From the Three Kingdoms to the Late Tang
School of the New Text or the Old Text, at the fall of the Han dynasty the two parties are equally blamed for having lost themselves in sterile scholastic debates and for having let the Confucian system of selecting sages become corrupted, favoring the disintegration of the empire. Scholars like Wang Bi, He Yan, Guo Xiang and Xiang Xiu then relied on the Yijing and Taoist texts (Daodejing, Zhuangzi) to propose a new metaphysics on which to base the formation of rulers and the harmony of society. Their current of thought is named “School of mystery” or “School of depth” (xuanxue) after a Daodejing phrase. Sometimes dubbed in the West “neo-Taoism”, it can also be considered a link in Confucianism. Indeed, Confucius remains the perfect model for most of his thinkers. Thus, Wang Bi considers that he embodies the Taoist ideal of non-action (wuwei) better than Laozi (Lao Tseu) himself because, unlike the latter, he did not write anything. Guo Xiang also places Confucius above Laozi and Zhuangzi because the latter, according to him, lack experience of the world.
The classics remained essential for the training of civil servants, but the great empire reconstituted in 265 by the Jin was pushed back south of the Chang Jiang in 316 and disappeared definitively in 420. Many states, several of which were founded by members of non- Han, replace him. The fate of state Confucianism follows these changes, supported by some like Liang Wudi or neglected by others. Texts are lost during the wars. At the same time, Buddhism is gaining ground, monks becoming advisers to “barbarian” rulers, and certain Taoist groups (New Celestial Masters, Shangqing, etc.) are getting structured and gaining influence with power. The great empire was reconstituted in 581 by the Sui, quickly followed by the Tang who remained in power until 907. The examination system was reinstated under the Sui. At the beginning of the Tang, new schools for scholars were founded, an official corpus of the Classics was reconstituted and Confucian rites were reinstated. Nevertheless, Taoism and Buddhism also had great influence in court and among the aristocracy. Buddhist philosophy, in particular, in the form of currents such as Tiantai or Huayan, seduces the elites.
A reaction against the influence of Buddhism is emerging among some Confucians, such as Han Yu and Li Ao. They advocate concentrating on the Confucian Classics which perfectly show the Way without resorting to foreign philosophies, and taking the sages cited there as models. They nevertheless dismiss Xunzi and the Han Confucians and point to Mencius, who regards human nature as fundamentally good, as the last orthodox Confucian. Han Yu is outspokenly hostile to Buddhism, accusing it of being antisocial because of the emphasis on monasticism; he criticizes the worship of relics as superstitious and rejects notions he considers foreign to Chinese thought such as karma. Li Ao, while criticizing the idleness of the monks, frequents Buddhists and has ideas close to Taoism and Chan. Their ideas will be taken up by the neo-Confucian current.
From the Song to the end of the Ming
Different Schools developed under the Song around scholars who, like Han Yu of the Tang, rejected the aspects of Buddhism that they considered antisocial, such as celibacy, and certain notions such as the absence of the self, while granting it sometimes also qualities. They want to put man back at the center of a cosmos that his good conduct, based on Confucian virtues, helps to keep in order. The first neo-Confucians each established their cosmological and metaphysical system which in fact owes much to Buddhism and to the ancient Taoist and naturalist background (taiji, qi, yin-yang); they advocate a certain detachment and the erasure of desires, and sometimes employ meditation. Zhu Xi realizes the synthesis of their thoughts. The Four Books (Analects, Mencius, Zhong Yong, Da Xue), the most important texts of Confucianism according to the current which it claims, become from the beginning of the 14th century the official program of imperial examinations, and its interpretation of Confucianism, called “School of the principle” (理学 lixue) imposed itself until the end of the 15th century, when Wang Yangming’s “School of the spirit” (心学 xinxue) came to compete with it.
In Zhu Xi, the cosmos is represented as the whole Sky-Earth present in the ancient classics, but also as taiji, source of all creation, a concept adopted very early by Taoism. The activity of taiji unfolds according to a fundamentally correct form called [dao]li ([道]理) or principle, a notion inspired by the tianli (天理) of the Cheng brothers, which can be apprehended through its partial reflections which are the li individual objects, beings and phenomena. Understanding the daoli therefore requires careful study of the classics and careful investigation of all phenomena. This study, also proposed by Cheng Yi, is called qiongli (窮理) or gewu (格物) and sometimes led Zhu Xi to undertake quasi-scientific observations. But a stream of thinkers including the eldest Cheng and Lu Jiuyuan believe that investigation is tedious and inefficient, and that since human nature perfectly reflects the supreme li, the best way to access it is through soul-searching. mind rid of egocentrism and material desires. Neo-Confucians indeed agree with Mencius that human nature is fundamentally good, since it conforms to li; following Zhu Xi, they reject Xun Zi as a heretic. To explain the imperfections observable in reality, Zhu Xi appeals to the already old notion of qi, a kind of matter or force that fills the universe, which can obscure the li.
Despite the prestige of Zhu Xi, the current of introspection and radical subjectivity (School of the mind” or 心学 xinxue) gradually gained the upper hand with Wang Yangming. He sometimes gave protest versions of Confucianism as with Li Zhi (1527-1602) and won over the Japanese and Koreans.
Shortly after the end of the Ming (early 18th century) the Hanxue philological current challenged the “fanciful” interpretation that the neo-Confucians gave to the Classics.