Where does Neo-Confucianism—a movement that from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries profoundly influenced the way people understood the world and responded to it—fit into our story of China's history?
This interpretive, at times polemical, inquiry into the Neo-Confucian engagement with the literati as the social and political elite, local society, and the imperial state during the Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties is also a reflection on the role of the middle period in China's history. The book argues that as Neo-Confucians put their philosophy of learning into practice in local society, they justified a new social ideal in which society at the local level was led by the literati with state recognition and support. The later imperial order, in which the state accepted local elite leadership as necessary to its own existence, survived even after Neo-Confucianism lost its hold on the center of intellectual culture in the seventeenth century but continued as the foundation of local education. It is the contention of this book that Neo-Confucianism made that order possible.
For a long time students of Neo-Confucianism are yearning for a thorough examination on and fruition of research in recent decades in English world on Neo-Confucianism transcending the traditional narrative. Bol's lucubration tentatively quenched their thirst. Neo-Confucianism in History, based on 500-odd materials (in which roughly one fifth are original materials), vivified via a distinct perspective the Neo-Confucianism trend as an active engagement of intellects in history in making the ongoing history.
This book can be read in a way dividing the intact volume into 2 parts. First part consists of chapter 1-3, which lays the foundation for further discussion and is by their own right an overview of Neo-Confucianism's historical setting or an "external" history of it. The second part that consists of the remaining 4 chapters is delineated by the closing section of chapter 3, where "approach and questions" and the curiosity-arousing "appendix" appear. Chapter 3 overarches the whole narrative and discussion of the book. "Approach" vested 3 functions in Neo-Confucianism, i.e. as position to take, as identity to assume and as social movement to be engaged in, these are independent functions, but not mutually exclusive.
Bol has a vision. His book is not only a survey of Neo-Confucianism in history, but also a declaration of war on the traditionalists in writing Neo-Confucianism in the past decades. Although his arsenal is stored with ammunitions supplied by precedent historians, but the commander is nobody than Bol himself. What the brave new world Bol is going to envision after fighting the battle? - I think the clauses prescribed in his introduction describe it clearly. By negating previously and even today prevailing ideas that Neo-Confucianism is merely ideological justification of imperial rules, Bol stood out from the crowed of philosophically minded and the historically minded friends and foes. (One of his foes is Yu Yingshi, whose understanding of Neo-Confucianism is rebutted in p. 114 in a rather rhetorically sarcastic tone. How author view the Neo-Confucianism, if he goes against traditional view that it's merely an ideological justification to which author had shown his dissent? His view is that Neo-Confucianism has something to offer to the literati who are with great ambitions and poor prospects, i.e. education, connection, self-justification, opportunities for local leadership, and ways of acting morally.) The emphasis given to Neo-Confucianism on both historical side and philosophical side made him either/neither an historian or/nor a philosopher. In the contrary, this soldier, armored with philosophy panoply, thrusting his history spare, defending the Neo-Confucianism he construed.
This book is well structured. The Contents is a cogent outline of the whole volume. It starts with a comparison between the world of 750 and 1050 (the era framing the period of the collapse of Tang and consolidation of Song power), in the eye of an imagined shi in 1050, from 4 perspectives, namely: foreign relations (with "the rest of the world", mainly the dynasties in north and northwest), differences in development in north and south, commerce and urbanization and social change. This laid down the ground on which Neo-Confucianism developed from a minor opposing force to the main stream.
The great upheaval and turmoil during this transition era left agony in people's memory, which in turn changed people's perspective in reading state and themselves. Those people in our consideration are the literati, perceived by today as poets, statesmen, literary figures and so on. But at their own time, their identities are not constrained in these categories; rather they are the thumbs of intelligences. Different perspectives these people advocated to great extent determined the fundamental ideas of intellectual schools emanated from them, they are Wang Anshi's New Policy, Sima Guang's historical philosophy, Su's literary and creative spontaneity and Chengs' Dao xue (Neo-Confucianism). Would these eminent figures fight for their dominance in intellectual world or corporate with each other in state building?
