Neo-Confucian philosophy

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

6. The Song dynasty (960–1279) (cont.)

Zhu Xi is rightfully regarded as the greatest neo-Confucian synthesizer. While he drew a great deal of his thought from Cheng Yi (see §5), he gave it novel form and introduced significant innovations of his own design. The system of thought that emerged quickly became one of the two primary ‘schools’ of neo-Confucianism: Cheng–Zhu Learning or lixue, the ‘Learning of Principle’.

Zhu reintroduced Zhou Dunyi’s term taiji (see §4) and explained that it is the sum of all the li in the universe. It exists before the universe comes into being and is reflected in every aspect of reality. He illustrated this latter point with the metaphor of the moon being reflected in countless bodies of water. Zhu was a stronger dualist than Cheng Yi, insisting that li existed before the universe did and would remain even if it were destroyed. However, at times he presents this as merely a notional, not real, possibility. For all practical purposes, one can never find li and qi apart from one another. This question generated a long and acrimonious debate among later neo-Confucians in China and Korea.

Zhu also emphasized a distinction between daoxin (the mind of the Way) and renxin (the human mind). The former was pure li and hence perfect; the latter was li embedded in qi and hence necessarily obscured and prone to error. The concept of daoxin was in a certain sense a limiting notion. Zhu did believe that people could attain this level of refinement (and become a sage), but even the minds of sages are a mixture of li and qi (albeit an extremely refined and limpid qi), and so they are still susceptible to error should they grow complacent. Given this view, even the sage must engage in a life of constant moral scrutiny.

Among Zhu Xi’s many innovations was his grouping together of four texts, the Analects, Mencius, Zhongyong and Daxue, as a set called the ‘Four Books’. This set soon became the core of neo-Confucian learning. Zhu’s text and commentaries to the Four Books served as the basis for public education and the civil service examinations from 1313 until 1905. Zhu also helped to shape the Chinese education system by working to establish shuyuan (academies), Confucian institutions modelled on Buddhist monastic schools. These served a critical role in the neo-Confucian tradition until they were absorbed into a system of state schools during the Qing dynasty.

Zhu Xi also established the notion of daotong, the ‘transmission of the Way’, as a central neo-Confucian concern. It was he who argued that the orthodox understanding of Confucius’ teaching had been lost after Mencius and only recently retrieved by Zhou Dunyi, then handed down through Zhang Zai, the Cheng brothers and (by implication) to Zhu himself. Zhu’s influence on later Confucian thinking and Chinese society cannot be overstated. His view of the later tradition and its place in the larger context of Chinese history still greatly influences contemporary scholarship on Chinese philosophy throughout the world.

Lu Xiangshan represented what became the main alternative ‘school’ within neo-Confucianism known as xinxue, the ‘learning of the mind’. It was later associated with the thought of Wang Yangming (see §9) and so also came to be called ‘Lu–Wang Learning’. Lu’s metaphysical disagreements with Zhu Xi are slight but significant. They mainly concern the issue of the nature of the mind: Zhu held that the mind was li embedded in qi, whereas Lu insisted that the mind is li. In a related disagreement, Lu rejected Zhu’s distinction between the ‘mind of the Way’ and the ‘human mind’, arguing that there is only one mind and that it is principle. These doctrinal differences reflect deep and important disagreements about the character of human nature and the proper method of moral self-cultivation. Lu believed that our true mind is an innate moral mind which we can access and bring to bear in all our thoughts and action. The deluded mind exists only because of a kind of self-deception regarding our true nature.

Lu saw Zhu Xi’s strong dichotomy between li and qi as establishing a corresponding dichotomy between moral knowledge and human desire. Lu thought that if one embraced this dichotomy, one would come to see self-cultivation in terms of the suppression of one’s emotions and the accumulation of disconnected empirical facts about the world instead of the discovery and cultivation of one’s innate moral feelings. One would then come to confuse broad learning with moral wisdom. The effort to acquire such learning would lead one into competition with others, which would only further obscure one’s innate moral feeling of benevolence for all. The knowledge being talked about here was primarily knowledge of classical texts, the kind of knowledge that was the primary prerequisite for success in the civil service exams; and so, another danger associated with Zhu’s method was the confusion of the quest for moral wisdom with the search for worldly success.

In contrast to Zhu, Lu argued that the human mind (in particular, our moral sense) was both necessary and sufficient for self-cultivation. Without it, one would fail to develop the affective dimension of ‘real knowledge’. If one could only keep one’s innate moral sense before one, it would guide one to identify and remove and selfish desires obscuring the li of the mind. Lu’s difference with Zhu can be seen in his attitude towards the classics. Lu was not opposed to study of the classics per se, but he thought that a deep and personal understanding of some small part of them was preferable to the comprehensive knowledge Zhu Xi recommended. In particular, Lu advocated coming to a personal understanding, a kind of verstehen, of the mind of the sages as revealed in the classics. His position follows easily from his belief in a transpersonal ‘mind’ shared by all people and is neatly summed up in his well-known maxim regarding study of the classics: ‘If only one understands what is fundamental, the six classics are all one’s footnotes’ (see Chinese Classics; Xin (heart-and-mind); Self-cultivation in Chinese philosophy).

The differences between Lu and Zhu were made clear in two debates between them, held at Goose Lake Monastery in 1175. In these debates, the intimate relationship between their metaphysical differences and their views on moral self-cultivation are evident. Lu accused Zhu Xi of ignoring the task of zundexing (honoring the virtuous nature) at the expense of dao wenxue (pursuing inquiry and study). In effect, he was accusing Zhu of forsaking what was commonly regarded as the most fundamental tenant of Confucianism: the innate goodness of human nature. In reply, Zhu accused Lu of mistaking his own subjective view of things as universal truth. In essence, this was to accuse Lu of the ultimate neo-Confucian error: selfishness.

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