Zhou Dunyi ingeniously articulated the relationship between the “great transformation” of the cosmos and the moral development of human beings. In his metaphysics, humanity, as the recipient of the highest excellence from heaven, is itself a centre of cosmic creativity. He developed this all-embracing humanism by a thought-provoking interpretation of the Daoist diagram of Taiji (“Great Ultimate”). Shao Yong elaborated on the metaphysical basis of human affairs, insisting that a disinterested numerological mode of analysis is most appropriate for understanding the “supreme principles governing the world.” Zhang Zai, on the other hand, focused on the omnipresence of qi (“vital energy”). He also advocated the oneness of li (“principle”; comparable to the idea of Natural Law) and the multiplicity of its manifestations, which is created as the principle expresses itself through the “vital energy.” As an article of faith he pronounced in the “Western Inscription”: “Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small being as I finds a central abode in their midst. Therefore that which fills the cosmos I regard as my body and that which directs the cosmos I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.”
This theme of mutuality between heaven and human beings, consanguinity between man and man, and harmony between man and nature was brought to fruition in Cheng Hao’s definition of humanity as “forming one body with all things.” To him the presence of tianli (“heavenly principle”) in all things as well as in human nature enables the human mind to purify itself in a spirit of reverence. Cheng Yi, following his brother’s lead, formulated the famous dictum, “self-cultivation requires reverence; the extension of knowledge consists in the investigation of things.” By making special reference to gewu (“investigation of things”), he raised doubts about the appropriateness of focusing exclusively on the illumination of the mind in self-cultivation, as his brother seems to have done. The learning of the mind as advocated by Cheng Hao and the learning of the principle as advocated by Cheng Yi became two distinct modes of thought in Song Confucianism.
Zhu Xi, clearly following Cheng Yi’s School of Principle and implicitly rejecting Cheng Hao’s School of Mind, developed a method of interpreting and transmitting the Confucian Way that for centuries defined Confucianism not only for the Chinese but for the Koreans and the Japanese as well. If, as quite a few scholars have advocated, Confucianism represents a distinct form of East Asian spirituality, it is the Confucianism shaped by Zhu Xi. Zhu Xi virtually reconstituted the Confucian tradition, giving it new structure, new texture, and new meaning. He was more than a synthesizer; through conscientious appropriation and systematic interpretation he gave rise to a new Confucianism, known as neo-Confucianism in the West but often referred to as lixue (“Learning of the Principle”) in modern China.
The “Doctrine of the Mean” and the “Great Learning,” two chapters in the Liji, had become independent treatises and, together with the Analects and Mencius, had been included in the core curriculum of Confucian education for centuries before Zhu Xi’s birth. But by putting them into a particular sequence, the “Great Learning,” the Analects, Mencius, and the “Doctrine of the Mean,” synthesizing their commentaries, interpreting them as a coherent humanistic vision, and calling them the Four Books (Sishu), Zhu Xi fundamentally restructured the Confucian scriptural tradition. The Four Books, placed above the Five Classics, became the central texts for both primary education and civil service examinations in traditional China from the 14th century. Thus they have exerted far greater influence on Chinese life and thought in the past 600 years than any other work.
As an interpreter and transmitter of the Confucian Way, Zhu Xi identified which early Song masters belonged to the lineage of Confucius and Mencius. His judgment, later widely accepted by governments in East Asia, was based principally on philosophical insight. Zhou Dunyi, Zhang Zai, and the Cheng brothers, the select four, were Zhu Xi’s cultural heroes. Shao Yong and Sima Guang were originally on his list, but Zhu Xi apparently changed his mind, perhaps because of Shao’s excessive metaphysical speculation and Sima’s obsession with historical facts.
Up until Zhu Xi’s time the Confucian thinking of the Song masters was characterized by a few fruitfully ambiguous concepts, notably the Great Ultimate, principle, vital energy, nature, mind, and humanity. Zhu Xi defined the process of the investigation of things as a rigorous discipline of the mind to probe the principle in things. He recommended a twofold method of study: to cultivate a sense of reverence and to pursue knowledge. This combination of morality and wisdom made his pedagogy an inclusive approach to humanist education. Reading, sitting quietly, ritual practice, physical exercise, calligraphy, arithmetic, and empirical observation all had a place in his pedagogical program. Zhu Xi reestablished the White Deer Grotto in present Jiangxi province as an academy. It became the intellectual centre of his age and provided an instructional model for all schools in East Asia for generations to come.
