Neo-Confucian philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

2. Central concepts and terms

Traditional accounts of the rise of neo-Confucianism agree in describing it as a reaction against Buddhism and Daoism. However, most overlook the economic and political events which precipitated this reaction. Moreover, they contend that the central texts and ideas which neo-Confucians embraced were consciously chosen for their efficacy in the fight against Buddhist and Daoist thought. According to such accounts, texts such as the Mengzi (Mencius), Daxue (Great Learning) and Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean) were chosen because these were the best sources from which to draw in defending Confucianism (see Daxue; Mencius; Zhongyong). The present account differs from this view in seeing the choice of texts and ideas as a consequence of the pervasive and profound influence exerted by Buddhism and Daoism throughout the Chinese intellectual world of this period. When Confucians of the Song dynasty looked back to the early sources of their tradition, they saw them through many layers of Buddhist and Daoist influence. This altered their perception of what was most central to the tradition as well as their understanding of traditional philosophical concepts. In order to understand neo-Confucianism, it is important to realize how some of these ideas evolved.

Through its interaction with indigenous Chinese thought, particularly Daoism, Buddhism changed dramatically and developed distinctively Chinese forms. The early Buddhist belief that all imperfect aspects of reality are ultimately unreal became transformed into the idea that our less savoury aspects are not really part of our nature. According to this view, our fundamental nature is equally the nature of all things, part of a transpersonal foxing (Buddha-nature) which is reflected in each and every thing in the world. Once one realizes that one is part of all reality, one no longer will feel the inevitable anxiety and fear of the eventual loss of one’s self at death; instead one comes to see the common belief in an enduring and separate self as the source of all suffering. A person with this ‘right’ view of things manifests universal compassion towards all sentient beings, as manifestations of Buddha-nature (see Buddhist philosophy, Chinese).

Since the beginning of their tradition, Confucians had offered competing theories about the true character of human nature (see Xing). It was therefore natural that the notion of Buddha-nature had a profound influence on neo-Confucian views. Neo-Confucians began to talk about benxing (original nature) and qizhi zhixing (material nature), the former perfect and complete, the latter flawed and needing refinement. These terms are not found in pre-Buddhist Chinese philosophy. Within this conceptual scheme, Mencius’ claim about the original goodness of human nature came to be understood as referring to the original, perfect and pure state of human nature rather than to certain of its nascent tendencies (see Mencius).

In order to appreciate fully this new view of human nature, we need to understand two additional neo-Confucian terms of art: li and qi. Li (‘pattern’ or ‘principle’) appears in early Daoist texts and means the underlying pattern running throughout the world. Different things, including human beings, possess their own individual structures or ‘patterns’ and contribute to a larger, grand ‘pattern’ or scheme (see Li). Under the influence of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the notion of Buddha nature as described above, this concept changed dramatically. The underlying pattern of the universe came to be seen as completely present in every mote of dust, with each aspect of reality reflecting all others.

However, neo-Confucians believed that any given thing only manifests certain particular li and this is what makes a thing the thing it is. Only certain li are manifested because of the effect of qi (ether). Qi is what makes up the world. It is a kind of lively – not inert – matter which exists in various grades of purity. As a function of its purity, the qi of different things obscures, to varying degrees, the li that are within them, only allowing some to shine through. So while all things equally possess all the li, their different endowments of qi make them different. Human beings are unique in that they alone have the ability to become aware of the li within them by refining their qi to the highly tenuous state which allows all the li within to shine forth. Other creatures are stuck at different levels of ‘clarity’; the qi of inanimate things is so ‘dense’ that they lack consciousness (see Qi). Neo-Confucians tended to equate li with the ‘original nature’ of human beings and contrasted this with the idea of ‘material nature’, which is li embedded in qi. The task of moral self-cultivation was to refine one’s qi and move from relative ignorance to complete and comprehensive knowledge (see Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy).

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. Central concepts and terms. Neo-Confucian philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G004-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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