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Confucianism - Neo-confucianism

learning principle mind texts

For nearly a thousand years after the disintegration of the Han empire, the maintenance of elite family rituals and repeated invocation of filial duty were the only distinctively "Confucian" markers of the political elite in China. The classics, now labeled "New Texts," were replaced by more recently discovered "Old Texts," which joined Buddhist scriptures and imperial institutions as the eclectic markers of civilization. This was the civilization that spread to the Korean Peninsula and the Yamato Plain of Japan. The great Tang state of the seventh century left the elite families and their self-defined hierarchy in place. The Tang model resonated with the interests of great families in Korea and Japan. But not until the eleventh century, in an East Asian world that was divided among shifting imperial states but increasingly integrated by an expanding commercial economy, did another new ethos invite the recasting of early Confucian ideas.

The recasting, which has led Western scholars to coin the term "Neo-Confucianism" in an effort to define it, developed at the intersection of three social-intellectual trends. First, in the great Song empire of the eleventh century an emergent scholar-official elite, in their discussions of statecraft, tended to support their arguments on all sides with appeals to "native" precedents and values, in contrast to "imported" religious values and the imputed values of a rising commercial class. This nativist trend produced "moral learning" (daoxue), which centered on early Confucian ideas of the Way and self-cultivation. Second, with the development of woodblock printing, the growth of unprecedentedly large commercial urban centers, and the appearance of private academies, there emerged a new metaphysical discussion that subsumed Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. This metaphysical trend was labeled "principle learning" (lixue). Third, as an increasing number of scholar-official families relocated in rural areas in central, eastern, and southern China where they could invest in land and form strategic alliances with other locally prominent families, they began to appropriate the genealogical rules, forms of record keeping, contracts for incorporating property, and family rituals of the old hereditary elite as part of their localist social strategies. This localist trend led to the reinvention of the rites to suit their needs, while raising new problems for those scholar-officials who were engaged in "moral learning."

Zhu Xi (1130–1200), the great master of Song "principle learning," brought these three trends together in his copious writings on learning, statecraft, family rituals, cosmology, and the sciences. Philosophers of the previous century, especially Cheng Yi (1033–1107), had challenged the Buddhist view that prior to something (i.e., prior to the mind's effort to distinguish one thing from another) there is nothing (wu). They turned to the cosmology of the Changes, according to which all things come into being with the movement of the complementary valences of yin and yang. Their movement is limited only by the finite amount of qi in the cosmos, and this limit (ji) is called the "great ultimate" (taiji). In other words, they argued, prior to something there is a principle (li), which is best understood as both the ultimate limit and that which has no limit (wuji). The mind's awareness of principles in things is not, as the Buddhists argued, something that it invents and confuses with reality but, rather, the completion of the process by which something simultaneously comes to exist and becomes knowable as principle. In the words of Zhu Xi, the "investigation of things," which, according to one ancient text, the Great Learning, was the first step in the process of learning that led to self-cultivation and world peace, meant the "exhaustive comprehension of principle." Drawing on this and another ancient text called the Doctrine of the Mean, he also argued that the unity of principle and mind was a manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven, which could only be understood as good, thereby merging the moralist with the metaphysical trend. He wrote commentaries on these two texts along with the Analects and Mencius, supplementing the commentaries by Cheng Yi, and advocated their study as a unit called the Four Books.

The moralist trend intersected the localist trend as the rites of upwardly mobile families began to change and the value of women in marriage arrangements began to rise. In the commercial world, especially in the households of urban and geographically mobile small traders and shopkeepers, a woman's value could easily depend more on the talents and abilities she brought to the trade than on her conformity to Ban Zhao's model. For a landowning scholar-official family, on the other hand, a woman's value was determined primarily by the family's rank, wealth, and local status. As daughters tended to marry upward on the social scale, dowries rose to a level that moralists regarded as grotesque. Concurrently, scholar-official families began to perform ceremonies at gravesites and to include in their ancestral rites greater generational depth. To further enhance their pedigrees, they began compiling genealogical records, which then became the currency of social relations locally, regionally, and empire-wide as time went on. When appeals to moral principles proved insufficient to counter these trends, scholars adapted the ancient texts and traditions to the setting of official standards for the new practices. Zhu Xi himself wrote copiously on issues of the family rituals that were the tools, or the cultural capital, of this class. Marriages, deaths, burials, ancestral rites, genealogical record keeping, and patterns of descent group formation were all contributing to a new discussion, the vocabulary of which derived from ancient ritual texts and concurrent discussions of learning and morality among the scholar-official elite.

