Chinese philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 20, 2019, from

9. Neo-Confucianism: Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming

As the Empire regrouped and neo-Confucianism (see Neo-Confucian philosophy), referred to as ‘dao learning’ in Chinese, began to take shape in the medieval period, the speculative and the practical extremes of Buddhism came to exert an influence on the revival of Confucianism and to set the agenda for rival claims to orthodoxy within the neo-Confucian ranks. On one extreme, the Cheng–Zhu school favoured broad text-based learning and ‘the investigation of things’ (gewu) while the competing Lu–Wang school rejected canonical studies for a more subjective, meditative approach to personal realization. What these contesting traditions shared in common was philosophical ambition encouraged by the presumption that there is a direct line between personal cultivation and an understanding of natural and moral order. This led to extended reflections on the nature and order of all things, and heated discussions about the relationships that obtained among the most abstract distinctions which could be marshalled in explanation of cosmic regularities. Where these two extremes of neo-Confucianism disagreed most fundamentally was on the most effective method of self-cultivation (see Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy).

Zhu Xi is representative of the systematic and theoretical wing of neo-Confucianism. His extensive commentaries established the Four Books (the Analects, the Mengzi, the Daxue (Great Learning) and the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean)) as the core curriculum for official examinations, an orthodoxy that persisted into the twentieth century. The authority of Zhu Xi’s project lay in his claim to retrieve and revive the import of classical Confucianism. In so doing, he made use of the traditional philosophical vocabulary, but augmented it with complex theoretical discussions of li (the patterned regularity of existence) and qi (the psychosomatic stuff of existence), giving precedence to the former as identical with the grounding principle of Zhou Dunyi’s cosmology, the Great Ultimate (taiji) (see Li; Qi; Zhou Dunyi). Hence, Zhu Xi’s wing of neo-Confucianism is often referred to as ‘li learning’. These abstract distinctions had moral significance. They could be appealed to qualitatively in explanation of both the goodness of humanity and how to realize it. Although Zhu Xi did not rule out introspection as a means to illumination, the emphasis of his programme was clearly on scholarly learning.

The most eminent of the thinkers representing an emphasis upon internal cultivation was Wang Yangming. He rejected the intellectualization of personal realization by identifying the heart-and-mind (see Xin (heart-and-mind)) with li, or pattern. For Wang, the human mind is both the locus and the standard of sagehood. Perhaps the most celebrated theme in Wang is his belief in the continuity and inseparability of knowledge and practice.

There is some question among contemporary scholars as to whether neo-Confucian philosophy, launched with the eleventh century cosmological speculations of Shao Yong and Zhou Dunyi, abandoned the tradition of ars contextualis and became metaphysical in a more recognizably Western sense. This involves the question as to whether notions of ‘transcendence’, ‘objective essences’ and ‘natural kinds’ were at least tacitly introduced. At the very least, one can say that Western philosophers would find the language of neo-Confucian philosophers more familiar than that of most other Chinese thinkers. Having allowed this surface familiarity, one must consider that the philosophical substance of tradition weighs heavily against any assumption that neo-Confucianism was dualistic, and was thus disposed to move in an essentialist direction.

Historically, the speculative, cosmological turn in Chinese philosophy came under formidable attack with the founding of the Qing dynasty in the seventeenth century. Evidential research (kaozhengxue) brought with it an attempt to get behind the ‘empty’ commentaries of neo-Confucianism and a return to the philologically-centered historical scholarship of ‘Han learning’ (Hanxue). On the premise that new problems require new solutions, the abstract theorizing and universalistic tendencies of Song–Ming ‘dao learning’ gave way to the analysis of particular historical events and cultural artifacts as a resource for finding answers to the specific issues of the day. Thinkers such as Wang Fuzhi and Dai Zhen recovered and reaffirmed the correlative and interdependent relationship between historical event and the principles of order. Once again, it can be seen how the pragmatic concerns of most Chinese intellectuals militate against the exercise of philosophical speculations that move too far afield from the concrete problems of human beings, or which could conceivably serve to introduce contentiousness among intellectuals.

Citing this article:
Hall, David L. and Roger T. Ames. Neo-Confucianism: Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming. Chinese philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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