Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

History and Sources

What is Neo-Confucianism?

During the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), Confucian tradition underwent a kind of renaissance. Buddhism and Daoism had both developed into powerful influences at all levels of Chinese life and culture. A host of talented Confucian scholars reinterpreted their tradition in light of, and in “dialogue” with, Buddhist and Daoist concepts. Three tenth- and eleventh-century scholars pioneered what has come to be known in China as “Learning of Principle” (li xue) and beyond Asia as Neo-Confucianism. Sun Fu (922-1057), Shi Qia (1005-1045) and Hu Yuan (933-1059) transformed and revitalized the Confucian curriculum, thus paving the way for later teachers in their movement. Zhou Dun Yi (1017-1073) continued the dramatic changes by developing li as a spiritual or metaphysical principle rather than as simply a term for propriety in relationships and ritual. He and his successors expanded Confucian teaching into a full-scale cosmological system. Zhu Xi (1130-1200) is the “Thomas Aquinas” of the school in the sense that he synthesized the teachings of his predecessors into his own carefully coordinated system. Zhu Xi became a sort of lightning rod for subsequent generations of scholars, all of whom had to account for his pioneering thought one way or another.


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