Neo-Confucianism, which sprang from a revived concern for civil government as opposed to warlordism during the late ninth and early tenth centuries, sought to bring about “Great Peace and Order” by establishing civilized institutions. It brought together theories from the philosophies of Confucius, Laozi, and Buddha. Here we see the premier philosophical leaders of China portrayed as “three vinegar tasters,” each reacting to the taste of the vinegar in their own way.
Neo-Confucianism, beginning in the eleventh century, was a revival of classical Confucian values with new interpretations. It focused on self-cultivation, emphasizing development of rational, moral, and affective natures so that the heart and mind entered into “one body” with Heaven and Earth and all creation.
Beginning during the Song dynasty (960–1279) in the eleventh century, neo-Confucianism was a major reformulation of Confucianism that brought a revival of classical Confucian study and thought. Confucian values, texts, and practices were reworded and reinterpreted, mirroring the changed cultural conditions of the Song dynasty. Neo-Confucianism also reacted to the religious and philosophical challenges from Daoism and Buddhism in the postclassical age of the Zhou dynasty (1045–256 BCE) and Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).
The late Song scholar, philosopher, and teacher Zhu Xi (1130–1200) summed up many of the contributions of this Confucian revival. His teachings became so dominant in East Asia that Zhu’s “learning” came later primarily to be identified as neo-Confucianism. Earlier this learning had been known as the “Learning of the Way” (dao xue), the “Learning of Human Nature and Principle” (xingli xue), the “Learning of the Sages” (sheng xue), the “Learning of Principle” (li xue), and the “Learning of the Mind-and-Heart” (xin xue). These referred to important aspects of the larger learning that inspired a new cultural era in East Asia and subsequently came to represent its tradition. To modernizers of the twentieth century it represented the past from which they wanted to break.
“Great Peace and Order”
Neo-Confucianism sprang from a revived concern for civil government as opposed to warlordism during the late ninth and early tenth centuries. It sought to bring about “Great Peace and Order” (Taiping) by establishing civilized institutions. The statesman Fan Zhongyan (989–1052) expressed the ideal of public service at this time in his characterization of the Confucian ideal of the noble person as “first in worrying about the world’s worries and last in enjoying its pleasures” (de Bary and Bloom 1999, 596). Using the rulership ideal of the Confucian philosopher Mencius, Fan articulated the solicitude that a ruler should have, placing first the welfare of the ruled, in contrast to the Buddhist bodhisattva (a being that refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others and is worshipped as a deity), who first sought the peace of nirvana before returning to share it with others.
Fan attempted reforms in education and the political economy, but he also invited the scholar-teacher Hu Yuan (993–1059) to court. Hu as an educator emphasized the principles and implementation of classical Confucianism through studies in mathematics, law, military arts, and water control. The statesman Wang Anshi (1021–1086) advocated many of Fan Zhongyan’s reformist ideals, especially in the civil service and education. Wang stressed government intervention in the economy and a policy that t class.
Scholars eventually challenged some Song era aspects of neo-Confucianism as being manifestations of the subversive influence of Buddhism rather than true innovations of original Confucian ideals. A military instructor of the samurai class, Yamaga Soko (1622–1685), decried the contemplative tendencies of Song neo-Confucianism, especially quiet sitting. He felt they were unsuitable for a samurai. Ogyu Sorai (1666–1728) proclaimed that Confucianism could be understood only in the context of early Chinese history and society as shown in the Chinese classics and that Confucianism was applicable to Japan only in the context of Japanese institutions and their historical development. Ito Jinsai (1627–1705) taught a fundamentalist brand of Confucianism that emphasized humaneness as taught in the texts of Confucius and Mencius. Each of these forms of Confucian revisionism made a claim to a fundamentalism based on new readings of classical texts.
During the late Tokugawa shogunate independent schools proliferated and created a wide variety of scholarship. Some of the scholarship was oriented toward Japanese tradition and some of it toward Western learning. The basic texts used in most schools were based on the neo-Confucian curriculum set by Zhu Xi until the imperial restoration and renovation of the Meiji period (1868–1912). The moral and intellectual formation of most educated east Asians continued to be based on this neo-Confucian discourse into the late nineteenth century. This teaching concentrated on self-cultivation in a social context and emphasized the development of rational, moral, and affective nature so that the mind-and-heart entered empathetically, through practical action and shared principles, into “one body” with Heaven and Earth and all creation.
Flowing water never goes bad; door hubs never gather termites.
Liú shuǐ bù fǔ, hù shū bú dù
Source: de Bary, Wm. Theodore. (2009). Neo-Confucianism. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1576–1580. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.