—to study the whole of Chinese history rather than confining himself to a single dynasty. Believing that an accurate account of the past could teach moral and practical lessons to the present, he wrote Zizhi Tongjian (A Comprehensive Mirror for Governance). Distinguished from traditional histories, it included discussions of the inconsistencies he found in the sources and his motive for choosing one version of events over another.

Schools. Confucianism also stressed “right” understanding of the past as a guide to good life and preparation for service to the empire. This belief implied a commitment to education. Confucius himself became a teacher when he failed to win the support of a ruler in putting his reform concepts into practice. As a result, during the period of neo-Confucian revival, new institutions were built: government schools in the Northern Song (960-1125) period and private academies in the Southern Song (1127-1279) period. Famous among Southern Song schools was the White Deer Grotto Academy, which was administrated for a time by the philosopher Zhu Xi. It was primarily through the private academies that neo-Confucian philosophy attracted many scholars.

Dedicated Educators. Students at the White Deer Grotto Academy were exposed to a heavy combination of moral exhortation and learning so that they would become both virtuous and well educated. Like other dedicated educators, the committed Confucian scholars encouraged their students to forget such careerist considerations as passing examinations and to give attention to the serious business of self-improvement. The guidance of a teacher was believed to be extremely significant if a student was to become truly educated.

Jinsi Lu. To help those students who lived in distant places and without easy access to teachers, Zhu Xi and his friend Lu Zuqian compiled an anthology of Song Confucianism for self-study. This work had a great impact on China as well as on both Korea and Japan. Based on the writings of four Northern Song philosophers, who came to be considered the founders of neo-Confucian philosophy, the book Jinsi Lu (Mirror Image of Things at Hand) dealt with matters of practical concern ranging from guidance on how to take care of a family to advice on when to accept or to reject a political offer. It also covered political institutions and individual behavior, the goal of a man, the book claimed, was to seek self-perfection.

New Form of Writing. Song-era neo-Confucianism, given the general designation of Daoxue (Study of the Way), was an extremely scholarly and academic movement that gained its strength in the state schools and, particularly, in the private academies. Its major philosophical principles were found in annotations that successive intellectuals appended to the traditional classics, which concentrated on philosophical explanations rather than on philosophical clarifications as was common for pre-Song commentaries. The neo-Confucians also began to use a

new form of writing, preferred by the Chan Buddhists: extensive reports produced by pupils on their teachers’ discussions, teachings, and debates. These works were called minutes of conversations. The reason for this new development was that the neo-Confucians, enthusiastic educators and debaters, actively communicated with one another, and some of their ideas were best expressed in their preserved letters.

Four Books. Like Han Yu, the Song-era neo-Confucians were interested in the works of the third and fourth century B.C.E. philosopher Mencius (Meng-tzu), whom they regarded as the final transmitter of the authentic way of Confucius. They were also attached to several works that were marginal to original Confucianism: the Zhou Li(Zhou Rituals), a source of Utopian political thought; the Yi Jing (Classic of Changes), a book of divination; and two sections in the Li Ji (Book of Rites)—the Da Xue (Great Leaning), an article on self-cultivation and the ordering of family and society, and the Zhong Yong (Doctrine of the Mean), which dealt with how man and his actions might result in harmony with the universe. Song neo-Confucians later raised the Da Xue and the Zhong Yong, together with Confucius’s Lunyu (Analects) and the Mencius (a collection of Mencius’s writings), to a special status as the “Four Books,” the core of their teaching and philosophical scholarship. These works became the basic textbooks for primary education.

Comparison. Neo-Confucians were successful in persuading scholars that the universe detectable to the senses was real, not illusory as Buddhists asserted, and that human beings achieved fulfillment by sincere involvement in society, not by standing distant from it, as the Daoists were inclined to do. They looked down on Buddhist assurances of spiritual salvation and Daoist claims of physical immortality. They argued that the human cycle from birth to death was normal and good, and they emphasized social and political reforms in the world and individualistic self-cultivation in this life.

