What is Neo-Confucianism?

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 (r. 618-906 CE). It included a synthesis of Taoist and Buddhist elements around Confucian notions of society and government.

Earlier Developments in Confucianism and Buddhism

It is important to look at earlier developments in Confucianism and Buddhism to contextualize the rise of Neo-Confucianism. Confucianism emerged in the philosopher Confucius of the sixth century BCE who thought of himself 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, as well as edited and transmitted them to his students who passed it on, notably Mencius (d. 289 BCE) and Xunzi (third century BCE). Together their goal was to establish education that would lead to the flourishing of Chinese culture and the notion of humaneness.

Confucius was primarily concerned with virtue and morality (especially whether or not morality was a divine privilege or a trait that was inherent within human beings that could be cultivated; Confucius argued that all people, commoners included, could cultivate their inherent goodness because humans are born good), government (Confucius affirmed meritocratic ideals rather than state and leadership positions merely being given to those based on kinship), social relationships, and proper social order. He lived at a time when the Zhou Dynasty (r. 1046-256 BCE) and its rulers believed that 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 placed great emphasis on environmental and educational factors as a means to achieve this. His philosophy was later promoted to state ideology in the reign of Emperor Wu during the Han Dynasty (r. 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, a 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 managed to play an important role in China’s philosophical and state domains. It yet had a lead role in elite family life and governmental service, and remained central to political and social thought.

The Rise of Neo-Confucianism

Neo-Confucianism emerged during the Tang Dynasty 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, and 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 way for his time. He also emphasized the self-cultivation of the Dao.

Neo-Confucianism focused on the works of the Classical Confucian tradition, particularly Confucius’s Analects and Mencius, as a means to order human society. In particular, they thought that the traditional classical Confucian texts were sufficient to answer the questions that Buddhism and Daoism had attempted to answer, especially on matters of the organization of the state, society, and individual lifestyles. In contrast to the Daoists who stood distant from society, the Neo-Confucians believed that human beings achieved fulfillment by sincere involvement in society. Moreover, the Neo-Confucianists came to disagree with the Buddhists that the world is an illusion as their metaphysics affirmed an ultimate reality. They also rejected the Buddhist notion that all things were empty of reality. This allowed room for the Neo-Confucianists to develop and integrate their social, political, and philosophical ideas, and it is within these domains that people are to find their appropriate role and contribute to universal harmony. Also in the Neo-Confucian crosshairs was the Buddhist notion of renunciation of family and society, as well as its monastic lifestyle. To the Neo-Confucians, this looked like an attempt to be impractical and escape one’s responsibility. The major difference between the Neo-Confucians and the Buddhists was that the former placed its emphasis on moral and social reality as being fundamental whereas the latter concentrated on consciousness and metaphysical reality.

Daoist elements can be seen in the philosopher Zhou Dunyi’s (d. 1073 CE) thought. Dunyi identified a Supreme Ultimate through yin (the passive, feminine principle, and tranquillity) and yang (the aggressive, masculine principle, and movement). It is from the interactions between the yin and yang principles that the Five Elements (fire, earth, water, metal, and wood) were created. To Dunyi, the forces of creation find their fullest expression in human beings who can interact with external phenomena that have been created; when this happens the distinction between good and evil emerges in his thought and conduct. 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 also thought that human nature has been endowed by Heaven and is therefore fundamentally and innately good.

It was ultimately the philosopher Zhu Xi (d. 1200) of the Song Dynasty (r. 960-1279) whose thought 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, he thought, 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 that 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. Zhu Xi saw the li in human beings as constituting their human nature. The li is perfect and any deficiencies are imbibed through impurities of qi. People can remove these imperfections through studying ethics (notably the Five Classics) and metaphysics.

Zhu Xi’s influence was great. His thought gave Neo-Confucians a way to respond to the philosophical ideas of Chinese Buddhist schools such as the Tiantai or Huayan, and 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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