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Explain the Four “Rs” of Neo-Confucian Renovation

Free «Explain the Four Rs of Neo-Confucian Renovation» Essay Sample

Main Aspects of Neo-Confucian Renovation


During 900-1660, the Confucians successfully completed the adaptation of Confucianism to the needs of common people since the growing complexity of Chinese Empire rendered the despotic rule that was an ineffective strategy of governance. The search for the practical uses of the Confucian doctrine in the real life aimed at reviving the traditional social institutes and ensuring the survival of the Chinese monarchy. Historically, the combination of external and internal threats led to the Neo-Confucian Renovation. The process consisted of four major directions, including rededication, reconstitution of power, rationalization of Confucian philosophy, and regrounding of reality; it was a response to the contemporary military, political, and religious challenges.

Core Reasons for the Neo-Confucian Renovation

Primarily, the Neo-Confucian Renovation refers to the qualitative changes in the philosophical teachings that responded to the rapid commercialization and urbanization during 900-1660. The exponential demographic growth and development of big cities led to the emergence of the large, politically and socially complex society (Lecture 6). While the number of Chinese population had reached 400 million people by the 1700s, the central authorities found it difficult to exercise a complete control through coercive methods (Lecture 6). Meanwhile, the invention of the paper, gunpowder, and porcelain, as well as the growing specialization of farms, largely facilitated the formation of networks. In other words, the loosely bound associations of citizens and ideas allowed for the wealth accumulation and large-scale mobilization of people for collective actions (Lecture 6). Thus, the technological progress and economic elevation led to the political empowerment of local communities. The tendency forced the Chinese government to realize the irrationality of coercive strategies due to the real possibility of anti-government protests and seek alternative sources of the ideological influence.

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In addition to the pressing internal political challenges to central authorities, several factors stimulated the renovation of the Confucian doctrine. The formation of overlapping institutions made the Chinese government face the possibility of social unrests, including subversion and rebellion. The notion refers to social groups, including families, villages, urban dwellers, religious and commercial associations, and secret societies, the overlapping membership in which allowed for the mobilization of large portions of the Chinese population to either support or resist the sovereign power (Lecture 6). The tendency effectively rendered China vulnerable to the external threats, including the Mongol invasion from the West and the European expansion from the sea (Lecture 6). The cumulative effect of both factors highlighted the pressing need to adapt the Confucian teachings to the contemporary challenges and ensure the survival of the regime. In that view, the Confucian scholars faced an immediate necessity to respond to the growing popularity of Buddhism, Daoism, and later Islam (Lecture 6). The evidence strongly indicates the causal relation between the combination of internal and external threats to the continuation of the royal dynasty and ideological progress. Thus, the fear of the social disobedience, ideological challenge, and foreign penetration were the core reasons for the Neo-Confucian Renovation.


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Concepts of Rededication and Reconstitution of Power

The Confucian scholars responded to the penetration of Buddhism into all layers of the Chinese population with the doctrine of rededication that propagated selflessness and patriotic duty. Unlike the selfish and profit-oriented nature of Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism emphasized the value of the family and commonwealth. It actively called for achieving the “state of sincerity, spirit, and subtle incipient activation” that constituted the highest moral standards for the public servicemen (Yao 97-99). Educational institutions were designed to prepare the future state officials for state examinations through the cultivation of “enlightenment, comprehension, impartiality and universality.” It permitted the attainment of sagehood and the ability to make just decisions (Yao 97-99). The completion of the state examination fostered the upward mobility by offering talented individuals an access to the wealth and power, as well as the emergence of the civil society. While permitting the achievement of the high social status, the formation of institutional incentives for the selfless state service led to the emergence of the local elite, largely composed of individuals with different social, religious, and professional backgrounds (Lecture 6). Therefore, the Neo-Confucian doctrines of sincerity and humanism aimed at the cultivation of the informal elite with the comprehensive knowledge and high moral values. The newly emerging teachings sought to raise the voluntary participation of gifted civilians in state affairs through the cultivation of the deep dedication to common goals.

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In practice, the Neo-Confucian Renovation led to the reconstitution of power and creation of the civil society. Since the coercive methods were strategically irrational tools for governing a politically complex state, the Chinese authorities resorted to the delegation of certain powers to the local elite. The implementation of the reward system allowed for the entrance of high qualified state servicemen into the political domain and their growing role in the decision-making progress (Lecture 6). The tendency resulted in the creation of extra bureaucratic networks that highly resembled the local governments. It served as the preventive measure against the development of despotism by limiting the influence of the royal dynasty (Lecture 6). The growing participation of civilians in the political affairs perpetuated the social mobility of the Chinese population and enabled the quick reaction to the pressing problem. For example, the rapid mobilization of the military force during the Opium War in the 1840s vividly demonstrated the potential viability of the decentralized political system (Lecture 6). The decentralization of power allowed the local elites to bypass the bureaucratic entanglements and effectively respond to the foreign attack (Lecture 6). Therefore, the process of the philosophical renovation was marked by the meaningful changes in the balance of power between central authorities and local governments whereas the informal local elites enjoyed the significant freedom of action.

