Neo-ConfucianismThe and the Cheng brothers- Cheng Hao

Neo-ConfucianismThe glorious Tang times of the Chinese history has witnessed the most flourishing and cosmopolitan developments, never seen anywhere around the world. Be it in the field of metaphysics or painting, calligraphy, clothes and poetry. Moreover it has also been marked as the Golden Age of Buddhist philosophy developments, while at the same time number of Confucian thinkers began to challenge the supremacy of Buddhism.

They appealed for the restoration and revival of the Confucian Way. Some of the earliest Neo-Confucians were Han Yu (768-824), Li Ao (772-836) and Liu Zongyuan (773-819). With this, China witnessed the revival of Confucianism as “Neo-Confucianism” and later on spread to Korea and Japan as well.Neo-Confucianism (???? meaning lixue ??) primarily refers to the new Confucian movement that synthesized the traditional Confucian social and moral concerns with a new metaphysics and spirituality.  It is an ethical, moral and social Chinese philosophy with metaphysical components. Neo-Confucianism exhibits both humanistic and rationalistic approach with the elements of continuity and discontinuity.

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Neo-Confucians promoted a unified goal of humane flourishing by ethical self-reflection and cultivation. In other words, they aspired a spiritual ideal of sagehood achievable by methods of cultivation provided by Zhou Dunyi, the Cheng brothers and Zhang Zai. During the development of the philosophy, some fundamental challenges faced by Neo-Confucians were: need for a systematic and coherent cosmology to prove its central concept of human beings as moral, rational and fundamentally good; and to meet the challenge of the Buddhist doctrines of “impermanence”. In response, Neo-Confucians formulated a new doctrine of human nature, integrated with cosmic infrastructure of principle ie., “li” and material force ie., “qi”, along with a morally responsible and socially responsive “self”.During the Song times, Neo-Confucianism was also known as the Learning of the Sage(s) and the Way to Sagehood, later as the Learning of Human Nature, of Principle and of the Mind-and-Heart. Zhu Xi (1130-1200) followed Han Yu in depicting the Way and developed his own version of Succession to the Way (daotong), which eventually became the foundational base of Neo-Confucian movement.

  He credited Zhou Dunyi (or Zhou Lianxi, 1017-1073) and the Cheng brothers- Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107) for rediscovering the True Way after China submerged under Daoism and Buddhism, and also some key Song rulers as major contributors. Through universal schooling and a neoclassical curriculum, they aimed at education for all. Two major schools of Neo-Confucian thought were: first, the “orthodox” school of Zhu Xi, and second was that of Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529).Zhu Xi (1130-1200) – The most important doctrine developed by Zhu Xi of the Southern Song was the daoxue (Teaching of the Way) philosophy through the cosmological interaction of principle (li) and material force (qi).

He also precisely defined other concepts such as Supreme Ultimate (taiji), human nature (xing), and the mind-and-heart (xin). Zhu Xi believed in human perfectibility which could be achieved through self cultivation by the method of “investigation of things” (gewu) as outlined in the Great Learning Ren is the essence of one’s humanity; it is through the virtue of humanness (ren) that one overcomes all selfishness and partiality. Zhu termed this as real or practical learning (shixue). His school of thought is identified as the Cheng-Zhu school. Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073) – Zhou’s most important contribution to the Neo-Confucian tradition was his “Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity” (“Taijitu shuo”), which became the accepted foundation of Neo-Confucian cosmology.

Another major work was Penetrating the Classic of Changes (Tongshu) which focuses on the sage as the model of humanity. He defines sagehood as authenticity or sincerity (cheng) outlined in the Mean. He is known as the “founding ancestor” of the Cheng-Zhu school.Zhang Zai (1020-1077) – Zhang Zai’s popular essay the “Western Inscription” (Ximing) was based on his conception of the unity of all things in their shared psycho-physical substance of material force (qi). On the other hand, Correcting Youthful Ignorance (Zhengmeng) regarded the universe and all phenomena as the productions of the primal life force emerging from the Supreme Ultimate or Polarity, so the task of human beings is to comprehend the processes of change and harmonize with them. Zhang Zai based his learning on the Classic of Changes and the Mean.

The Cheng Brothers- Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107) combined Zhang Zai’s concept of qi with the concept of li as the inner structure of things (like a genetic coding) and developed the creative life-principle (shengsheng) as expressed in the Changes. This principle in human beings was structured as human nature (xing), the moral nature (dexing) or Heavenly nature (tianxing), and the perfection of which was humaneness or humanity (ren). Investigation of the principles in things and introspection of principles in the mind were the two approaches combined, through which human fulfillment could be achieved.

