Neo-Confucianism
A Confucian Response to Buddhism & Daoism
 

 
When we speak of the new Confucian learning that emerged in the Song period  [960-1279] as “Neo-Confucianism,” we refer primarily to the Learning of the Way as synthesized by Zhu Xi (1130-1200). ... As seen by Zhu, this revival exhibited both elements of continuity and discontinuity. He followed Han Yu in depicting the Way as having lapsed after Mencius, and he believed that it had been two thousand years since it had been practiced. In the Song, he credited the Cheng brothers and Zhou Dunyi (at different times and in different connections) with having rediscovered the True Way after China had long been submerged under Daoism, Buddhism, and utilitarianism. ...

In formulating [the Neo-Confucian response], Song Confucians faced fundamental challenges on the philosophical level. ... One was the need for a more coherent and systematic cosmology on which to ground its central conception of human nature as moral, rational, and (following Mencius) fundamentally good. Another need, in defense of the Confucian belief in constant human values, was to meet the challenge of the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, “Emptiness,” and moral relativism. Implicit in these latter doctrines was a profound questioning of the existence of the “self” or “self-nature,” which tended to undermine the Confucians’ prime concern with the moral person and practical self-cultivation.
 
In response to these challenges the Neo-Confucians came up with a new doctrine of human nature as integrated with a cosmic infrastructure of principle (li) and material-force (qi), along with a reaffirmation of the morally responsible and socially responsive self. This culminated in a lofty spirituality of the sage, preserving a stability and serenity of mind even while acting on a social conscience in a troubled world.
 
 

Until this time Confucianism had focused on the Way of the sage kings or Way of the noble person as social and political leader. ... Given the difficulties — military, political, and economic — in which Southern Song [1127-1279] Neo-Confucians found themselves after the … loss of the North to non-Chinese conquerors, they … looked more to what individuals could do through self-discipline, personal initiative, and voluntary association on the local level. This depended in turn on restraint and unselfish serving of the common good. Thus the sagely ideal was meant to inspire heroic self-sacrifice on the part of all, but especially of the educated leadership class of scholar-officials and, above all, of the ruler. ... A philosophy concerned very much with this world, at the center of which is always the human, Neo-Confucianism reasserted in an even more far-reaching manner what Confucius and his followers had always taught — that the human sense of order and value does not leave one alienated from the universe but is precisely what unites one to it. The world of human ethics, of social relations, of history and political endeavor is a real one, an unfolding growth process, and not just a passing dream or nightmare from which men must be awakened to the truth of Emptiness or Nothingness. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 667-9]
 
 
 
Non-Polar (wuji) and yet Supreme Polarity (taiji)! The Supreme Polarity in activity generates yang; yet at the limit of activity it is still. In stillness it generates yin; yet at the limit of stillness it is also active. Activity and stillness alternate; each is the basis of the other. In distinguishing yin and yang, the Two Modes are thereby established.
 
Compare with the Daodejing
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the mother of all things.
[Daodejing, Chapter 1 (translated by Brian Hoffert)]
 
The alternation and combination of yang and yin generate water, fire, wood, metal and earth. With these Five [Phases of] qi harmoniously arranged, the Four Seasons proceed through them. The Five Phases are simply yin and yang; yin and yang are simply the Supreme Polarity; the Supreme Polarity is fundamentally Non-Polar. [Yet] in the generation of the Five Phases, each one has its nature.
 
The reality of the Non-Polar and the essence of the Two [Modes] and Five [Phases] mysteriously combine and coalesce. “The Way of qian [i.e. Heaven] becomes the male; the Way of kun [i.e. Earth] becomes the female”; the two qi stimulate each other, transforming and generating the myriad things. The myriad things generate and regenerate, alternating and transforming without end.
 
Only humans receive the finest and most spiritually efficacious [qi]. Once formed, they are born; when spirit (shen) is manifested, they have intelligence; when their fivefold natures are stimulated into activity, good and evil are distinguished and the myriad affairs ensue. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 673-5]
 

If those in inferior positions do not have the confidence of their superiors, they will not be able to govern the people. There is a way to have the confidence of the superiors: If one is not trusted by his friends, he will not have the confidence of his superiors. There is a way to be trusted by one’s friends: If one is not obedient to his parents, he will not be trusted by his friends. There is a way to obey one’s parents: If one examines himself and finds himself to be insincere, he will not be obedient to his parents. There is a way to be sincere with oneself: If one does not understand what is good, he will not be sincere with himself.
 
Sincerity is the Way of Heaven. To think how to be sincere is the way of man. He who is sincere is one who hits upon what is right without effort and apprehends without thinking. He is naturally and easily in harmony with the Way. Such a man is a sage. He who tries to be sincere is one who chooses the good and holds fast to it.
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Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst.
       Therefore that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature.
       All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.
       The great ruler [the emperor] is the eldest son of my parents [Heaven and Earth], and the great ministers are his stewards. Respect the aged — this is the way to treat them as elders should be treated. Show affection toward the orphaned and the weak — this is the way to treat them as the young should be treated. The sage identifies his virtue with that of Heaven and Earth, and the worthy is the best [among the children of Heaven and Earth]. Even those who are tired and infirm, crippled or sick, those who have no brothers or children, wives or husbands, are all my brothers who are in distress and have no one to turn to.
       When the time comes, to keep himself from harm — this is the care of a son. To rejoice in Heaven and have no anxiety — this is filiality at its purest.
       One who disobeys [the principle of Heaven] violates virtue. One who destroys humanity (ren) is a robber. One who promotes evil lacks [moral] capacity. But one who puts his moral nature into practice and brings his physical existence to complete fulfillment can match [Heaven and Earth].
       One who knows the principles of transformation will skillfully carry forward the undertakings [of Heaven and Earth], and one who penetrates spirit to the highest degree will skillfully carry out their will. [Sources of Chinese Tradition, 683-4]