Neo-Confucianism and East Asia


The Portrait of Zhu Xi,
Courtesy of the National Folk Museum of Korea

Lecture by Richard Shek,
Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies, California State University, Sacramento
Edited by Camila Dodick

Western scholars coined the term Neo-Confucianism to label a religious and social phenomenon that started in China beginning in the eleventh century. This movement took root in Korea during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and in Japan from the sixteenth century on. It grew in a wavelike fashion, first engulfing China, and then sweeping across Korea to finally reach Japan.

Students of East Asian studies generally characterize Neo-Confucianism as a reactionary, rigid and fossilized pattern of thought espoused by (to borrow a term from more liberal members of academia) "dead yellow men." It is usually represented as a sexist, oppressive, and backward-looking ideology, one that serves the interests of a political order aiming to create a stable and hierarchical society. That side of Neo-Confucianism has been roundly criticized by the more progressive elements in East Asia since the end of the nineteenth century. However, Neo-Confucianism was also an ethical-religious movement spearheaded by a small, elite group of scholars (the dead yellow men) inspired by a vision of a new sociopolitical order grounded on moral principles.

We can look at Christianity from the perspective of the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades and the numerous abuses of the church. At the same time, that part of history should not in any way blind us to the nobility of the Christian vision or the teachings of Christ. What I am attempting to do is recapture the original impulse of the Neo-Confucian movement, subsequent abuses, distortions or misinterpretations notwithstanding.

An East Asian Renaissance

In a milieu of Buddhist dominance in East Asia blossomed the seeds of a new vision, a new way of looking at the social order; a revitalized look at human behavior and conduct; a picture of mankind living in a more cohesive, more harmonious society. This Neo-Confucian movement is reminiscent of the Renaissance or the Reformation that later took place in Europe. The impulse to rejuvenate and reinvigorate a tradition in China, Korea and Japan is similar to that which informed a resurgent West and catapulted it out of its medieval slumber. Now that we have established this premise, let us take a look at some of the characteristics of this movement.

The birth of Neo-Confucianism in China was a critique of the prevailing Buddhist ideology. Whether in China, Korea or Japan, many of the central figures of the movement were themselves familiar with, and perhaps participants in, the Buddhist ideology and worldview. They became critics of that very worldview and undertook a systematic and well-considered attempt to reform it, supersede it and then reject it outright. They found in the rediscovered Confucian tradition something far more valuable, and perhaps intelligible, which they could apply to their own lives and to society at large.

In that regard, Neo-Confucianism was also a fundamentalist yearning to return to the beginning of the Confucian tradition, which is why it is referred to as Neo-Confucianism. Obviously, it is not the original version of that movement, but it is an attempt, in good faith, to recover it. Naturally, in the process of being recovered, Confucianism was revised and refined.

Neo-Confucians had confidence in the absolute correctness of their beliefs, so I refer to Neo-Confucianism as an ethical-religious movement. I do not consider Neo-Confucianism that interesting as a philosophy. Now, I confess I am not a student of philosophy. Like many, my eyes glaze over when attempting to understand philosophical thought, as it is so divorced from everyday meaning. But defined as an ethical-religious movement, Neo-Confucianism has informed people’s conduct; way of looking at the world; and their relationships with other people, nature, animals and the cosmos.

The Neo-Confucian Way

What is this Neo-Confucian tradition? It is “the way,” the Dao. In Chinese, Neo-Confucianism is called daoxue, in Korean, tohak and in Japanese, dōgaku. In one sense, “the way” is the entire sociopolitical order that has been ordained by a higher authority. The higher authority is called tian li in Chinese, chenri in Korean and tenri in Japanese. It is this “way” that, when realized and applied to human affairs, creates a harmonious, perfect society. When human society is perfect, according to Neo-Confucian belief, nature will be perfect as well. The entire cosmos will be perfect. This belief inspired the new Confucian scholars to ascribe responsibility to themselves to do something about their own lives and then extend that to the outside world so that human beings could claim co-equality with heaven and earth.

