Neo Confucianism examination
Neo Confucianism examination

Neo-Confucianism was a Chinese revival of Confucianism in the Song (Sung) dynasty (960–1279) that, after the Buddhist domination of popular religiosity and political corruption in the late Tang (T’ang) dynasty (618–906), called the nation back to its ancient worldview and attempted to reform civil service while synthesizing widespread Buddhist doctrines with Confucianism.

Whereas the great Buddhist temples previously constituted the intellectual centers of China, now academies supervised by one or another eminent teacher attracted students in large numbers.

One of the central Neo-Confucian ideas developed in the academies was tao-t’ung, or transmission of the Way, which posited that the Way, or universal principle and moral standard of sage-rulership, was passed on from teacher to student in an unbroken chain from Confucius to Mencius, at which point it was lost for over a millennium.

Consequently, the Neo-Confucian scholars endeavored to restore the transmission by returning to the teachings of Confucius and Mencius, serving as moral preceptors of youth, and stressing a close teacher-disciple relationship as essential to education. Foremost among these new teachers was Hu Yuan (993–1059), whose primary interest lay in the application of Confucian ethics to the problems of government and everyday life.

Hu Yuan

Hu Yuan maintained that the Way comprises three aspects: di (ti, substance or basis), wen (literary expression), and yong (yung, function).

Di is a foundation that cannot change over time, such as the bond between prince and minister and between father and son. Wen is the collection of sacred texts, including the Classics of Odes and Documents, the dynastic histories, and writings of the philosophers, which perpetuate the right example down through the ages. Yong is the activation of di by putting it into practice throughout the empire, enriching the life of the populace, and ordering all things to imperial perfection.

Through his trichotomous conception of the Way, which modifies the categories of Neo-Daoist (Taoist) Buddhist philosophy and Tientai (T’ien-t’ai) metaphysics to fit a Confucian mold, Hu formulated both the theological infrastructure and the textual hermeneutic in which Confucian thought would be deepened and enriched in the process of encountering Buddhism and Daoism.

Hu maintained that the wen must be studied as ti, or deposits of unalterable truth, instead of antiquarian repositories, and that the true aim of classical studies was to bring these changeless principles, valid for all places and times, to bear upon both individual behavior and the solution of contemporary problems. By contrast no endeavor to solve such problems could succeed unless it was rooted in these principles and undertaken by people committed to them.

However Hu argued that the only way that either classical teaching or a practical program of reform could transpire was through the mastery of literature and writing, in which writing would be employed as a medium for preserving and communicating the truth in all its forms rather than merely a means of displaying the intricacies of form and style emphasized by the literary examinations. Resonating with the late Tang criticism of the literary examination system, Hu denounced it as a corrupter of scholarship and mother of a mediocre officialdom.

In order to foster excellence in public service Hu insisted that political, economic, and social thought must be coupled with study of the Confucian classics and philosophical inquiry.

For this reason Hu established two study halls in his school, one for the classics and the other for practical studies, the latter including government, military affairs, water control, and mathematics.

Moreover Hu recommended practical measures to enhance the people’s well-being, to fortify military defenses against the barbarian tribes in the north and west, to raise agricultural production by expanding irrigation projects, and to encourage the study of mathematics and astronomy.

Therefore, although Neo-Confucianism was more strongly inclined to the humanities than the natural or pure sciences, specialized and technological studies found powerful support within the movement as well. This fact explains the multifaceted character of the revival and the versatility of its leading intellectuals across the various disciplines.

For example Wang Anshi’s (Wang An-shih) pedigree as a brilliant writer and classicist in his day has been eclipsed by his renown as a statesman, while Sima Guang (Ssu-ma Kuang), his chief political antagonist, is reputed today as one of China’s prominent historians. These figures, as well as many others, were indicative of the creative and all-embracing vitality of the Neo-Confucian movement.

Since Hu’s teaching responsibilities precluded his involvement in national affairs, at court political reformers Fan Zhongyan (Fang Chung-yen, 989–1052), Ouyang Xiu (1007–70 c.e.), and Wang Anshi (Wang An-shih) (1021–86) continued his movement.

Battling against the perceived evils of Buddhist escapism and literary dilettantism, these statesmen tirelessly cultivated the implications of their watchword that “literary activity just benefits oneself, while political activity can affect the situation around us.”

Fan Zhongyan

Fan Zhongyan
Fan Zhongyan

During the reign of Renzong (Jen-tsung, r. 1023–63), Fan attempted as prime minister to implement a 10-point program featuring administrative reforms to: eradicate entrenched bureaucrats, official favoritism, and nepotism; promote examination reform; encourage parity of official landholdings to guarantee an adequate income for territorial officials and to discourage bribery; support land reclamation and dike repair to increase agricultural output and facilitate grain transport; form local militia to heighten national defense; decrease mandatory labor service for the people. The reforms pertaining to education and the examination system wielded the most significant effect.