Hence the book goes to chapter 2: on "Searching for New Foundation". The chapter starts with this question: What the goals for the times (c.a. 1050) should be and how they could be attained? To facilitate readers to understand the significance of this question, as an historian, Bol briefed reader with the shifting context by emphasizing on some trends and developments conceived of at that time:
1. Politicization of learning: national debate on what Song should achieve (Wang's New Policy and a national education system's implementation)
2. Undermining of ideological foundation of empire: imperial rhetoric fell into destitute
3. Imposition of an ideological program on government: e.g. Wang Anshi's Neo Policies.
Bol noticed a changing attitude toward learning that learning meant cultivating the grounds of independent judgment in oneself created greater intellectual uncertainty amongst literati. At the time when a number of leading figures advocating their own understanding of the country and heaven-and-earth, a Song literatus thus realized and believed that it's, rather than returning to antiquity, realizing in oneself the process by which the sages were able to create things of enduring values mattered (p. 69). As this belief gained popularity, literati started to align themselves with men who were believed had the answers. In the title Bol used an -ing form, i.e. "searching for", to depict the continuous and tenacious endeavor of Song people in searching for a foundation for the heaven-and-earth and themselves on the ruin of great Tang tradition. Either Wang's New Policy or Chengs' Neo-Confucianism was a part in this continuum. And it is New Policy which occupied the central stage, in contrast to Neo-Confucianism which outside the pale of New Policy's domain developed. New Policy's feasibility in changing the world is negated retrospectively by Cheng Yi in his eulogy to his brother that "even thought good government did not exist, literati could still understand the Way of it by studying about it indirectly through others, and they could transmit that to later times." And Neo-Confucianism's capability in doing so is reinforced, since "once there were no more true Confucians, everyone was lost, they did not know where to turn", it reads: if there are true Confucians, everyone knows where to turn. (p. 84)
By asking "How they (Neo-Confucians) saw their relationship to political power and the state system", the first part concludes and the second part of this book unfolds. This general question later is further refined into some questions in particular, the are: 1. How Neo-Confucians understood their relation to the imperial state and politics, 2. Their concept of learning as self-justification and practice, 3. The beliefs that were necessary for their learning to be effective, and 4. Their works among the literati and in local society. - The following 4 chapters, as we may make the guess, are answers to there questions.
In this second part there are four chapters, i.e. politics, learning, belief and social movement. The first "Politics" chapter discussed the questions that how Neo-Confucianism provides literati a new form of ruler-ruled relationship when old Han-Tang style relationship lost its attractiveness by subjecting both side into the ongoing procedure of learning, in which the ruler may acquire assistance from the ruled literati, who are in the exact sense the Neo-Confucians, for they know the way, which in turn empowered them with morality and therefore, authority. - The stage of this development on which the story unfolded is the greatly altered social context during Tang-Song transition, where old ideas supporting autocracy lost its credit, and it's needed to have some refreshing ideas to justify the ruler-ruled relationship. At Song time, as the new paradigm of ruler-ruled relationship was accepted, the literati now had such a conviction that power is the product of morality, which is the product of self-cultivating universal quality endowed in human beings. The process of the self-cultivation is learning, which is the topic of Chapter 5, the second part of part 2.
Bol introduces theory of learning by analyzing the historical development of Zhang Zai and Cheng/Zhu's theories on qi and li, and concludes that despite contentions between these two schools, both agreed on it that li (coherence) exists in the myriad things under heaven, and heaven-and-earth is a larger coherent whole (p. 168). A transformation from uninitiated mental state to being aware of li and thereon responding to the world spontaneously is the necessary condition for anyone pursuing sagehood as proofed by the unfolding of the history of antiquity and achievements of sages/sage-kings. Learning is the process by which this transformation takes place. (pp. 168-72)
Learning as a series of activities contains 2 steps. The first is to grasp the li coherence of external world by observing it. By doing so the observer realizes the coherence inside himself in his mind, - this is to be achieved at the second step, which also leads to the state of being aware of and maintaining the coherence in his mind. (pp. 172-3) Therefore the mind was made central to learning at Song; although it's not until Wang Yangming's time, "mind" is deemed as li. For Song Neo-Confucians, mind is the agency, "nature" is li.