Two Trends. After the governmental reform movements in the early Song period, neo-Confucian emphasis on practical effort and efficient government gave way to speculative aspects that expanded gradually in the Northern Song period and finally, in the twelfth century, became the best-known element of the movement. By that time two philosophical trends emerged as irreconcilable neo-Confucian mainstreams. One, known as Li Xue (Study of Principles), or Chen-Zhu school, was frequently featured as dualistic and rationalistic; the other, known as Xin Xue (Study of the Mind), or Lu Wang school, was typified as monistic (belief in one principle) and idealistic. As neo-Confucianism continued to develop, passing through several stages with changing emphases, the early Song reformist enthusiasm came to be subordinated in Ming times (1368-1644) to an intense stress on personal self-cultivation.

Cosmology. Several Song philosophers developed a common base of cosmology that greatly influenced all neo-Confucian philosophical assumptions. Adapted to concepts found in the ancient Yi Jing (Book of Changes),their cosmology came from extremely developed traditions of Buddhist and neo-Daoist metaphysics. Borrowed from the analysis of the third-century neo-Daoist Wang Pi, much of the cosmology came from obscure diagrams created by a Daoist monk in the tenth century. The neo-Confucian cosmology was shaped by the students of the Yijing. Zhou Duni, of Hunan province, who held several minor official posts in the south, used the Yijing, the Five Elements, and the concepts of yin (the feminine, passive principle) and yang (the masculine, aggressive principle) to identify the “Supreme Ultimate,” the principle matter from which all beings were derived. Zhang Zai, an official of the Shaanxi province, who was ousted from the government for opposing Wang Anshi’s reforms and who later devoted himself to private teaching, suggested that the entire universe was composed of a single primal substance, referred to as qi.

Supreme Ultimate. The neo-Confucian cosmology presented by Zhou Duni was a complex representation of linked circles, called the diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, which was an aggregation of perfect abstract forms or principles. The material world came into being by a process similar to the coagulation of matter, which changed into a formless basic stuff, out of which individual things appeared. The driving power in this process was provided by the interaction between the indivisible cosmic forces,yang and yin. The Five Elements—fire, water, earth, wood, and metal—were regarded as basic forces. Things were what they were (men, mountains, trees, cats, and rocks, for example) because of the abstract form, or li (principle), which united with and shaped qi (matter). Thus, the concept of the Supreme Ultimate, or Great Ultimate, became key in the Chen-Zhu school of neo-Confucianism.

Opposites. Song scholars, like earlier Chinese philosophers, found it pleasant and productive to think in terms of balancing opposites (interacting polarities), such as inner and outer, substance and function, and knowledge and action. Perhaps they were interested in this mode of thought because it enabled them to observe differences without doing violence to what they recognized as an ulti-mate organic unity. According to the neo-Confucians, the Supreme Ultimate was the universal reality and underscored all existence. Principle or reason existed in all activity, through which it generated yang. After reaching its limit, activity became tranquil, and through tranquility the Supreme Ultimate generated yin. When tranquility reached its limit, activity started, the one producing the other as its opposite. Through the interaction between yinand yang the five elements came into being and the ten thousand things in the universe were created. The Song-era neo-Confucians were interested in the idea of the reversal of opposites created by Daoist thought, but they were primarily focused on the conceptual pair li and qi.

Part of the System. Li was usually translated as a principle or a network of principles. Each individual // was part of the entire system; nothing could exist if there was no li for it. This concept applied as much to the field of human behavior as it did to the physical world. The li for fatherhood had the same status as the li for mountains. No difference was made between the former, which was defined in moral terms, and the latter, into which value judgments did not enter because the world of moral action and that of physical objects was held to be one and the same. Both were understandable and both were equally natural. For common people the way to gain perfection was by grasping the li’.

