Li Ao (774?–836)
Li Ao is perhaps the thinker in Tang China (618–907) who contributed most to a new version of Confucian philosophy that addressed issues of human nature and spiritual cultivation. By Li's time, questions in this area had been left to Buddhism and Daoism for centuries, whereas the intellectual elite in general considered Confucianism solely the authority in family and political lives. Li's importance as a thinker comes entirely from a single treatise: the Fuxing shu (Writings on returning to one's true nature). It is arguably the first post-Han (206 BCE–220 CE) text that gave an original treatment on the topics of human nature and spirituality from a Confucian stance.
The theme of the Fuxing shu is how to become a sage, the Confucian ideal of personality. Li holds that a sage is a person who has realized his "nature" (xing ), the character of which can be described as "sincerity" (cheng ). The nature of human beings is bestowed on them by heaven, and all people share the same nature. The reason why hardly anyone becomes a sage is that people's "emotions" (qing ) obscure their true nature.
As to the method of becoming a sage, Li contends that if one quiets down and thus clarifies one's emotions, one's nature will be revealed and will direct one's life. One can then naturally act in a proper manner—that is, in accord with Confucian behavioral norms. The central point here is that the true nature of humans only exists in the state of tranquility. Yet tranquility of one's nature is not equivalent to suspension of emotions, because the latter will inevitably shift to a state of movement. People should learn to respond to the world directly with their true nature. The nature that is at the same time tranquil and able to have a full control of one's life exists beyond the level of emotions.
At least two issues regarding the Fuxing shu deserve attention here. The first is the subject of this treatise. The search for sagehood through self-cultivation was a significant notion in classical Confucianism, but went almost absent after the Han. It was owing to the Buddhist concern with Buddhahood that the perfection of human existence through spiritual cultivation became a major issue in medieval Chinese thought. Li's revival of a dormant Confucian subject is in itself an indication that the Fuxing shu represents a Confucian response to the centuries-old dominance of Buddhism and Daoism in the realm of metaphysical and spiritual philosophy. Li's project anticipates the endeavor of neo-Confucianism in Song times (960–1279).
Then there is the much studied and debated issue: the sources of the originality of the Fuxing shu. It is clear that medieval Buddhism and Daoism not only gave birth to the theme of Li's treatise, but also affected its ideas in a substantial way. The sharp contrast between "nature" and "emotions" is a case in point. This distinction is not a salient feature of classical and Han Confucianism. Even for those Confucian thinkers believing that moral values were rooted in the essence of human beings, goodness did not just exist in one's nature. It was more important to realize people's moral potential in their actual lives filled with all kinds of emotions. Simply put, in early Confucianism there was no such notion that a return to one's nature, defined as the original state of human existence, represented the perfection of human life. This idea, which is at the core of Li's theory, owed its origins principally to classical and religious Daoism. The most crucial formative force behind this idea seems to be the fundamental Daoist belief that the ideal state of life lies in its reunion with its roots—indeed with the "primordial breath" (yuanqi ) of the universe.
Although Li borrows heavily from religious ideas current in his time, it is unmistaken that his aim is providing a theoretical framework for a Confucian way of self-cultivation. Li emphasizes that once revealed, one's nature will lead to correct knowledge and actions, that is, those in line with Confucian values. One may say that Li uses a great deal of Buddhist and Daoist material to build a Confucian house. He was one of the rare individuals in the history of ideas to really make a breakthrough.
Barrett, Timothy Hugh. "Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism in the Thought of Li Ao." PhD diss. Yale University, 1978.
Chen, Jo-shui. "'Fuxing shu' sixiang yuanyuan zaitan: Han Tang xinxing guannian shi zhi yizhang." Zhongyang yanjiuyuan lishi yuyan yanjiusuo jikan 69 (3) (1998): 423–482.
Jo-shui Chen (2005)