Confucianism & Neo-Confucianism

Essential Question

How did Confucianism change during the Song and Mongol Dynasties? How did these changes influence China?



Confucianism is the name given to the ideas of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Confucius’s teachings focused on ethics, or proper behavior, of individuals and governments. He argued that society would function best if everyone followed two principles, ren and li. Ren means concern for others, and li means following appropriate customs and behavior. Order in society is maintained when people know their place and behave appropriately. For a thousand years after his death, Confucius’s ideas went in and out of favor several times.


There was a long period in which Buddhism and Daoism had been the most popular philosophies/religions in China, and many schools of thought grew from them. In the late Tang, many scholars began to study Confucianism, and in the Song periods “Neo-Confucianism,” began one of the most popular philosophies/religions in China and continued to grow in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods.

“Neo-Confucianism” is the revival of Confucianism during the Song dynasty and is a response to the challenges of Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. Confucian scholars mixed Buddhist and Daoist ideas in Confucianism in order to make a new Confucian ideology, “Neo-Confucianism.”

In addition to teaching proper behavior like Confucianism, Neo-Confucian scholars and officials discussed the relationship between human beings, between humans and nature, and humans and society. Neo-Confucius scholars also discussed the nature of human beings. These discussions allowed Neo-Confucianism to explore spiritual questions that had not been discussed in Confucianism before. Neo-Confucius scholars focused on self-examination and started to ask things like what made human beings do bad things? Were humans' basic nature good? Neo-Confucist scholars were encouraged to answer these specific issues instead of abstract studies.

Zhu Xi was a scholar-official and the most famous for having put together the various Neo-Confucian ideas of his time into one source. His version of Neo-Confucianism came to be accepted as the main version of Neo-Confucianism by the Ming and Qing dynasties. He was also known for his role in combining Buddhist and Daoist ideas into Neo-Confucianism. For example, he taught that people live according to the Dao or "the way". The Dao was an idea Zhu Xi took from Daoism which means a retreat from nature. However, Zhu XI defined the way differently than Daoist by claiming the Dao was a process of self-improvement and education rather than a retreat from society.

The Neo-Confucian emphasis on learning also further enhance the effects of Confucian principles on China. China created mandatory schooling for all Chinese Children. They were taught basic etiquette, combat, reading, and math. Only the very best and brightest students were allowed to continue their schooling with the elites.

Activity 1: Primary Source-The Nature As Principle by Zhu Xi

Define the vocabulary words, read the primary source excerpts, and answer the text-dependent questions.

Primary Source-The Nature As Principle by Zhu Xi

Discussion Questions

  • How did Confucianism influence Chinese Society?

  • Why did Confucianism change and how is Neo-Confucianism different then Confucianism?

  • How did the primary source documents help you understand Neo-Confucianism better? Use evidence from your text.

Effects of Neo-Confucianism

Neo-Confucianism had a big effect on the Song Dynasty’s political structure, philosophical beliefs, and also civilians’ general behavior. The government used the civil service examinations to select scholar-officials who were very smart intellectuals who knew Confucianism well. The exams tested people's knowledge of "the classics" of Chinese literature and philosophy but were later replaced by a better and more organized set of books called “The Four Books” by Zhu Xi. These texts allowed more people to understand Confucianism, leading to a more Confucian society.

The Song is often seen as a time when the status of women declined. Compared to the Tang times, women were less active in politics and less commonly seen on the streets. Song Confucian teachers argued against widows remarrying, and footbinding began in Song times. On the other hand, women’s rights to property were relatively secure in Song times, and older women were often very powerful within their families.

Activity 2: What effects did Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism have on Chinese Society?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio. In each effect box, write whether it is an effect of Confucianism or Neo-Confucianism.

Extension Activities