Zhu Xi was considered the preeminent Confucian scholar in Song China, but his interpretation of the Confucian Way was seriously challenged by his contemporary, Lu Jiuyuan (Lu Xiangshan, 1139–93). Claiming that he appropriated the true wisdom of Confucian teaching by reading Mencius, Lu criticized Zhu Xi’s theory of the investigation of things as fragmented and ineffective empiricism. Instead he advocated a return to Mencian moral idealism by insisting that establishing the “great body” (i.e., heaven-endowed nobility) is the primary precondition for self-realization. To him the learning of the mind as a quest for self-knowledge provided the basis upon which the investigation of things assumed its proper significance. Lu’s confrontation with Zhu Xi in the famous meeting at the Goose Lake Temple in 1175 further convinced him that Confucianism as Zhu Xi had shaped it was not Mencian. Although Lu’s challenge remained a minority position for some time, his learning of the mind later became a major intellectual force in Ming China (1368–1644) and Tokugawa Japan (1603–1867).
Confucian learning in Jin, Yuan, and Ming
For about 150 years, from the time the Song court moved its capital to the South and reestablished itself there in 1127, North China was ruled by three conquest dynasties, the Liao (907–1125), Xi Xia (1038–1227), and Jin (1115–1234). Although the bureaucracies and political cultures of both Liao and Xi Xia were under Confucian influence, no discernible intellectual developments helped to further the Confucian tradition there. In the Jurchen Jin dynasty, however, despite the paucity of information about the Confucian renaissance in the Southern Song, the Jin scholar-officials continued the classical, artistic, literary, and historiographic traditions of the North and developed a richly textured cultural form of their own. Zhao Bingwen’s (1159–1232) combination of literary talent and moral concerns and Wang Roxu’s (1174–1243) scholarship in Classics and history, as depicted in Yuan Haowen’s (1190–1257) biographical sketches and preserved in their collected works, compared well with the high standards set by their counterparts in the South.
When the Mongols reunited China in 1279, the intellectual dynamism of the South profoundly affected the northern style of scholarship. Although the harsh treatment of scholars by the conquest Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1206–1368) seriously damaged the well-being of the scholarly community, outstanding Confucian thinkers nevertheless emerged throughout the period. Some opted to purify themselves so that they could repossess the Way for the future; some decided to become engaged in politics to put their teaching into practice.
Xu Heng (1209–81) took a practical approach. Appointed by Kublai, the Great Khan in Marco Polo’s Description of the World, as the president of the Imperial Academy and respected as the leading scholar in the court, Xu conscientiously introduced Zhu Xi’s teaching to the Mongols. He assumed personal responsibility for educating the sons of the Mongol nobility to become qualified teachers of Confucian Classics. His erudition and skills in medicine, legal affairs, irrigation, military science, arithmetic, and astronomy enabled him to be an informed adviser to the conquest dynasty. He set the tone for the eventual success of the Confucianization of Yuan bureaucracy. In fact, it was the Yuan court that first officially adopted the Four Books as the basis of the civil service examination, a practice that was to be observed until 1905. Thanks to Xu Heng, Zhu Xi’s teaching prevailed in the Mongol period, but it was significantly simplified.
The hermit-scholar Liu Yin (1249–93), on the other hand, allegedly refused Kublai Khan’s summons in order to maintain the dignity of the Confucian Way. To him education was for self-realization. Loyal to the Jin culture in which he was reared and faithful to the Confucian Way that he had learned from the Song masters, Liu Yin rigorously applied philological methods to classical studies and strongly advocated the importance of history. Although true to Zhu Xi’s spirit, by taking seriously the idea of the investigation of things, he put a great deal of emphasis on the learning of the mind. Liu Yin’s contemporary, Wu Zheng (1249–1333), further developed the learning of the mind. He fully acknowledged the contribution of Lu Jiuyuan to the Confucian tradition, even though as an admirer of Xu Heng he considered himself a follower of Zhu Xi. Wu assigned himself the challenging task of harmonizing the difference between Zhu and Lu. As a result, he reoriented Zhu’s balanced approach to morality and wisdom to accommodate Lu’s existential concern for self-knowledge. This prepared the way for the revival of Lu’s learning of the mind in the Ming (1368–1644).
The thought of the first outstanding Ming Confucian scholar, Xue Xuan (1389–1464), already revealed the turn toward moral subjectivity. Although a devoted follower of Zhu Xi, Xue’s Records of Reading clearly shows that he considered the cultivation of “mind and nature” to be particularly important. Two other early Ming scholars, Wu Yubi (1391–1469) and Chen Xianzhang (1428–1500), helped to define Confucian education for those who studied the Classics not simply in preparation for examinations but as learning of the “body and mind.” They cleared the way for Wang Yangming (1472–1529), the most influential Confucian thinker after Zhu Xi.
As a critique of excessive attention to philological details characteristic of Zhu Xi’s followers, Wang Yangming allied himself with Lu Jiuyuan’s learning of the mind. He advocated the precept of uniting thought and action. By focusing on the transformative power of the will, he inspired a generation of Confucian students to return to the moral idealism of Mencius. His own personal example of combining teaching with bureaucratic routine, administrative responsibility, and leadership in military campaigns demonstrated that he was a man of deeds.