The method by which people could become capable of leading the way was called “the way of the sages,” shengxue in Chinese, sŏnghak in Korean and seigaku in Japanese. A sage in East Asia is not someone who knows a lot, although that might be a requirement. More importantly, a sage is someone ethical, whose behavior is so exemplary that he inspires in others the will and the yearning to do the same. Further, a sage is one who is cognizant of the ultimate principle(s) that govern the universe, the li in Chinese, ih in Korean and ri in Japanese. There is one overarching li, but li is expressed in multifarious ways. Through a very intense study of the various manifestations of the lesser li, a sage could ultimately understand the final, overarching li. This belief resulted in an emphasis on scholastic pursuit.

Neo-Confucians believed that the human heart and mind (xin in Chinese, sim in Korean and shin in Japanese) allowed one to understand li. Only the human mind was capable of appropriating li, and it was there that Neo-Confucianism differed from Buddhism in basic assumptions. A dog has Buddha nature, or so the Zen Buddhists would argue. But to Neo-Confucians, human beings alone possessed a heart and mind that could be nurtured and cultured to a perfect state. Finally, Neo-Confucian beliefs were solid and practical, not metaphysical and abstruse. They were true to life and practical in their application.

Inner Sagehood and Outer Kingliness

Ultimately, the Neo-Confucian goal was to attain two things — inner sagehood and outer kingliness. In Chinese, these are called neisheng and waiwang. To be a sage inside meant to be a perfect moral paragon, to be someone who was not only internally impeccable and unassailable, but at the same time learned and wise. This is similar to the Christian insistence on doing good works and having faith together as a dual accomplishment. To achieve this was a lifelong undertaking.

Waiwang was an external ability expressed through dedication to public service. A Neo-Confucian could not live as a recluse or hermit in order to pursue holiness or personal salvation. He had to plunge into human affairs and mingle with other human beings in a leadership role. He needed to have an impact on the people around him and by extension, society at large. His ultimate goal was the universal improvement of the cosmos.

To create social order as an official, a parent of the people, a Neo-Confucian needed administrative skills and benevolence. In other words, he could not exploit and oppress people in order to succeed. The synoptic, self-professed goal of the Chinese Neo-Confucian Zhang Zai, who was part of the Northern Song dynasty, was to establish one's mind and one's heart of heaven and earth — in other words, to pursue the ultimate goal of inner sagehood and outer kingliness. It was also to provide livelihoods and good living for the multitudes. The personal pursuit had to be complemented by the practical result of that search, which was to benefit the people and help them live peacefully and prosperously without harassment from the government. The Neo-Confucian movement was not just concerned about the improvement of contemporary society at large within the Neo-Confucians’ own lifetimes. It looked to the future. The goal was to create a social order that would benefit people and allow them to have a livelihood.

Neo-Confucians tried to accomplish this dual goal through the rediscovery and repossession of the teachings of the former sages that had been truncated or had disappeared. The teachings had disappeared because of some Confucians who lost their way, and more importantly, the Buddhists who had usurped the dominant tradition in China, Korea and Japan.

Transmitting Neo-Confucianism in China

Han Yu was a forerunner of the Neo-Confucian movement from the ninth century. Han was a Tang dynasty figure best known for his severe criticism of the blind belief in Buddhism. He is most remembered for his memorial submitted to the town emperor upon the arrival of a finger bone of the Buddha. The town emperor was going to leave the palace to prostrate himself in front of this relic of the Buddha. Han Yu was offended by such a servile attitude from the Chinese monarch.

At the same time, Han Yu is remembered for reinitiating the inquiry into the concept of Dao because the word Dao in Chinese, To in Korean and in Japanese is also used to describe the teaching of the Buddha. Han Yu's understanding of Dao had a decidedly Confucian meaning and he was interested in returning to the original teaching of the sages. He sounded the first call to return to the time before Buddhism. In fact, at a later time, the Confucians complained that perhaps he had not gone far enough, as he had advised people to go back to the Han dynasty and perhaps a little further. The later, more mature Neo-Confucians wanted to go all the way back to Confucius. That is what the Northern Song dynasty Neo-Confucians tried to do, beginning with Zhou Dunyi, and then Zhang Zai, Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi.

