Neo-Confucian philosophy

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

1. Historical background

During the ‘Northern and Southern Dynasties’ (ad 317–588), China experienced a prolonged period of instability and upheaval. Buddhism, which had arrived in China as early as the first century ad, became the dominant religious and intellectual force in the country (see Buddhist philosophy, Chinese). Daoism also flourished and became a powerful and elaborate institutional religion (see Daoist philosophy). Under the short-lived Sui dynasty (589–618), Buddhism was adopted and promoted as the state ideology, and it continued to flourish and develop in the succeeding Tang dynasty (618–905). This period witnessed prolific growth in Buddhist philosophical ideas and systems of thought, several of which were to have a profound effect on neo-Confucian philosophy. Daoism also continued to exert a strong and pervasive influence throughout Chinese society. The Tang imperial family claimed one of the mythical founders of Daoism, Laozi, as an ancestor and actively supported and practiced Daoism.

These three traditions, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, did not always coexist peacefully. There were a number of Buddhist persecutions instigated by Confucian and Daoist elements within the imperial court. The worst of these occurred during the Tang dynasty, from 841–5, when a Daoist emperor launched a severe and wide-ranging persecution of Buddhism. To a large extent, this reaction against Buddhism was brought on by the decline of Chinese political and economic fortunes in the closing years of the Tang. This anti-Buddhist sentiment was to play a major role in the resurgence of Confucianism.

The founding of the Sui dynasty had marked the revival of a centralized Chinese state. With it came bureaucratic institutions and practices, among them the civil service examinations, modelled on paradigms drawn from the earlier Han dynasty (206 bcad 220). The Sui rulers turned to these neglected Confucian institutions and practices as the most effective available means of organizing and governing their state. However, there was little concomitant interest in the philosophical ideas behind these institutions and practices. Buddhism and Daoism continued to be the primary interests of intellectuals during the Sui dynasty and throughout most of the Tang dynasty.

In the middle of the Tang period, the Chinese empire began to experience intense economic and political strain. Because of rapid population growth, increased fluidity between socio-economic classes, the monetary drain of large, tax-exempt monastic estates, rising military expenditures and a lack of leadership by the imperial court, the tax system began to break down. In addition to these economic woes, in 751 the Chinese state suffered defeat in two important military campaigns, against a Thai army in the south and an Arab army in the west. These military debacles precipitated a disastrous internal rebellion by a young general named An Lushan in 755. After this, the Tang court was never again fully in control of China.

Not long after these events, Han Yu began what was to become the Confucian revival. His blistering criticisms of Buddhism as a socially parasitic and quintessentially anti-Chinese religion are among the earliest and most powerful statements of sentiments that were coming to the surface during the later Tang dynasty, feelings fuelled by the indignation and frustration arising from the economic and political difficulties described above. Han Yu’s condemnation of Buddhism as a foreign system of thought which had invaded China and weakened it – laying the ground for the foreign invaders who were now plaguing Chinese territory – provided a focus and point of departure for what was to come.

Han Yu argued that the Chinese needed to rid themselves of this foreign influence and return to their true roots. These ran back to Confucius and the idealized past culture which he preserved and advocated. Daoism and Buddhism were both accused of being ‘other-worldly’ and incapable of providing guidance in the all too real world of domestic and foreign challenges. Han Yu himself was not philosophically inclined. His great talent was literature, and his belief in the need to revive ancient literary style expresses both his own predilection and the degree to which he saw ideas in terms of the specific cultural practices of an idealized past. Nevertheless, he provided the founding vision and voice for the Confucian revival.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. Historical background. 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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