The intellectual activities of the Song (Sung) dynasty (960-1279) gave rise to a new system of Confucian thought based on a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist elements; the new school of Confucianism was known as Neo-Confucianism. The scholars who evolved this intellectual system were themselves well versed in the other two philosophies. Although primarily teachers of ethics, they were also interested in the theories of the universe and the origin of human nature.

Neo-Confucianism branched out into two schools of philosophy. The foremost exponent of one school was Chu Hsi, an eminent thinker second only to Confucius and Mencius in prestige, who established a new philosophical foundation for the teachings of Confucianism by organizing scholarly opinion into a cohesive system. According to the Neo-Confucianist system Chu Hsi represented, all objects in nature are composed of two inherent forces: li, an immaterial universal principle or law; and ch’i, the substance of which all material things are made. Whereas ch’i may change and dissolve, li, the underlying law of the myriad things, remains constant and indestructible. Chu Hsi further identifies the li in humankind with human nature, which is essentially the same for all people. The phenomenon of particular differences can be attributed to the varying proportions and densities of the ch’i found among individuals. Thus, those who receive a ch’i that is turbid will find their original nature obscured and should cleanse their nature to restore its purity. Purity can be achieved by extending one’s knowledge of the li in each individual object. When, after much sustained effort, one has investigated and comprehended the universal li or natural law inherent in all animate and inanimate objects, one becomes a sage.

Opposed to the li (law) school is the hsin (mind) school of Neo-Confucianism. The chief exponent of the hsin school was Wang Yang-ming, who taught the unity of knowledge and practice. His major proposition was that “apart from the mind, neither law nor object” exists. In the mind, he asserted, are embodied all the laws of nature, and nothing exists without the mind. One’s supreme effort should be to develop “the intuitive knowledge” of the mind, not through the study or investigation of natural law, but through intense thought and calm meditation.

During the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty (1644-1911) there was a strong reaction to both the li and hsin schools of Neo-Confucian thought. Qing scholars advocated a return to the earlier and supposedly more authentic Confucianism of the Han period, when it was still unadulterated by Buddhist and Taoist ideas. They developed textual criticism of the Confucian Classics based on scientific methodology, using philology, history, and archaeology to reinforce their scholarship. In addition, scholars such as Tai Chen introduced an empiricist point of view into Confucian philosophy.

Toward the end of the 19th century the reaction against Neo-Confucian metaphysics took a different turn. Instead of confining themselves to textual studies, Confucian scholars took an active interest in politics and formulated reform programs based on Confucian doctrine. K’ang Yu-wei, a leader of the Confucian reform movement, made an attempt to exalt the philosophy as a national religion. Because of foreign threats to China and the urgent demand for drastic political measures, the reform movements failed; in the intellectual confusion that followed the Chinese revolution of 1911, Confucianism was branded as decadent and reactionary. With the collapse of the monarchy and the traditional family structure, from which much of its strength and support was derived, Confucianism lost its hold on the nation. In the past, it often had managed to weather adversities and to emerge with renewed vigor, but during this period of unprecedented social upheavals it lost its previous ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

In the view of some scholars, Confucius will be revered in the future as China’s greatest teacher; Confucian classics will be studied, and Confucian virtues, embodied for countless generations in the familiar sayings and common-sense wisdom of the Chinese people, will remain the cornerstone of ethics. It is doubtful, however, that Confucianism ever again will play the dominant role in Chinese political life and institutions that it did in past centuries.

The Chinese Communist victory of 1949 underlined the uncertain future of Confucianism. Many Confucian-based traditions were put aside. The family system, for example, much revered in the past as a central Confucian institution, was deemphasized. Few Confucian classics were published, and official campaigns against Confucianism were organized in the late 1960s and early ’70s.