Who were these people and what did they talk about? Many of them were, at one time or another, steeped in Buddhist discourse. Many of them had friends who were Buddhists. Many of them had, in fact, written books commenting on various aspects of the Buddhist teachings. But they agreed that Buddhism was inadequate and only partially addressed the human predicament.

By the time we reach the Cheng brothers, not only was Buddhism inadequate, it was absolutely harmful. The criticism had become much stronger: it was because of Buddhism that people's lives had been ruined; indeed, human society had been hurt by this dominant ideology that came from the outside with a kind of xenophobic flair. They believed that no matter how strongly identified it had become with Chinese culture, the alien origin of Buddhist teaching must not be forgotten.

And so, for these Northern Song masters, there was a need to go back, not only to the Tang and the Han periods, but all the way back to pre-Qin times, before the first emperor of Qin burned all the classics. There was a need to recover the original impulse of that movement. Their collective goal was to draw out teachings from within the original Confucian movement — teachings that had so much universal validity that they had to be reinvigorated for the benefit of all.

This created an interesting phenomenon, the notion of correct lineage. In Chinese, this is called daotong, the orthodox transmission of the way. The Northern Song masters recreated Confucian history to say that in the beginning there were cultural heroes who had discovered the secret message from tian (Heaven) and passed it along to destined individuals. Being Chinese, they were partial to the idea of Chinese transmission, and they determined that only the founders of the three dynasties of Xia, Shang and Zhou and Confucius would have been privy to this secret message. This is similar to the claim made by the ancient Jewish prophets that originally God's message was given to the patriarchs and military leaders of the people of Israel. Then, because of truncation beyond David and Solomon, a different group of people was singled out to receive the message, namely the prophets themselves.

The Northern Song masters made precisely this sort of claim. Confucius had been the carrier of the message from Heaven, and from him it was transmitted to Mencius. Then it stopped, because no one beyond Mencius could be found who was deserving of the role. Now it was time to rediscover and revive the message. Who might the new messengers be? Of course, they didn't say as much, but the Northern Song masters implied that they were the ones who should be looked at as the contemporary transmitters of the Dao. Zhu Xi, who is of paramount importance in Neo-Confucianism, argued that Confucius’ truncated message had passed through the Northern Song masters and that he was the inheritor of the message. It was a bold claim, and it got him into a lot of trouble. He was branded a heterodox, one who needed to be banned and punished, and indeed he was.

Zhu Xi advanced his argument concretely and impressively, identifying scriptural sources to substantiate his claim. He singled out four texts called the Four Books. These Four Books would serve as the most authoritative scriptural materials, the study of which would enable everyone to return to the Dao. Through his disciples (his son-in-law and some others), his argument and corpus of text would be preserved and further advanced. In his lifetime, Zhu Xi never succeeded in getting universal acceptance of his ideas. On the contrary, he was dismissed as a crazy guy who was so antiquarian and idiosyncratic that he was not to be taken seriously.

The next dynastic reign was, ironically, an alien reign, that of the Mongols. The Mongols could not care less about the stuffy indigenous Chinese tradition. At the same time, they realized that they needed a group of able, upright individuals to rule the country. The famous argument made by one advisor to Kublai Khan was that you can conquer the realm from atop a horse, but you cannot rule it from atop the horse. Kublai Khan would need to get down, roll up his sleeves, and take care of the affairs of the people. And whom would Kublai Khan call? A group of Confucian-minded scholars, of course. These individuals traced their intellectual foundation back to Zhu Xi, and now Zhu Xi became known as the one who had almost singlehandedly revived the truncated tradition.

