Neo-Confucianism (理學 Pinyin: Lǐxué) is a term for a form of Confucianism that was primarily developed during the Song dynasty, but which can be traced back to Han Yu and Li Ao in the Tang dynasty. The term should not be mistaken for New Confucianism which is an effort to apply Confucianism to the 21st century.

Neo-Confucianism was essentially a response by the Confucians to the dominance of the Daoists and Buddhists. Neo-Confucians such as Zhu Xi recognized that the Confucian system of the time did not include a thoroughgoing metaphysical system and so devised one. There were of course many competing views within the Neo-Confucian community, but overall, a system emerged that resembled both Buddhist and Daoist thought of the time and some of the ideas expressed in the Book of Changes (I Ching) as well as other yin yang theories associated with the Taiji symbol (Taijitu). A well known Neo-Confucian motif is paintings of Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu all drinking out of the same vinegar jar, paintings associated with the slogan "The three teachings are one!"

While Neo-Confucianism incorporated Buddhist and Taoist ideas, many Neo-Confucianists claimed to strongly oppose Buddhism and Taoism. One of Han Yu's most famous essays decries the worship of Buddhist relics. Zhu Xi in particular, wrote many essays attempting to explain how his ideas were not Buddhist or Taoist, and included some extremely heated denunciations of Buddhism and Taoism.

Zhu Xi's formulation of the Neo-Confucian world view is as follows. He believed that the Way (Dao) of Heaven (Tian) is expressed in principle or li (理, py lǐ), but that it is sheathed in matter or qi (氣, py qì). In this, his system is based on Buddhist systems of the time that divided things into principle (again, li), and shi (事, Pinyin shì). In the Neo-Confucian formulation, li in itself is pure and perfect, but with the addition of qi, base emotions and conflicts arise. Human nature is originally good, the Neo-Confucians argued (following Mencius), but not pure unless action is taken to purify it. The imperative is then to purify one's li. However, in contrast to Buddhists and Taoists, neo-Confucians did not believe in an external world unconnected with the world of matter. In addition, Neo-Confucians in general rejected the idea of reincarnation and the associated idea of karma.

Different Neo-Confucians had differing ideas for how to do so. Zhu Xi believed in gewu (格物, géwù), the Investigation of Things, essentially an academic form of observational science, based on the idea that li lies within the world. Wang Yangming (Wang Shouren), probably the second most influential Neo-Confucian, came to another conclusion: namely, that if li is in all things, and li is in one's heart, there is no better place to seek than within oneself. His preferred method of doing so was jingzuo (靜坐, jìngzuò), 'quiet sitting', a practice that strongly resembles zuochan or Chan (Zen) meditation.

The importance of li in Neo-Confucianism gave the movement its name, literally "The study of Li."

Neo-Confucianism became the accepted state philosophy by the Ming, and continued in this way through the Qing dynasty and, in some ways, up to modernity. Many classical studies associated with Chinese culture -- music, theatre, art, traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts such as Taijiquan -- as well as the traditional teaching methods (pedagogy) of such disciplines - have strong foundations in Neo-Confucian ethics.

However, in the 19th century there was a reaction against Neo-Confucianism. This view was called the Evidential School or Han Learning and argued that Neo-Confucianism had caused the teachings of Confucianism to be hopelessly contaminated with Buddhist thinking. This school also criticized Neo-Confucianism for being detached from reality with empty philosophical speculation that was unconnected with reality.

In the 20th century, the May Fourth movement, Communism and other political modernizing movements tried to eradicate the cultural influence of Confucianism in China, and initially managed to repress its public expression with some degree of success, yet the recent liberalizations on the Mainland have led to some reassertion of its place in Chinese daily life. It also continues to hold a strong influence with overseas Chinese and in Taiwan. Neo-Confucianism also arguably lives on in many aspects of Chinese life, such as reverence for one's elders and the examination system.

The Confucian canon as it exists today was essentially compiled by Zhu Xi. Zhu codified the canon of Four Books (The Great Learning, The Analects of Confucius, Mencius, and Doctrine of the Mean) which in the subsequent Yuan and Ming Dynasties were made the core of the official curriculum for the civil service examinations.

Neo-Confucianism Outside China

Neo-Confucianism also gained acceptance in other areas of East Asia, and there are many scholars who maintain that some of the crowning developments in Neo-Confucianism took place in Korea. Attention to Neo-Confucianism (known as sirhak or "true learning") grew steadily during the 13th and 14th centuries. In China, Neo-Confucianism developed in great part as an opposition ideology to Buddhism. In Korea, this opposition was further intensified, as it became almost wholly identified in its opposition to Buddhism, as much, if not more, for political and social reason as religious ones.

At the time of the rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, Buddhism was firmly entrenched as the state religion, in an increasingly corrupt manner. The corruption of Buddhism, along with what were regarded as its essential errors in understanding human nature, were strongly criticized by a series of Neo-Confucian thinkers, with this criticism reaching its peak in the works of Jeong Dojeon (1348-1398), whose magnum opus was the Bulssi japbyeon ("Array of Critiques of Buddhism"), written in nineteen chapters. Largely as a result of the efforts of Jeong and his associates, the Buddhists were cast out of the seat of power in the coup d'etat of 1398, resulting in the founding of the Joseon dynasty, which would endure for almost five centuries. During this time Neo-Confucian studies flourished in Korea in literary works and debates, such as those held between Yi Hwang and Yi I.

Belatedly, Neo-Confucianism also made its way into Japan, where it became the hegemonial frame of thought during the Edo period (1603-1867). Japanese Neo-Confucians tended to take almost as much interest in the Wang Yangming interpretations of the classics as in those of Zhu Xi. Japanese Neo-Confucians such as Hayashi Razan and Arai Hakuseki were instrumental in the formulation of Japan's dominant early modern political philosophy.

List of Neo-Confucians





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