Their incapability of providing logically concrete arguments for the thesis of Zhu Xi and for the antithesis of Wang Yangming (this is argued at the closing of this chapter) gives Bol the hint that the Neo-Confucianism is based on belief. (pp. 193-5). This is the topic of the third chapter (Chapter 6, Belief) of part 2.
Bol considers belief as "a conscious commitment to faith" in contrast to "a philosophical proposition or unarticulated assumption". What Neo-Confucians believe is "unity", a collective concept, about how the human world ought to be and how the physical world came to be. This concept originally is a part of imperial system, but now it was moved out of the imperial system and into the Neo-Confucians' belief. This unity comes to be intelligible thanks to the concept of li, the inherent coherence of the myriad things. (pp. 195-200)
Unity evinced at different levels and from different aspects, Bol discerns that there are: 1, unity of the cosmos; 2, unity of society (in antiquity); 3, unity of doctrine (it can be seen as the restored continuity with ancient sages, i.e. the restoration of the succession of the Way, and the effort to harmonize disagreement between Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming's theories.); 4, unity of mind (it indicates an experience of a mental state of unity and maintenance of this state.)
By affirming that ideal of unity is different or even going against the reality of the contemporary world, Bol substantiates his argument on belief by claiming that Neo-Confucians internalized the classic idea of empire after shifting their focus on unity away from imperial system. The classic idea of empire is the realization of unity in society, in which contemporary empire is not necessarily the only agent able to do so. Bol's discussion shifted from unity to social movement: by persuading other members in society to accept their belief, Neo-Confucian mobilized their resources to initiate their social movement (p. 217); this is the topic of Chapter 7.
Neo-Confucians social projects are to some extent competitive force of government/state apparatus, the state school system, as Bol notices in Zhu Xi's case in building academies (p. 232). Despite reluctance of constitutional support, academies built here and there, inasmuch as mental support and material contribution from local government increased along with growth of number of Neo-Confucians in bureaucracy. Finally the court accepted the coexistence of the academies and state schools (p. 233). Another important aspect of social life, the family, was not left unnoticed by neither the researcher nor his Neo-Confucian subjects, who offered a model of family life that (same as in educational sphere) "largely ignored its relations to the state and religion" (p. 236). The model is lineage. The introduction of lineage is meant to solve the disputations during the division of property, it's an economic and legal issue which if not carefully handled, family relationships and further the morality of the community will be the victim. By perceiving "family" as a kinship-based ritual unit that could serve as the basic building block of local society, they re-organized this kinship unit so that to cleanse it from inappropriate practices, including economic disagreements and rituals officiated by religious specialists (pp. 237, 8).
Although they were actions out of righteous intention, Bol reminds readers, the Neo-Confucians social projects, e.g. academies, shrines, local compacts, economic support organizations/institutions were seen as competitors, both to state/government and to religious/lay organization (p. 247). This competing force loomed large because that increasing commercialization helped in creating another layer of network between local government and family, and in accumulating wealth for Neo-Confucians projects in Song and Yuan (p. 248). Such projects, take lineages as an example, either be it a loose corporation or a well-regulated commune, are by nature voluntarism.
Early Ming legitimated Neo-Confucians' social projects, which at this juncture were unable to sustain momentum since the society as a whole is destitute of wherewithal to support such projects due to the devastating civil war. Voluntarism revived after early Ming's legislation petered out and wealth accrued in society. But at this time, the components and dispositions of participants and beneficiaries of Neo-Confucians' social movement altered.