Rise of Neo-Confucianism in KoreaLate Goryeo PeriodNeo-Confucianism emerged in Korea during the late Goryeo period and played a central role in the political, spiritual and intellectual life of the Joseon dynasty, subsequently attaining the role of the state ideology. The school of Neo-Confucianism which began to bloom in the late Goryeo period was called Tohak, based on the orthodox Cheng-Zhu school that was highly critical of Buddhism. An Hyang (1243-1306) is believed to be the first to introduce Song’s Neo-Confucianism to Korea by bringing a copy of Zhu Xi’s Complete Works (Zhuzi quanshu) from his stay in the Yuan capital as a member of a Koryo embassy to the Mongol court during the reign of King Chungyol. An also promoted Confucian education by revitalizing the National Confucian Academy and propagated the ideas of Zhu Xi. To support state academies and purchase Neo-Confucian texts from China, he established a scholarship fund as well.

In a while Neo-Confucianism spread quickly among the officialdom and became the major focus of the academic’s curriculum.Paek I-chong (1275-1325), considered as the first Korean to study the Cheng-Zhu learning in China is credited for mastering the philosophy in China itself during his stay with King Chungson, and helping to propagate it in Korea after his return from the Yuan capital. Yi Che-hyon and Pak Chung-hwa were some of the scholars to whom he had taught.

Yi Saek (1328-1396) was appointed as the superintendent of the Capital District and supervisor of the sacrificial rites when the Royal Confucian Academy (Songgyungwan) was rebuilt in 1367. He revised the academic procedures and taught the students the Five Classics and the Four Books. Subsequently, Neo-Confucianism gained its momentum by attacking Buddhism and scholars-state officials supported the new philosophy in order to clean the corrupt and stagnated orthodox society left behind by Goryeo’s Buddhism.Joseon PeriodAfter the fall of the Goryeo dynasty, Joseon dynasty was established by Yi Song-gye as King Taejo (1335-1408). Considered to be against the Confucian order, Buddhism was restricted and the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism sorted methods to legitimize the authority of the new dynasty. Claiming the Mandate of Heaven, Yi Song-gye or King Taejo endorsed the new philosophy and eventually entitled it as the religion and ideology of the state, supported by the Neo-Confucian scholars-officials.

Kwon Kun (1352-1409), regarded as one of the spiritual founders of Choson Korea laid out the basic concepts of Neo-Confucianism and enlightened their relevance in the socio-political life. He also emphasized the importance of Confucian learning for activating people’s moral nature by self-realization to attain proper human relationships between ruler and subject, father and son, elder and younger. His Introductory Diagrams on Learning (Ipaktosol) dealt with the relationship between man and heaven according to Neo-Confucianism. From his memorial (1401), he pointed out six matters: loyalty to King Taejo, administration of state affairs, treatment of officials, attendance at royal lectures, rewarding of loyalty, and performance of state rituals.Chong Tojon in his philosophical works outlined the Confucian point of view and turned against Buddhism, paying close attention to renewing and tightening the governmental structure on the path of Confucian order. In his Administrative Codes of Choson (Choson kyongguk chon), he drafted the constitutional outline of the new dynasty – emphasized the ruler’s position in the governing process; a strong standing for the prime minister (chongjae) whose major task was to assist the king at the head of the administration; and recognize the importance of the censorial agencies to keep a check on the king as well as to supervise the officialdom.

His other major political works includes Historical Mirror for Managing the World and Saving the People (Kyongje mungam) and A Supplement to Kyonje munugam (Kyonje mungam pyolchip).With the literal impact of Chong Tojon and Kwon Kun’s writings, Neo-Confucianism was declared as the orthodox school of the Joseon dynasty, making it memorable in King Sejong’s royal edict of 1421.At the end of the dynasty’s first century, new school of Confucian literati emerged known as sarim, which stressed on the practical morality of Tohak as the standard of social ethic.  However, severe political conflict emerged between the Neo-Confucian literati (sarim) who advocated the thorough application of Confucian ideals, while the aristocrats in the central bureaucracy ie., the conservative fraction (Hungu) comprised of more practical-careerist students of Confucianism, which led to the literati purges (sahwa) of 1498, 1504, 1519 and 1545.Cho Kwangjo (1482-1519), the most prominent victim of the literati purge of 1519 became the recognized leader of an ideological and political restoration movement, centered on the embodiment of the Way (to) in government.

His principle concerns were the cultivation of personal virtue as the mainspring of a ruler’s transforming influence (hwa). By the 16th century, Neo-Confucianism was at its peak of the golden age achieving significant philosophical development. Two major leading figures of the Korean Neo-Confucianism which emerged at this period were Yi Hwang or Toegye of Andong and Yi I or Yulgok of Seoul.Yi HwangYi Hwang (1501-1570), pen name Toegye, was born in a relatively modest yangban lineage in the village of Ongyeri, located near Andong.

