A Look At Neo-Confucianism

Zhu Xi: Father of Neo-Confucian thought, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lastly, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about Korean history, especially during the Joseon Dynasty (대조선국, 大朝鮮國) while watching the drama “Jewel in the Palace”. One of the things I realized is that Neo-Confucianism is an underrated and poorly understood concept, and this post is intended to help explore the topic.

Brief History

Most of the major East Asian states were originally “Buddhist” states in that the state religion was Buddhism. This included the Tang Dynasty, the three kingdoms of Korea, Japan, the dynasties of Vietnam and so on. But as religion became mixed with politics, this became a problem as powerful Buddhist monasteries tried to manipulate politics.

Coincidentally, Confucianism experienced a kind of revival in Song Dynasty China under men like Zhang Zai (张载, 張載, 1020–1077) and Zhu Xi (朱熹, 1130-1200). Neo-Confucian thinkers adopted some features of Buddhism and Daoism as we shall see, but their focus was on reviving the teachings of Confucius, to reform the government, and to broaden Confucianism to better explain the world around them.

This proved so successful, that Neo-Confucianism became the official state ideology in China from the Song-Dynasty onward, in the Korean Joseon Dynasty (the longest-lasting Confucian dynasty), Edo-Period Japan, and both the and Nguyễn dynasties in Vietnam. Indeed, Neo-Confucianism was the dominant state ideology until the modern era.

Why Neo-Confucianism?

The original Confucianism from the Han Dynasty and before was somewhat limited in scope. If you read the Analects of Confucius (論語) or any of the other Four Books (四書), they are very focused on social, political and personal affairs. Confucius does not talk about death, the afterlife, the origin of things, and so on. In fact, he explicitly avoids talking about anything supernatural:

[7:21] The master never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorder or ghost stories. –trans. Professor Charles Muller

This teaching was sufficient for a time until Confucianism had to compete with Daoism and foreign-imported Buddhism as a state ideology. Buddhism itself had a very sophisticated approach to metaphysics, phenomena, the mind, etc. that answered questions that Confucianism could not. By the time that it reached China, Buddhism had already flourished in India for 1,000 years and eclipsed Confucianism for a time as the state ideology for the Sui Dynasty, and the Tang Dynasty.

Confucian scholars reacted in different ways. Some called for the removal of Buddhism from China (by force if necessary), but others sought to learn from Buddhism, and apply it back to Confucian teachings. This helped “fill in the gaps” and helped Confucian scholars explain concepts that were left out of the original Confucian teachings, while re-asserting critical teachings.

Buddhism historically suffered as Neo-Confucianism grew in popularity, and in some cases (Korea, Japan), the government tightly regulated Buddhism in order to further control it. However, at the same time, Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism generally lived side by side and regularly influenced one another at a social level, hence in modern Asian culture, one cannot really say they are Buddhist or Confucian. You’re not really forced to choose; people will adopt both to some degree or another, one different levels from one another.

What Is Neo-Confucianism?

As Professor Yao explains in An Introduction to Confucianism:

“Zhu Xi completed the transformation of the Classical Learning of the Han Dynasty to the Learning of Principle.” (pg. 105)

Neo-Confucianism has all the same teachings of classic Confucianism: filial piety, personal cultivation through the arts, importance of learning, Heaven (天) as the natural law of existence, and importance of virtue. However, it also extended this to include:

  1. Cultivate the heart/mind (心)
  2. Observe Heaven and Earth to understand Principle (理)

In Neo-Confucianism, there is a great emphasis on cultivating the mind. Many Neo-Confucian scholars included Buddhist-style meditation, and other methods to help achieve this, even though the aim was different than Buddhism.

In particular, the teachings of Zhu Xi dominated Confucian scholarship for the next 800 years. In fact, he’s the only other person besides Confucius and Mencius to be considered a “master”. So, learning Zhu Xi’s thought helps explain Neo-Confucianism.

According to Professor Yao, Zhu Xi’s idea of Principle was:

“In other words Principle is that by which the world comes into being and that by which the world runs its course. Principle exists before the myriad things, and without Principle nothing come into being and neither movement nor tranquility would be possible….The world is composed not only of principle, for material force (氣) is also necessary…..Principle, with which all things are endowed, is fundamentally complete; but due to imperfection and impediments of material force, principle is unable to manifest its completeness, appearing incomplete.” (Pg. 106)

Zhu Xi used the analogy of the moon. One moon shines on all things, and each thing reflects the moonlight. In the same way, there is only one Principle but all things in the world reflect Principle at work.

The relationship between Principle and Material Force can be compared to a clay pot. The clay itself is the raw material, the material force, while the Principle is what shapes it into a clay pot. One can even compare Principle to the Laws of Physics and Material Force to raw matter, but Principle in the Neo-Confucian sense is a reflection of Heaven. Everything in the world is patterned after Heaven, so as Zhu Xi taught, if one learns to observe the world around them, they can understand the patterns of Heaven better.

But that’s not all. Professor Yao talks about Zhang Zai and says:

“Like all other great Confucian masters, Zhang believes that life is the process of manifesting the supreme principles of Heaven and Earth. Unlike the Daoists who value and seek physical immortality, Zhang proposes that a good Confucian will seek neither to destroy not prolong existence; he will cede himself to the will of Heaven, model himself on Heaven and Earth, and do nothing to violate virtue and humaneness.” (Pg. 103)

So, understanding Principle and how Heaven works is only the half the story. Neo-Confucianism encourages people to follows these patterns in their owns lives, and that society will benefit as a result:

“For Zhang, a Confucian scholar should make untiring efforts to nourish his heart/mind and nature, and regard wealth, honor, blessing and benefits as the enrichment of life, while poverty, humble station and sorrow as a means to help him fulfill his destiny….A good Confucian follows and serves Heaven and Earth during his life, and is thus fulfilled so that when death comes he is at peace.”

So, the essence of Neo-Confucianism remains the same, but the focus is less on the Classics, and more on observing the world around them, and understanding Heaven and Earth that way. By doing so, one attains harmony with Heaven and Earth.


This is a brief look at Neo-Confucian thought both in terms of history and teachings. As I read other books, I hope to write more on the subject, because I think its influence on Asian culture and history has been understated by Western sources.

P.S. For you computer nerds out there, you can think of Neo-Confucianism as Confucianism++, but without all the memory leaks. ;p


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “A Look At Neo-Confucianism”

  1. Hi Doug,

    Quick question: any good books you’d recommend (scholarly) on Neo-Confucianism in Korea, either in English or Korean? Thanks for the brief introduction to the subject.



    1. Hello Seon-joon and welcome. Professor Yao’s book mentioned above is very helpful and readable.

      I also just started a book about King Yongjo of Joseon called The Confucian Kingship of Korea. I don’t know if it is a good book or not but the subject is interesting.

      I wish I knew more, but there aren’t many books in English and I cannot read much Korean yet.

      Good luck!


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