External vs The Internal View in Neo-Confucian Essay

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External vs. The Internal View in Neo-Confucian Thought

Since the beginning of time, philosophers have made a living looking at how people conduct themselves and trying to make sense of it. Sometimes the philosopher will devise a theory about how the human world works by looking inside themselves and trying to determine the answer, and other times they will observe what people actually do and make comments based on that. Two Chinese philosophers and teachers, Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming, who were the most prominent Neo-Confucian thinkers, had different ideas with regard to how people developed a moral sense and translated that to the world. They also understood the law very differently. This paper looks at the two philosophers and their perspectives on some key issues so as to determine how they differed, were similar and how they relate to a modern world that often seems to be largely amoral or, at the very least, selectively moral.


Zhu Xi

He is one of the most noted philosophers and teachers in the extensive history of China and he is regarded as probably the foremost Neo-Confucian scholar. Of the time in which he was raised, one scholar notes that;

"When the Song dynasty (960 -- 1279) was established in the tenth century, the so-called Five Classics -- the Book of Changes, the Book of History, the Book of Poetry, the Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals -- had long been regarded as the authoritative texts in the Confucian tradition"[footnoteRef:1] [1: Daniel K. Gardner, Zhu Xi's Reading of the Analects: Canon, Commentary, and the Classical Tradition, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. p. 1.]

These books, some thought were edited by Confucius himself, established the Chinese dynastic tradition and the religious philosophy that was such a part of Chinese tradition. During his Xi's lifetime the I Ching, a book of Neo-Confucian thought and belief, was the prominent study guide of his fellow philosophers, but Xi studied and taught from what became known as the Four Books -- Greater Learning, the Analects, the Mencius, and the Mean[footnoteRef:2] -- which formed the basis of civil service examinations for the next 700 years. His influence in his sphere was not felt until after his death, but Zhu Xi is still considered probably the most influential teach and philosopher after Confucius himself. [2: Ibid.]

Wang Yangming

Wang was a "Ming general and statesman"[footnoteRef:3] who was harkened back to the teachings of Xi more than 250 years previously. He continued the tradition that Xi had established, but he perfected the language for a new time. He agreed in principle with much that Xi had to say, but they disagree on some key points. His main point of contention was with the rationalist dualism of Xi.[footnoteRef:4] [3: William Theodore De Bary, and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 849.] [4: Woobong Ha, "Sirhak in Late Choson Korea and Ancient Learning in Early Modern Japan from the Perspective of the History of Interaction," Korean Studies 30 (2006).]

Wang, like Xi lived a life that was fraught with many successes and defeats. As a member of the Chinese elite there was always court intrigue and petty jealousies to deal with. Wang's father had been expelled from a good position because he offended a eunuch in the court, and Wang was subject to the same. However, where his father was not able to recover prior to his death, Wang was able to eventually rise to a governorship and then road at the front of troops as a general.[footnoteRef:5] He was instrumental in defeating several uprisings in the kingdom, and he was also an advocate for leniency toward enemy combatants. However, he was vilified for his refusal to follow the strict teachings of Xi, and he did not receive the accolades he deserved as an intellectual rival of Xi's until fifty years after his death. Today he is thought of as the second of the great Neo-Confucian scholars behind only Xi. [5: Xuezhi Guo, The Ideal Chinese Political Leader: A Historical and Cultural Perspective, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. p. 41.]

Neo-Confucian Teaching Comparison

Both scholars were concerned the principles of Confucius be continued and that Chinese teaching be maintained in this manner. Both scholars fought the incursion of the foreign Buddhist and Daoist teachings, as did all Neo-Confucian scholars, and they tried to preserve the most precious of the ancient writings. Both subscribed to the Four Books over the Five Classics, and taught from within those treatises. However, they had different ideas on some critical points within the Neo-Confucian teachings.


Guo states that "Instead of relying on fear and punishment to achieve social order, Confucianism depends heavily on social ritual (li)."[footnoteRef:6] Basically this is described by scholars as a social pressure that is put on individuals to get them to conform to the rules of society. If the social pressure fails, then there are punishments that are meted out which cause others to realize the teeth that exists with the li. Guo also states that ancient scholars disagreed regarding the ability of people to actually develop li and live by its precepts. One group believed that "men cannot rely on their inner moral consciousness to adjust and restrict their passions and desires" while the other thought that it was possible to maintain the discipline through the ritual.[footnoteRef:7] [6: Xuechi Guo, The Ideal Chinese Political Leader: A Historical and Cultural Perspective, Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002. p. 23.] [7: Ibid. p. 24.]

Of course Xi and Wang had some different thoughts as to the possibility of achieving an ideal society through the social ritual also. Wang had been an administrator for the last half of his life, guiding men in battle and being the governor of a prefecture, so he knew what men were capable of. Xi was a philosopher and teacher who was more in tune with the best qualities of society and taught that governance through li was possible. However, he believed that the understanding of the principle came from a different source than did Xi.

The principle of li can either come from society or it can come from within oneself. This is the dividing line between the two philosophers. Whereas Xi would have people rely on the impetus of a correct social order to enact li, Wang believed that a person had to look within himself or herself. "Wang argued that inasmuch as every living thing is a manifestation of Principle, then one need not look outside oneself in order to understand Principle (and therefore morality): one should consult one's own heart (or mind), wherein Principle surely lay."[footnoteRef:8] It is the same thought Western philosophers call natural law. People understand, innately, what is right and wrong, If the person examines a situation carefully from their own perspective, they will always find the right way. It is only when a person goes away from what they tell themselves is right and wrong that they go outside the principle and thus outside the law. Wang was a proponent of having law because he did not believe that society could possibly govern its people through social pressure as Xi did. The reason for the societal law and punishment is because most people do not understand there "true nature"[footnoteRef:9] so they cannot be counted on to abide by the principle. [8: William Theodore De Bary, and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 849.] [9: Ibid.]


This word, heart or in Chinese xin, has the same meaning as it does in Western understanding. Unless speaking in actual physiological terms, the heart is the driving force of a person. It can also be termed the mind or soul, and it is what determines the moral philosophy of the individual.

When it came to beliefs regarding the heart, Xi was considered a realist. Tophoff explains that Xi believed "Things are knowable to the mind, and a deep study of investigating the world of things and of men eventually may lead to developing of a moral self, to self-knowledge and, finally, to sage-hood." [footnoteRef:10] Thus he departed from the traditional Confucian belief that through ritual and memorizing a person could realize who they were morally. The difference is that Xi believed that a person actually had to take the ritual and the teaching to heart and understand it as a person, and then as it pertained to society, rather than just memorizing some platitudes rather that actually believing what they said. In Xi's mind, it was the belief that was central rather than just the gathering of knowledge and performing some meaningless ritual. [10: Michael M. Tophoff, "The Ethics of Knowledge and Action in Postmodern Organizations," Journal of Buddhist Ethics 14 (2007).]

Wang and Xi were similar in this teaching in that they both believed that it was belief rather than just ritual and memorization that perfected the individual, but Wang,…

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