After the Mongol expansion and domination of Asia, the texts and commentaries of Song "Neo-Confucianism" emerged as the orthodoxy on which success in the examination system of the Ming and Qing imperial civil service depended. A broadening stratum of educated elites in rural and urban communities throughout China drew on this tradition of learning to construct the nexus of power between the imperial state and local society. At the same time, the tradition's dual focus on self-cultivation and public duty defined a new debate on the role of individuals quite apart from the state. By the mid-sixteenth century a newly vibrant urban culture, based in part on global trade and silver flows, challenged the scholar-officials' nexus of power. An alternative reading of the ancient texts proposed by Wang Yangming (1472–1529) produced an array of new traditions that differed from the Song moralist trend. Wang argued that the "exhaustive comprehension of principle" could not occur in the first stage of learning because knowledge of principles was inseparable from the act of knowing. Learning entailed the "unity of knowledge and action," so that only when the mind actively applied itself to something could the principle be

According to Confucius, the point of "learning" was to attain confidence in one's own understanding of the Way, which also entailed the duty to restore virtue to power through benevolence and the use of ritual. One who understood this was called a "gentleman," to be distinguished from a "petty man," who did not. The core of this teaching can be found in a few pithy quotations from book 4 of the Analects:

The benevolent man is attracted to benevolence because he feels at home in it; the wise man is attracted to benevolence because he finds it to his advantage (4:2).

There is no point in seeking the counsel of an officer who sets his mind on the Way, if he is ashamed of poor food and poor clothes (4:9).

The gentleman cherishes virtue in power; the petty man cherishes his native land. The gentleman cherishes justice; the petty man cherishes mercy (4:11).

The gentleman understands what is right; the petty man understands what is profitable (4:16).

When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self (4:17).

If one is able to run the state with rites and deference, then what is the difficulty? If one is unable to run the state with rites and deference, then what good are the rites? (4:13).

Mencius believed that humans were inclined to goodness by nature and that this original goodness could be found by looking into one's heart (or mind), which heaven had made sensitive to the suffering of others: "Suppose one were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. One would certainly be moved to compassion.… The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence; the heart of shame is the germ of duty; the heart of deference is the germ of the rites; the heart of right and wrong is the germ of wisdom. Having these four germs is like having four limbs. To say that one cannot use them is to cripple oneself; to say that one's ruler cannot use them is to cripple one's ruler."

Mencius also counseled rulers of states on how to recover and apply the compassion that was in their hearts. The key was to "take this very heart here and apply it to what is over there.… Why is it that your bounty is sufficient to reach animals yet the benefits of your government fail to reach the people? … The people will not have constant hearts if they are without constant means. Lacking constant hearts, they will go astray and fall into excesses, stopping at nothing. To punish them after they have fallen foul of the law is to set a trap for the people. How can a benevolent man in authority allow himself to set a trap for the people?"

Xunzi believed that humans were inclined to selfishness and that goodness was the result of the conscious activity of the mind (or heart). Neither "goodness" nor the rites were mandated by heaven; both were created by men who understood that ritual and deference were necessary for social order and the collective good. "The former kings looked up and took their model from Heaven, looked down and took their model from the earth, looked about and took their rules from mankind. Such rules represent the ultimate principle of community harmony and unity.… Hence the sacrificial rites originate in the emotions of remembrance and longing, express the highest degree of loyalty, love, and reverence, and embody what is finest in ritual conduct and formal bearing." Man shares energy, life, and intelligence with the animals; why is man superior? "Because he is able to organize himself in society and they are not. Why is he able to organize himself in society? Because he sets up hierarchical divisions. And how is he able to set up hierarchical divisions? Because he has a sense of duty."

