Neo-Confucian philosophy

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

10. The Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

When the Manchus conquered China and established the Qing Dynasty, Chinese intellectuals once more found themselves facing the problem of how to explain the failure of the Confucian Way. Again, their answer was that the Way had been misunderstood and poorly practised. So began a prolonged and wide-ranging attack on the whole of the neo-Confucian tradition, from the Song through the Ming. One of the first and most important figures in this new movement was Wang Fuzhi.

Wang attacked both the Cheng–Zhu and Lu–Wang schools. Most of his objections turn on his rejection of their basic metaphysical schemes. He insisted that there was no li (‘pattern’ or ‘principle’) apart from qi (ether). Li is simply the ‘pattern’ of ‘actual things and events’. Wang rejected the notion that there exists something called the taiji or anything like it which is the sum of all li and the related claim that all things somehow reflect all the li in the world. This of course meant that he also rejected the Lu–Wang school’s equation of principle and mind. He believed that both schools tended to reify li, turning people’s attention away from the actual things and events in the world and towards the search for some fanciful, ultimate li. He further believed that this ‘other-worldly’ speculation was a direct consequence of Daoist and Buddhist corruption of Confucianism and the primary cause of the defeat of the Chinese at the hands of the Manchus.

Wang’s views had further quite profound implications. For example, while he admitted that the actual things and events in the world tended to fall into natural types and patterns and are related through an ongoing process of evolution, his strong denial of any ahistorial universal ‘principles’ and his belief in the steady historical improvement of social institutions and practices led him to advocate quite radical notions of social reform.

The next important figure in the Qing dynasty is Yan Yuan. Like Wang Fuzhi, he rejected both of the Song–Ming Schools. One of his main arguments against the Song Confucians rests upon his claim that they mistook the meaning of the word wen (culture), interpreting it instead as ‘writing’. The Chinese graph he is referring to appears throughout the classics and can have either of these meanings, but Yan argued that Confucius’ primary interest was ‘culture’. Song neo-Confucians mistakenly believed that they were following Confucius when they engaged in the extensive writing of commentaries and explanatory essays on the classics. Yan responded by saying that Confucius only engaged in these activities when it became evident that no ruler in his time would employ him and put the Way into practice. He turned to the task of preserving the dao only when faced with this intractable fate; and he did so after having mastered the dao through years of diligent practice.

Yan advocated a return to the institutions and practices of the sages, and on this issue he differed dramatically from Wang Fuzhi and shows important similarities to Xunzi. One should practise the six arts which Confucius had taught: ceremony, music, archery, charioteering, reading and mathematics. Such concrete practice would lead one to sagehood. For Yan, gewu was neither the discovery of some underlying ‘principle’ (Zhu Xi) nor the rectification of one’s ‘thoughts’ (Wang Yangming). It was the task of mastering the skills and abilities of the sages. For Yan, sages were individuals of sound mind, spirit and body: men of action. Yan harshly criticized the Confucians of his day for being effeminate and ineffective intellectuals, and he saw their personal moral failure manifested in the defeat of the Chinese state. Like many Confucians, Yan believed that those who were really following the Way could not but create a flourishing, peaceful and strong society. At times he almost seems to be arguing for a kind of pragmatism. However, what appears as a ‘pragmatic’ appeal is the widely held Confucian belief in the efficacy of the Way. In the face of defeat at the hands of the Manchus, Yan’s natural response was that his predecessors had lost the true Way.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. The Qing dynasty (1644–1911). 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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