Amazingly, Zhou Fu, who was captured in the South when the Mongols were still trying to consolidate their conquest of China, was brought to the North, where he passed on Zhu Xi's message. He was then succeeded by other individuals, all of whom agreed with his message and did their utmost to ensure that Zhu Xi's interpretation of the daotong, the formal transmission of the way, was preserved.

The Four Books

We can see precisely the kind of agreed-upon authority to which the Neo-Confucians subscribed by identifying some of the texts that Zhu Xi and others identified or subsequently created. The Four Books encompass the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects and the Mencius. They had been in existence for a long time, but it was thanks to Zhu Xi that they were grouped together as a consolidated set. At the risk of making a forced comparison, it was similar to the identification of the Four Gospels in the New Testament from the second century onward, which finally consolidated the Christian understanding of the message of Jesus.

The Four Books were identified as the entire corpus of the original Confucian vision. At the same time, commentaries, annotations, and additional works made them more meaningful to people in the contemporary world. The Five Classics predated the Four Books and had been an authoritative representation of the Confucian tradition before the Four Books. Now they became secondary in importance because they predated Confucius. They were proto-Confucian instead of "truly" Confucian. They contained the Dao, but just as the Old Testament books only served as a way station to the final realization of God's plan for Jesus, the Five Classics served as a way station to allow the Confucian message to come through.

The Classic of Filial Piety had been compiled in the Han dynasty. As filial piety became a cardinal virtue among Confucians, it now had to be given a place of prominence. Zhu Xi compiled the Elementary Learning. Zhu Xi, as the interpreter and self-styled prophet of the Song dynasty, had now become a sage-like figure. His writings would serve as the very paragon of Neo-Confucian interpretation. His writings on Family Rituals supported the belief that Confucianism should not be empty philosophical discourse, but should have practical implications for daily life — how to live life as a Confucian, an aspiring sage. Another compilation by Zhu Xi, with a collaborator, was Reflections on Things at Hand (the Hsun Tzu in Chinese), which contained the teachings of all the Northern Song masters. He chose selections from their writings and commented on them. That became, in itself, a classic.

The final part of the Four Books was an official government-promulgated set of authoritative texts known as the Compendium on Nature and Principle. Every Neo-Confucian practitioner subscribed to this entire corpus, whether they were Chinese, Korean or Japanese.

Neo-Confucianism in Korea

Let's take a look at the Korean part of the story. Of course, Confucian writings had found their way to Korea fairly early, during the Three Kingdoms period. But at the same time, the Buddhists were very much in control of the official ideology of all subsequent centuries in Korea. Since the Neo-Confucian movement was fundamentally anti-Buddhist, the Buddhist custody of the Confucian texts and some of the Neo-Confucian writings would not be given any kind of prominence until An Hyang.

There is no doubt that An Hyang played a very significant role, finding himself in Mongol China thanks to a very interesting relationship between the Mongol emperor and the Korean king (the king of Koryŏ) and his descendants. Much back-and-forth traffic went on. Many of the Korean elites were brought to Dadu, which later became Beijing, to mingle with the Chinese Neo-Confucians Zhao Fu, Xu Heng and others. There was a great deal of direct interaction between Korean scholars and Chinese Neo-Confucian scholars, which is how An Hyang brought Zhu Xi's ideas back to Korea. He was greatly excited about this discovery and pushed for Korean adoption of this new Confucian outlook.

An Hyang was succeeded by Yi Saek, who was the superintendent of the Royal Confucian Academy (Sŏnggyun’gwan) that helped an entire generation of scholars subscribe to the idea of replacing Buddhist domination with the Confucian vision, and of creating a new social order based upon Confucian ideas.

Chŏng Mong-ju was not a member of the next dynastic reign because he died a martyr. He refused to serve the new dynasty, yet he articulated the new Confucian beliefs. To begin with, his name, Mong-ju, means “dreaming of the Zhou,” more specifically, dreaming of the Duke of Zhou. In his Analects, Confucius commented on his need to be in touch with the original teaching of the sages by constantly having a conversation with the Duke of Zhou. At one point he said that he was getting older and no longer dreamt of meeting the Duke of Zhou. That gave Chŏng an opportunity to state that he himself dreamt of the Duke of Zhou and that he was in direct contact with the truncated teaching.