In his memorial Fan petitioned for the establishment of a national school system aimed at recruiting and training worthy individuals for the civil service. While devised more to meet the needs of the government, this system constituted the first genuine attempt to furnish universal public education in China and was a major departure from the prevailing social order of dynastic tradition.

One of his most illuminating suggestions was to discontinue the pasting of a piece of paper over the candidate’s name on the examination, a practice intended to ensure impartial evaluation by the grader.

The rationale behind this proposal stemmed from the significance that Fan attached to personal integrity in both teaching and politics: It was just as important to know the candidate’s moral character as his literary and intellectual abilities, and character could not be assessed apart from personal knowledge.

As a result of his suggestions, Renzong reformed the civil service system by dividing the examinations into three sections, with priority given to problems of history and politics, then to interpretation of the classics, and finally to composition of poetry.

Wang Anshi (Wang An-Shih)

Wang Anshi
Wang Anshi
The political reformation reached its pinnacle under the leadership of Wang Anshi, one of China’s most celebrated statesmen. While he strongly believed that a return to the principles of wen would solve China’s problems, Wang had no interest in overturning the social order and restoring the institutions described in scripture.

Rather his strategy was to appropriate the objective principles epitomized by those institutions for his own time, making due allowance for radically different circumstances.

In addition, Wang was a practical statesman, not a social revolutionary or utopian, who was primarily concerned with the welfare of the state and only secondarily with the interests of the people. Accordingly his initial reforms were geared toward the reorganization of state finances, with the purpose of engendering greater economy and budgetary autonomy.

At the same time Wang perceived, contrary to most Chinese emperors and statesmen, that in the long run the fiscal interests of the state depended on the basic economic welfare of the people and the construction of a dynamic and expanding economy.

Hence although few of his mandates were highly novel, his attitude was bold and visionary in the sense that he viewed reform as extending into practically every aspect of Chinese life, leading his program to be broader in scope than anything previously attempted.

Wang’s Xinfa (or Hsinfa, New laws) included a system of crop loans to furnish peasants in the spring with the necessary seed and implements, which would be repaid at harvest time. This enabled peasants to avoid the clutches of usurers at a difficult time of the year, while generating revenue for the government from the interest paid on the loans.

In the Song, armies were maintained with taxes supplying the resources for employing police and soldiers. To abolish the tremendous cost of these mercenaries, who were inactive much of the time, Wang created a militia system where each territory would be coordinated for self-defense and self-policing, with families grouped in units of 10, 100, and 1,000 arranged in a pyramid structure and taking regular turns at providing service.

This represented a system of both collective security and collective responsibility in each locale, as the members of each group would be held mutually accountable for the wrongdoings of any individual. Surprisingly, Wang employed precisely the opposite method to realize the same goals of economy and efficiency in the performance of local government functions.

Previously the minor civic tasks, which were sometimes menial and often onerous, were carried out on an unpaid, draft basis. Wang regarded this as a system that prevailed too heavily on individuals and families to whom the duty fell.

Instead of the draft services, which amounted in principle to a labor tax, he substituted a graduated money tax to “soak the rich,” from which funds people were hired to administer these official functions.

Although Neo-Confucianism is characterized by its many contributions to a spectrum of disciplines, it made its most lasting impact in the realm of theology, especially through its new metaphysics and the doctrine of human nature to which the former gave rise.

In formulating these metaphysics, known as the Learning of the Way and the Way of the Sage, Song Confucians confronted major philosophical challenges, including the need for a more coherent and systematic cosmology on which to base its conception of human nature and to defend the objectivity of values against the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, emptiness, and moral relativism. By denying the existence of the “self” and “self-nature,” these Buddhist ideas undercut the prime Confucian concern with the moral person and practical self-cultivation.

Responding to these challenges, the Neo-Confucians devised a new cosmic infrastructure governed by li (principle) and qi (ch’i, vital force), coupled with a theory of human nature as intrinsically good, moral, and rational.

Up to this time Confucianism had presented the Way of the sage kings or noble person as relevant only to the social and political elite. Now through universal education and a neoclassical curriculum, both of which were promoted by the spread of printing and literacy, the Neo-Confucians universalized the Way and formulated methods by which all persons could reach the spiritual ideal of sagehood.

Foremost among these constructive theologians were Zhou Dunyi (Chou Tunyu, 1017–1073), Zhang Zhi (Chang Chi, 1020–1077), Cheng Hao (Ch’en Hao, 1032–1085), and Cheng Yi (Cheng I, 1033–1107), all of whose techniques were integrated and expounded by the master synthesizer of the movement, Zhu Xi (Chu-Hsi, 1130–1200).

