Neo-Confucian philosophy

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

7. The Yuan dynasty (1280–1368)

The Yuan dynasty marked the beginning of nearly one hundred years of Mongol rule over China. During this period, elite Chinese culture gave way to the nomadic, tribal customs of the conquering Mongols. In addition, the Chinese were exposed to a variety of other, equally alien cultural influences that came in the wake of far-ranging Mongol conquests. At the same time, Chinese influences were carried along in the flow of Mongol victories and spread to other lands.

While Mongol influence was strong at the court and higher echelons of Chinese society, it often coexisted peacefully with indigenous Chinese beliefs and practices and probably had little influence on the lives of the vast majority of Chinese. On the one hand, this was the result of the Mongol practice of general non-intervention in local customs and practices, due in part to their inability to manage their immense realm on a local level and in part to their tendency to tolerate diversity as long as it posed no threat. On the other hand, this policy was simply a function of the substantial numerical superiority of the Chinese. Like earlier conquerors of China, the Mongols realized that existing Confucian institutions were indispensable for ruling their newly-gained empire. These institutions helped preserve much of neo-Confucian thought and even contributed to its acceptance as the orthodox state ideology and its spread to foreign lands.

Cheng–Zhu Learning did particularly well during this period and in 1313 was officially adopted as the state orthodoxy. The reason for the triumph of this ‘school’ of neo-Confucianism and the decline of the teachings of Lu Xiangshan had a good deal to do with the relative superiority of Zhu Xi’s system as a basis for the civil service examinations. It was much more detailed, systematic and accessible. Zhu had composed extensive, meticulous and persuasive commentaries on all of the Chinese classics. He had provided a handy summary of Confucian learning in the form of the text of and accompanying commentaries on the Four Books, and he had also produced numerous anthologies and primers of Confucian learning. One of these, the Xiaoxue (Elementary Learning), intended for the moral education of the young, found wide appeal among the Mongols themselves.

Zhu Xi’s thought provided a well-defined system that was basically quite conservative in nature, well-suited to the role of a bureaucratic ideology under occupation. This is not intended to slight the genuinely moral aspects of almost all of Zhu Xi’s writings; had his philosophy not provided concerned Chinese intellectuals with a powerful moral calling, it would undoubtedly not have succeeded as well as it did throughout the Yuan dynasty and on into our own time. Its great power lay precisely in its ability to channel moral and patriotic feelings in constructive directions under a variety of circumstances. Given the situation at the time, Zhu’s philosophy provided a way for the Chinese to continue their own culture and to a significant degree Sinicize the conquering Mongols. However, Zhu Xi’s philosophy is not easy to see as a revolutionary creed, and during the Yuan dynasty we see little if any of the philosophical creativity and debate that marked the preceding dynasty and the one to follow.

Citing this article:
Ivanhoe, Philip J.. The Yuan dynasty (1280–1368). 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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