Despite his competence in practical affairs, Wang’s primary concern was moral education, which he felt had to be grounded in the “original substance” of the mind. This he later identified as liangzhi (“good conscience”), by which he meant innate knowledge or a primordial existential awareness possessed by every human being. He further suggested that good conscience as the heavenly principle is inherent in all beings from the highest spiritual forms to grass, wood, bricks, and stone. Because the universe consists of vital energy informed by good conscience, it is a dynamic process rather than a static structure. Human beings can learn to regard heaven and earth and the myriad things as one body by extending their good conscience to embrace an ever-expanding network of relationships.
Wang Yangming’s dynamic idealism, as Wing-tsit Chan, the late dean of Chinese philosophy in North America, characterized it, set the Confucian agenda for several generations in China. His followers, such as the communitarian Wang Ji (1498–1583), who devoted his long life to building a community of the like-minded, and the radical individualist Li Zhi (1527–1602), who proposed to reduce all human relationships to friendship, broadened Confucianism to accommodate a variety of lifestyles.
Among Wang’s critics, Liu Zongzhou (1578–1645) was perhaps the most brilliant. His Human Schemata (Renpu) offered a rigorous phenomenological description of human mistakes as a corrective to Wang Yangming’s moral optimism. Liu’s student Huang Zongxi (1610–95) compiled a comprehensive biographical history of Ming Confucians based on Liu’s writings. One of Huang’s contemporaries, Gu Yanwu (1613–82), was also a critic of Wang Yangming. He excelled in his studies of political institutions, ancient phonology, and classical philology. While Gu was well-known in his time and honoured as the patron saint of “evidential learning” in the 18th century, his contemporary Wang Fuzhi (1619–92) was discovered 200 years later as one of the most sophisticated original minds in the history of Confucian thought. His extensive writings on metaphysics, history, and the Classics made him a thorough critic of Wang Yangming and his followers.
The age of Confucianism: Chosŏn-dynasty Korea, Tokugawa Japan, and Qing China
Among all the dynasties, Chinese and foreign, the long-lived Chosŏn (Joseon; also called Yi) in Korea (1392–1910) was undoubtedly the most thoroughly Confucianized. Since the 15th century, when the aristocracy (yangban) defined itself as the carrier of Confucian values, the penetration of court politics and elite culture by Confucianism was unprecedented. Even today, as manifested in political behaviour, legal practice, ancestral veneration, genealogy, village schools, and student activism, the vitality of the Confucian tradition is widely felt in South Korea.
Yi T’oegye (1501–70), the single most important Korean Confucian, helped shape the character of Chosŏn Confucianism through his creative interpretation of Zhu Xi’s teaching. Critically aware of the philosophical turn engineered by Wang Yangming, T’oegye transmitted the Zhu Xi legacy as a response to the advocates of the learning of the mind. As a result, he made Chosŏn Confucianism at least as much a true heir to Song learning as Ming Confucianism was. Indeed, his Discourse on the Ten Sagely Diagrams, an aid for educating the king, offered a depiction of all the major concepts in Song learning. His exchange of letters with Ki Taesŭng (1527–72) in the famous Four-Seven debate, which discussed the relationship between Mencius’ four basic human feelings—commiseration, shame, modesty, and right and wrong—and seven emotions, such as anger and joy, raised the level of Confucian dialogue to a new height of intellectual sophistication.
In addition, Yi Yulgok’s (1536–84) challenge to T’oegye’s re-presentation of Zhu Xi’s Confucianism, from the perspective of Zhu’s thought itself, significantly enriched the repertoire of the learning of the principle. The leadership of the central government, supported by the numerous academies set up by aristocratic families and by institutions such as the community compact system and the village schools, made the learning of the principle not only a political ideology but also a common creed in Korea.
In Japan, Zhu Xi’s teaching, as interpreted by T’oegye, was introduced to Yamazaki Ansai (1618–82). A distinctive feature of Yamazaki’s thought was his recasting of native Shintōism in Confucian terminology. The diversity and vitality of Japanese Confucianism was further evident in the appropriation of Wang Yangming’s dynamic idealism by the samurai-scholars, notably Kumazawa Banzan (1619–91). It is, however, in Ogyū Sorai’s (1666–1728) determination to rediscover the original basis of Confucian teaching by returning to its pre-Confucian sources that a true exemplification of the independent-mindedness of Japanese Confucians is found. Indeed, Sorai’s brand of ancient learning with its particular emphasis on philological exactitude foreshadowed a similar scholarly movement in China by at least a generation. Although Tokugawa Japan was never as Confucianized as Chosŏn Korea, virtually every educated person in Japanese society was exposed to the Four Books by the end of the 17th century.