Zhou Dunyi

Zhou Dunyi
Zhou Dunyi
Zhou Dunyi perhaps did more than any other Song thinker to assimilate popular Daoist concepts into the Confucian worldview. His greatest contribution to Neo-Confucianism was his brief Taijitu Shuo (T’ai-chitu Shuo, Explanation of the diagram of the supreme polarity), which was controversial in his day since the diagram was composed by Chen Tuan (906–989), an eminent Daoist master, and since key terms of the treatise—wu-chi (nonpolar) and tai-qi (t’ai-chi; supreme polarity)—were borrowed from Daoism. In Daoist works, wu-chi symbolized a state of primordial chaos prior to the division of yin and yang.

Following wu-chi in Daoist cosmogony was tai-qi, which literally refers to an end point before a reversal, and a pivot between bipolar processes. Hence tai-qi designated a phase of chaos later than wu-chi in which yin and yang have differentiated but have not yet become manifest.

In Daoist meditation, the diagram was read from the bottom up, whereby practitioners would attempt to reverse the aging process by generating within their bodies the spark of the primordial qi, or psychophysical vital force, and return to the primordial state of chaos from which the cosmos developed.

By contrast Zhou attached a distinctly Confucian meaning to the diagram by reading it from the top down and arguing that human nature is a microcosm of the evolution of the universe.

In the diagram, after the manifestation of taiqi as yin and yang, these in turn generate the Five Phases of water, fire, wood, metal, and earth, which finally give rise to the myriad things in the world. Correspondingly, humans receive the finest qi, which manifests itself after birth as spirit and intelligence.

Spirit and intelligence actualize the Five Constant Virtues of ren (jen, humanity), yi (i, rightness), li (ritual decorum), zhi (chi, wisdom), and xin (hsing, trustworthiness), through which all humans have the ability to manage a plethora of personal and interpersonal affairs and thereby become sages. In so doing the sage’s virtue equals that of heaven and earth, and his timeliness matches that of the four seasons.

By introducing this Daoist structure into Confucian theology, Zhou aimed to demonstrate that the Confucian role of humanity in the cosmos was only seemingly but not actually opposed to the Daoist worldview, as Confucianism was inclusive enough to embrace a primordial chaos while still asserting the reality of the differentiated and phenomenal world.

Zhang Zai (Chang Tsai)

Zhang Zai statue
Zhang Zai statue
The next major set of conceptual underpinnings essential to the Neo-Confucian system was formulated by Zhang Zai, who posited the unity of all creation based on their common psychophysical substance of qi.

In refutation of Buddhism, Zhang argued that the universe and all phenomena are not illusory effects of the mind or ephemeral products of an all-pervading emptiness, but rather the manifestations of the original life force emerging from tai-qi.

Zhang expanded the notion of qi by defining it as an energy encompassing both spirit and matter that displays itself dynamically by consolidating to form all creatures and states of affairs and that, in the ordinary course of time, disintegrates back to the original undifferentiated void. The doctrine that all creation is formed from and united by this one underlying essence carried profound ethical implications.

For Zhang all human beings and all heaven and earth must be joined together as creatures of one flesh and blood and ruled, as socially proper to their kinship, by the principle of unselfish and humane love.

Without undermining the social order, therefore, Zhang fostered a theological egalitarianism in which the emperor is one’s older brother and simultaneously the eldest son of heaven and earth and thus rightful ruler of China— hence rulers are ontologically equal to but positionally greater than their subjects.

The outworkings of unselfish and humane love include respecting the elderly, showing goodwill toward the orphaned and weak, and easing the burdens of the tired, infirm, crippled, and sick.

No distinction was made between private and public morality—people must not do anything shameful in the secrecy of their homes any more than they would commit those acts public.

Finally the notion of equality in diversity rendered all emotions and socioeconomic positions as analogous but intrinsically entailing different rewards and penalties.

While wealth, honor, blessing, and benefit are meant for the enrichment of temporal life, they are at best neutral and at worst detrimental to one’s spiritual life and cultivation of the Five Constant Virtues.

Conversely, poverty, humble station, care, and sorrow, although temporally unpleasant, are “helpmates to fulfillment,” which convey assistance on the path to sagehood and fertilize the seeds of virtue embedded in one’s nature.

Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi

Cheng Hao
Cheng Hao
The brothers Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, commonly grouped together in Asian religious discourse because of their theological concurrence, conjoined the doctrine of li as the inner structure or directive principle of things with Zhang’s developed idea of qi (ch’i). According to the Cheng brothers, li was the paradoxically unified yet diversified uninstantiated essence or pattern for both the entire universe and every organism.

