Confucian Schools of Thought

There are six schools: Han Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism, Contemporary Neo-Confucianism, Korean Confucianism, Japanese Confucianism and Singapore Confucianism.

After the death of Confucius two major schools of Confucian thought emerged: one was represented by Mencius, the other by Xunzi (Hsün-tzu, also known as Xunkuang, or Hsün K'uang).bc Mencius continued the ethical teachings of Confucius by stressing the innate goodness of human nature. He believed, however, that original human goodness can become depraved through one's own destructive effort or through contact with an evil environment. The problem of moral cultivation is therefore to preserve or at least to restore the goodness that is one's birthright. In political thought, Mencius is sometimes considered one of the early advocates of democracy, for he advanced the idea of the people's supremacy in the state.

In opposition to Mencius, Xunzi contended that a person is born with an evil nature but that it can be regenerated through moral education. He believed that desires should be guided and restrained by the rules of propriety and that character should be molded by an orderly observance of rites and by the practice of music. This code serves as a powerful influence on character by properly directing emotions and by providing inner harmony. Xunzi was the main exponent of ritualism in Confucianism.

After a brief period of eclipse in the 3rd century bc, Confucianism was revived during the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad220). The Confucian works, copies of which had been destroyed in the preceding period, were restored to favor, canonized, and taught by learned scholars in national academies. The works also formed the basis of later civil service examinations; candidates for responsible government positions received their appointments on the strength of their knowledge of classic literature. As a result, Confucianism secured a firm hold on Chinese intellectual and political life.

The success of Han Confucianism was attributable to Dong Zhongshu (Tung Chung-shu), who first recommended a system of education built upon the teachings of Confucius. Dong Zhongshu believed in a close correspondence between human beings and nature; thus a person's deeds, especially those of the sovereign, are often responsible for unusual phenomena in nature. Because of the sovereign's authority, he or she is to blame for such phenomena as fire, flood, earthquake, and eclipse. Because these ill omens can descend on earth as a warning to humanity that all is not well in this world, the fear of heavenly punishment proves useful as a curb to the monarch's absolute power.

In the political chaos that followed the fall of the Han dynasty, Confucianism was overshadowed by the rival philosophies of Daoism (Taoism) and Buddhism, and the philosophy suffered a temporary setback. Nevertheless, the Confucian Classics continued to be the chief source of learning for scholars, and with the restoration of peace and prosperity in the Tang dynasty (618-907), the spread of Confucianism was encouraged. The monopoly of learning by Confucian scholars once again ensured them the highest bureaucratic positions. Confucianism returned as an orthodox state teaching.

The intellectual activities of the Song dynasty (Sung dynasty; 960-1279) gave rise to a new system of Confucian thought based on a mixture of Buddhist and Daoist elements; the new school of Confucianism was known as Neo-Confucianism. The scholars who evolved this intellectual system were themselves well versed in the other two philosophies. Although primarily teachers of ethics, they were also interested in the theories of the universe and the origin of human nature.

Neo-Confucianism branched out into two schools of philosophy. The foremost exponent of one school was Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi), an eminent thinker second only to Confucius and Mencius in prestige, who established a new philosophical foundation for the teachings of Confucianism by organizing scholarly opinion into a cohesive system.

According to the Neo-Confucianist system Zhu Xi represented, all objects in nature are composed of two inherent forces: li, an immaterial universal principle or law; and qi (ch’i), the substance of which all material things are made. Whereas qi may change and dissolve, li, the underlying law of the myriad things, remains constant and indestructible. Zhu Xi further identifies the li in humankind with human nature, which is essentially the same for all people.

The phenomenon of particular differences can be attributed to the varying proportions and densities of the qi found among individuals. Thus, those who receive a qi that is turbid will find their original nature obscured and should cleanse their nature to restore its purity. Purity can be achieved by extending one's knowledge of the li in each individual object. When, after much sustained effort, one has investigated and comprehended the universal li or natural law inherent in all animate and inanimate objects, one becomes a sage.

Opposed to the li (law) school is the xin (mind) school of Neo-Confucianism. The chief exponent of the xin school was Wang Yangming, who taught the unity of knowledge and practice. His major proposition was that “apart from the mind, neither law nor object” exists. In the mind, he asserted, are embodied all the laws of nature, and nothing exists without the mind. One's supreme effort should be to develop “the intuitive knowledge” of the mind, not through the study or investigation of natural law, but through intense thought and calm meditation.

During the Qing dynasty (Ch’ing dynasty, 1644-1911) there was a strong reaction to both the li and xin schools of Neo-Confucian thought. Qing scholars advocated a return to the earlier and supposedly more authentic Confucianism of the Han period, when it was still unadulterated by Buddhist and Daoist ideas. They developed textual criticism of the Confucian Classics based on scientific methodology, using philology, history, and archaeology to reinforce their scholarship. In addition, scholars such as Dai Chen introduced an empiricist point of view into Confucian philosophy.

Toward the end of the 19th century the reaction against Neo-Confucian metaphysics took a different turn. Instead of confining themselves to textual studies, Confucian scholars took an active interest in politics and formulated reform programs based on Confucian doctrine. Kang Yuwei (K'ang Yu-wei), a leader of the Confucian reform movement, made an attempt to exalt the philosophy as a national religion.

Because of foreign threats to China and the urgent demand for drastic political measures, the reform movements failed; in the intellectual confusion that followed the Chinese revolution of 1911, Confucianism was branded as decadent and reactionary. With the collapse of the monarchy and the traditional family structure, from which much of its strength and support was derived, Confucianism lost its hold on the nation. In the past, it often had managed to weather adversities and to emerge with renewed vigor, but during this period of unprecedented social upheavals it lost its previous ability to adapt to changing circumstances.