- Neo-Confucianism in History
The title of this work is more general than the content, since the book does not really treat neo-Confucianism in Korea, Japan, or Vietnam, nor does it say much about that school of thought after the seventeenth century. Nonetheless, this overview of neo-Confucianism in the Chinese past—as well as of the relation of that system of thought to the literati class and to the state—is a sophisticated work by an eminent scholar. Those who are familiar with the corpus of writings by Peter Bol will find much that is familiar in this book. Bol seeks to explain where neo-Confucianism came from and what it was. However, rather than focusing, as many works do, on the inner story of the history of neo-Confucianism—the evolution of the philosophies of the various neo-Confucian thinkers and the hair-splitting distinctions between their views—Bol seeks to relate the story of neo-Confucianism to the changing social and political context of Tang through early Qing China.
He traces changes in the shi (literati) class as it transmogrified from one defined largely by pedigree (particularly in the early Tang era) to one based on learning (in the Song period and thereafter). He argues that sometime into the Song, literati came to feel that the Tang model of an empire was problematical. Most came to believe that the Tang as well as the Han empire before it had not been properly based on the Way of the sages. Learning and culture became politicized in the Song, and literati were split over how to get Song society and government on track. A portion of the eleventh-century literati (represented by Su [End Page 741] Shi) embraced a culturalist solution to China's problems that went all the way back to the Tang figure Han Yu and centered on ancient-style literature. Another slice of the literati, one that included Wang Anshi and his supporters, concentrated on institutional reforms, the so-called New Policies, to transform society, making "government the leading player in society and economy and the engine of change" (p. 75).
The third grouping of literati, the neo-Confucians, opposed the New Policies and came to blame them for the Song dynasty's loss of the north to the invading Jin in 1126. Bol's primary answer to the question of why neo-Confucianism enjoyed early success is that "it offered education, connection, self-justifications, opportunities for local leadership, and ways of acting morally to the literati as local elites with great ambitions but poor prospects" (p. 114). The entire second half (or more) of Bol's book is devoted to defining neo-Confucianism and describing features that the author sees as central to that system of thought. Neo-Confucians "gave primacy to personal morality" (p. 88), but this was not just a turning inward, as some have seen it, for it included emphases on voluntaristic social action in the form of the building and staffing of private academies, charitable organizations, and literati communities of several types, including community compacts. Neo-Confucianism was both a project and a community—a social phenomenon.
Bol contends that neo-Confucianism was not primarily a servitor of the emperor and the imperial state. He holds that when push came to shove, neo-Confucians "chose … the interests of the local population against the demands of local government, defended the flexibility of local officials against central policy, and sided with the civil bureaucracy against the inner court" (p. 121). In contradistinction to those who see neo-Confucianism as a prop to autocracy and a creature of the state that came to embrace it as the official orthodoxy, Bol reminds us that the neo-Confucian synthesizer Zhu Xi "challenge[d] the moral standing of all early imperial rulers … [and held that] the emperors of later times were merely 'hegemons,' men who ruled through power and were motivated by self-interest" (p. 129). Far from generally supporting intrusive government, neo-Confucians tended to advocate small government that let literati...