Neo-Confucianism refers to the revival of interest in various strands of Confucianism that traces back to the philosopher Kong Zi or Confucius (d. 479 BCE).
Neo-Confucianism dominated Chinese culture from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century CE but emerged earlier in the ninth century CE during the late Tang Dynasty (618-906 CE). It included a synthesis of Taoist and Buddhist elements around Confucian notions of society and governence.
Earlier Developments in Confucianism and Buddhism
It is important to view earlier developments in Confucianism and Buddhism to contextualize the rise of Neo-Confucianism.
Confucianism emerged through the philosopher Confucius of the sixth century BCE who thought of himself as carrying on a classical tradition that arose in the Xia (c. 2070-1600 BCE), Shang (c. 1600-1046 BCE), and Zhou (1046-221 BCE) kingdoms. He is said to have collected these ancient traditions and edited and transmitted them to his students who passed them on, notably Mencius (d. 289 BCE) and Xunzi (third century BCE). Their goal was to establish education that would lead to the flourishing of Chinese culture.
Confucius was primarily concerned with virtue and morality, especially whether or not morality was a divine privilege or a trait that was cultivatable and inherent within human beings. He argued that all people, commoners included, could cultivate their inherent goodness because humans are born good.
Confucius affirmed meritocratic ideals rather than state and leadership positions merely being given to those based on kinship. He lived during an era when the Zhou (r. 1046-256 BCE) and its rulers believed they were given authority directly from the gods under what is known as the Mandate of Heaven.
Confucius wanted to produce well-mannered men and rulers, and he emphasized environmental and educational factors to achieve this. His philosophy was later promoted to the state ideology under the rule of Emperor Wu during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).
Buddhism arrived in China in the first century CE and from roughly 200 to 850 CE had its greatest influence on the culture.
There were translations of Buddhist texts into the vernacular language, growth in monks and monastic communities, and the emergence and flourishing of various Buddhist philosophical schools, in particular the Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan traditions.
Buddhism was dominant in this period and it eclipsed Confucianism. However, the latter still maintained an important place in China’s philosophical and state domains, notably in elite family life and governmental service, as well as in political and social thought.
The Rise of Neo-Confucianism
Neo-Confucianism emerged during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) and was influenced by Buddhism and Daoism, despite it rejecting both these religions. Its emergence was largely a response to perceived foreign influences on Chinese politics and thought. This led the Neo-Confucians, in particular its proponents Han Yu (d. 824 CE), Li Ao (d. 836 CE), and Liu Zongyuan (d. 819 CE), to challenge the central place of Buddhism. Yu, Ao, and Zongyuan were the earliest Neo-Confucian thinkers who attacked the philosophy of Buddhism and wanted to produce a revival of the Confucian Way. Some of these thinkers, notably Yu, wanted to present the ideas of the Confucian tradition and the Confucian Way in an easy-to-access manner.
Neo-Confucianism focused on the works of the Classical Confucian tradition, particularly Confucius’s Analects and Mencius, for ordering human society. They thought that the classical texts could sufficiently answer questions that Buddhism and Daoism had attempted to answer, notably on matters of the organization of the state, society, and individual lifestyles.
In contradistinction to the Daoists who were perceived as too distant from society, the Neo-Confucians maintained that human beings achieved fulfillment by sincere involvement in society. Moreover, the Neo-Confucianists disagreed with the Buddhists that the world is illusory. Confucian metaphysics affirmed an ultimate reality. The Neo-Confucians rejected the Buddhist notion that all things are empty of reality. The Neo-Confucianists continued to develop and integrate their social, political, and philosophical ideas into Chinese society, and it is within these domains that people were to find their appropriate roles that contribute to universal harmony.
The Buddhist notion of renunciation of family and society, as well as its monastic lifestyle, was rejected. To the Neo-Confucians, this was impractical and an attempt at escaping one’s responsibility. The Neo-Confucians placed their emphasis on moral and social reality as being fundamental whereas the Buddhists concentrated on consciousness and metaphysical reality.
Daoist elements are evident in the philosopher Zhou Dunyi’s (d. 1073 CE) thought. Dunyi identified a Supreme Ultimate reality through yin (the passive, feminine principle, and tranquillity) and yang (the aggressive, masculine principle, and movement). Through the interactions between the yin and yang principles, the Five Elements (fire, earth, water, metal, and wood) were created.
For Dunyi, the forces of creation find their fullest expression in human beings who can interact with external phenomena that have been created. The superior man, or the sage, is the person who reacts to external phenomena according to the principles of humanity, propriety, righteousness, faithfulness, wisdom, and tranquillity. Dunyi considered human nature to have been endowed by Heaven and therefore fundamentally and innately good.
It was ultimately the philosopher Zhu Xi (d. 1200) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) whose thoughts and Four Books (on which civil service examination systems were based) became the standard by which future Confucian intellectual discourse and social theory were judged.
Zhu Xi was majorly interested in the human being and the possibility of self-cultivation. People consisted of several components: a vital force generated by the union of the parents, a vital force (qi), and a human nature generated by a set of natural tendencies.
Part of the vital force is the mind-heart which has both cognitive and affective abilities that are open to cultivation. Cultivation is possible through proper education that can help the mind-heart obtain human flourishing through ethical action. According to Zhu Xi, emotions that are not governed appropriately and without proper self-cultivation can lead to selfishness and one-sidedness. The li in human beings constitutes their human nature. The li is perfect and any deficiencies are acquired through impurities of qi. People can remove these imperfections by studying ethics (notably the Five Classics) and metaphysics.
Zhu Xi’s influence was great. His thought gave Neo-Confucians a means of responding to the philosophical ideas of Chinese Buddhist schools such as the Tiantai or Huayan. His commentaries became required reading for all who hoped to pass the civil service examinations. Anyone wanting to become a Chinese scholar or official before the early twentieth century had to familiarize himself with the commentaries and texts written and collected by Zhu Xi.
Foster, Robert. 2014. Neo-Confucianism – Oxford Bibliographies. Available.
Ames, Roger. 1998. Zhu Xi: Chinese philosopher. Available.
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