Essential Force. Qi was characterized as the essential force and matter of which man and the world were made. It was regarded as energy that occupied space. In its most refined form, qi appeared as a kind of rarefied ether, but when it was condensed, it turned into solid metal or rock. In his cosmology Zhu Xi imagined the world as a sphere in constant rotation, so that the heavier qi was held in the center by the centripetal force of motion. The qi becomes progressively lighter and thinner as one moves away from the center. This concept clarified why, for instance, air at a high altitude was thinner than that at sea level.

Harmony. The Supreme Ultimate, creating all things and deciding their functions, was a combination of qiand li. The nature of things was the consequence of what they were and how they worked. When qi and liwere in balance, things were in order and there was a grand harmony. The Supreme Ultimate stood for a harmony of qi and li, and therefore order was the law of the universe. Asserting that the Supreme Ultimate was the principle of universal goodness, Zhu Xi transformed his pervasive metaphysics into the groundwork for a social and moral philosophy.


Below is an extract from the diary of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who stayed in China from 1583 until his death In Beijing in 1610.

Individually, the Chinese do not choose this sect; they rather imbibe the doctrine of it in the study of letters. No one who attains honors in the study of letters or who even undertakes the study would belong to any other sect. Confucius is their Prince of Philosophers, and according to them, it was he who discovered the art of philosophy. They do not believe in idol worship. In fact they have no idols. They do, however, believe in one deity who preserves and governs all things on earth. Other spirits they admit, but these are of less restricted domination and receive only minor honors. The real Literati teach nothing relative to the time, the manner, or the author of the creation of the world. We use the word real, or true, because there are some of them, less celebrated, who interpret dreams, but not much faith is placed in them as they deal mostly with trifles and improbable things. Their law contains a doctrine of reward for good done and of punishment for evil, but they seem to limit it to the present life and to apply it to the evil-doer and to his descendants, according to their merits. The ancients scarcely seem to doubt about the immortality of the soul, because, for a long time after a death, they make frequent reference to the departed as dwelling in heaven. They say nothing, however, about punishment for the wicked in hell. The more Literati teach that the soul ceases to exist when the body does, or a short time after it. They, therefore, make no mention of heaven or hell. To some of them this seems to be rather a severe punishment and so this school teaches that only the souls of the just survive. They say that the soul of a man is strengthened by virtue and solidified to endure, and since this is not true of the wicked, their souls vanish, like thin smoke, immediately after leaving the body.

The doctrine most commonly held among the Literati at present seems to me to have been taken from the sect of idols, as promulgated about five centuries ago. This doctrine asserts that the entire universe is composed of a common substance; that the creator of the universe is one in a continuous body, a corpus continuum as it were, together with heaven and earth, men und beasts, trees and plants, and the four elements, and that each individual thing is a member of this body. From this unity of substance they reason to the love that should unite the individual constituents and also that man can become like unto God because he is created one with God. This philosophy we endeavor to refute, not only from reason but also from the testimony of their own ancient philosophers to whom they are indebted for all the philosophy they have.

Although the Literati, as they are called, do recognize one supreme deity, they erect no temples in his honor. No special places are assigned for his worship, consequently no priests or ministers are designated to direct that worship. We do not find any special rites to be observed by all, or precepts to be followed, nor any supreme authority to explain or promulgate laws or to punish violations of laws pertaining to a supreme being. Neither are there any public or private prayers or hymns to be said or sung in honor of a supreme deity. The duty of sacrifice and the rites of wor-ship for this supreme being belong to the imperial majesty alone.

