Neo-Confucian Revolution


The Song Dynasty of 960-1279 can be described as the origin point of early modern society in China. It was the early Golden Age that ushered in a new era of religious traditions known as Neo-Confucianism in China. This change in the Chinese culture was occasioned by a confrontation between two major philosophical and religious traditions in the country. They included the Chinese-born tradition of Confucianism and the Indian but were well-adapted and highly appealing, especially to the people, peasants, warlords, and even the intellectuals, doctrine of Chinese Buddhism. The result of this confrontation led to a subsequently huge change in the religious and traditional Chinese map that saw the decline of the dominant Chinese Buddhism to the introduction, growth, and establishment of Neo-Confucianism in China.

The Rise of Buddhism

The decline of the Confucian faith led to the development of a gap in the Chinese armor of faith. This collapse in the Confucian tradition and its teachings were occasioned by the unstable political and social environments that ensued after the fall of the Han dynasty. Therefore, the end of the Hans dynasty’s rule resulted in the development of a break in the traditional Confucian faith that allowed the entry of Buddhism into China. For that reason, Chinese society slid into chaos both politically and societally as well as in its ideals. People no longer believed in the government or its preaching about Confucianism. In the minds of many people, the fall of the Han dynasty discredited the government and any ideal that it supported.

Many people were ready for a change. During the decades of chaos that followed, many religions such as Taoism and Buddhism competed for predominance in society. Buddhism roughly arrived in the chain between 200 and stretched to 850. According to de Bary et al. (281), Chinese Buddhism gained prominence in the 5th and 6th centuries. The tradition quickly became appealing to the Chinese people because it preached self-cultivation through good habits and self-discipline. Furthermore, it seemed very interesting that people could achieve inner peace and harmony by roughing the inner discipline of meditation. Since China had been in decades of chaos after the collapse of the Han dynasty, a religion that was preaching peace and love was more appealing to everyone than any other aspect important for society. Hence, many people took to Buddhism religion, from poets and preachers to scholars and scientists.

The Rise of Neo-Confucianism

Confucianism never really disappeared from Chinese culture. Its major part remained silent and dormant for ages though it continued to play a vital role in the history of the Chinese people despite the ascent of Buddhism. The religion remained highly powerful, and it was in use by the royal and elite families in China. Moreover, it continued to be the preferred approach to much of the social and political dealings in the chain alongside prominent faiths such as Buddhism and Daoism (Yao 229). Most scholars agree that Neo-Confucianism gained fame around 775BC in China after the great divide and the fall of the Tang dynasty (Yao 246). More importantly, during this time, the An Lushan Rebellion began which resulted in the demise of the Tang dynasty.

The period of the Tang dynasty’s rule was considered one of the most glorious decades in Chinese history. The reason is that it experienced one of the greatest political social and economic changes since the fall of the Han dynasty. For decades, the country was peaceful and there was a flourishing cosmopolitan culture that spread beyond the boundaries of China into some of the most widely known and appreciated cultures such as the Korean and Japanese ones. Moreover, all branches from metaphysics to painting, calligraphy, poetry, food, and clothes grew and widely spread. This era saw the rise of Buddhism and its spread in and around the country. However, during that period, a number of Confucian scholars started to challenge the supreme nature of Buddhism teaching in China.

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Han Yu, Li Ao, and Liu Zongyuan were the earliest Confucian scholars to fully launch attacks against and question the essential place of Buddhism in China. They are described as the earliest scholars to start the development and acceptance of the Neo-Confucian revolution in the country. The writers were committed to the restoration of Confucian beliefs and the way of life. Neo-Confucian philosophy can be described as the blending or the synthesis of Taoist and Buddhist religions around the Confucian ways of thinking that had been predominant in China before. It is important to note that Neo-Confucianism was stimulated into being by the Daoist and Buddhist religions it did not borrow from their teaching and ways of life (Yao 251). On the contrary, it was reviving some of the old philosophies found in materials peculiar to the historical development of the Confucian Way. Hence, these scholars did not invent something new, they revived an old, abandoned culture.

In order to restore the old Confucian way of thinking one of the major Confucian philosophers, came up with a literal movement. This movement was known as the ‘guwen.’ It was an actual literal action that entailed not just calling people to return to the old way but also to adopt and present ideas of the Confucian tradition such as the self-cultivation of the Dao. Han Yu among other writers was among the first to embrace the use of Buddhism in the Neo-Confucian mode of thinking and life. Han Yu wholeheartedly accepted the principles of Buddhism such as the use of the sage and the importance of human self-cultivation. The principles were later adopted by other philosophers such as Zhu who built on their relevance and further integrated them into the Neo-Confucian mode of life.