The revival of voluntary Neo-Confucianism social project was not exclusively for literati, whom leadership of community activities was no longer monopolized by. The characteristic of late Ming voluntarism is inclusiveness, which is bequeathed from early Ming's legislation practice. This inclusiveness to some extent started to undermine the Neo-Confucianism. By the end of Ming, Evidential learning, i.e. using practical institutional means rather than cultivation morality in individual came to the fore, Neo-Confucianism view was largely abandoned.
Neo-Confucianism by itself deserves detailed analysis certainly, but one must not be satisfied or worse, misted by the detailed analysis laid down by precedent historians and think that there is no much thing of Neo-Confucianism left for further consideration. This is the reminder Bol tried to convey, and he exemplified his approach from a distinct perspective in Chapter 3, i.e. in an "external reading of internal history". Also to this very chapter an appendix is attached, in which the author defend his approach in a seemingly relatively peculiar way. It is difficult to make an educated guess on why this appendix, which can be read more suitably as a preface or introduction, is here. But the decision of interjecting this appendix here somehow reminds readers about the importance of this chapter in both articulating the whole argument and in understanding the Neo-Confucianism in the way author advocates. (pp. 81-3.)
Physiological burden imposed by reading and understanding Chapter 6, "Belief" compelled me to read and consider this topic again. It seems that "Unity" is an all-encompassing (all imprisoning) concept, because from this chapter reader was told that there are many manifestations of the belief of unity: in restoration of the succession of the Way (Dao tong), in attempts in unification or harmonization of Zhu Xi and Lu Jiuyuan, in the society in antiquity. It seems to me that unity was delegated so many roles; or it was exposed to relatively unchecked interpretations. It became a stage of mental development, a state of social affair, an effort of intelligent discourse and an anachronical claim aimed at securing orthodoxy. If all these aspects can be shrouded by the omnipotent word, I can't help doubting that the boundary of the concept was being extended beyond reasonable limitation.
Bol mentioned that Wang Yangming took "unity" as the ultimate stage. Then, if it's the ultimate stage (which Bol takes), we can deduce the following conclusions:
1. it is not the starting point, and
2. it can never be the point in which one can believe but to achieve or to try to achieve. [i.e. it is a status rather than an object. A status to be attained can't be the object of belief.]
Therefore, "unity" to different Neo-Confucians meant mutually exclusive concepts.
Unity is problematic, Bol's conclusion that the discourses of Neo-Confucians used to convey the belief of unity "hand been cultivated to the point that it was not apparent to oneself (p. 215) that it was a belief at all" seems implicates that this "belief in unity" is so well integrated into the mind of Neo-Confucians and somehow it likes that a donor's organ was transplanted into and became a well functioning part of the recipient. If so Neo-Confucians who took the "belief" were actually uncritically accepting it; rather than "consciously commit" to it, as Bol suggested at the opening of Chapter 6.
Although my doubts can't be disguised, I still believe this chapter is with greatest importance. Bol is the first one who ventured into the field of Neo-Confucians' "belief" seriously. No matter whether his discussion on belief is correct or in need of further consideration, the chapter opens a new window for us to understand Neo-Confucianism. I also see the Belief chapter is more indigenous compared with other parts, for this chapter contains only 66 entries of end notes whilst most of them are citations of original materials, it's the chapter contains the fewest citations if introduction and epilogue are excluded.
The inquiry to the significance of Neo-Confucianism and study on it to contemporary China raised and echoed in the introduction and conclusion chapters enlarged our scope in and furthered our understanding of Neo-Confucianism. As the intelligent movement in history it deserves appraisal of modern people, this book, a history book deserves appreciation of modern students.
This book is bound with cloth cover and smyth-sewed, fairly priced (39.5 USD at Amazon.com), despite minor editorial errors (e.g. p. 89 line 12, "spokesmen" reads "spokesman", and some Chinese characters in bibliography). Bol's charming pen rendered this highly condensed book dealing with a rather tough topic encompassing a time-span more than 4 centuries great readability. Perusal of this book is like savoring green tea, aroma and essence is reserved for the sensible tongue.