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Reviewed by:
  • Neo-Confucianism in History
  • Franklin J. Woo (bio)
Peter K. Bol . Neo-Confucianism in History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. xi, 366 pp. Hardcover $49.95, ISBN 978-0-674-03106-7.

In this study, Peter Bol, professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at Harvard University, shows how the neo-Confucian tradition developed, contested, thrived, and evolved throughout the history of China, despite military invasions from its northern neighbors. These concrete realities of politics, economics, social situations, and war all interacted within the cauldron of competing traditions, including native Daoism and Buddhism, which came to China in the first century. Neo-Confucianism, however, rejected the otherworldliness of both Buddhism and Daoism, but, nevertheless, learned from them and even incorporated their metaphysical insights and interconnectedness with nature, respectively, to correct and augment the inherited provincial and unduly introspective interpretations of classical Confucianism. Technological inventions such as printing, combined with increasing wealth in the Song dynasty, had greatly widened the distribution of its classical Confucian texts throughout the China.

"Neo-Confucianism," Bol reminds his readers, is a foreign term, whereas ruxue is the general Chinese term for Confucianism. It is based on the legendary myth that in the ancient past there was a golden era where exemplary [End Page 75] rulers (Yao , Shun , Yu , Tang , Wen , Wu , and the Duke of Zhou ) were wise and perfectly moral. All under tian, "heaven," was done with justice and with grace. Individually and collectively, the aim of life was to regain or to live up to this siwen (this great culture of ours, Bol's rendering).

Song-ming lixue , however, is the more precise Chinese term for neo-Confucianism, which claims that the ancient ideal was lost for a thousand years after Mencius and not recovered until the Song dynasty, largely through the efforts of Cheng Yi (1033-1107) and his brother Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and a coterie of others, including Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073). Later, the great educator and systematizer Zhu Xi (1130-1200) structured education in China, both formal and informal, in a way that was to shape the culture for more than half a millennium. Zhu's selection of four books (Analects, Great Learning, Mencius, and The Mean) and his commentaries constitute a corpus that became the official curriculum for the examination system under foreign Mongol rule in the Yuan dynasty, extending to every county in China from 1315 to 1905. With this curriculum well established plus other proposals such as the village compact and family ritual for daily living, Zhu was able to permeate Chinese society from elite to common folk. Bol even suggests that Neo-Confucianism can even be regarded as "Zhu Xi-ism" (p. 89).

The author points out the different interpretations by scholars as to who should or should not be included in the chaotic transmission process, daotong, of this neo-Confucian tradition. The claims of authentic transmission are not unlike the claims of direct line of apostolic succession in Christianity, which continuously passed on the control of the gospel from generation to generation. In ruxue, however, that transmission suffered a millennial hiatus. Neo-Confucianism can be known as Daoxue , Lixue , or Xinxue , depending on the particular emphasis of the scholars of this tradition with its wide spectrum of diversity. According to conventional wisdom, there are essentially two schools: the Cheng-Zhu school of principle (li), named after the work of Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, and the Lu-Wang school of the mind (xin), named after Lu Jiuyuan (1139-1194), also known by his literary name, Lu Xiangshan , and Wang Yangming (1472-1529).

However, Wm. Theodore de Bary of Columbia University has shown that these two principals were already present within the Cheng-Zhu school—long before the creative tension was presumably resolved in the two schools. Here the two emphases of principle and mind were hotly debated but with civility and commitment to the human discourse. In short, de Bary claims that even if a Wang Yangming did not arrive on the scene in the sixteenth century that gave rise to the school of the mind, Wang Yangming types were already emphasizing direct intuition within what would become the Cheng-Zhu...