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Religion Library: Confucianism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Jeffrey Richey

There were few regional differences in Confucianism, but specific interpretations changed periodically. The Song dynasty Confucian Zhu Xi (1130-1200 C.E.), known as the creator of "Neo-Confucianism," developed an interpretation that unified human nature with cosmic principles such as the dynamic, complementary interplay of yin and yang, the unfolding of cosmic pattern (li) in the human heart-mind, and the cycles of transformation described in texts such as the Yijing. The Ming dynasty Confucian Wang Yangming (1472-1529 C.E.) introduced the idea of "true knowing" -- an intuitive awareness of cosmic principles attained through self-cultivation. Zhu's lixue ("Learning of the Cosmic Principle") and Wang's xinxue ("Learning of the Heart-Mind") each contributed to what became known as daoxue ("Learning of the Way"), the form of Confucianism that most influenced all East Asian cultures during the second millennium C.E. It also was in this form that Confucianism played what the pre-modern Chinese saw as its civilizing role in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

Taiji (Great Ultimate) cosmological diagram: Public DomainIf the classical Confucians -- Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi -- defended the learning of the sages during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods of the late Zhou dynasty, the Song (960-1279 C.E.), Yuan (1279-1368 C.E.), and Ming  (1368-1644 C.E.) dynasty Confucian masters did the same in countering the challenges of Taoism and Buddhism in their own age.

Among these latter-day Confucians, none was more influential than Zhu Xi. Zhu has been likened to St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and there is little doubt that except for Kongzi and Dong Zhongshu, no one has been more important in defining the course of the Confucian tradition.  Zhu's form of Confucianism, which he based on the writings of the Song dynasty masters Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073 C.E.), Shao Yong (1011-1077 C.E.), Zhang Zai (1020-1077 C.E.), and the brothers Cheng Hao (1032-1085 C.E.) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107 C.E.), was spread by his followers to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Earlier forms of Confucianism already were known by China's regional neighbors, but always had been subordinated to Buddhism by the intellectual, political, and religious tastes of their courts. Zhu's cosmologically-inclined "Neo-Confucianism," which elevated personal practices such as meditation to unprecedented prominence in the Confucian tradition, actually replaced Buddhism as the principal form of elite thought, not only in China (from the Song to the modern period), but also in Vietnam (from the 10th through the 20th centuries C.E.), Korea (during the Choson dynasty, 1392-1897 C.E.), and Japan (from the Edo period through the Meiji period, 1603-1912 C.E.).


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