Another master from the Chosŏn dynasty was Chŏng To-jŏn. He was not considered to be a first-rate Confucian philosopher, but his name means “transmission of the Dao.” This exemplified the Neo-Confucians’ claim that what they were doing was of fundamental importance. Chŏng To-jŏn was the so-called architect of the Chosŏn dynasty's entire governmental structure because he was a close associate of the founder, T’aejo Yi Sŏngkye. He articulated the journey that would take one beyond the Chinese interpretation of Neo-Confucianism to rediscover a past devoid of the Chinese interlude. At the same time, Chŏng was an ardent anti-Buddhist. He considered it his foremost task to get rid of its stranglehold on Korea and was unsparing in his effort. He mapped out a detailed plan of a new dynastic structure.

Kwŏn Kŭn was not always a cordial colleague of Chŏng To-chŏn's, but agreed with his vision. He was equally anti-Buddhist. During the first reign of the founder of the Chosŏn dynasty, pragmatic-minded Neo-Confucians like them had self-ascribed roles to play. They were developing a new civilization. They were creating a sociopolitical order based on their understanding of the Confucian mission.

T'oegye and Yulgok, were the giants of the Chosŏn dynasty's Neo-Confucian movement. Their pragmatic work was the creation of community compacts, the establishment of private academies and the local activities they undertook as leaders and advocates of a new social organization. These masters expressed a pragmatic way of implementing the Confucian vision. The Community Compact (hyangyak) was not an abstruse metaphysical discussion. It was about organizing local villages and communities into a Confucian community based upon an expected set of behaviors, with all kinds of encouragements and sanctions, so that together the very goal of a Confucian order could be realized. They discussed the granary system that provided livelihoods and sustenance for the people and the founding of academies to pursue the goal of developing intellectual elites who would perpetuate the Confucian movement. They also mapped out the performance of this vision locally and within the family — setting up family shrines, the observance of mourning rituals, wedding ceremonies and annual festivals.

For the elites, this kind of activity was beneficial, but ultimately the ruler also needed to be converted. Realizing the strength of the Buddhist heritage, it required quite a bit of effort on the Neo-Confucians’ part to enforce the idea that any ruler had to be Confucian. The crown prince was educated in Neo-Confucianism through royal lectures and similar practices, guaranteeing the continuous subscription of this vision down through time.

Neo-Confucianism in Japan

In Japan, as in Korea, the movement came late, for the same reasons. Buddhism dominated most of Japanese medieval history. Buddhists had acquired the Confucian and later, Neo-Confucian texts, but they were not ones to trumpet and expound on the texts because it would not have been self-serving. The sixteenth century, at the time a very chaotic situation where Ashikaga Japan was done away with and the country was reunified by the Tokugawa regime, would usher in a vibrant Neo-Confucian movement. In fact, the first three practitioners of Neo-Confucianism in Japan were former Buddhist monks. It had reached the point where the very participants and practitioners of that despised and criticized tradition were coming forward to embrace, in a very public way, their version of the new Confucian message.

Fujiwara Seika extolled the primacy of Zhu Xi's interpretation. In fact, he obtained his inspiration from Korean Neo-Confucianism. The attempted Japanese conquest of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi beginning in 1592 had the unexpected result of capturing many new Confucian scholars and bringing them to Japan. Fujiwara Seika had meetings with these Confucian scholars and was greatly inspired by their teachings. Now he would be the one who would trumpet the teachings of Master Zhu.

At the same time, Fujiwara would also talk about how Confucianism paralleled some of the indigenous religious ideas represented by Shinto. His student Hayashi Razan would also make that argument. The Hayashi school would become the very representation of the Confucian tradition in Tokugawa Japan. Hayashi family members would be designated heads of temples, for example, or the heads of colleges, and they would articulate the official Tokugawa understanding of this new Confucian message.

