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  • Other Names: 朱子学 (Shushi gaku, C: Zhūxī xué), 王陽明学 (Ouyoumei gaku, C: Wáng Yángmíng xué)
  • Japanese: 宋明理学 (Soumin rigaku)

Neo-Confucianism refers to a series of strains of philosophy, based fundamentally on the teachings of Zhu Xi (1130-1200), a writer of the Song Dynasty. Zhu Xi's interpretations of the Confucian classics became the standard canon for the Confucian civil examinations and Confucian political philosophy of government in the last decades of the Southern Song Dynasty, through the Qing Dynasty, being developed and changed over the centuries, as well as being adopted in Joseon Dynasty Korea, the Kingdom of Ryûkyû, and Japan.

Though first introduced to Japan in the 12th or 13th century, Neo-Confucianism became particularly prominent as a standard, canonical, philosophy of governance in the Tokugawa period. Much of the ideals and philosophies of the Tokugawa period, in particular the idea that everyone in society must behave properly according to their position - a father should be a good father, a peasant a good peasant, a ruler a good ruler, had their basis in Neo-Confucian philosophy. This guided sumptuary regulations, the belief in and pressure towards adherence to a hierarchy of four classes of society,[1] various Reforms aimed towards propriety, and so forth. Neo-Confucian ideas also informed attitudes towards foreign relations, including the idea of jôi ("expulsion of the barbarians") in the 19th century.[2]

Neo-Confucianism continued to have a significant impact in the Meiji period and into the 20th century, as it remained the fundamental basis for morals/ethics curricula in public education, and to an extent as the basis and justification for government policy. Neo-Confucian understandings and justifications are seen, for example, in the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education. To the extent that "Confucianism" or "Confucian values" are said to still have influence in Japan today, it is Neo-Confucianism - originally developed by Zhu Xi, and developed over time through the influences of Ming, Qing, Korean, and Tokugawa scholars - to which this refers.

In China

See Zhu Xi for more on Zhu Xi's own activities and teachings.

Neo-Confucianism was first developed by Zhu Xi in the late 12th century in China, based on the work of the 11th century brothers Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi. Among the key ideas was an understanding of the cosmos as being composed entirely of qi (matter/essence), organized according to a fundamental principle, li. However, Zhu Xi was also a supporter of the practical application of (Neo-)Confucian thought to political and other real-world problems.[3]

Zhu Xi's teachings were originally seen as quite radical, and were banned in 1196. But by sometime early in the following century, they were adopted by the Song Court into political practice, and into the Confucian civil service exams, becoming the orthodox set of texts and interpretations. The focus was on the Four Books designated by Zhu Xi - the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean - and on Zhu Xi's commentaries on these texts.[3]

In Japan

Sources associated with the Satsunan school of Neo-Confucianism, based in Satsuma province, suggest that Song Neo-Confucianism was first introduced to Japan in 1241, when the Zen monk Enni returned from China with books of Zhu Xi's teachings. However, scholars such as Takatsu Takashi point out that copies of Zhu Xi's commentaries on the Doctrine of the Mean, signed by Ôe Munemitsu in 1200, are extant in Kamakura archives.[4] The Ritsu sect Buddhist monk Shunjô (1166-1227) may have been the first to introduce Zhu Xi's teachings into Japan, some decades before Enni.[5] In this early period, however, it was difficult to study or spread Neo-Confucian teachings, as families which dominated the myôkyô hereditary posts at the Heian period Court controlled the teaching and spread of Confucianist texts and thought. Study of Neo-Confucianist texts was thus limited, for a time, to those within Zen temples.

The first prominent lectures on Zhu Xi's teachings may have taken place during the reign of Emperor Go-Daigo (r. 1318-1339), or that of his predecessor Emperor Hanazono (r. 1308-1318). The Myôkyô houses finally began to study Zhu Xi's "Four Books" (rather than the previously dominant Five Classics) in the Muromachi period, using Zhu Xi's commentaries for the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, and early Chinese versions of the other texts, including copies of the Analects annotated by He Yan (190-249) of the Wei Dynasty of the Three Kingdoms Period, and annotations on the Mencius by Zhao Qi (d. 201) of the Later Han. These remained the chief books, without much of a tradition of further commentaries, until the very late 16th or early 17th century.

The Satsunan school of Confucianism, based in Satsuma province, traces its origins to 1478, when the scholar Keian Genju was invited to Satsuma by Shimazu Tadamasa, where he gave lectures and distributed texts. While Keian was clearly not the first to introduce Zhu Xi's teachings to Japan, he may have been the first to distribute Neo-Confucian texts in a kakikudashi form, making them more readable and accessible to those less familiar with Classical Chinese.[6] Keian's techniques for making classical Chinese comprehensible to a Japanese reader unskilled in Chinese were developed further by Nanpo Bunshi, who studied under Keian's student Gessho Gentoku.[7]

Tokugawa Period

While intellectual exchange between Japan and the continent had certainly continued in the centuries prior to the Edo period, the (re-)introduction of Ming Neo-Confucianism, as heavily influenced by the ideas of Wang Yangming, and as transmitted through Korea, in the very last years of the Sengoku period, is taken as significant. Particularly significant were a series of interactions between Fujiwara Seika and members of a mission to Japan in 1590, including especially vice-envoy Kim Sŏngil, a student of Yi Hwang, perhaps the most famous Neo-Confucian scholar in Korean history.[8]