Source: Matteo Ricci, China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 1553-UW, translated by Louis J. Gallagher (New York: Random House, 1953), pp. 94-95,

Ethical System. Neo-Confucians of the Chen-Zhu school created an ethical system that was based on Daoist-influenced cosmology. This school realized that an individual’s fundamental identity, or li, was inseparably connected with the Supreme Ultimate. The original perfection of one’s li was tarnished by the embodiment of li in matter, or qi, just as the reflections of a mirror were dulled by an out-

side layer of dust. Therefore, neo-Confucians advocated dusting off one’s mirror in the same manner that Mencius had earlier promoted the idea to restore one’s “lost” child’s mind. Becoming a wise person, which was the fulfillment sought by neo-Confucians generally, was achieved by realizing one’s essential identity and opposing the selfish aspirations and other unworthy desires that arose from one’s qi.The wise person did not become eternal, spiritually or physically. When he died, he went to a well-deserved rest.

Meditation. In order to become sages, neo-Confucians were absorbed in Chan Buddhist-like meditation in an effort to withdraw temporarily from the bustle of daily life to focus on the cultivation of an attitude of earnestness or genuineness. Some adherents advocated experiencing sudden enlightenment in the Buddhist manner. Prescribed in the ancient text Da Xue (Great Leaning), the method of self-cultivation used by neo-Confucians was to put right the mind by making one’s intentions sincere, by expanding one’s knowledge, and by exploring matters. For the neo-Confucians, especially the students of the Chen-Zhu school, to investigate things meant to study rationally and objectively the li and other worldly phenomena, which would come to expand contact with the collection of all li ’—the Supreme Ultimate.

Chen Brothers. The ideas of early neo-Confucian cosmology continued to be developed by Chen Hao and Chen Yi, who spent most of their lives in Luoyang and Kaifeng. They emphasized the unity of the human mind with the universe. After studying intensively both Buddhist and Daoist ideas, they combined Yi Jing cosmology with ancient Confucian ethical teachings, and thereafter neo-Confucianism began to be developed into a full-scale philosophical system. There were no significant philosophical differences between the Chen brothers, but the ideas of Chen Yi were transmitted through a chain of teacher-pupil relationships to Zhu Xi, who synthesized and expanded them into a system known as the Li Xue school, while the ideologies of Chen Hao gradually became a rival system known as the Xin Xue school, led by Zhu Xi’s contemporary Lu Jiuyuan and developed more fully in the sixteenth century by Wang Yangming.

Influences. In Song times neo-Confucianism, which was not a monolithic philosophy, absorbed some ideas from Daoism and Buddhism, although they were at the same time attacked by the neo-Confucians. Even the most devoted Confucian was not resistant to the attractions of Chan Buddhism. Therefore, Daoism and Buddhism greatly influenced Song philosophers who sought to weaken Buddhism and Daoism by developing a more sophisticated philosophy of their own.

Opponents. In the energetic intellectualism of Southern Song times neo-Confucians faced challenges from anti-intellectualism in the central government. Encountering many philosophical opponents, Zhu Xi often debated with them publicly at his White Deer Grotto Academy and elsewhere. Among his opponents was Chen Liang, a Chekiang pragmatist, who argued for practical activism in government service, although he had a disastrous political career—he was imprisoned three times—and had not won his jinshi degree until the year before his death. Chen asserted that material reality was the only reality and that metaphysical speculation about the Supreme Ultimate was impossible and extravagant. Another opponent was Lu Jiuyuan, who wrote little and as a result had little impact on the philosophic trends of his own time but later founded the Xin Xue school.

Northern Confucianism. While the Li Xue and Xin Xue schools competed in the Southern Song period, Chinese intellectuals who served the Jurchen Jin state (1115-1234) in northern China continued to practice traditional Confucianism, typified by earnest personal morality and a serious awareness of public obligations. Conservative Confucians in the north came under Mongol control long before the Southern Song fell to the invaders; they were the only Confucians who enjoyed some respect in the early periods of Yuan rule (1279-1368) over China. To many conservatives the whole neo-Confucian movement looked like an unfortunate deviation among unstable, excessively exhausted southerners who were stained by Buddhist and Daoist metaphysics. Since Zhu Xi’s writings were a scholarly challenge that could not be ignored, his ideas penetrated into northern China, and his Li Xue school soon dominated the private academies in Yuan times.

