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.
If 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.).
Second only to Zhu was his Ming dynasty critic, Wang Yangming. Not only did Wang provide a brilliant critique of Zhu's thought, he also was an outstanding general and civil servant, poet, and teacher, thus exemplifying the Confucian ideal of the scholar-official. Wang held that li (cosmic principle), the rationale of the Tao (Way)in human nature, was in the mind-heart of the sincere student who cultivated his own nature in accordance with Confucian traditions. According to Wang, thought and action could be unified if one understood the nature of one's own heart-mind as an expression of li. It is not difficult to see the influence of Chan Buddhism, which also teaches a doctrine of innate spiritual knowledge and which Wang studied as a youth, in Wang's reformulation of Zhu's "Neo-Confucianism."
Between the fall of the Ming dynasty and the rise of the Qing dynasty in 1644 C.E. and the close of China's imperial era in 1911 C.E., the renewed Confucianism developed by Zhu, Wang, and others underwent further refinement and criticism, even as the
tradition continued to grow in Korea and Japan. This reactive period of Confucianism's development was characterized in China by the hanxue (Learning of the Han [Chinese people]) movement, also known as the kaozheng xue (Evidential Learning) movement, on the one hand, and by the rise of popular Confucian morality in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, where Confucianism continued to develop along lines largely laid out during China's Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, on the other hand.
In China, hanxueConfucians rejected a great deal of Song, Yuan, and Ming Confucian thought. Leaders of this movement included Wang Fuzhi (1619-1692 C.E.), Huang Zongxi (1610-1695 C.E.), and Dai Zhen (1723-1777 C.E.). These Qing dynasty scholars castigated what they saw as the needlessly abstract thought of the Song and the equally debilitating subjectivism of Wang's thought in the late Ming as missteps along the Confucian Way. Instead, they emphasized the concrete, objective, and practical value of Confucianism for rulers as well as ordinary people. This emphasis led to the Confucian sponsorship of what might be called empirical research, some of which was inspired by exposure to Western science, although it usually was confined to historical topics.