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Rationalization of Philosophy and Regrounding of Reality

During the Neo-Confucian Renovation, the philosophical teachings endured considerable alterations. The system of religious knowledge underwent the process of simplification that aimed at making the Confucian doctrine understandable to simple people (Lecture 7). The rationalization of the Confucian philosophy envisioned the adjustment of religion to the basic needs of the mainstream population of China. In that view, the Confucian scholars attempted to standardize theoretical assumptions and find the practical application for them in the real life (Lecture 7). Eventually, the process led to the rise of ideological debates and speculations and resulted in the formation of the analytical worldview (Lecture 7). The Neo-Confucianism advocated the idea of enlightenment that envisioned the long process of self-cultivation through learning. The accumulation of comprehensive knowledge about the Heaven decrees allowed an individual to manifest moral values in every action according to the ultimate principles of sincerity and earnestness (Yao 104). The morally superior scholar would consider wealth and high station the material enrichment of his or her life, while poverty and misery would help an individual to follow the own destiny (Yao 103). The assertion strongly suggests that the Neo-Confucian teachings encouraged the Chinese population to view both the success and failure as an important experience. Thus, the Confucians advocated the idea of learning through the direct exposure to challenges.

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Indeed, the systematization of Confucian beliefs was aimed at regrounding of the reality. While Buddhism focused on human sufferings and the eradication of the desire as the source of common hardships, Confucians argued that both sufferings and joy are the equally important parts of the human life (Lecture 7). The direct exposure and investigation of the external world allowed an individual to comprehend the so-called Supreme Ultimate, the source of the universe and material force, as well as to achieve the moral perfection (Yao 108). The doctrine of self-cultivation was actively applied to the perpetuation of traditional Confucian values. For instance, the notions of humanness and filial piety largely facilitated the popular recognition of the family as the basic and most important social unit (Lecture 7). The active engagement with the outside world, in turn, fostered the moral cultivation through the reduction and elimination of unproductive desires (Lecture 7). The acquirement of extensive knowledge and productive skills enabled an enlightened individual to perform the filial and patriotic duties with precision and reverence (Lecture 7). The evidence strongly indicates the deeply embedded ideological and spiritual incentives to consider the Confucian teachings the salvation religion and an adequate response to the penetration of Buddhism.

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Lasting Legacies of the Neo-Confucian Renovation

The Neo-Confucianism offered the highly-spirited system of beliefs as well as the dualistic interpretation of cosmic processes. Unlike the Buddhist tradition of separating one’s self from the universe, Confucian masters believed in the unity of the Earth and Heaven, in which people occupy “an intimate place in their midst” (Yao 102). Thus, living in accordance with the so-called Middle Way requires finding a balance between the human nature and the nature of the Heaven and Earth by reducing human bodily desires and cultivating spiritual purity (Yao 103). The fundamental revitalization of the Confucian doctrine led to the establishment of the self-cultivation tradition. The Neo-Confucians advocated the self-cultivation through the self-realization, which was the ability to direct one’s desires to the achievement of the social harmony and political stability (Lecture 7). Therefore, the Neo-Confucianism propagates the acquirement of the moral superiority through learning and applying the earned knowledge in the real life. It essentially explains the dangers of living in isolation and calls for the voluntary participation in the state affairs and selfless service.

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The ideological renovation led to the subsequent globalization of Confucian teachings across the East Asia. Since the Neo-Confucianism offered the appealing substitution for the Buddhism, the religion successfully penetrated into numerous Asian states, including Korea and Japan (Lecture 7). In Korea, the establishment of the Neo-Confucian religion was marked by the intensive ideological debates about the relation between a human being and the Heaven. For instance, the most influential Korean Confucian, T’oegye, strongly believed in the importance of moral qualities, including humaneness, righteousness, wisdom, and propriety for the achievement of spiritual superiority. Meanwhile, the advocates of the Practical Learning strived to apply the Confucian teachings with the view to meeting the needs of common people through the meaningful reforms regarding the land ownership, taxation, and civil service examinations (Yao 122). Conversely, the Japanese focused on the practical applications of Confucianism. While the family was considered the most important social institution, religious teachings mainly served as the motivational force during the extensive militarization and development of capitalism in Japan in the nineteenth century (Yao 133-136). Thus, the ideological and practical aspects of Confucianism enabled the spread of religious teachings beyond the Chinese borders. The evidence strongly suggests that the Neo-Confucian Renovation resulted in the growing popularity of Confucianism in the East Asia since it offered the institutional framework and ideological foundation for the successful state-building.


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Rededication, reconstitution of power, rationalization of Confucian philosophy, and regrounding of reality were the integral parts of the Neo-Confucian Renovation. They served as the adequate response to the pressing religious, political and military threats to the stability of the Chinese state. The promotion of the self-cultivation through self-realization led to the emergence of the civil society and decentralization of power in China. Also, it resulted in the dissemination of religious teachings across the East Asian region. Finally, the present research may serve as the starting point for the further study of the question under discussion.

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