Neo-Confucianism, Chu Hsi vs. Wang Yang-ming

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  • 0:01 Confucianism
  • 1:11 Four Books
  • 2:12 Chu-Hsi
  • 3:05 Wang Yang-Ming
  • 3:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explain the philosophies of Neo-Confucianism. In doing so, it will highlight the theories of Chu-Hsi and Wang Yang-ming. It will also explain the origins of the Four Books and the principle of the Great Ultimate.


In today's lesson we're going to discuss Neo-Confucianism, the term applied to the revival of Confucius thought occurring mainly during China's Song Dynasty. Scholars use the word 'revival' because for several centuries prior to the Song Dynasty, which ruled China from about 960 CE to 1279 CE, Confucianism had been pushed to the backburner in favor of the more metaphysical faiths of Buddhism and Taoism.

However, in order to understand why this happened we need to know a bit about ancient Confucianism. Unlike many religions, which give their allegiance to an all-powerful metaphysical force or deity, Confucianism did not teach the worship of any spirit or god. Instead, it focused more on human behavior, causing many scholars to consider it more of an ethical system or a code of conduct than a religion. Rather than focusing on the attributes of a deity, Confucianism focused on a strict moral code for human behavior. It dealt very little with the metaphysical ideas of heaven or even any sort of spirit world. Instead, it focused on the responsibility of the individual to act honorably and righteously.

Four Books

Many scholars believe this is the main reason many of the ancient Chinese, and especially the nobility, turned away from Confucianism. To them, the more spiritual or metaphysical aspects of Buddhism and Taoism, which believed in a spiritual force or power, were much more appealing than the strict moral code that Confucianism offered. Seeing that Confucianism was losing its place of prominence in Chinese society, Confucius philosophers began sort of adjusting their philosophies to include more of a spiritual or metaphysical side.

Some scholars even suggest Neo-Confucianism sought to sort of combine the ethical system of Confucianism with the metaphysics of Buddhism and Taoism. In fact, the Confucius canons of scripture, known as the Five Classics, were replaced with a collection of texts known simply as the Four Books. Almost like an abridged version of the originals, this smaller collection of works introduced a more spiritual side of Confucianism.


One of the most famous scholars who introduced a spiritual element to Confucianism was Chu Hsi. Born in the 12th century CE, his name is also spelled Zhu Xi. Perhaps more than any other, he is credited with the revival of Confucianism, with one of his most famous ideas being the theory of the Great Ultimate. In this metaphysical theory, Chu Hsi asserted that the Great Ultimate was a rational force which caused and guided the change in the world. Known also as the Tai Chi, this Great Ultimate was believed to work and exist in the lives of all people. He believed that all humans were actually part of this Great Ultimate. So successful was Chu Hsi in reviving Confucianism that his theories became part of China's 14th-century civil service exams and state-sponsored curriculum.

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