An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Song-Period Literature

Poetry - Prose writing - Theatre and Plays - Novels and popular stories - Encyclopaedias - Private authorship - New ways in historiography - Neo-Confucianism - