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Focus on Neo-Confucianism for the World History Curriculum

Harold M. Tanner

University of North Texas

    The Ming Neo-Confucian scholar and statesman Luo Qinshun entitled his collection of reading notes and reflections: Knowledge Painfully Acquired. The title may resonate with teachers as they go about the task of incorporating Neo-Confucianism into the world history course. But painful or not, Neo-Confucianism is part of the world history curriculum. A random sampling of world history textbooks demonstrates that the two major schools of Neo-Confucian thought (the School of Principle and the School of the Heart/Mind) as well as the names of individual Neo-Confucian philosophers and officials regularly appear. Neo-Confucianism also appears in the College Board's "Course Description" booklet for AP World History under the heading of "What students are expected to know" about the period 1450-1750. But why is Neo-Confucianism in the curriculum? What is it? And how do we teach it? 1
    The "why" is easy. Neo-Confucianism was a major intellectual development of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). One variety of Neo-Confucian philosophy, the "School of Principle" was adopted as the orthodox ideology of the Ming and Qing empires, of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and of Yi dynasty Korea. A second school of Neo-Confucian thought, the "School of the Heart/Mind," was regarded as a dangerous heterodoxy; some of its followers were associated with unusual behavior, social unrest, and even attempted political revolution. And in some circumstances, even the orthodox "School of Principle" could be interpreted in ways that threatened the political status quo of the Tokugawa Shogunate and of the Qing dynasty. Neo-Confucianism provided the theoretical basis of individual, social, and government action in East Asia. Indeed, with an understanding of the philosophy that lay behind Neo-Confucianism, major events and actions that appear to be arbitrary will begin to make sense. And with an understanding of Neo-Confucianism, we may help our students achieve a better understanding of the important but often obscure link between philosophy and action, and thereby restore life to the once-vibrant intellectual traditions that sometimes appear as dry, mummified remains on the pages of the textbooks.

What is Neo-Confucianism?
   "Neo-Confucianism" is a general term used to refer to the renaissance of Confucianism during the Song dynasty following a long period in which Buddhism and Daoism had dominated the philosophical world of the Chinese, and also to the various philosophical schools of thought that developed as a result of that renaissance. Neo-Confucianism had its roots in the late Tang, came to maturity in the Northern and Southern Song periods, and continued to develop in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods. As a whole, Neo-Confucianism can best be understood as an intellectual reaction to the challenges of Buddhist and Daoist philosophy in which avowedly Confucian scholars incorporated Buddhist and Daoist concepts in order to produce a more sophisticated new Confucian metaphysics. As Neo-Confucianism developed, two major Neo-Confucian schools of thought emerged: the School of Principle and the School of the Heart/Mind. Both schools of thought agreed that all the myriad components of the universe are manifestations of a single "Principle" (li), and both schools agreed that this Principle was the essence of morality. By understanding the Principle that underlies the universe, then, men may understand the moral principles that they must put into practice in order to achieve an ordered family, good government, and peace under heaven. The two schools differed, however, on the way in which human beings should understand Principle.
    The School of Principle is most often identified with the Southern Song philosopher and statesman Zhu Xi (1130-1200). As Charles Hucker explains, Zhu Xi argued that: "Things are what they are (men, women, dogs, cats, rocks and the like) because of the abstract form, or li, that combines with and shapes the matter, or ch'i, that embodies them, and things of any one category have their individual particularities because of the particular complexities of cosmic forces that happened to govern the combining of form and matter in their particular instances."1 Zhu Xi suggested that one may understand Principle (and therefore moral precepts) by observation of the natural world and of human affairs. 4
    The School of the Heart/Mind is most often identified with the Ming general and statesman Wang Yangming (1472-1529). Wang Yangming argued that inasmuch as every living thing is a manifestation of Principle, then one need not look outside oneself in order to understand Principle (and therefore morality): one should consult one's own heart (or mind—the Chinese word xin covers both English concepts simultaneously), wherein Principle surely lay. Since Principle is the basis of human nature, then it follows that anyone who understands his or her true nature understands the Principle of the universe. It should be evident that Wang Yangming's belief in the fundamental identity of Principle and the human heart/mind and his conviction that one must search for Principle within oneself rather than looking to external standards could open the door to moral relativism. The danger of the Wang Yangming school is further underlined by Wang's insistence on the unity of knowledge and action: "There have never been people who know but do not act."2 For Wang, knowledge of what is right is not true knowledge unless one acts on one's convictions. 5
    Perhaps not surprisingly, the governments of the Ming and Qing dynasties in China and the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan adopted the Zhu Xi School of Principle as the orthodox version of Confucian philosophy, and branded Wang Yangming's thought a dangerous heterodoxy. In fact, followers of the School of the Heart/Mind were linked (not necessarily fairly) to the decline and fall of the Ming dynasty and to social uprisings in Tokugawa Japan. 6

