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Neo-Confucianism (理學 Pinyin: Lǐxué) is a form of Confucianism that was primarily developed during the Song Dynasty (960-1280 C.E.), but which can be traced back to Han Yu and Li Ao in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.). The importance of li (principle) in much Neo-Confucian philosophy gave the movement its Chinese name, which can be literally translated as "the study of principle."

Though the school lacks a unifying doctrinal standpoint, largely due to its non-dogmatic character, several trends distinguish Neo-Confucian thought, including an emphasis on metaphysics and cosmology, a stress on personal cultivation, an adoption of Mencius as the intellectual inheritor of the Confucian legacy, and a systematic attempt to base all doctrines upon a canonical body of Chinese classics.


Confucianism has always flourished in dialogue with other religio-philosophical traditions. Just as Confucius and Mencius contended with the early Daoists and Moists, so too did the Neo-Confucians create their unique philosophical visions in light of the challenges posed by Buddhism and Daoism. Following this pattern, recent New Confucians have developed their thought in response to Kant, Hegel and other luminaries of Western philosophy.

Neo-Confucians, such as Zhou Dunyi and Zhu Xi, recognized that the Confucian system of the time did not include a thoroughgoing metaphysical system (as did the rival Daoist and Buddhist schools), so they found it necessary to devise one. While there were many competing views within the Neo-Confucian community, an overall system emerged that addressed the strengths of Buddhism and Daoism by bringing in acknowledged classical sources (including the I Jing Book of Changes) and the theories of the yin yang cosmologists. However, while Neo-Confucianism incorporated Buddhist and Daoist ideas, many Neo-Confucianists strongly opposed Buddhism and Daoism. One of Han Yu's most famous essays decries the worship of Buddhist relics. Additionally, Zhu Xi wrote many essays attempting to explain how his ideas were not Buddhist or Daoist, and he included some extremely heated denunciations of Buddhism and Daoism.

Of all the Neo-Confucian systems developed, Zhu Xi's was undoubtedly the most influential, as it became the official orthodoxy in both China and Korea, and was also highly respected in Japan. Zhu Xi's formulation of the Neo-Confucian worldview is as follows. He believed that the Way (Tao) of Heaven (Tian) is expressed in principle or li (理, ), but that it is sheathed in matter or qi (氣, ). In this, his formulation is similar to Buddhist systems of the time that divided things into principle (again, li), and shi (事, shì). In the Neo-Confucian schema, li itself is pure and perfect, but with the addition of qi, base emotions and conflicts arise. Following Mencius, the Neo-Confucians argued that human nature is originally good, but that it is not pure unless action is taken to purify it. The imperative is then to purify one's li. However, in contrast to Buddhists and Daoists, neo-Confucians did not believe in an external world unconnected with the world of matter.

Neo-Confucianism became the accepted state ideology in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 C.E.), and continued in this capacity through the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 C.E.) and, in some respects, to modernity. Many of the most recognizable manifestations of Chinese culture-music, theatre, art, traditional Chinese medicine, martial arts such as Tai Chi, as well as the traditional teaching methods of such disciplines-have strong foundations in Neo-Confucian ethics and philosophy.

Major figures

Despite its ties with Chinese governmental orthodoxy, Neo-Confucianism was not a rigid or doctrinaire religio-philosophical tradition. As such, its development is a far more organic affair, characterized by an ever-increasing body of sources and perspectives-each of which, in turn, becomes fodder for future discussion and incorporation. However, the unifying feature of these thinkers is their adherence to classical cultural materials as normative sources of human ethics and practice.

Because of the organic development of the tradition, it is not possible to construct a linear timeline of orthodoxies. Instead, each formative thinker will be listed below and their contributions will be (briefly) summarized.


