Neo-Confucian philosophy

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

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

Zhou Dunyi shared Shao Yong’s interest in the cosmology of the Yijing. However, he did not share Shao’s numerological theories, and his cosmological system placed human beings more clearly at the centre of the universe. He served briefly (1046–7) as a teacher of Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi (see §5). His two most important works, the Taiji tushuo (Diagram Explaining the Supreme Ultimate) and the Tongshu (Comprehending the Book of Changes) were instrumental in the development of neo-Confucian metaphysics. Zhu Xi regarded him as the founding figure of the neo-Confucian revival.

In the Taiji tushuo, Zhou presents a chart with accompanying commentary explaining how the Supreme Ultimate (taiji) contains within itself the two modes of stillness and activity. These give rise to yin and yang respectively. These produce the wuxing (five elements), which in turn generate the two fundamental principles: the heavenly principle, qian, and the earthly principle, kun. These then produce all the things in the world. Human beings are unique among creatures in that they receive the most pure forms of the five elements and thus are able to play a critical role in both understanding and guiding the course of the universe.

An important feature of Zhou Dunyi’s thought concerns the relationship between the unity of the taiji and the variety of things in the world. According to Zhou, the taiji produces the two fundamental qi ‘ethers’, yin and yang. As things take shape, they move through a progression of increasing distinctiveness; and yet, while they become separate individual things, all partake of the original unity of taiji. Zhou makes this idea explicit in his Tongshu, where he talks about how the myriad things are really one and the one is present in each of the myriad things. We can see the ethical implications of this idea in a well-known anecdote about Zhou. He refused to cut the grass in front of his window, saying that he thought of the grass as he thought of himself. The idea that the universe is coextensive with oneself and that its comprehensive unity (taiji) is present in each and every aspect of it, becomes a cornerstone of neo-Confucian thought.

A source of considerable controversy among the neo-Confucians who followed Zhou was his equation of the Supreme Ultimate with wuji, the ‘infinite’ or ‘ultimate of non-being’. Both these readings of wuji present problems. The first seems to be a tautology; the second seems perilously close to the Daoist claim that existence comes from non-existence, a claim most neo-Confucians would emphatically deny. However, wuji can be understood as describing the tenuous state of the universe prior to there being any discrete things present. Zhou would then be saying that this original undifferentiated state is the origin of all things.

Another point of controversy concerns Zhou’s claim that one should make jing (stillness) one’s guiding principle. The idea is that one should cultivate one’s mind in order to attain the lucid and tenuous state of the taiji itself. The mind then can sympathetically detect the subtle, emerging form and direction of things, and one can act to maintain a state of universal harmony and balance. Cheng Yi, and later Zhu Xi, took exception to this aspect of Zhou’s thought and sought to replace his emphasis on ‘stillness’ with an emphasis on another notion, represented by a different word (also pronounced jing) meaning ‘reverential attention’ (see §§5, 6).

Traditionally, Zhang Zai is the second great figure of neo-Confucianism. He was the uncle and teacher of Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi. His most important works include the Zhengmeng (Correcting Delusions) and the Ximing (Western Inscription). The latter was originally part of the former work, but was inscribed on the west wall of Zhang’s study and came to be regarded as a free standing text.

Zhang’s thought was based on his interpretation of the Yijing and the Zhongyong. While he owed much to Zhou Dunyi and Shao Yong, he did not employ the charts that were central to their method of explication, nor did he show any interest in numerology. Zhang’s interest in metaphysics was primarily as a guide to morals. He simplified earlier metaphysical theories, arguing that the taiji was simply undifferentiated qi (ether) which arises from an inchoate, primordial state called taixu (the supremely tenuous). The nature of human beings and all things contains all that is in the taiji and the human mind can attain knowledge of these things; the self and the universe are fundamentally one. However, in order for people to realize this unity they must attain a state of lucidity, purity and tenuousness, like that of the taixu itself, through a process of self-cultivation.

The driving thrust of Zhang’s philosophy is this imperative to realize the fundamental unity of human beings with the rest of the universe. Zhang Zai described this goal as the task of forming one body with all things. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the goal is realizing (both in the sense of grasping it intellectually and manifesting it personally) the underlying unity between the self and the universe. This idea is expressed beautifully in the opening section of his famous Ximing:

Heaven is my father, earth my mother; even an insignificant creature such as I finds an intimate place between them. And so, all that fills the universe I take as my body and what gives it direction I take as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, all creatures my companions.


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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