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  • Neo-Confucian Self-Cultivation by Barry C. Keenan
  • Tze-ki Hon (bio)
Barry C. Keenan. Neo-Confucian Self-Cultivation. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011. xxxii, 132 pp. Paperback $17.00, isbn 978-0-8248-3548-4.

Commonly known as “Neo-Confucianism,” the Confucian thought of late imperial China was complicated and full of twists and turns. It began in the eleventh century when the Five Northern Song Masters (Zhou Dunyi, Zhang Zai, Shao Yong, Cheng Hao, and Cheng Yi) reinterpreted the Confucian classics to address both the sociopolitical problems of the times and the challenge of Buddhism and Daoism. When Zhu Xi (1130–1200) expanded this cultural enterprise into an intellectual movement, he created a canon of texts (e.g., the Four Books) and a genealogy of thinkers who allegedly followed the correct path of Confucianism. From the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries, Zhu Xi’s textual canonization and Genealogy of the Way formed the two pillars of the orthodox Neo-Confucianism that became state ideology. Intellectually, the state ideology was based on a combination of Cheng Yi’s and Zhu Xi’s writings, hence it is also known as the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism to distinguish it from its rival, the Lu-Wang school. Politically and socially, the state ideology was enforced through the civil service examination system that regulated the social mobility of the educated elite and the lineage of power in local communities. For six hundred years, from 1313 to 1905, the Chinese educated elite were required to study the classical commentaries of Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi in order to pass the examinations.

In the studies of Neo-Confucianism, its complicated history has been dealt with in two separate ways. One focuses on its philosophical and religious aspects. Prime examples of this approach are Tu Wei-ming’s explication of “Confucian Religiousness” based on the Doctrine of the Mean,1 and Daniel Gardner’s study of the Neo-Confucian textual canonization through Zhu Xi’s commentary on the Great Learning.2 In both cases, Neo-Confucianism is presented as a system of thought that is timeless and applicable to all societies rather than an intellectual movement that changed its focus and emphasis over centuries. The second approach emphasizes the historical complexity of Neo-Confucianism. A prime example of this approach is Peter Bol’s study of eleventh-century Neo-Confucians, showing how selectively they were presented in Neo-Confucian anthologies.3 Recently, Benjamin Elman’s monumental study of the history of civil service examinations underscores the reciprocal relationship between Neo-Confucianism and the imperial state during the Ming-Qing period.4 Readers are reminded that the rise of the Cheng-Zhu school in late imperial China was more a result of state sponsorship than its intellectual prowess.

In Neo-Confucian Self Cultivation, Barry C. Keenan makes a major contribution to the study of Neo-Confucianism by combining the philosophical and historical approaches. Despite the book being published in a series that focuses on [End Page 103] “dimensions of Asian spirituality,” Keenan is not only interested in Neo-Confucian religiousness and moral metaphysics, but also in how they were practiced in everyday life in late imperial China. In Keenan’s words, his book consists of three interconnected layers: a “historical discourse” that traces the complex history of Neo-Confucianism from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries, a practice of sinology in the form of close and careful reading of one of the Neo-Confucian texts, the Great Learning, and a “philosophical discourse” to examine the Neo-Confucian epistemology and metaphysics that shaped Chinese thought in the late imperial period (p. xvii). A result of this triple-layered approach is a nuanced picture of the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism that supported the state ideology on the one hand and encouraged independent thinking and local autonomy on the other. Seemingly contradictory, Keenan shows that the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism was able simultaneously to work for the authoritarian state and generate its critics from within.

To explain this paradox, Keenan focuses on the Neo-Confucian eight steps of personal cultivation—investigate things and affairs, extend one’s learning, make one’s...


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