While Christian philosophers were defending their faith, in China the focus of intellectuals was on ideas centuries older than Christianity. Abstractions versus specifics were not contentious issues, but there was argument over what was legitimate regarding Confucianism. Scholars looking for truth followed the common habit of believing that truth was something spoken in the past. Thus, there were Confucianists who were concerned with Confucian orthodoxy and Confucianists who were calling other Confucians heretics, while posturing as perpetrators of wisdom.
During the prosperous eleventh century social elites were interested in art and literature. There was printing with moveable type. Interest in mathematics and engineering flourished and there were the philosophers Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi who were providing an exciting new commentary and new organization of old Confucian texts. The view of Confucianism's wisdom as having failed, which came with the fall of the Han dynasty, was past.
Cheng Yi influenced the development of the rationalist school of Neo-Confucianism. He entered the national university in 1056 and received his recognition as a scholar in 1059 and began making waves. He thought that Confucianism during the Han dynasty – called Han Learning – involved too much "useless verbiage," too much fuss over text significance and too little emphasis on philosophical understanding. He complained, for example, about the twenty to thirty thousand words used just to explain two characters, Yao dian, in a title. This, he believed, was not the True Way.
The True Way was the foundation of Cheng Yi's philosophy. It was a concept with roots in Confucianism, expressed as li. It had something to do with proper ritual at the court of the Zhou emperors, performed to sustain social and cosmic order, which Confucius is thought to have believed in. But by the time of Cheng Yi, li was an abstraction encompassing propriety in every sort of interaction. The greater the abstraction the more vacuous – as opposed to the significance produced by specifics – but that was no deterrent to its use, despite Cheng Yi's disdain for verbiage. Li had a synonym, equally abstract: the word "proper."
Cheng Yi's concern with li included two passages from Confucianism's Analects. One was the idea that common people can be made to follow the proper way but cannot be made to understand it. The other was only the wise and stupid do not change.
In his concept of Li, Cheng Yi was declaring his value judgments as permanent and universal truths, embedded in nature and originating in heaven. It got Cheng Yi into trouble. He made enemies by expressing his opinion as to the impropriety of others. Angry responses led to his resigning his position as imperial tutor. He continued his criticism of those in power, and in 1097 his teaching was banned, his properties were confiscated and authorities banished him – which he no doubt considered improper. His work was considered significant enough that he was pardoned three years later, but his work was banned again in 1103. He was pardoned again in 1106, one year before his death.
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