Teaching Neo-Confucianism
    There are two great challenges to teaching Neo-Confucianism. The first is to present the philosophical developments simply and clearly. The second is to help students discover the practical significance of a seemingly abstract philosophical movement. The key to success lies in our choice and use of primary documents. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent collections of documents available from which teachers may choose the illustrative material that can help to bring Neo-Confucianism alive. In the following paragraphs I will discuss ways of using documents to teach both the abstract philosophical concepts of Neo-Confucianism as well as the actions that people took in their attempts to put those philosophical concepts into practice. 7
    In teaching the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism, the main points to communicate to students are the relationship of Neo-Confucianism to Buddhism and the development of and distinctions between the School of Principle and the School of the Heart/Mind. The relationship with Buddhism is complicated. On the one hand, the renaissance of Confucianism began with a strong critique of Buddhism and Daoism. For two good examples, one can look at Han Yu's (768-824) polemical attacks on Buddhism, "Essentials of the Moral way" and "Memorial on the Bone of the Buddha."3 On the other hand, as Arthur Wright explains, the Neo-Confucian understanding of all under heaven as manifestations of a universal "Principle" is a derivation of the Buddhist concept of all things as manifestations of a "pan-absolute."4 8
    The fundamental ideas of Zhu Xi are well illustrated in his own compilation of Neo-Confucian writings entitled Reflections on Things at Hand.5 Excerpts may be found in Patricia Ebrey's reader, Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook and in de Bary and Bloom's Sources of Chinese Tradition. The ideas of Wang Yangming may be found in excerpts from his writings and from the writings of some of his students, also available in Sources of Chinese Tradition. 9
     In order to connect abstract Neo-Confucian philosophy to real life, one might choose from any of a number of policies, events, and institutions in China and Japan. In China, the practical application of Neo-Confucian ideas may be seen in the social activism demonstrated by the founders of charitable estates and in the controversial economic reform program of Wang Anshi.6 The story of the Chinese civil service examination and the rigorous training that young (and sometimes not so young) men undertook in their efforts to pass the examinations also makes a lively example of the effects of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy in Ming and Qing China.7 In Japan, Hayashi Razan's use of Zhu Xi's philosophy in order to justify the stratified social order of the Tokugawa shogunate should provide thought-provoking material for students, while Arai Hakuseki's decision regarding the widow of a murdered man will illustrate both the practical use of Neo-Confucianism and the status of women in the Neo-Confucian world-view.8 On the heterodox side, concrete examples of Neo-Confucianism "in action" include the outrageous behavior and writings of the Ming scholar Li Zhi and, in Japan, Oshio Heihachiro's ill-fated rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate.9  10
    Other examples of the practical impact of Neo-Confucian philosophy (particularly that of the School of Principle) on politics, social order, and education may be found in documentary collections such as those of de Bary, Patricia Ebrey, Ryusaku Tsunoda, and David Lu. Acquiring the knowledge necessary to teach Neo-Confucianism and to place it in the context of world history may indeed be "knowledge painfully acquired." Once acquired, however, we might find, with Confucius, that "Having studied, and then repeatedly to apply what you have learned—is this not a source of pleasure?"10 11

Biographical Note: Harold M. Tanner is associate professor of history at the University of North Texas.  

1 Charles O. Hucker, China's Imperial Past: An Introduction to Chinese History and Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975), 367.

2 William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, compilers, Sources of Chinese Tradition Second Edition, Volume I: From Earliest Times to 1600 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 850.

3 Both in ibid. pp. 569-573 and 583-585. For a more restrained approach, se Ouyang Xiu's (1007-1070) "Essay on Fundamentals," ibid, 590-595.

4 Arthur F. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959), 91.

5 Chu Hsi and Lu Tsu-ch'ien, compilers, Reflections on Things at Hand: The Neo-Confucian Anthology, translated by Wing-tsit Chan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967).

6 Charitable estates are a concrete example of the Neo-Confucian (Zhu Xi school) conviction that social action is an essential part of becoming a "sage." The most famous example is the charitable estate of the Fan Lineage, whose principles are illustrated in Ebrey, Chinese Civilization, 155-156. Wang Anshi (1021-1086) proposed and carried out an ambitious program of economic reform in the Northern Song period. The story of Wang's reforms, the problems that they were designed to address, and the vicious debate that they inspired in court should be of interest to any student with a sensitivity to economic issues and the role of the state vis--vis the economy. For descriptions and illustrative documents, see da Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 609-628 and Ebrey, Chinese Civilization, 151-154.

7 The most lively and accessible description of the civil service examinations remains Ichisada Miyazaki's China's Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

8 Illustrative documents are in Lu, A Documentary History, 245-247 and 255-258 respectively.

9 Ray Huang includes a vivid description of Li Zhi in chapter seven of his 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981); Li's writings are illustrated in Ebrey, Chinese Civilization, 258-262 and in de Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 865-874. For Oshio Heihachiro's 1837 rebellion (which resulted in the burning of Osaka), see Lu, 280-281.

10 The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. Roger T. Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr., translators (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 71.


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