  • Han Yu (768-824) and Li Ao (798-??) - precursors of the Neo-Confucian movement, they are best known for their staunch defense of Confucianism in the face of Buddhist and Daoist opposition. Also, their materials and methods became standard in the development of the Neo-Confucian school-specifically, their emphasis on the importance of Mencius as the authentic transmitter of the Confucian Dao and their extensive use of the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean and the Book of Changes as normative sources (Chan 1963, 450). In that they studied and wrote together, their contributions are often seen as being coterminous.
  • Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) - a classical Confucian gentleman (junzi) more than a Neo-Confucian scholar, Ouyang is best known for his political involvement and his masterful composition of poetry and prose.
  • Shao Yong (1011-1077) - an autodidact (i.e., one who is self-taught), he composed a vast and intricate numerological system based on materials derived from the Confucian classics (especially the Book of Changes). This system aimed to explore the fundamental basis of reality, while also examining the intricacies of human nature (see Birdwhistell 1989).
  • Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073) - an erudite philosopher, metaphysician, and ethicist, he is seen by many as the first genuinely Neo-Confucian thinker. He is credited with developing a truly Confucian cosmology through his synthesis of the Daoist creation account with the one found in the Book of Changes. His groundbreaking Taijitu Shuo (Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate) is thought to have set "the parameters in which the yinyang theory was to be assimilated metaphysically and systematically into Confucian thought and practice" (Wang 2005, 307; Chan 1963, 460).
  • Zhang Zai (1020-1078) - an innovative philosopher, he is mainly known in the West for his innovative cosmology (which identified qi with the Great Ultimate itself") (Chang 1962, 495). However, his theories of qi had a strong, though less studied, behavioral component, based on the relationship between proper ritual action (li) and the harmonious action of qi in the body (Chow 1993, 201-202). This emphasis is considered to have had a strong impact on the development and direction of Zhu Xi's thought.
  • Cheng Hao (1032-1085) - one of the influential Cheng brothers, he was primarily known for his learned exposition of the role of (li) in human and cosmic affairs. Additionally, he provided the locus for later Confucian idealism by stressing that "principle li and mind are one" and advocating quietistic meditation (Chan 1963, 522).
  • Cheng Yi (1033-1107) - like his brother Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi was instrumental (and most historically relevant) for his systematization of the concept of li. His personal contribution was to look in the empirical or rational world for li and to see them as part of the ever-unfolding cosmic process. Indeed, "Cheng Yi said it unmistakably: 'Nature is principle; the so-called principle is nothing but nature'" (Yong 2003, 457). This stress on the externality (or at least empiricality) of li found full expression in Zhu Xi's doctrine of "investigating things" (ge wu).
  • Su Shi aka Su Dongpo (1037-1101) - a great Confucian classicist, he (unlike many other Neo-Confucians at the time) eschewed the search for a discursive metaphysical model of reality, in favor of developing a heuristic ethical system that better described the vagaries of material existence. Intriguingly, he used the classical Confucian corpus as the nexus for his ethical project (Berthrong 1998, 94-97).
  • Zhu Xi (1130-1200) - the grand synthesizer of the Neo-Confucian tradition, he is famed for his unification of Zhou Dunyi's theory of the supreme ultimate, Zhang Zai's conception of qi, and the Cheng brothers' understanding of principle (li) into a single, holistic metaphysical and cosmological system. Also, he was instrumental in the decisive formation of the Confucian canon (defined as the Four Books and the Five Classics). His critical editions of the Four Books became the textbooks for the imperial examination system in 1313, where they remained the orthodox standard of Neo-Confucian learning until the beginning of the twentieth century.
  • Lu Xiangshan aka Lu Jiuyuan (1139-1193) - a vocal critic of Zhu Xi, he argued that the "investigation of things" (ge wu) was less important than delving into one's own heart-and-mind (xin). To that end, "Lu was reported to have said that even the Confucian classics were merely footnotes to his own mind-heart, strengthening the conviction of the priority of moral cultivation of the mind-heart over any external form of hermeneutic art" (Berthrong 1998, 112). For leading Neo-Confucian thought in this direction, the idealistic stream (as distinct from the School of Principle li xue) is often called the "Lu-Wang School" (where Wang refers to Wang Yang-ming discussed below).
  • Wang Yangming aka Wang Shouren (1472-1529) - the primary critic of Zhu Xi's system, Wang argued for an idealistic cosmos by identifying the Supreme Ultimate (source and ground of the universe) with the Original Mind (which is the foundation of the human heart-and-mind xin). Wang's theories led to the development of the School of Mind (xin xue), which briefly rivaled the School of Principle (li xue) which was dominant at the time.