The Confucianization of Chinese society reached its apex during the Qing (1644–1911/12), when China was again ruled by a conquest (Manchu) dynasty. The Qing emperors outshone their counterparts in the Ming in presenting themselves as exemplars of Confucian kingship. They transformed Confucian teaching into a political ideology, indeed a mechanism of control. Jealously guarding their imperial prerogatives as the ultimate interpreters of Confucian truth, they undermined the freedom of scholars to transmit the Confucian Way by imposing harsh measures, such as literary inquisition. It was Gu Yanwu’s classical scholarship rather than his insights on political reform that inspired the 18th-century evidential scholars. Dai Zhen, the most philosophically minded philologist among them, couched his brilliant critique of Song learning in his commentary on “The Meanings of Terms in the Book of Mencius.” Dai Zhen was one of the scholars appointed by the Qianlong emperor in 1773 to compile an imperial manuscript library. This massive scholarly attempt, The Complete Library of the Four Treasures, is symbolic of the grandiose intent of the Manchu court to give an account of all the important works of the four branches of learning—the Classics, history, philosophy, and literature—in Confucian culture. The project comprised more than 36,000 volumes with comments on about 10,230 titles, employed as many as 15,000 copyists, and took 20 years to complete. The Qianlong emperor and the scholars around him may have expressed their cultural heritage in a definitive form, but the Confucian tradition was yet to encounter its most serious threat.
At the time of the first Opium War (1839–42) East Asian societies had been Confucianized for centuries. The continuous growth of Mahayana Buddhism throughout Asia and the presence of Daoism in China, shamanism in Korea, and Shintōism in Japan did not undermine the power of Confucianism in government, education, family rituals, and social ethics. In fact, Buddhist monks were often messengers of Confucian values, and the coexistence of Confucianism with Daoism, shamanism, and Shintōism actually characterized the syncretic East Asian religious life. The impact of the West, however, so fundamentally challenged the Confucian roots in East Asia that for some time it was widely debated whether or not Confucianism could remain a viable tradition in modern times.
Beginning in the 19th century, Chinese intellectuals’ faith in the ability of Confucian culture to withstand the impact of the West became gradually eroded. This loss of faith may be perceived in Lin Zexu’s (1785–1850) moral indignation against the British, followed by Zeng Guofan’s (1811–72) pragmatic acceptance of the superiority of Western technology, Kang Youwei’s (1858–1927) sweeping recommendation for political reform, and Zhang Zhidong’s (1837–1909) desperate, eclectic attempt to save the essence of Confucian learning, which, however, eventually led to the anti-Confucian iconoclasm of the so-called May Fourth Movement in 1919. The triumph of Marxism-Leninism as the official ideology of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 relegated Confucian rhetoric to the background. The modern Chinese intelligentsia, however, maintained unacknowledged, sometimes unconscious, continuities with the Confucian tradition at every level of life—behaviour, attitude, belief, and commitment. Indeed, Confucianism remains an integral part of the psycho-cultural construct of the contemporary Chinese intellectual as well as of the Chinese farmer.
The emergence of Japan and other newly industrialized Asian countries (e.g., South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) as the most dynamic region of economic development since World War II has generated much scholarly interest. Labeled the “Sinitic World in Perspective,” “The Second Case of Industrial Capitalism,” the “Eastasia Edge,” or “the Challenge of the Post-Confucian States,” this phenomenon has raised questions about how the typical East Asian institutions, still suffused with Confucian values—such as a paternalistic government, an educational system based on competitive examinations, the family with emphasis on loyalty and cooperation, and local organizations informed by consensus—have adapted themselves to the imperatives of modernization.
Some of the most creative and influential intellectuals in contemporary China have continued to think from Confucian roots. Xiong Shili’s ontological reflection, Liang Shuming’s cultural analysis, Feng Youlan’s reconstruction of the learning of the principle, He Lin’s new interpretation of the learning of the mind, Tang Junyi’s philosophy of culture, Xu Fuguan’s social criticism, and Mou Zongsan’s moral metaphysics are noteworthy examples. Although some of the most articulate intellectuals in the People’s Republic of China criticize their Confucian heritage as the embodiment of authoritarianism, bureaucratism, nepotism, conservatism, and male chauvinism, others in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and North America have imaginatively established the relevance of Confucian humanism to China’s modernization. The revival of Confucian studies in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore has been under way for more than a generation, though Confucian scholarship in Japan remains unrivaled. Confucian thinkers in the West, inspired by religious pluralism and liberal democratic ideas, have begun to explore the possibility of a third epoch of Confucian humanism. They uphold that its modern transformation, as a creative response to the challenge of the West, is a continuation of its classical formulation and its medieval elaboration. Scholars in mainland China have also begun to explore the possibility of a fruitful interaction between Confucian humanism and democratic liberalism in a socialist context.