Resembling a genetic coding, li provided the creative life structure, or shengsheng, which created all things upon being filled out by the life substance of qi. In people, li manifests as human nature (hsing), equivalent to the moral nature (dehsing) or heavenly nature (tianxing or t’ien-hsing), the fulfillment of which was ren, or the virtue of humaneness.

By identifying li as the genetic and magnetic growth principle of the Way, moreover, the Cheng brothers contended that the joint metaphysical ground of every actual thing or affair was a shared physical existence and an intrinsically good moral nature.

For the Cheng brothers, a mixture of two approaches could fulfill human destiny: investigation of the principles in things and introspection of principles in the mind. However the lines of objective inquiry and judgment could never be pursued separately, but the convergence or unity of li, in both its rational and moral dimensions, must be experienced in the realms of contemplation and action.

The twin methods of studying the classics and quiet sitting enabled humans to attain their destiny of sagehood. During quiet sitting, the typical examination of one’s xin, or heart-mind, amid an active engagement with society, the Cheng brothers emphasized reverence and ethical concern instead of mental passivity.

Cheng Yi
Cheng Yi
Through such attention to li, practitioners could discriminate between desires and motives that served the common good (gong) and those that were selfish or prejudiced (si). As manuals for this meditation, the Cheng brothers recommended the Daxue (Ta-hsueh, Great Learning) and Zhong Yong (Chung-yung, Doctrine of the Mean).

Although the Cheng brothers had many followers, their radical claim to speak authoritatively for the Way because of their personal conviction springing from immediate experience of the Way within themselves incited powerful opposition and imperial condemnation of their daoxue (tao hsueh), or learning of the Way.

This daoxue survived solely through its approval by Zhu Xi, who posthumously pronounced the Cheng brothers as orthodox and canonized their insights for future generations.

Zhu Xi

The greatness of Zhu Xi consisted in his ability to adapt in a unified system of thought the individual contributions of his Song predecessors. His remarkable powers of analysis and synthesis allowed him to combine ideas and articulate each of them with greater clarity and cogency than their originators had achieved.

He delineated with greater precision such doctrines as li, qi, xing (the nature of all things), xin, and tai-qi. His philosophy is often identified as the Cheng-Zhu school, since the forerunner whose work he most appropriated was Cheng Yi.

Zhu compared li to a seed of grain, as each seed partakes of both commonality and diversity by possessing its own uniqueness but also displaying generic and organic elements of structure, growth pattern, direction, and functional use.

In a slight departure from his forebears, however, Zhu modified the concept of qi by postulating that qi is not found equally in all people, and the fact that people have various endowments of ch’i accounts for their ethical differences.

Resembling the idea of a Buddha mind, Zhu introduced the new concept that, while all humans have the potential for perfection, evil arises through the clouding effect of li being shrouded by ch’i.

Zhu Xi
Zhu Xi
Zhu argued that the mind of every person contains two dimensions: the mind of the Way, or the original intrinsic principled goodness that links the person directly with the tai-qi, and the human mind, or the qi-filled arena where conflict arises between xinxing (the original mind) and carnal desires.

Zhu’s approach for overcoming this psychophysical imbalance consisted in the investigation of things, a four-fold process including apprehending the principles of things, reading and reflecting on the Classics, becoming a lover of learning, and performing an “exegesis of one’s life” by studying the causes of one’s experience.

The end result of this approach was the optimal development of the virtue of humaneness, or ren. For Zhu, it is through ren that one overcomes selfishness and partiality, and thus unites oneself with the Mind of the universe, which is love and creativity itself. Zhu’s greatest contribution to Neo-Confucianism was his completion of the second wave of canonizing Confucian learning.

He codified as basic texts of the Confucian school the Four Books—the Mengzi (Mencius), Daxue (T’ahsueh), Zhong Yong (Chung-yung), and Analects—and wrote exhaustive interpretations of every sentence in the Four Books, called the Annotations. After Zhu’s death, the Four Books and the Annotations became the official standard for the Chinese civil service examinations from 1313 until 1905.

As a movement concerned primarily with this world and its perceived nucleus in human nature, Neo-Confucianism recapitulated in an all-embracing manner, extending both to religion and the multifarious realms of society, what Confucius and his disciples had consistently proclaimed—that the human sense of order and value does not alienate one from the universe but constitutes the channel through which one can commune with it.

Accordingly the being of ethics, history, and politics is not empty, contra Buddhism, but an unfolding growth process and world of creativity with the principle of goodness as its foundation.

This conviction furnished Neo-Confucianism with its copious vitality and a degree of universality that rendered it quite appealing to people not only in China but also in Mongolia, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, who similarly searched for assurance that their lives had meaning and value.