  • Yi Saek (李穡, 1328-1396) - an influential scholar, Yi Saek (also known as Mokeun) was largely responsible for bringing Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucianism to Korea, establishing a Confucian academy in Goryeo after concluding his studies in China.
  • Jeong Mongju (鄭夢周, 1337-1392) - another influential scholar-official, Jeong taught at Yi Saek's Confucian academy and was widely regarded as the first Korean expert on Zhu Xi's School of Principle (li xue). Additionally, he advocated the adoption of Zhu Xi's ritual (li) teachings as an antidote to the pervasive spread of Buddhism and the perceived moral laxity that it engendered (Edward Chung 1995, 8).
  • Jeong Dojeon (鄭道傳, 1348-1398) - a politically revolutionary Neo-Confucian, Jeong aided the establishment of the Joseon dynasty by reforming the legal system and official bureaucracy to align them with Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucian vision. He also publicly denounced Buddhism for its failure to inculcate practical ethics (Edward Chung 1995, 11).
  • Jo Gwangjo (趙光祖, 1482-1519) - an ambitious young scholar who (for a time) had the ear of the royal family, Jo attempted to further Jeong Dojeon's advocacy of Confucian social reforms. "For example, he proposed the village code (hyangyak), a model of local self-government; encouraged the translation of basic Confucian writings to promote and spread its moral and social teachings among the populace at large; and put into practice a much more simplified examination system for recruiting men of virtue" (Edward Chung 1995, 17). Unfortunately, his influence made older statesmen wary, and, through political intrigue, they convinced the king to purge Jo and the other Neo-Confucian scholars in his "clique."
  • Yi Hwang (also known as Yi T'oegye) (李滉, 1501-1570) - considered by many to be the "Zhu Xi" of Korea, Yi systematized and deepened many of Zhu's metaphysical points. Most significantly, "T'oegye stated more clearly than Zhu Xi that principle was prior to material force logically, ontologically, and ethically" (Chai-sik Chung 2006, 255).
  • Yi I (also known as Yi Yulgok) (李珥, 1536-1584) - the second most important Korean Neo-Confucian, Yulgok agreed with many of the metaphysical points proposed by T'oegye. However, he disagreed with his predecessor's emphasis on principle, arguing that such an understanding conflicts with Confucian morality and ethics by denying the efficacy of rites (li). In contrast, he saw that "rites are objective embodiments in human society of the Principle of Heaven with its natural hierarchies" (Chai-sik Chung 2006, 264; Edward Chung 1995, 29-32).


  • Fujiwara Seika (1561-1619) - a talented visual artist, Fujiwara is known primarily for his contribution to Japanese aesthetics. Unlike the Zen approach taken by many, he argued for the preeminence of Confucian values (especially humaneness ren and wisdom) in the creation and appreciation of paintings (Tucker 2004, 48).
  • Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) - a Confucian intellectual with ties to the Shogunate, Hayashi ministered to the first three Shoguns of the Tokugawa bakufu. He was most influential in his application of Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucianism to feudal Japanese society, stressing the importance of public morality and using Zhu's ritual framework to support the hegemonic authority of the samurai class. The samurai-ethos, with its emphasis on self-cultivation, is partially attributable to Hayashi's efforts.
  • Nakai Tōju (1608-1648) - an advocate of Wang Yang-ming's School of Mind (xin xue), Nakai developed Wang's conclusions into a highly religious syncretism, which validated the intuitions of Buddhists, Confucians, and Shintoists alike. Nakai is also notable for extending the concept of filial piety to encompass "the universe and the gods" (Berthrong 1998, 153-154).
  • Yamazaki Ansai (1619-1682) - a visionary syncretist, Yamazaki fused Zhu Xi's school of principle (li) with Shintoism, developing for the first time a truly Japanese Confucianism. His most lasting achievement was his modification of the concept of ren, reinterpreting it as "loyalty." He wrote several influential tomes, the most important of which was A Mirror of Japan, which applied Confucian historiography to Japanese history and myth (Berthrong 1998, 152-153).
  • Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691) - more of a Confucian minister than a philosopher, Kumazawa resented the Shogun's co-option of Confucian values to support its official ideology. After a (largely unsuccessful) political career, he took to literary composition, where he wrote a commentary on the eleventh-century Tale of Genji to express his political dissatisfaction, reading into it "a Confucian vision of a moral, humane society, materially frugal but culturally rich, free from authoritarianism, greed, and destructive divisions and undamaged by the dangerous ecological depredations of his own time" (Tinios 2001, 223).
  • Kaibara Ekken (aka Ekiken) (1630-1714) - a critic of Zhu Xi's East Asian advocates, Kaibara argued for the unity of li and qi. However, he was less interested in abstruse metaphysics than in the concrete role of qi "as the basis of human morality, as expressed in his avid interest in medicine, botany, and biology" (Chai-sik Chung 2006, 255).
  • Muro Kyūsō (1658-1734) - an advocate of Mencian Confucianism, Kyuso defended the rights of the people in the face of tyrannical leaders. He also understood Mencius's teachings of duties and innate goodness in light of the particularities of feudal Japanese society, teaching that "samurai dedicate themselves to the Way so they can defend righteous duty" (Muro, quoted in Tucker 1997, 241).
  • Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728) - ostensibly one of the most important Confucians of the Tokugawa period, Ogyu argued that Neo-Confucianism had lost its original efficacy because of its focus on metaphysics. He aimed to re-appraise the Confucian techniques of governance through a re-examination of the Five Classics and the Four Books, and found that Neo-Confucianism (through its emphasis on personal cultivation and its critical stance towards emotions) lost the practical efficiency of the classical works. Ogyu's own opinions and literary output led to some large-scale social reforms, largely due to his position as political advisor to the Shogun.


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