Not to be confused with New Confucianism, a movement that emerged in the 20th Century.

Neo-Confucianism (simplified Chinese: 宋明理学; traditional Chinese: 宋明理學; pinyin: Song-Ming Lǐxué often shortened to 理學) is an ethical and metaphysical Chinese philosophy influenced by Confucianism, that was primarily developed during the Song Dynasty and Ming Dynasty, but which can be traced back to Han Yu and Li Ao (772-841) in the Tang Dynasty.

Neo-Confucianism was an attempt to create a more rationalist and secular form of Confucianism by rejecting superstitious and mystical elements of Daoism and Buddhism that had influenced Confucianism during and after the Han Dynasty.[1] Although the Neo-Confucianists were critical of Daoism and Buddhism,[2] the two did have an influence on the philosophy, and the Neo-Confucianists borrowed terms and concepts from both. However, unlike the Buddhists and Daoists, who saw metaphysics as a catalyst for spiritual development, religious enlightenment, and immortality, the Neo-Confucianists used metaphysics as a guide for developing a rationalist ethical philosophy.[3]



Bronze statue of Zhou Dunyi in White Deer Grotto Academy

Neo-Confucianism has its origins in the Tang Dynasty; the Confucianist scholars Han Yu and Li Ao are seen as forbears of the Neo-Confucianists of the Song Dynasty.[2] The Song Dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi is seen as the first true "pioneer" of Neo-Confucianism, using Daoist metaphysics as a framework for his ethical philosophy.[3] Neo-Confucianism developed both as a renaissance of traditional Confucian ideas, and as a reaction to the ideas of Buddhism and religious Daoism. Although the Neo-Confucianists denounced Buddhist metaphysics, Neo-Confucianism did borrow Daoist and Buddhist terminology and concepts.[2]

One of the most important exponents of Neo-Confucianism was Zhu Xi (1130–1200). He was a rather prolific writer, maintaining and defending his Confucian beliefs of social harmony and proper personal conduct. One of his most remembered was the book Family Rituals, where he provided detailed advice on how to conduct weddings, funerals, family ceremonies, and the veneration of ancestors. Buddhist thought soon attracted him, and he began to argue in Confucian style for the Buddhist observance of high moral standards. He also believed that it was important to practical affairs that one should engage in both academic and philosophical pursuits, although his writings are concentrated more on issues of theoretical (as opposed to practical) significance. It is reputed that he wrote many essays attempting to explain how his ideas were not Buddhist or Taoist, and included some heated denunciations of Buddhism and Taoism.

After Zhu Xi, Wang Yangming (1472–1529) is commonly regarded as the most important Neo-Confucian thinker. Wang's interpretation of Confucianism denied the rationalist dualism of Zhu's orthodox philosophy.

There were many competing views within the Neo-Confucian community, but overall, a system emerged that resembled both Buddhist and Taoist (Daoist) thought of the time and some of the ideas expressed in the I Ching (Book of Changes) as well as other yin yang theories associated with the Taiji symbol (Taijitu). A well known Neo-Confucian motif is paintings of Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu all drinking out of the same vinegar jar, paintings associated with the slogan "The three teachings are one!"

While Neo-Confucianism incorporated Buddhist and Taoist ideas, many Neo-Confucianists strongly oppose Buddhism and Taoism. Indeed, they rejected the Buddhist and Taoist religions. One of Han Yu's most famous essays decries the worship of Buddhist relics. Nonetheless, Neo-Confucian writings adapted Buddhist thoughts and beliefs to the Confucian interest. In China Neo-Confucianism was an officially-recognized creed from its development during the Song dynasty until the early twentieth century, and lands in the sphere of Song China (Vietnam and Japan) were all deeply influenced by Neo-Confucianism for more than half a millennium.


Neo-Confucianism is a social and ethical philosophy using metaphysical ideas, some borrowed from Taoism, as its framework. The philosophy can be characterized as humanistic and rationalistic, with the belief that the universe could be understood through human reason, and that it was up to man to create a harmonious relationship betweewn the universe and the individual.[4]

The rationalism of Neo-Confucianism is in contrast to the mysticism of the previously dominant Chan Buddhism, which eventually died out in China and only survived in Japan. Unlike the Buddhists, the Neo-Confucians believed that reality existed, and could be understood by mankind, even if the interpretations of reality were slightly different depending on the school of Neo-Confucianism.[4]

But the spirit of Neo-Confucian rationalism is diametrically opposed to that of Buddhist mysticism. Whereas Buddhism insisted on the unreality of things, Neo-Confucianism stressed their reality. Buddhism and Taoism asserted that existence came out of, and returned to, non-existence; Neo-Confucianism regarded reality as a gradual realization of the Great Ultimate... Buddhists, and to some degree, Taoists as well, relied on meditation and insight to achieve supreme reason; the Neo-Confucianists chose to follow Reason.[5]

The importance of li in Neo-Confucianism gave the movement its Chinese name, literally "The study of Li."


Neo-Confucianism is categorized into different schools of thought, the most dominant of which was the Cheng-Zhu school, based on the ideas of Cheng Yi, Cheng Hao, and Zhu Xi.

