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
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.