The main parts of Neo-Confucianism were:
- The civil service examination system, which was the test required to take to become a scholar-official. Becoming a scholar-official was the main way into the Song government.
- "the Four Books" were the basis of Neo-Confucianism, and they were written by Zhu Xi. The civil service examination systems were based on these. The four books were Greater Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects, and Mencius.
- Some big ideas from Neo-Confucianism were qi or li, meaning "the Way" and the basic pattern of the universe respectively. Zhu Xi personally believed in these, and they were featured prominently throughout the four books.
The result of the civil service examinations. Many people would become scholar-officials and enter the government because of this list.
This is a painting of Zhu Xi (1130-1200), author of "the Four Books" and one of the founders of Neo-Confucianism.
This is the symbol for li, or principle. Zhu Xi believed that li was "the basic pattern of the universe" and understanding li was one of the prerequisites for living a good life.
This is the symbol for qi, or "the Way". Qi held everything together and flowed through everything. The concept is similar to the idea of Dao in Daoism.
Neo-Confucianism in the Song Dynasty
During the Tang dynasty, Confucianism was not very popular in China. Neo-Confucianism, however, developed after the Tang during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) in ancient China, and its uses blended into major parts of society. Neo-Confucianism included parts of Daoism and Buddhism as well as traditional Confucian ideas. If one wanted a high ranking job, studying Confucian texts was very important. Therefore, many themes from the philosophy, such as filial piety, were used commonly throughout the dynasty. The biggest uses and ideas for Neo-Confucianism in the Song Dynasty were the civil service examination system (the way new scholar-officials were chosen), the Four Books by Zhou Xi (a major philosopher in the Southern Song Dynasty), and the ideas of Li and Qi.
The civil service examination system was the main way to acquire political power and become a scholar-official. The idea of a civil service examination system had been around for a long time, but only in the Song Dynasty was it really enforced as the main way to enter a powerful position. The examinations themselves were made up of Confucian classics, such as the Analects. As these positions were very prestigious, the tests were difficult and one would need to study those texts for most if not all of their life. The main point of these examinations was to remove the military-based leaders from government and to bring in the intellectuals. As the Northern Song turned into the Southern Song, the examination system changed. Instead of using these uncut Confucian classics, a new, cut-down set of texts were introduced: the Four Books.
“the Four Books” were written by Zhu Xi to have a “better” set of texts to study for the civil service exams. The books were modified versions of the Confucian classics, with commentary, ideas from Buddhism, ideas from Daoism, and even ideas from other philosophers. The Four Books were a way to detail how a ruler should live and rule in a Neo-Confucian society. Zhu Xi refused to see a Confucian scholar like his father asked him to until he was 30 and could think of new ideas on his own. After seeing the scholar, Zhu Xi decided to write these four books for the rest of his life, dying just three days after his final commentary was written. Each of The Four Books focused on a different topic. Great Learning was the first one, and it focused on the basic ideas of Chinese philosophy and political thinking. It was meant by Zhu Xi to be an “introduction” into the world of Neo-Confucianism. Great Learning described the structure of a Neo-Confucian society, and since it was the most basic of the books, it was enacted in society the most. Doctrine of the Mean was the second one, and it focused on following “the Way” or balance. It explained that acting properly and being “right and natural” is important. It also acknowledged that one can not possibly act properly and be right all of the time, so one should always try to develop their morals (sense of right or wrong). Doctrine of the Mean was a guide for how people should behave in society, and many people followed it in the Song Dynasty. The third book was the Analects. The Analects were Confucius’ teachings and discussions with his students, and it promoted the ideas of filial piety, virtue, and ritual. The Analects also emphasize devotion to learning. The fourth and final book, Mencius, is a collection of conversations Mencius (another philosopher) had with Confucius. Mencius suggests that all humans were born good, but not all humans were born with the instinct to help others in need and they must learn to nurture that instinct. Both the Analects and Mencius were the fine details of how Neo-Confucianism works, and were not as prevalent in society as the previous two. These four books took over the civil service examination and quickly replaced the old classics. Although most of the books were just slightly modified versions of the original classics, some sections of them had ideas from both Buddhism and Daoism as well.
Of the biggest ideas borrowed from Daoism and Buddhism were “the Way” or qi and principle or li respectively. In Daoism, “the Way” was a central force or idea moving through everything and holding it together. In Neo-Confucianism, qi is the force that is a part of everything. The book Doctrine of the Mean focuses on qi, and the idea became a major part of Neo-Confucianism. Li came from the Buddhist idea of principle, but was elaborated by Zhu Xi in his books. He believed it to be “the basic pattern of the universe”, and that understanding li meant one could live an exemplary life. Zhu Xi’s school of thought became known as the school of li, even though it also included the idea of qi. The idea of li was most prevalently used in the book Great Learning, although both qi and li appeared in the Analects and Mencius (due to those books being conversations about Confucianism).
Neo-Confucianism had a big effect on the Song Dynasty’s political structure, philosophical beliefs, and also civilians’ general behaviour. The government used the civil service examination system to elect scholar-officials who were very smart intellectuals who knew Confucianism well as intelligence became more important than military prowess during the dynasty. The classics used in these exams were later replaced by a better and more organized set of books called “The Four Books” by Zhu Xi which allowed more people to understand Confucianism, leading to a better Confucian society. Alongside the main ideas of these four books, Zhu Xi also included the ideas of li and qi which were the motivating principles of Neo-Confucianism. Combining these ideas brought Neo-Confucianism, the philosophy used by the Song Dynasty as well as the following dynasties.