What is distinctive about Hayashi Razan was his attempt to equate the new Confucian model, which, in the case of China and Korea had been primarily civilian and scholarly in its orientation, with the samurai ideal. Almost from the beginning, Japanese Neo-Confucians attempted to make the teaching much more applicable to the Japanese situation. The Japanese case is different from the Chinese and the Korean cases primarily because of the samurai military ethos.

Yamazaki Ansai, a third former monk (in fact, a Zen monk), did not serve the shogunate per se, but was related to the Shogun’s family. Yamazaki, serving under Hoshina Masayuki, the daimyo of Aizu, would articulate a very creative interpretation of the new Confucian vision. He insisted that the Confucian ideology was actually represented by Shinto. Yamazaki created, in his own unique way, a version of Neo-Confucianism and Shinto woven together, which he called Suika Shinto.

This continued with Yamaga Sokō, who applied to Confucianism a military ethos, eventually creating what was later known as bushido, the way of the warrior. Yamaga, in particular, was of critical importance because he taught in a local feudal domain that would later serve as the stage for one of Japan's most well known samurai dramas, the story of Chūshingura, or The Treasury of Loyal Retainers. The story is of a lord who was unjustly persecuted and sentenced to seppuku. All forty-seven of his followers vowed to avenge that injustice by killing their lord's enemy. They did so in the most glorious way. This story has always captured the imagination of the Japanese.

Kaibara Ekken further popularized Neo-Confucianism by making it accessible not only to the samurai elites, but also to the commoners and to certain eclectic groups like young people and women. Kaibara translated many of the Confucian classics into vernacular Japanese. He also showed a keen interest in broadening the new Confucian emphasis by looking at the possibility of using science as a way to express the Confucian outlook. He studied botany and engaged in what was then known as Dutch studies, or rangaku, in a way that ultimately yielded all kinds of unexpected results. It was that window into the outside world that would trigger the acceptance of European technologies in late Tokugawa Japan that ultimately undermined the foundational authority of the Tokugawa regime.

A Single Vision, Local Differences

The Kija myth was very important to Korean nationals because it indicated a native transformation of the Neo-Confucian message. Kija was believed to have brought culture to Korea and established the Korean claim to civilization. Through him, Korea was able to achieve parity with China, and could even claim supremacy over China because it did not go through the various misunderstandings and distortions of the Confucian message.

Korean masters were enshrined at Confucian temples, which was quite audacious because the Korean masters could then be seen as true heirs to the Confucian teaching. Korean elites or Confucian scholars (yangban) claimed their right to monopolize that message and allow themselves hereditary rights. The closed system that the yangban created was different from, at least theoretically, the Chinese version that maintained a more open system.

Japan had an awkward dual government that would not have been tolerated either by China or Korea, with both a shogunal power and an imperial power. The interpretation of this very awkward fact became a Japanese Neo-Confucian issue. Additionally, the samurai had a militaristic perspective on the Confucian tradition. Hayashi Razan once said that there is no true learning without arms, and there are no true arms without learning. Right from the beginning, the new Confucian understanding was informed by the martial spirit of medieval Japan. There was also a rigid class distinction between the samurai and the remainder of the Japanese populace.

We ultimately find that across East Asia the early fathers of the Neo-Confucian movement proposed a single vision. That vision would be interpreted and implemented differently in Korea and in Japan. China also saw a later evolution of the Neo-Confucian message resulting in all kinds of distortions, corruption, and abuses that earned a very bad name for Neo-Confucianism. We must not lose sight of the original impulse, which was a reevaluation of values and a sincere effort to repossess a vision that was understood to have existed right from the beginning of the Confucian tradition, but which had been obscured by Buddhism.

What we find, then, is a very vibrant movement that has seen its ups and downs, and I do not think the story has ended. We currently see Chinese, Japanese and Korean self-styled Confucians trying to recapture that spirit, trying to reinvigorate, in contemporary society, that same message. Neo-Confucianism has a way of going on and keeping on.