Neo-Confucianism: Rational and Religious Confucian Philosophy

Neo-Confucianism came into existence in the 11th century AD as an attempt to reassert Confucian heritage that was losing ground to Buddhism and Taoism.

Widely viewed as a more rational and spiritual interpretation of Confucianism, it influenced philosophical systems in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Its revivalist focus led to strong national resurgence and renewed interest in classical art, architecture and literature and revitalization of Confucian legacy.

History and Development of Neo-Confucianism

The earliest literature highlighting Neo-Confucian thoughts dates back to the Tang period. The school has its faint reflections in the teachings of Han Yu and Li Ao, two prominent Confucian thinkers of the time. Neo-Confucianism was pioneered in its distinct form by Zhou Dunyi, the celebrated Song era scholar. He rejected the dominant Buddhist metaphysics and Taoist religious principles and redefined the Confucian cosmology with emphasis on human centrality.

Zhu Xi, who came five decades after Zhou, was widely regarded as the most prolific of all Neo-Confucian thinkers. He astutely defended Confucian academic and philosophical pursuits and rejected dominance of Buddhism and Taoism. His focus was on innate goodness of man and acceptance of knowledge as a way to observe high moral standards. Zhu derived freely from Buddhism and outlined Confucian style to observe many of their practices similar to teachings of Confucius. His thoughts are widely recognized as Lixue or the School of Principle.

Later Neo-Confucian masters, including Wang Yangming of Xinxue or the School of Mind, adopted a more liberal attitude against early orthodox rationalist dualism of Zhu. They incorporated many Buddhist and Taoist ideas and interpreted Confucian thoughts in the light of the then society. Neo-Confucianism revitalized ancient Confucianism and made it more relevant.

Features of Neo-Confucianism

Neo confucianism - Confucius

Neo-Confucianism was revivalist in nature. It did not reject Confucian thoughts but sought to make them socially relevant. Buddhism and Taoism captured the popular imagination of common people while Confucianism remained confined to the rulers and intellectual class. The Neo-Confucian started as reaction to this and sought to balance Confucian thought in the light of existing and relevant social goals. However, it did not compromise on basic teachings of Confucius. It developed metaphysical aspects surrounding Confucian thoughts.

Neo-Confucianists followed rationalist dualism. They denounced dominance of Buddhist and Taoist metaphysics and yet incorporated ides of these religions to strengthen Confucian revival. They rejected worship of Buddhist relics and metaphysical view, but followed its emphasis on moral standards and realism. These thinkers adopted Buddhist and Taoist beliefs and confucianized them. The system looked almost similar to both creeds it opposed because of heavy adoption and adopted by Buddhists in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. There are many paintings showing Buddha, Laozi and Confucius drinking from one jar underlined with the slogan "The three teachings are one!"

Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism

  • Confucianism has more societal orientation while Neo-Confucianism reflects a spiritual sense. Confucianism teaches about living a good life in this real world. Neo-Confucian thinkers put more emphasis on spiritual aspect defining realism and, human union with the Supreme Being. It gave religious connotation to classical Confucianism that was purely intellectual.
  • Neo-Confucian thoughts were influenced by Buddhism and Taoism contrary to pure Chinese values in Confucianism. Neo-Confucian thinkers derived many aspects of Buddhism and institutionalized it.
  • Classical Confucianism focuses on cultivation of the intellectual self while the newer form called for cultivation of the entire self, physical, intellectual and spiritual.
  • Confucianism had political connotations while Neo-Confucianism did not prescribe any major political philosophy. Confucius was born during a period of constant warfare and political turmoil forcing the celebrated philosopher to define the annals of statecraft. Neo-Confucian thoughts emerge when China was unified and there was political and social stability. Consequently, its thinkers remain focused on spiritual aspects.
  • Though both focused on ancient Chinese values, Neo-Confucianism was more rationalist in character and related the concept of sagehood and perfect man to spiritual aspects. It was more a synthesis of values governing Chinese society of the time.
  • Classical Confucianism was utilitarian in character with clear and set ideas while Neo-Confucianism put emphasis on spiritual aspect and in their thoughts they differ from each other in orthodox orientation of these values. The liberal interpretations made Neo-Confucian thoughts less rigid and broad-minded.

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