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Neo-Confucianism and Zhu Xi

A discussion of how the relative influence of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism has changed from the Han through the Tang and Song dynasties. Overview of Neo-Confucians, including Zhu Xi..

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In previous videos, we've talked about some of the major schools of thought that emerged at the end of the Zhou Dynasty, especially as we start to enter the warring states period, the famous hundred schools of thought. And most prominent amongst them is Confucianism, started or based on the teachings of Confucius, who lived around 2,500 years ago, and it was all about how does a society live in harmony. Confucianism is based in a lot of teachings that were already part of Chinese culture. And Confucius, one could say, put them together, but put them together in a contextual way and made them more relevant. And you can see on this diagram, Confucianism was really focused on the ethical, but Confucius himself tried to apply some of his teachings into the more practical realm. Now, out of that hundred schools of thought, you also have Taoism that we talk about in other videos. Now, Taoism is really based on this idea of the Tao or the way and we could do many videos on Taoism, but it's this idea of letting go and you could even think of it as going with the flow in a simplicity, a return to nature, freeing yourself from desires, and it was definitely more philosophical and more focused on the spiritual than Confucianism. Now, in other videos, we talk about Legalism, which was a key part of the Chin Dynasty, which was the first real imperial dynasty. China is named after the Chin Dynasty, but it was fairly harsh. It was really this idea that hey, human beings really need strong leadership, sometimes harsh leadership, in order for society to actually work. Now, the school of thought that we have here up the top, Buddhism is interesting because it did not emerge from that hundred schools of thought period that we get at the end of the Zhou Dynastic. Buddhism emerges in India at around the same time, roughly 2,500 years ago with the teachings of Buddha, a Hindu prince who lived in Northeast India, Southern Nepal, and his teachings are, in some ways, you can almost view as a reformation of Hinduism at the time, a return to the idea that someone through meditation, through realization, can become one with, at least in Buddhism, the emptiness, nirvana, can escape from clinging to desires of this non-reality that we think we live in. Now, we've talked about in previous videos how the Chin Dynasty was really based on this Legalist philosophy, but the Han Dynasty is considered the Golden Age of China. Now, under the Han Dynasty, Confucianism really took hold and became the dominant philosophical structure of China and to some degree would stay that way. Now, at the end of the Han Dynasty, China goes into a chaotic period for several hundred years until we get to the Sixth Century when the Sui Dynasty is able to finally reunify China for the most part. And in that interim, Confucianism starts to give way, to some degree, to both Taoism and Buddhism, these things that are more focused on the spiritual, areas where Confucianism was not as interested. And what's interesting about Buddhism, even though it started in India, famously Ashoka in the Third Century BCE really becomes a patron of Buddhism and even sends missionaries out to spread it and it comes to China via Central Asia and Southeast Asia, it really takes on a uniquely Chinese nature as it enters China. Really, it eventually evolves into Mahayana Buddhism. And under the Tang Dynasty, which is considered one of the high points of Chinese civilization, Buddhism is really able to take hold, especially in the early Tang Dynasty. However, as we get into the late Tang Dynasty, Buddhism starts to get some push back and even gets persecuted to some degree. People arguing that hey, Buddhism is a foreign belief system. In some ways, it's not concerned enough with social cohesion. It's all about the individual through meditation trying to separate themselves from reality, becoming one with the emptiness. And so at around the same time, someone argue in reaction to the strength of Buddhism. You have a movement known as Neo-Confucianism, taking the central ideas of Confucius, but using some frameworks and terminology from Taoism and Buddhism, and there were many Neo-Confucian philosophers that began to emerge in the late Tang Dynasty, but it's really considered the Song Dynasty where Neo-Confucianism really takes hold. And the most famous of the Neo-Confucian philosophers sometimes ranked second to Confucius himself in terms of influence on Chinese philosophy is Zhu Xi. He lived from 1130 to 1200 and he's most known for his, one could say, curation of Confucian texts. He famously curated the Four Books, Analects of Confucius, Mencius or The Mencius, by Mencius, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, written by Confucian followers. This curation of Confucian thought shortly after Zhu Xi's life, it becomes the bedrock of the Chinese education system and the civil service examinations as we go through the Yuan, Ming, and Ching Dynasties, all the way to the early 20th Century. Now, he also wrote books on tradition and rituals which are, in some ways, very Confucian because they're focused on the practical, they're focused on the family, they're focused on social cohesion. But he also dabbled in the more spiritual, wrote extensively about notions of Taiji which is really a Taoist or even a pre-Taoist idea, thinking about what is the fundamental nature of the universe and the Taiji itself is the great ultimate, sometimes represented by the Yin Yang symbol. Really, this is showing Taiji divided into this dualistic nature between Yin and Yang, how at the center of each or the extreme of each, they become the other. He writes about Qi, this life force or energy. And once again, these are ideas he takes from Taoism. But in Neo-Confucian thought, there's this idea of you shouldn't just detach yourself from physical reality, you should study it. There's an order, there's a logic to the universe that could be understood. And because of the influence of the Neo-Confucians, especially their focus on belief in an order and logic of the universe, it's no coincidence that the Song Dynasty saw some of the major technological advancements not just of China, but of the world, advancements that really put China at the technological forefront. Remember, Europe at this time is in the Middle Ages. The Middle East is under the Golden Age of Islam, but it's really the Chinese who are pushing the envelope here. Let's get a flavor of some of Zhu Xi's writing. Original mind is principle, as derived from Tai Ji, in itself, unmoved, and perfectly good, while physical nature, on the other hand, is principle mixed with material force, qi. It is the aroused state, involving both good and evil. The two natures, however, are always inter-fused, one the substance and the other, function. So once again, even though he was Confucian, he was a Confucian philosopher, this is very Taoist in nature and even this notion of talking about original mind is principle in itself, unmoved, and perfectly good, this feels very Buddhist or even Hindu in its thinking. Now, one could debate whether it was to what degree it was influenced by Buddhism, it is a very central idea that all of reality, all of sentience, is emergent from this Atman, from this Brahman, from this original mind, emerges from the emptiness. But what makes it Neo-Confucian is beyond the metaphysical, beyond the philosophical, they bring it down to reality. They bring it down to practical concerns. How does this affect how one governs? How does this affect how one should learn? How does this affect how one should be in social harmony with those around them?