Yuan Period. To the Yuan rulers the Li Xue school, an appealing and comfortable version of Confucianism, discouraged extreme political activism, recognized external standards of value and authority, and encouraged zealous self-cultivation through serious study of the instructions and precedents of the past. It seemed moderate, if not conservative, and authoritarian enough to serve as an ideological support for absolute monarchy. On the contrary, the assertive individualism inherent in the Xin Xue school— such as the worldliness of Buddhism and the unworldly, anti-establishment tradition of Daoism—was to the Yuan emperors an unappealing, even dangerous, alternative.Therefore, Yuan rulers and intellectuals disregarded Lu Jiuyuan’s doctrines for many years while Chen-Zhu doctrines won universal admiration and official state support.

Practicality. Intellectual life in the early Ming period was not favorable to unorthodox ideologies. After many years of alien invasions, followed by the civil wars of the late Yuan years, an enormous expenditure of energy was put into military, governmental, and social reconstruction; only restricted pragmatism was acceptable. Furthermore, the form of government founded by absolutist Ming rulers promoted conservatism. The dominant practicality of the early Ming era, however, redirected the interests of intellectuals away from the cosmological metaphysics of the Chen-Zhu school, and the terrible conditions of government service also induced many sensitive scholars to live simple, rural lives at home and to dedicate themselves to self-evaluation and self-cultivation.

Chen Xianzhang. The most respected philosopher of the first half of the Ming dynasty was Chen Xianzhang. Although he gained celebrity as a living sage, who rejected many offers based on his reputation, he decided to spend his life studying and teaching in his remote home province, Guangdong. Challenging Zhu Xi modestly on many points, Chen imagined the universe in entirely naturalistic terms, lectured on the significance of naturalness and quiescence, and absorbed himself in meditation of quiet-sitting. He did not openly accept the beliefs of Lu Jiuyuan, but his ideologies contributed directly to the later full development of the Xin Xue school of Wang Yangming, the greatest of the latter neo-Confucian philosophers.

Attacks on Confucius. In the late Ming period some second-generation followers of Wang Yangming publicly stated that every person was his own judge of right and wrong, that every desire should be translated instinctively into action, and that the streets were full of wise men. They offered democratic, tolerant doctrines to large, excited gatherings in the towns and cities. Among these scholars was Li Zhi, a Confucian official in Fujian province, who later became a Chan Buddhist. As a freethinker Li totally rejected Confucius and the classics as the standard of right and wrong, asserting instead the ready-made perfection of one’s child-mind and regarding egotism and profits as valuable motives. He accused traditional Confucians of being unquestioning job seekers; passionately defended and studied the popular, conversational literature that openly scorned traditional Confucianism; promoted marriage by free choice; and proclaimed that Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism were of equal truth and value. As a government official Li was sometimes engaged in working in Buddhist temples.

Donglin Academy. As Li Zhi’s teachings became accepted, traditional Confucians became more worried about Wang Yangming’s left-wing pupils. Arrested finally as an exponent of an unorthodox opinion, Li Zhi killed himself in prison in 1602 before his trial. Thereafter, a group of moderate Chen-Zhu conservatives founded the Donglin Academy at Wuxi near Shanghai in 1604 in an effort to resist the moral decay and political corruption that came, they believed, from the philosophical misrepresentation of the Wang Yangming school. Although the Donglin Party was put down by the government in the 1620s, Wang’s extremism was effectively dishonored and vanished when the Manchus overthrew the Ming empire. Wang’s own teachings were not concealed, but Chen-Zhu orthodoxy remained the mainstream of Chinese philosophy in the early Qing dynasty (1644-1912).


William Theodore de Bary, Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).

John B. Henderson, The Development and Decline of Chinese Cosmology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

John M. Koller, Oriental Philosophies (New York: Scribners, 1970).

Thomas A. Metzger, Escape from Predicament: Neo-Confucianism and Chinas Evolving Political Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).