Chinese Philosophy – Neo-Confucianism

Confucianism began with Confucius, followed with the work of Mencius, Xunzi and others. After a long period of losing ground in the Imperial Court to Buddhism and Daoism, Confucianism experienced a revival in Song Dynasty China.

Neo-Confucianism

Chinese Song Dynasty street

About 1100 CE, during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), Confucianism merged with Daoist and Buddhist ideas to form a Confucian revival called Neo-Confucianism by scholars today.  Buddhism, including both Chan and Pure Land schools, had flourished during the Tang (618 – 907 CE).  Most of the great masters and their koan encounters had happened during this period, and then the koan collections such as the Blue Cliff Record were collected and codified during the Song.  The Neo-Confucians sought to take the flagging Confucian orthodoxy and put it once again at the center of education and society after losing ground to Buddhism for five hundred years.  Buddhist metaphors such as the pearl at the bottom of the muddy lake and the sun emerging from behind the clouds, as well as Daoist concepts, were reinterpreted in light of Confucianism, giving them an active educational and moral interpretation.

About 1100 CE, during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 CE), Confucianism merged with Daoist and Buddhist ideas to form a Confucian revival called Neo-Confucianism by scholars today.  Buddhism, including both Chan and Pure Land schools, had flourished during the Tang (618 – 907 CE).  Most of the great masters and their koan encounters had happened during this period, and then the koan collections such as the Blue Cliff Record were collected and codified during the Song.  The Neo-Confucians sought to take the flagging Confucian orthodoxy and put it once again at the center of education and society after losing ground to Buddhism for five hundred years.  Buddhist metaphors such as the pearl at the bottom of the muddy lake and the sun emerging from behind the clouds, as well as Daoist concepts, were reinterpreted in light of Confucianism, giving them an active educational and moral interpretation.

Chenghao
ChengYi

The Cheng Brothers, Cheng Hao (1032 – 1085 CE) and Cheng Yi (1033 – 1107) were two philosophers, teachers and officials whose work and schools led to the Neo-Confucian revival.  Together with Zhu Xi, the central systematizer of Neo-Confucianism who was deeply influenced by and indebted to the Cheng brothers’ work, the three are considered the founders of Neo-Confucianism.  Their father was a county detective in Huangpi of central-east China.  The two brothers were known also as Cheng the Elder and Chang the Younger, even though Cheng Hao was only one year older than Cheng Yi.  Cheng Hao was known for being happy and laid back, while Cheng Yi was strict and uptight.

Chinese Song Waterfall

Both brothers believed in Li, which as mentioned with Chinese Buddhism was now not simply tradition, principle and ritual but cosmic and identified and equated with the Dharma of Buddhism and the Dao of Daoism.  Both identified Li with physical form and purpose, beyond ritual and tradition, just as the Buddha’s teaching and Daoist sage’s way of living were identified with the law of the universe.  The elder laid back Cheng Hao founded the School of Mind, arguing that Li was psychological, while the younger uptight Cheng Yi founded the School of Law, arguing that Li was physical.  This split is along the classic lines of dogmatism, truth as objective, and skepticism, truth as subjective.  Much like in the work of Plato and Neo-Platonism of medieval Europe, the Cheng Brothers saw Li, form, combined with Qi (“chi”), energy, as the composition of all things.  The noble and the sages seek the forms of things.

ZhuXi

Zhu Xi (1130-1200 CE), also known as Zhuzi or Master Zhu, was the systematizer who took the work of the Cheng Brothers and others and created the educational system of China that lasted almost 600 years from 1313 to 1905.  He was taught in the lineage of Cheng Yi and the School of Law, and argued that Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, the three great Chinese traditions, were teaching the same truth but that Confucius was the superior and primary teacher.  Like Confucius, he gathered a small canon of four books to be the foundation of education: the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Great Learning.  Zhu Xi put a very heavy emphasis on reading and study, particularly re-reading the right books again and again to understand the essence of morality and principle.

wang yangming statue gold

Wang Yangming (1470 – 1530 CE) one of the most revered Neo-Confucians, was famous for the idea of the unity of knowledge and action.  He was opposed to Zhu Xi, who he argued put too much emphasis on study and not enough on integrating knowledge with action and practice, without which it is not genuine knowledge.  While Confucius taught that intention and action are distinct things, Wang Yangming taught the complementary truth that the two are interactive as one whole.  It is true that they are different, but this should not distract from their unity and complementary nature.

Wang Yangming Rock

While someone can say that they know something, we can judge whether they truly know or not by how they act.  Two examples he uses are knowing that a color is beautiful and knowing that a smell is bad.  To see a beautiful color and to feel pleasure are one and the same, the seeing corresponding to mind and investigation and the feeling corresponding to body and action.  If someone says they know that a smell is bad, but they do not act like it is bad (gagging, opening a window, pointing at their younger sibling), we could say that they do not really know that the smell is bad but only saying the smell is bad.  Wang Yangming argues that if someone’s nose is stuffed up, they can be told there is a bad smell but they do not know there is unless they react to it.  In the same way, if we know someone is a good person we do not get nervous around them or hide our valuables when they come over.  If we did, it could be said that we do not truly know they are good because we do not act like they are trustworthy.

Wang Yangming Bamboo

Wang Yangming is arguing against Zhu Xi’s teaching that reading and study are central.  If one does not act well and put morality into practice, mere reading and recitation is not true knowledge but nothing more than “ghosts and shadows”.  Notice how similar this is to Buddhist metaphors.  Wang Yangming, unlike Zhu Xi, is closer to Cheng Hao than Cheng Yi, arguing that all things are mind, also similar to Buddhism.  In his day, Wang Yangming was accused of being a crypto-Buddhist and corrupting Confucianism, though in fact Zhu Xi and others were borrowing from Buddhism and Daoism, if less overtly.

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