Neo-Confucianism: The synthesis of Taoist cosmology and Buddhist spirituality around the core of Confucian concern with society and government, a synthesis which predominated in the intellectual and spiritual life of China, Korea, and Japan prior to the modern period.


1) Confucianism:

There were two interrelated facets in the tradition founded by Confucius (551-479 B.C.): government and proper social order were a major concern on the one hand, and on the other it presented a profound vision of the qualities and modes of conduct necessary to be a full and worthy human being. These were intimately linked, for in the Confucian view morality or humanity consisted primarily in the cultivation and conduct of proper social relationships, and the essence of government was morality. Confucius was China's first private educator. His role was to train young men for service in government and his most fundamental conviction was that the essen­tial preparation for such service must be character formation: true learning was moral learning, and society should be ruled (ordered) by a meritocracy based on such learning.

During the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) this classical Confucian core was effectively synthesized with elements of what had originally been competing schools of thought, most notably the cos­mological speculations of the Yin-Yang and Five Agents philosophies. Man, society, and government were woven together with the cosmos in a complex system of correspondences that described an all-encom­passing underlying order, a fitting reflection of the unity of the great Chinese empire.

But the vision that reflected the success of the Han dynasty became less plausible when Chinese society again slid toward chaos as the dynasty declined. In the minds of many the malfunction and disorder of the last decades of the Han discredited not only the gov­ernment, but the ideology that had been sponsored by the government and legitimated it.

China was ready for something new. In the centuries of disorder and division that followed the collapse of the Han, Indian Buddhism competed with a resurgent religious Taoism for predominance. The foreign tradition brought with it a metaphysical and ascetical sophis­tication hitherto unknown in China, and as the Chinese came to understand and appreciate these doctrines Buddhism became a magnet for the best minds and most profound spirits. Confucianism as a con­ventional social morality or a form of learning associated with gov­ernment service was commonly regarded as a complement to the more profound philosophy and spirituality of Buddhism. But its approach to self-cultivation through good habits and self-discipline seemed mun­dane and banal in comparison with an enlightenment to be achieved through the inner discipline of meditation; its cosmology looked like naive commonsense in comparison with the metaphysics of emptiness, one mind, all-in-one-one-in-all, and the like with which the various Buddhist schools supported their meditative disciplines.

2) Neo-Confucianism:

Buddhism reached a creative and flourishing peak during the Tang dynasty (618-907); but the Sung dynasty (979-1279) saw a reaction to the "foreign" religion and a creative revitalization of the stagnant Confucian tradition. In the political world this took the form of a reform movement which attempted to address the pressing socio­economic problems of the day by a creative reinterpretation of ancient ideal Confucian institutions. But of more lasting importance was the intellectual and spiritual reshaping of the tradition. In a milieu long shaped by Buddhist predominance, men again began to take the Con­fucian classics seriously. Not surprisingly, they found what they were looking for: a long "lost" ascetical doctrine dealing with the cultivation of the inner life of the mind, and a metaphysics that could frame this with a philosophical account of sagehood, self-cultivation, and, ul­timately, the universe.

The morphology of this renewed or "neo" Confucian vision equals the compass and scope of Buddhism. It was effected, however, not by borrowing, but by a creative reinterpretation of the traditional Confucian core to meet new intellectual and spiritual expectations. It answers the Buddhist transcendence of the mundane by transcen­dentally grounding the mundane: human interpersonal relationships and concern for society and government are inseparably united with deepened ascetical practice as the path to ultimate personal fulfillment. There are Neo-Confucian retreats, but no Neo-Confucian monasteries.

3) The Founders:

The four main architects of this new vision during the early years were Chou Tun-i (1017-1073), Chang Tsai (1020-1077), and his nephews, the brothers Ch'eng Hao (1032-1083) and Ch'eng I (1033-1108). Chou's Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate appears in chap­ter 1 of the Ten Diagrams; it became the cornerstone of Neo-Confucian metaphysics. Chang Tsai elaborated a monistic metaphysics based, like Chou's Diagram, on the Book of Changes. Although his meta­physical system was largely supplanted by that developed by his neph­ews, his work was of seminal importance for Neo-Confucian psychological theory.2 Confucian ethics was reestablished on a me­taphysical foundation by his famous essay, The Western Inscription, which appears in chapter 2. The Ch'eng brothers were responsible for the introduction of the concept li, "principle," which became the pivot point of Neo-Confucian metaphysics, psychology, and ascetical doctrine.

4) Chu Hsi and Wang Yang-ming

The central figure in this Confucian revival, however, was Chu Hsi (1130-1200). He creatively synthesized the rather disparate contributions of these earlier thinkers into a coherent, powerful vision. His commentaries on the Four Books3 wove a classical foundation for this vision so persuasively that in 1313 his interpretation was made normative for the civil service examinations. The Ch'eng-Chu school, so called because of the centrality of the Ch'engs' contribution to Chu Hsi's system, thus achieved the status of an officially sanctioned orthodoxy.

Though it maintained this central position down to the modern era, the Ch'eng-Chu school was not the only school of Neo-Confucian thought. The most notable alternative was the school of Wang Yang-­ming (1472-1529), often referred to as the "Lu-Wang school" because Wang's thought bore a marked similarity to the ideas of Chu Hsi's contemporary and rival, Lu Chiu-yüan (Hsiang-shan 1139-1193).

The "Lu-Wang school" equated mind with li or principle and so followed an approach to self-cultivation that was based on the mind's direct intuitive grasp of the proper way, as opposed to the Ch'eng-Chu emphasis on the need for diligent study or "the inves­tigation of things." Chu Hsi's school vehemently rejected this as a form of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism decked out in Confucian garb, but the Lu-Wang school became a strong movement, overshadowing the orthodox tradition throughout the remainder of the Ming period. That it found no equal acceptance or popularity in Korea constitutes one of the most obvious of the important differences between the subse­quent Chinese and Korean traditions.

5) The Four Books

The Neo-Confucian movement developed metaphysical and ascetical dimensions essential to revitalizing the Confucian tradition. In the course of this, it also reshaped the classical canon as attention focused particularly on works which spoke to these new concerns. The Great Learning was extricated from its obscure position in the volu­minous Book of Rites to become the most authoritative description of the process of self-cultivation. Another section of the Book of Rites, the Doctrine of the Mean, likewise attained new prominence as an independent classic; it furnished vital elements of a metaphysically grounded psychological theory and a depiction of sagehood. The Men­cius, long well known but ancillary to the classical corpus, now became one of the most important classical authorities; more than any other ancient source, it spoke to Neo-Confucian concerns regarding the mind, human nature, and cultivation of the inner life. The Analects, the classic containing the words of Confucius himself recorded by his direct disciples, remained, as always, fundamental: the Sung Confu­cians understood themselves as finally recovering the full meaning of the ancient deposit of sage wisdom, and it was necessary that the words of the Master himself inform and sanction their vision. These four texts, collectively referred to as "the Four Books," became the new core of the Confucian canon; intensively studied, analyzed, and de­bated, they furnished much of the substance and vocabulary of Neo-­Confucian discourse.