The Neo-Confucian Revolution

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Neo-Confucianism is a variant of Confucianism that emerged during the rule of the Chinese Song dynasty, and it offers an alternative to Buddhism and Taoism. More specifically, Neo-Confucianism is a Western term for a movement of scholar-activities in East Asia to modernize or revive Confucianism ideas and philosophy. During this period, Confucianism and Daoism had lost their dominance, and Buddhism was quickly flourishing. As a result, the many precursors of Neo-Confucianism (which will be studied in depth) attempted to respond to the three fundamental causes of change. The strategic challenges of Central Asian conquest and European Empires, commercialization, and Buddhism constituted the most severe challenge to the actuality of Confucianism.  Brief History of Neo-Confucianism


The fall of the Han dynasty in 220 A.D. resulted in a revival of the Daoist tradition and more significantly, heralded the arrival and spread of Buddhism in China. Between 200 and 850 A.D. Buddhism had a great influence on Chinese culture regarding the education system, the religious life of East Asia, and social institutions. The spread of the spiritualistic and religious currents of Daoism and Buddhism lead to the Confucianism philosophy losing its ground and supremacy. However, the unification of the Sui and Tang dynasties in 581-907 A.D was crucial in Confucianism regaining its power and position. The creation of this Song-Tang and subsequently, the Song dynasty (960-1279) provided an environment that would favor Confucian learning. The five masters of Neo-Confucianism: Zhou Dunyi (1017–73), Shao Yong (1011–77), Zhang Zai (1020– 77), Cheng Hao (1032–85) and Cheng Yi (1033–1107) would rise and give Confucianism a new direction. However, Zhu Xai (1130-1200) is considered the father of Neo-Confucianism and is credited with the restoration of Confucianism to its original focus on moral cultivation.

Confucian scholars regained executive responsibilities and administration of the government, and this paved the way for a new age. While in power, these scholars sought to restore the Confucian teachings (Yao 96) of self-cultivation, humane government, social responsibility, and regulation of the family. It strongly emphasizes the understanding of life and opposes the impermanence of the Buddhist. It replaces the Buddhist superstitious nature such as the worship of gods with Confucian rites of passage which stress “tradition, human relations, social responsibility, and personal commitment” (Yao 97).

Zhu Xi (1130-1200)

Zhu Xi is the culmination of Neo-Confucianism, and he was instrumental in the propagation of the teachings of the earlier five NeoConfucian masters. Zhu doctrine was founded upon the “concepts of the Supreme Ultimate, principle, material force, nature, the investigation of things, and humanness”. Principle (li) is central to his doctrine and Zhi identifies it with Heaven, the Way, and with the Supreme Ultimate. This affirms the position that principle (li) is “the origin of the world, the final sanction of life, the inner nature of all things, and the power and source of evolution.”. The understanding of universality according to Zhi must begin with the study of particular principles, and this leads to the knowledge of the one Principle.

However, Zhi also points out that the world is not only made of principle but also material force (qi). However, Zhi strongly points out that principle exists before material force and gives material force the ability to produce. Also, he asserts that the two complement and are interdependent because the material force is the carrier of the principle and facilitates its materialization, substantiation, differentiation, and individualization. Therefore, principle cannot exist without material force, and material force cannot exist without principle.

Zhi also addressed the issue of human nature and moral cultivation. He argues that Human nature and principle are equal and therefore, it has the endowment of loyalty, humaneness, righteousness, propriety, wisdom (heart/mind of the Way) and filial piety (Yao 107). At birth, humans have material force, and this endows their physical nature and heart/mind with desires and feelings. Zhu points out that the heart/mind is dangerous and this might allude that principle is incomplete. In addressing this query, Zhi argues that principle is complete in all its essence, but it is unable to manifest its completeness because of the material force imperfections and impediments. Such an argument presents a pessimistic nature of humanity but Zhi points out cleansing to eliminate selfish desires and feelings is the only way of letting the good nature shine, and this is moral cultivation.

Wang Yang Ming

Wang is known for the teaching of mind-heart as opposed to Zhu’s teaching of principle. During his time, Wang sought to find the true location of principle, but he ended up frustrated because he was searching for li in external things and affairs. However, while in political exile, he came to the stark realization that principle was never in external things but in the mind heart of a person. Wang developed the doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action, and he said that “Knowledge is the beginning of action and action is the completion of knowledge.” Wang proposed that all humans possess an original heart/mind which has the unifying quality of humanness and therefore, everyone has sage hood within, and the only way to enlightenment is by reflection of the innate heart/mind.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea

In Korea, Neo-Confucian principles became of particular interest only during the closing years of the Koryo dynasty. However, in the subsequent establishment of the Choson dynasty, Neo-Confucianism developed into an ideology so crucial to and engrained in Korean social, political, and spiritual affairs that it rivaled, and even surpassed, that of the Chinese. The Choson chose Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian principles as the basis for their political philosophy and were intent on basing the reformation of their state and society upon Neo-Confucian teachings. Furthermore, the acceptance of Neo-Confucianism came as a reaction against a Buddhism that saw its fair share of corruption in Korea. This condition, along with the credibility of Neo-Confucianism as an instructional, practical, moral, and spiritual ideology allowed its rapid acceptance and prominence in Korean society even before any state involvement. With this government mandated educational system in place and the implementation of a Civil Service Examination system, all of which were based on the content of Zhu Xi’s Four Books, Neo-Confucianism was now completely incorporated into Korea’s social structure. The Koreans not only accepted this Neo-Confucian teaching as a mandated state orthodoxy but integrated Zhu Xi’s principles into their lifestyles on a level appreciably beyond that of the Chinese.

Neo-Confucianism in Japan

The actual popularization and subsequent establishment of Neo-Confucianism as the official orthodoxy of Japan occurred during the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Ieyasu turned to Neo-Confucianism due to its applicability and morally didactic content. Under Tokugawa, Hayashi Razan firmly established Neo-Confucianism as the official, court-sanctioned teaching of the Tokugawa Era, adapting Neo-Confucian philosophy for use in the government. Hayashi was a vital proponent of the School of Principle and also gave great consideration to the study of Confucian Classics, which led to a renewed interest in Japanese history. While Hayashi was recognized for his adherence to the School of Principle, Kumazawa Banzan is noted for bringing the Wang Yang-Ming School of Mind and Heart into the political philosophy of Tokugawa Japan. The Japanese further took advantage of the adaptability of Neo-Confucian teachings and applied it to many secular forms of learning.

Components of Neo-Confucianism

The first component is a rededication to service where the target was the institutionalization of new service elite, that is, the person of excellence. The argument is that the elite has the statutory power to bureaucratic service and the supremacy in the value of local service. The second component is the reconstitution of power which argues for the decentralization of power and government functions to the local counties. Also, it argued for the freezing and remission of taxes to county magistrates and creating extra-bureaucratic networks of action and opinion whose focus on private Confucian academies. The third component is the rationalization of philosophy, and as pointed out earlier, Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths were gaining in popularity. These four truths challenged the Confucian view of self, society, and cosmos as well as fostering as encouraging a selfish model of leadership, for instance, the monks. The final component is the re-grounding of reality whose primary focus is to promote the responsible not illusory view of oneself propagated by Buddhism. Also, the reality of the cosmos was being done away and neo-Confucianism re-established the cosmological process.

Work Cited

Yao, Xinzhong, An Introduction to Confucianism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000

May 02, 2023

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