Neo-Confucian philosophy

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

3. The Song dynasty (960–1279)

These terms of art and the basic concepts were developed and made systematic during the Song. In particular, the speculative metaphysics that came to serve as the foundation for neo-Confucian philosophy was forged during the early part of the dynasty. These early Song thinkers did not always share the social, political and ethical concerns of later neo-Confucians.

Shao Yong was one of the first early Song figures associated with the rise of neo-Confucianism in the eleventh century. His major interest was explaining the cosmology of the Yijing (Book of Changes) (see Yijing). Shao is distinctive for linking his cosmological speculations to an elaborate system of numerology. In this regard, his thought is not unlike that of the Pythagoreans (see Pythagoreanism) or Leibniz, who was familiar with some of his ideas.

Shao assumed that there was a discernable correlation between the hexagrams of the Yijing and the structure and function of the universe. Hence, anyone with a proper understanding of the text could not only understand but foretell events in the world. He wove his philosophical system around a passage from the Xicizhuan (Commentary on the Appended Phrases, also known as the Dazhuan (Great Commentary)) of the Yijing, which he believed described this relationship: ‘And so within the Changes is the taiji [Supreme Ultimate]. It produces the two Principles [symbolized by yin and yang]. The two Principles produce the four Forms. The four Forms produce the eight Trigrams’ (Xicizhuan A11). Shao read this passage in terms of numerology, relying upon the notion of shen (spirituality). Shen is an active and impersonal conscious power which both animates things in the world and allows one to understand them. It is able to act immediately at a distance, and as understanding can instantly ‘penetrate’ throughout the universe. Shao believed that shen produces numbers, corresponding to the initial distinction of yin and yang (see Yin–Yang), and that from number the ‘images’ of things (the four Forms) arise. These then generate the actual things and events in the world. Human beings have shen as part of their nature; they can therefore tap into its activity and understand its movement by grasping the underlying numbers which give rise to all things.

Following this scheme, Shao saw the world in terms of sets of four (corresponding to the four Forms): there were four earthly substances (water, fire, earth, stone), four livings things (animals, birds, grasses and trees) and so on. In addition to these fundamental classes of things, Shao used this scheme to describe four phases of history, which recur in unending cycles of fixed numerical length. He showed little interest in many of the basic issues that later came to characterize neo-Confucianism, and was not regarded by Zhu Xi (see §6) as part of the orthodox Confucian revival. Shao was neither anti-Buddhist nor anti-Daoist; he was not a moralist, a political or social reformer or a self-cultivationist. His most important work, the Huangji jingshi (Supreme Principles Governing the World), concerns as its title suggests the underlying patterns and principles of the universe. It is primarily a work of cosmology.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. The Song dynasty (960–1279). 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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