In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Neo-Confucianism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Sociopolitical Overviews
  • Journals
  • Social Applications of Neo-Confucianism
  • Intellectual Lineages
  • Relationship to Buddhism and Daoism
  • Later Neo-Confucians
  • New Confucianism
  • Modern Applications of Neo-Confucianism

Chinese Studies Neo-Confucianism
Robert Foster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0101


Neo-Confucianism is the English reference to the revival of Confucian religious, social, and ethical thought that eventually dominated Chinese official culture from the 13th through the 19th century. As early as the 9th century, there was a renewed interest in Confucianism, which had been eclipsed by Buddhism for roughly seven hundred years. At its core, Neo-Confucianism focused on the works of the Classical Confucian tradition (particularly Confucius’s Analects, the Mencius, and selected chapters from the Book of Rites) as a means of ordering human society. To this was added a metaphysical argument affirming the ultimate reality of the world, which responded to the Buddhist assertion (overly simplified by their Neo-Confucian detractors) that this world is illusion. From this affirmation, Neo-Confucians developed integrated social, political, and philosophical systems pointing toward the individual’s obligation to find the appropriate role within these overlapping systems and thereby contribute to universal harmony. Through the process of self-transformation, one hoped to become a sage: a moral, social, and political paragon. The core Neo-Confucian ideas were developed in the 11th and 12th centuries by a number of different thinkers. There were diverging selections of core texts to study, competing interpretations of Classical Confucian texts, and wide-ranging debates about the role of Neo-Confucians in society and politics. In the 12th century, Zhu Xi streamlined the tradition. He is considered the great synthesizer of Neo-Confucian thought. It is his vision of the Confucian tradition that eventually became state orthodoxy in the 13th century. Anyone who hoped to become a scholar-official in Late Imperial China had to spend years studying and memorizing the core texts and commentaries as collated and written by Zhu Xi. Challenges to Zhu Xi’s orthodoxy arose in later periods, particularly in the Ming dynasty with Wang Yangming; but no alternative fully displaced Zhu Xi’s orthodox status within the official examination system. In 1905, Neo-Confucianism was decoupled from the examination system. In the 20th-century drive to modernize, many criticized Neo-Confucianism as a force that held China back. Still, others, particularly outside the People’s Republic of China, continued to see value in the tradition and developed post-Imperial “New Confucianism.” Since the 1980s, interest in Confucianism has revived in the PRC as well.

General Overviews

There are two complementary approaches to understanding Neo-Confucianism: intellectual development and historical development. The former focuses on the ideas and terms, exploring how different philosophers infused them with varied meaning over time. The second couches Neo-Confucianism within the sociopolitical framework of Chinese history. Fung 1952 (originally published in Chinese in the 1930s and in English in 1952) was one of the first systematic studies of Chinese philosophy by someone trained in both Chinese and Western philosophy. Fung covered the whole intellectual tradition in China, not just Neo-Confucianism. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, many argued that traditional Chinese culture was no longer relevant to modern China (the case was most strongly made in Levenson 1958, cited under Sociopolitical Overviews). Chang 1957, however, argued the opposite. This two-volume study was one of the one of the first English sources focusing on Neo-Confucianism from the Song dynasty to the 20th century. The author concluded that there would be a Confucian revival in the near future. Studies of Neo-Confucianism and traditional Chinese culture expanded in the People’s Republic in the 1980s and 1990s. Two of the classic studies are Chen 2004 and Meng 1998. Chen’s work focuses on the Song through Ming periods, while Meng’s continues to the Qing dynasty. Both authors focus on the transformation of key ideas and terms within the tradition and examine the competing doctrines of different schools of thought. Another important set of works was produced by Mou Zongsan (see Mou 1968, Mou 1997, and Mou 1979, cited under Intellectual Lineages). Through painstaking textual analysis, Mou argued that Zhu Xi was not the true intellectual heir of the Northern Song Masters. Makeham 2010 is a collection of essays by leading scholars discussing key Neo-Confucians and the ideas for which they are best known. For non-specialists, Foster 2008 describes the social and intellectual issues and trends in the Song dynasty that contributed to the development of Neo-Confucianism. Liu 1998 provides a readable analysis of the development of the whole Confucian tradition, from its origins through the Ming dynasty, written by a contemporary practitioner of Confucianism. For those who are interested in thinking about the modern relevance of Neo-Confucianism, Keenan 2011 presents an overview of the tradition and outlines the steps for engaging in Neo-Confucian education and self-transformation.

  • Chang, Carsun. The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought. New York: Bookman Associates, 1957.

    The first insider presentation of Neo-Confucianism in English, in two volumes. Chang deals with the whole tradition from the Tang through the Qing, and ultimately argues that there will be a Confucian revival in the modern period.

  • Chen Lai 陈来. Song-Ming lixue (宋明理学). Shanghai: Huadong shifan daxue chubanshe, 2004.

    Currently regarded as the best Chinese-language introduction to Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism. Written as a collegiate introductory text, it clearly leads the reader through the main contributions of twenty-five Chinese Neo-Confucians but adds an appendix on the Korean thinker Yi Toe’gye.

  • Foster, Robert W. “Understanding the Ethical Universe of Neo-Confucianism.” In Teaching Confucianism. Edited by Jeffrey L. Richey, 107–155 New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195311600.003.0008

    This is a brief overview of the development of Song Neo-Confucianism in light of two converging realities: first, the desire to prove the truly moral nature of the universe, and second, the desire to promote a sociopolitical revival through ethical education. Intended for non-specialists.

  • Fung, Yu-lan (Feng Youlan 馮友蘭). A History of Chinese Philosophy. Translated by Derk Bodde. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.

    Translation of the classic work Zhongguo zhexueshi (中國哲學史) by one of China’s leading early-20th-century scholars. Fung received his PhD from Columbia University, so this work mixes texts and interpretation of all Chinese philosophy with comparisons to Western philosophy. An excellent starting point, particularly the second volume. Reprint, 1983.

  • Keenan, Barry C. Neo-Confucian Self-Cultivation. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011.

    A brief, readable introduction. Discusses the rise of Song Neo-Confucianism and its later forms. Concerned with the program of learning as laid out in the brief Great Learning, Keenan organizes the second part of his book to demonstrate how one might follow the eight-step program of self-cultivation. For upper-level college students and beyond.

  • Liu, Shu-hsien (Liu Shuxian 劉述先). Understanding Chinese Philosophy: Classical and Sung-Ming. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.

    Good overview of the whole Confucian tradition from Confucius through the Ming. Written by a modern Confucian to explain the underpinnings of the current New Confucian movement.

  • Makeham, John. Dao Companion to Neo-Confucian Philosophy. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-2930-0

    A collection of articles each focusing on a theme within the work of a key figure of the Neo-Confucian tradition. The volume covers a range of themes and figures by leading scholars in the fields. For upper-level undergraduates and above.

  • Meng Peiyuan 蒙培元. Lixue de yanbian: Cong Zhu Xi dao Wang Fuzhi Dai Zhen (理学的演变: 从朱熹到王夫之戴震). Fuzhou, China: Renmin chubanshe, 1998.

    Meng focuses on the historical development of Cheng-Zhu thought from the Song dynasty through to the Qing. Read in tandem with Meng 1989 (cited under Terminology).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.