The Confucian way of life entailed living proper moral codes that would lead to being a decent and worthy human being. Moreover, Confucianism contained another important facet which is the proper government and social order. The two factors were interlinked in some ways. Confucius believed that to be a proper morally upright person, an individual must have primarily cultivated social relationships (Yao, 155). Therefore, the core element of the government was based on morality. Neo-Confucianism borrowed most of the teaching on Confucian relations and mode of government, including the Confucian tradition of justice that entailed the restoration of the broken human relationship as a means of reconciling justice in the country (Class Notes “Confucian Law”). Moreover, the Confucian justice system viewed the law as a mixture of the rule of application. Rules would be applied based on the imperial legal codes, and customary and moral rules in the country. The rules that would be implemented were the ones that sought to elicit the truth rather than hide it and teach lessons that corrected the litigants’ moral behavior (Class Notes “Confucian Law”). Additional themes and traits drawn from the Confucian way were Li, Tina, and Zing among others. Li can be described as a ritual action or rather the spiritual glue that held the people together. It was what constituted a normal human being. Li was considered a principle and a pattern to the whole cosmos (Tsai 31-3).

Neo-Confucianism incorporated some elements of Buddhism. The theory of the praxis of self-cultivation by Master Zhu Xi was one of the major pillars of the Neo-Confucian revolution. This theory incorporated elements of self-care from Buddhism. According to Master Zhu, the theory of self-cultivation was based on the preferred method of Gewu commonly referred to as the investigation of things. He believed that all elements and individuals in the world had their own unique distinctive principle. Therefore, the student had to study and understand as many of these principles as possible. Essentially, it was a method of self/individual intellectual cultivation of the mind and the heart that included the principle of introspection that had been borrowed from Buddhism. Many Buddhist teachers believed that it was crucial for individuals to look within themselves and find their axis. Hence, introspection was perceived as an important part of meditation (Yao 233). Gewu principle became famous and widely accepted by the followers of Neo-Confucianism because it was an attempt at finding the objective and inter-subjective method to overcome pain. Moreover, Master Zhu’s principles of the Daxoue put emphasis on many Confucian themes, motifs, and principles. However, it also incorporated a number of Buddhist principles such as a form of meditation known as quiet sitting. Moreover, it had room for the conducting of empirical research to determine the basic facts about the external world. Hence, it came up with the perfect balance between Confucian ways of thinking as well as the self-cultivation and introspection needed to balance out life.

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Moreover, the principles of cheng, or self-actualization, and of jen, or ultimate humanization, also showed the critical fusion of Confucianism and Buddhism. Cheng and Jen provide various modes of self-actualization in Neo-Confucianism. In turn, the methods of self-actualization provide the person with various emotional depositions that provide them with moral directions (Tsai 23). It made up the experimental world of the human heart connections and its relations to the unification of these principles to the Confucian way of life and the mediating principles. Zhu Xi believed that there is an incredible mind-heart connection for each person. The mind-heart connection contains cognitive and affective abilities that when well and fully cultivated, can provide immense benefits to every individual and to society in general. Since previous Chinese religions did not have a way to tap into these mind-heart connections, Master Zhu Xi incorporated the use of Buddhism meditating principles to enable the individual to focus his mind and understand the mind-heart connection. It can only be done through proper introspection. Zhu argues that when subjected to proper education and self-cultivation, the mind and heart can learn to discern various contrasts that exist in the world in order to sustain ethical and moral human actions. Buddhism plays a huge role in this form of self-actualization. Most Buddhists believe that an individual can only attain self-revelations and understanding when they critically look deep down into their core.


Neo-Confucianism appeared during the period of the propagation of Buddhism and Daoism. The philosophy of Neo-Confucianism can be described as the blending or the synthesis of Taoist and Buddhist religions around the Confucian ways of thinking that had been predominant in China before. Though Neo-Confucianism was stimulated into being by the Daoist and Buddhist religions, it did not borrow from their teaching and the ways of life. Instead, some of the old philosophies were re-discovered in foundational materials of the Confucian Way. Various aspects of Buddhism such as mediation and self-actualization have been incorporated into major Neo-Confucian principles.

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