Quite significant, too, was the compilation by Satsunan school scholar Tomari Jochiku, a student of Nanpo Bunshi, of versions of Zhu Xi's commentaries incorporating his teacher's "Bunshi-ten" assistive markings. Jochiku's Bunshi-ten version of the Dakui Sishu jizhu ("Commentaries on the Four Books for Acing the Civil Service Exams"), published by Kyoto-based publisher Nakano Dôhan in 1626, made Zhu Xi's commentaries widely available for the first time in a format most educated Japanese could read.[9]

One of Seika's students, Hayashi Razan, then became the chief Confucian advisor to several shoguns, passing on that position to his son, and establishing the Hayashi clan as the dominant hereditary family in that position, and the dominant school of thought. Scholars such as Arai Hakuseki interrupted Hayashi dominance at times, making very significant contributions to Tokugawa political philosophy and policy, but the Hayashi generally returned to dominance afterwards. Dubbed Hayashi Daigaku-no-kami ("Hayashi head of the academy") as their official title, heads of the Hayashi family became heads of the lead Confucian academy in the realm, the Shôheizaka gakumonjo, and the Confucian shrine with which it was associated, the Yushima Seidô.[10]

Neo-Confucianism had its detractors, however, in Japan as well, with figures such as Ogyû Sorai gaining considerable currency in intellectual circles.

In Ryukyu

Members of the scholar-bureaucracy in the Ryûkyû Kingdom were well-educated in Chinese language, and well-read in the Chinese classics, reading them in the original Chinese. Zhu Xi's commentaries likely entered Ryûkyû no later than Japan, and due to the close ties between Ryûkyû and Ming China, we can presume that developments in Neo-Confucian thought in China would have been transmitted to Ryûkyû quite consistently.

However, as in mainland Japan, it was not until the publication of Tomari Jochiku's Bunshi-ten texts that scholars in Ryûkyû knew how the texts were read in Japanese. Jochiku himself brought a number of copies to the Ryukyuan court in 1632 when he traveled there to become an official tutor to the court. It was soon afterward officially authorized by the king, and came to be the standard form of the text used in the scholar-aristocracy's schools. Those in Kumemura taught the Japanese readings of the texts alongside the original Chinese, while those in Shuri taught only using the Japanese Bunshi-ten texts.[11]

Members of the 1842 Ryukyuan embassy to Edo attempted to buy nearly one hundred copies of the Bunshi-ten commentaries in Osaka - so many that more had to be printed.[11] Historian Takatsu Takashi identifies this Dakui sishu jizhu, deriving from a version published in the late 16th or early 17th century by Yu Mingtai in Fujian province, and today surviving only in Japanese reprints (and not in China), as "the most important text when we investigate the circulation of the teaching of Zhuzi in seventeenth century East Asia."[12]

In Korea

While Buddhism was the chief political philosophy of Korean royal courts up through the Goryeo dynasty, royal advisor Jeong Dojeon (1342-1398) promoted Neo-Confucianism in the court. After Jeong was killed by a political opponent, the cause of Neo-Confucianism was taken up by Gwon Geun (1353-1409), leading to it becoming the dominant political philosophy of the Joseon court in the 17th century.[13]

Joseon painted itself as the true successor to the fallen Ming Dynasty (after 1644), and the sole surviving bastion of Ming high Confucian culture. Joseon reorganized its bureaucracy around Confucian scholar-officials, adopting Ming court practices, court costume based on that of the Ming, and court rituals worshipping the Ming emperors.


  1. Mibunsei, or shinô kôshô (Samurai, Farmers, Artisans, Merchants).
  2. Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, Anti-Foreignism and Western Learning in Early Modern Japan, Harvard University Press (1992), 20.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bonnie Smith et al. Crossroads and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins (2012), 431.; Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization, Second Edition, New York: The Free Press (1993), 172-177.; "The Synthesis of Sung Neo-Confucianism in Chu Hsi", in William Theodore de Bary et al, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, Columbia University Press (1960), 534-557.
  4. Takatsu Takashi, “Ming Jianyang Prints and the Spread of the Teachings of Zhu Xi to Japan and the Ryukyu Kingdom in the Seventeenth Century,” in Angela Schottenhammer (ed.), The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008. 254.
  5. Robert Morrell, "Zeami's Kasuga Ryûjin (Dragon God of Kasuga), or Myôe Shônin," Early Kamakura Buddhism: A Minority Report, Asian Humanities Press (1987), 103.
  6. Gallery labels, Shôkoshûseikan, Kagoshima, Sept 2014.
  7. Takatsu, 257-258.
  8. Doyoung Park, "A New Perspective on the Korean Embassy (Chôsen Tsûshinshi): The View from the Intellectuals in Tokugawa Japan," Studies in Asia Series IV, 3:1 (2013), 13-14.
  9. Takatsu, 259-260.
  10. "Shôheikô" 昌平黌。 Nihon daihyakka zensho Nipponica 日本大百科全書(ニッポニカ). Shogakkan. Accessed via JapanKnowledge online resource, 13 September 2011.; "Yushima seidô." Koku shitei shiseki kanzen guide no kaisetsu 国指定史跡完全ガイドの解説, Kodansha, 2013.; Plaques on-site at Yushima Seidô.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Takatsu, 263-264.
  12. Takatsu, 265.
  13. Jeong-mi Lee, “Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization,” International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 国際基督教大学学報 3-A,アジア文化研究 36 (2010) 309.