Some of his important writings include Essentials of Zhu Xi’s Correspondence, Record of Self-Reflection, and Comprehensive Record of Song, Yuan and Ming Neo-Confucianism. He is also credited for his special work in the controversial the Four Seven-Debate where he broke new ground in the metaphysically based psychological theory of the Cheng-Zhu school. In 1568, he submitted the Memorial on Six Points (Mujin yukcho so) to King Sonjo (1567-1608). The first two points include correct continuation of the royal line, close relations with the two dowager-regents, and guarding against slander. The third point talks about Sage Learning (songhak) as the basis of good rule, based upon the teachings of Zhu Xi in the Great Learning and the Mean. The fourth point clarifies the development of the Way (to) from antiquity to early Choson, warns against dissident teachings (Buddhism), and requests the young king to give the Way a permanent abode in Korea.

The importance of trustworthy high officials and the censorial agencies are emphasized in the fifth point. The last point shows the close connection between recognizing the will of Heaven and the kingly way.Yi Hwang’s last work is the popular Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning which presents the essential framework of, and linkages among Neo-Confucian metaphysics, psychological theory, moral conduct and spiritual discipline. It precisely focuses on the central theme of Neo-Confucian teaching ie., Sage Learning as a theory of human nature and practice of self-cultivation. His theory of cultivation was based on the concept of awareness applying the Classic of Mind-and-Heart (xingjing) as the basic principle. Yi Hwang explains that there is no difference between a ruler and a common man, when it comes to learning and self-cultivation. The king needs a particular kind of knowledge to govern, but traditionally Confucians considered that the essential learning for all government is the cultivation of oneself as a full and proper human being, and this is what the Ten Diagrams addresses.

He explicitly makes mindfulness (ky?ng ching) the central theme of the whole Ten Diagram, which is absolutely fundamental for both study and practice.Yi I Yi I (1536-1584) also known as Yulgok was a great statesman, theorist of government and a metaphysical thinker of rare perceptiveness and clarity. According to him, health and stability of the state solely rested on the peasantry, thus he emphasized on the strengthening of the peasant’s livelihood as the prime task.

He forthrightly links the notion of principle creatively with the concept of self-actualization (cheng) of the mind-heart.Yi I with his friend Song Hon (1535-1598) further took part in the Four-Seven Debate as well, where Yi argued the question in terms of two sets of feelings: the purely good Four Beginnings, and the sometimes good and sometimes evil Seven Feelings. He instead referred to the “Dao Mind” and the “Human Mind” to normative and good inclinations versus those of a more dubious one.In his Memorial In Ten Thousand Words (1574) which he submitted to King Sonjo, he emphasized on flexibility in policy planning and legislation. It combines Neo-Confucian instruction on kingly rule and popular indoctrination with practical advice on economic, military and administrative matters. Yi I constantly believed that the basic program of internal cultivation and its application to politics lies in the foundation of all moral and political action as outlined in Zhu Xi’s commentary on the Great Learning. Debates: Neo-Confucianism vs.

BuddhismParticularly in Korea, Buddhism reached its apex during the Goryeo dynasty, up to the extent of attaining the status of state religion. However under the patronage of the state, the Buddhist monasteries were richly endowed with tax-less land and monks increasingly got involved in the state politics. Due to monastic landholdings and tax-exemptions, Goryeo Buddhism was criticized for undermining the national economy. It was also charged with corruption in the governmental institutions which later became the dominant factor for the downfall of the Goryeo dynasty.

Majority of the Neo-Confucians criticized Buddhism for its spiritual and institutional decay:-An early Confucian Choe Sung-ro (927-989) during the reign of King Songjong did warn the court against the dangers of Buddhism in his petition.Yi Saek (1328-1396) argued that although Buddha was a great “sage”, however one can’t neglect the fact that the Korean Buddhist monks corrupted the Goryeo society. Thus, it was necessary for the government to reform on the lines of Neo-Confucian ideals.Another critic Chong Mong-ju (1337-1392) taught his Confucian code of family ceremonies at Songgyungwan advocated by Chutzu and criticized the Buddhist monastic life. He argued that the Buddhist teachings were not natural as it neglects the distinction between man and woman, ignores the elements of parents and family (filial piety), and instead projected to live an alienated lifestyle abandoning one’s family.

He also criticized the Buddhist 100-days mourning and instead encouraged to use the Confucian custom of a 3-years mourning for the death of parents.Kim Cha-su criticized Buddhist rituals for being “superstitious” and argued for the supervision by the state.Pak Cho (1367-1454) accused Buddhism as a religion that creates evil and distorts human nature. Also, Buddhist texts must be destroyed, and monks be subjected to military service.