Zhu Xi believed that one could be said to have learned something only when the principle in a text had revealed to one the principle that was buried in one's mind: "When one's original mind has been submerged for a long time, and the moral principle in it hasn't been fully penetrated, it's best to read books and probe principle without any interruption; then the mind of human desire will naturally be incapable of winning out, and the moral principle in the original mind will naturally become safe and secure.… In reading, we cannot seek moral principle solely from the text. We must turn the process around and look for it in ourselves.… We have yet to discover for ourselves what the sages previously explained in their texts—only through their words will we find it in ourselves."

Wang Yangming believed that "learning" required both knowing and acting, and it was not necessarily aided by reading books. "In all the world, nothing can be considered learning that does not involve action. Thus the very beginning of learning is already action. To be earnest in practice means to be genuine and sincere. This is already action." "In the basic structure of mind there is neither good nor evil; when the mind moves purposively, then there is good and evil; knowing good and evil is what is meant by 'moral knowledge'; doing good and destroying evil is what is meant by 'the investigation of things.'"

known. By the same token, insofar as the substance of mind was empty and still, it was neither good nor evil, but a clarified mind in action "naturally" or "intuitively" conformed to what was "good." This, he argued, is what Mencius had meant by "moral knowledge" (liang zhi). Some of the new traditions developed closer affinities with Buddhist and Daoist enlightenment. Some gave a much higher priority to individual enlightenment than to educational status. Some made it a duty to convert wealth into charity or to spread the enlightenment attained through self-cultivation to women and to social classes that were outside the nexus of power. Some even pointed out the ways in which the structures of family, lineage, and state impeded the learning process for men and women alike.

Ming challenges to Song Neo-Confucian orthodoxy continued to influence the personal moral choices of educated Chinese during the Ming decline and Qing conquest in the seventeenth century, but they did not displace that orthodoxy in the examination system. Nor did they prevent the Qing from using Confucian state ideology, demanding loyalty and compliance with prescribed norms in regular readings of the emperor's "Sacred Edict," or providing official support for patriarchal lineage institutions throughout the empire. On the other hand, a new trend of "evidential scholarship" (kaozheng) emerged to challenge the antiquity of the pre-Han texts on which the orthodox commentaries depended. By the mid-eighteenth century, philological studies of ancient texts had developed into a science known as "Han learning" that complemented the learning imported by Jesuits into the Qing court's bureau of astronomy, weakening the cosmological underpinnings of the imperial state without challenging its political dominance. As Han learning gradually eroded the validity of the "Old Texts" of the Confucian tradition, new champions of the early Han "New Texts" also appeared. When alternative cosmologies and political philosophies arrived along with British gunboats and opium in the early nineteenth century, Chinese scholars and reformers responded not simply by reinforcing imperial Confucian ideology, but by drawing on current evidential scholarship and renewed debates over ethics that were strikingly relevant to the modern age.

In Korea the Chosŏn dynasty officially implemented Confucian rituals for local control using texts propagated by Zhu Xi, whose commentaries also remained orthodoxy in imperial examinations. By the eighteenth century Chosŏn state power had declined but a thoroughly ensconced local elite maintained a strict social hierarchy using Confucian family and community rituals, prescribed by law. In Tokugawa Japan, on the other hand, Confucian scholars found it difficult to reconcile Neo-Confucian ideas with bakufu military governance, as distinct from imperial authority, and the strict social distinction between a samurai class and common folks. Ogyū Sorai (1666–1728) and his successors in "Ancient studies" (kogaku) challenged the Neo-Confucian worldview with observations akin to Xunzi's about the need to implement rites that are appropriate in time and place. A school of "National learning" (kokugaku) arose and went even further, blaming Chinese learning in general for corrupting the native traditions of Shinto and the idea of imperial power. In response, Japanese "Han learning" promoted the study of the literary products of Chinese civilization as a valuable tradition in its own right. In the nineteenth century the Mito school devised a new formula, according to which the Chinese sages, as understood by the Duke of Zhou and Confucius, had formulated for China a philosophy whose principles were intrinsic in the Japanese imperial cult and original Shinto practice. Holding to the idea that Chinese civilization reflected universally true ideas, they concluded that the Way of the sages and the Way of the gods (Shinto) were actually one.

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