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  • Neo-Confucianism in History
  • John W. Dardess
Neo-Confucianism in History by Peter K. Bol. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2008. Pp. xi + 366. $49.95.

This is an absorbing and thought-provoking work of synthesis and interpretation. In the Western world, the fields of Chinese philosophy and intellectual and other history have seen remarkable growth and development over the last fifty years or so, and Bol has drawn heavily upon all of the relevant scholarship. Among the many recent contributions he acknowledges are twenty-one published papers and one book of his own, plus at least some half dozen dissertations that his students have completed. Thus little of what Bol presents here comes as completely new or surprising. We were ready for it.

By “Neo-Confucianism,” Bol means a specific body of thought first developed in the Northern Song by Zhou Dunyi, Zhang Zai, and the Cheng brothers Yi and Hao, and, after a hiatus, resumed by Zhu Xi (and Lu Jiuyuan, also known as Lu Xiangshan) in the Southern Song. By “history,” Bol has mainly in mind the heavy and visible impress this body of thought made upon local society mainly, and national politics [End Page 458] secondarily, in China in Southern Song, Yuan, and Ming times. The author argues that, by the late Ming dynasty, Neo-Confucianism’s mission to change the world was accomplished, and China’s leading intellectual lights turned away from it in favor of alternative Confucianisms: practical statecraft, evidentiary studies, and eventually the New Text revival of the late eighteenth century and beyond (as discussed by Benjamin Elman in his Classicism, Politics, and Kinship, not mentioned by Bol).1

One searches this book in vain for any explicit statement linking it to the author’s earlier work of synthesis, “This Culture of Ours”: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China.2 It appears, however, to be a sequel. The earlier work featured the great historical shift from the eighth to the twelfth centuries, in the final stage of which an emergent Neo-Confucianism (in the specific sense) first arose as but one of several leading lines of Confucian thought, and by no means the dominant one. The present book, then, resumes the Neo-Confucian story, and it is narrower in its coverage, no longer as concerned as earlier with all the concurrent modes of Confucian thinking. And, within the Neo-Confucian camp, it makes Zhu Xi and his thought the unquestionable stars of the show, with the “idealist” Neo-Confucian wing of Cheng Hao, Lu Xiangshan, Chen Xianzhang, Wang Yangming, and others relegated to a definite second billing. Other major thinkers in the Zhu Xi camp, such as Luo Qinshun in the Ming, or Li Guangdi in the Qing, are not mentioned at all. So despite its detailed coverage of the Cheng-Zhu school, Bol’s work is by no means encyclopedic.

For Bol, what distinguishes both wings of Neo-Confucianism from the other strands of latter-day Confucianism is that wherein Neo-Confucianism comes closest to being a true religion. Neo-Confucianism anchored itself in what Bol says is a “faith”—a metaphysical “belief ” in the oneness, the identity of the individual self and the physical universe, and following from that, the idea that “learning” must consist in a process whereby the learner comes to “experience and maintain a mental state of unity” (p. 211), and becomes “aware of an innately possessed ‘coherence’” (p. 156). Whether the learners achieved this awareness through careful study of the prescribed texts, through intuition, [End Page 459] or through some combination of both approaches, the end result was to inculcate in Neo-Confucianism’s devotees a sure grip upon ultimate truth, and with it an attitude of unbending moral absolutism. The practical consequences of that attitude were, to put it mildly, far-reaching. In the final analysis, one is led to conclude from reading Bol that it is their “faith” that best explains how the Neo-Confucians could have expended so much energy and therefore had such a heavy impact upon both the social and political profiles of later imperial China.

Furthermore, the author would have us think that if, like a fractal...


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pp. 458-463
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