 Another criticism against Buddhism was on the economical grounds. The Goryeo scholars-officials were dissatisfied with the political factionalism of Buddhist institutions and their control over slaves, financial monopolies and estates.The transitional period from the Goryeo to the Joseon dynasty in Korea witnessed the shift from sponsoring Buddhism to the confucianization of the state through the adoption of the new philosophy “Neo-Confucianism”, based on Zhu Xi’s writings. Gradually as Neo-Confucianism enjoyed the state patronage, Buddhism was continuously suppressed and even persecuted. The land owned by many Buddhist temples was taken away by the state, and many monks expelled from their monasteries.

Their social ranks became no higher than those of the low classes like butchers, shamanistic sorcerers and prostitutes. As a whole, Buddhism was denounced as an anti-social and unorthodox religion. Jeong Do-jeon (1342-1398) focused on the comparisons of Buddhist and Confucian positions on issues of doctrine and practice, emphasizing to prove that the Buddhist doctrine was flawed. The primary objective of his criticisms was the Seon sect of Buddhism. His major work included the anti-Buddhist polemical work “Bulssi Japbyeon”, which criticized the Buddhist doctrine to be disconnected with each other and conveniently used for escaping responsibilities. Chong Tojon (1342-1398) was the first Korean Neo-Confucian to formulate a systematic philosophical criticism of Buddhist doctrine in his two essays: On Mind, Material Force and Principle (Simgii pyon) and Arguments Against the Buddha (Pulssi chappyon).

In Simgii pyon, his main argument is that the Neo-Confucian learning of human nature (song/hsing) and principle (li/i) is more valuable in emphasizing the objective reality of learning, self-cultivation and socio-political orders. While in Pulssi chappyon, he defends Cheng-Zhu metaphysics and ethics by presenting Song’s Neo-Confucianism as the orthodox tradition of learning and self-cultivation. Kwon Kun (1352-1409) criticized Buddhism using Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucian doctrines. He argued that Buddhism is “partial” whereas Neo-Confucianism is “correct”, and the Confucian virtue of filial piety is the greatest virtue to be cultivated. According to him, Neo-Confucianism is superior to Buddhism because its way of cultivation integrates both inner and outer life. Thus, emphasizing the unity of knowledge and action in learning and self-cultivation. These scholars believed that Neo-Confucian metaphysics, moral teachings, and political ideologies were an effective alternative to the morally and spiritually corrupted Buddhist tradition of the Goryeo dynasty. However, there were few eminent Buddhist monks who made efforts to defend Buddhism and reconcile their views with Confucianism.

Kihwa (1376-1433) was an eminent Meditation master and one of the most prolific Buddhist writers, advocating the reconciliation among religions in the early Joseon dynasty. His Treatise on Manifesting Rightness (Hyonjong non) compares Buddhist principles and their functions with Confucianism. This text directly responded to every objections raised in Jeong Do-jeon’s  Bulssi Japbyeon, while his aim was to only point out the underlying unity of the three teachings (Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism)and see them as a unifying principle.Kim Sisup (1435-1493) is infamous for syncretizing Buddhism and Confucianism. In On No-Thought (Musa), Kim comments on the Buddhist practices of his time, criticizing those idle practitioners who were insincere in their meditation while pretending to be transcendent. Rather he insisted on a syncretic approach to Buddhist practices within a secular life of Confucian perspective. Hyujong (1520-1604), generally regarded as the greatest monk of the Joseon dynasty studied the Confucian classics at the Royal Academy. He became a monk at the age of 19.

In his Mirror of Three Religions (Samga kwigam), he attempted to show that the 3 religions: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism were not divergent in transmitting the truth and their ultimate messages are basically the same.ConclusionThe new off-shoot of the Confucian school ie., Neo-Confucianism, although began in China, spread widely covering the whole East Asia. This philosophy not only worked as a critic of Buddhism but also ultimately submerged into people’s lifestyle.

 In the recent decades, even though Christianity has increased its influence in Korea and Buddhism beginning to revive, Korean Neo-Confucianism is still alive and its principles are upheld strongly in today’s world as well. It has adapted well with the prevailing conditions of the modern society through a dynamic reforms in its structure and activities. Furthermore, it also promotes the world culture of industrial civilization as well as preserving the old customs.ReferencesLegge, James. The Four Books. Hong Kong: The International Publication Society.

Barry, WM Theodore J. Sources of East Asian Tradition Vol 1. Columbia University Press. 2008Chung, Edward YJ. The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok: A Reappraisal of the Four-Seven Thesis and Its Implications for Self-Cultivation. SUNY Press.

1995.Keum, Jang-tae. Confucianism and Korean Thoughts. Seoul: Jimoondang Publishing Company. 2000.Shim, Jae-ryong. Korean Buddhism: Tradition and Transformation. Seoul: Jimoondang Publishing Company.

1999.Lovins, Christopher L. The King’s Reason: Yi Song-gye and the Centralization of Power in early Choson. http://gsis.”Neo-Confucian Philosophy”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“Neo-Confucianism”. Wikipedia.


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