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.
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.
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!"
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