Cheng-Zhu school

Zhu Xi's formulation of the Neo-Confucian world view is as follows. He believed that the Tao (Chinese: ; pinyin: dào; literally "way") of Tian (Chinese: ; pinyin: tiān; literally "heaven") is expressed in principle or li (Chinese: ; pinyin: ), but that it is sheathed in matter or qi (Chinese: ; pinyin: ). In this, his system is based on Buddhist systems of the time that divided things into principle (again, li), and shi (Chinese: ; pinyin: shì). In the Neo-Confucian formulation, li in itself is pure and almost-perfect, but with the addition of qi, base emotions and conflicts arise. Human nature is originally good, the Neo-Confucians argued (following Mencius), but not pure unless action is taken to purify it. The imperative is then to purify one's li. However, in contrast to Buddhists and Taoists, neo-Confucians did not believe in an external world unconnected with the world of matter. In addition, Neo-Confucians in general rejected the idea of reincarnation and the associated idea of karma.

Different Neo-Confucians had differing ideas for how to do so. Zhu Xi believed in gewu (Chinese: 格物; pinyin: géwù), the Investigation of Things, essentially an academic form of observational science, based on the idea that li lies within the world.


Wang Yangming (Wang Shouren), probably the second most influential Neo-Confucian, came to another conclusion: namely, that if li is in all things, and li is in one's heart, there is no better place to seek than within oneself. His preferred method of doing so was jingzuo (Chinese: 靜坐; pinyin: jìngzuò; literally "quiet sitting"), a practice that strongly resembles zazen or Chan (Zen) meditation. Wang Yangming developed the idea of innate knowing, arguing that every person knows from birth the difference between good and evil. Such knowledge is intuitive and not rational. These revolutionizing ideas of Wang Yangming would later inspire prominent Japanese thinkers like Motoori Norinaga, who argued that because of the Shinto deities, Japanese people alone had the intuitive ability to distinguish good and evil without complex rationalization. Wang Yangming's school of thought (Ōyōmei-gaku in Japanese) also provided, in part, an ideological basis for some samurai who sought to pursue action based on intuition rather than scholasticism. As such, it also provided an intellectual foundation for the radical political actions of low ranking samurai in the decades prior to the Meiji Ishin (1868), in which the Tokugawa authority (1600–1868) was overthrown.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea

In Joseon Korea, neo-Confucianism was established as state ideology. Neo-Confucianism was introduced to Korea by An Hyang in Goryeo dynasty, in which Buddhism was the dominant religion. At that time, Goryeo dynasty was influenced by the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Many Korean scholars visited China under the Yuan dynasty and An Hyang was one of them. In 1286, he happened to read a book of Zhu Xi in Yanjing. He was so moved by this book that he transcribed this book entirely and came back to Korea with his transcribed copy. It inspired Korean intellectuals a lot and many of them embraced neo-Confucianism. They were usually from the middle class and sick of the old noble class. The newly rising neo-confucian intellectuals were the leading groups to overthrow the old dynasty and set up the new dynasty, Joseon.

They set up neo-Confucianism as state ideology of the new dynasty. They regarded Buddhism as poisonous to neo-Confucian order. So Buddhism was restricted or persecuted by the new dynasty. As neo-Confucianism encouraged education, there were founded a lot of neo-Confucian schools (서원 seowon and 향교 hyanggyo) throughout country. Such schools produced a lot of neo-Confucian scholars. In the 16th century, Jo Gwang-jo attempted to transform Joseon into ideal neo-Confucian society with a series of radical reforms until he was executed in 1519. Despite the failure of reforms, neo-Confucianism soon became the predominant philosophy of Joseon dynasty. Soon they passed the phase only to read and remember Chinese original, and they could develop new neo-Confucian theories. Yi Hwang and Yi I were the most prominent of them. But Neo-Confucianism in Joseon dynasty became so dogmatic that it prevented social and economical development and change. Wang Yangming's theory which were popular in Ming dynasty was regarded as heresy and severely condemned by Korean neo-Confucianists. And any annotations on Confucian canon which are different from Zhu Xi were excluded.

And the newly-emerging ruling class, called Sarim(사림, 士林), divided into the political factions according to their diversity of neo-Confucian views on politics. There were two large factions and many subfactions.

During Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598), many Korean neo-Confucian books and scholars were taken to Japan. They motivated Japanese scholars such as Fujiwara Seika and affected the development of Japanese neo-Confucianism.

Bureaucratic examinations

Neo-Confucianism became the interpretation of Confucianism whose mastery was necessary to pass the bureaucratic examinations by the Ming, and continued in this way through the Qing dynasty until the end of the Imperial examination system in 1905. However, many scholars such as Benjamin Elman have questioned the degree to which their role as the orthodox interpretation in state examinations reflects the degree to which both the bureaucrats and Chinese gentry actually believed those interpretations, and point out that there were very active schools such as Han learning which offered competing interpretations of Confucianism.

The competing school of Confucianism was called the Evidential School or Han Learning and argued that Neo-Confucianism had caused the teachings of Confucianism to be hopelessly contaminated with Buddhist thinking. This school also criticized Neo-Confucianism for being overly concerned with empty philosophical speculation that was unconnected with reality.

Confucian canon

The Confucian canon as it exists today was essentially compiled by Zhu Xi. Zhu codified the canon of Four Books (the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects of Confucius, and the Mencius) which in the subsequent Ming and Qing Dynasties were made the core of the official curriculum for the civil service examinations.

Prominent neo-Confucian scholars






  1. ^ Blocker, H. Gene; Starling, Christopher L. (2001). Japanese Philosophy. SUNY Press. p. 64. 
  2. ^ a b c Huang 1999, p. 5.
  3. ^ a b Chan 2002, p. 460.
  4. ^ a b Craig 1998, p. 552.
  5. ^ Chan 1946, p. 268


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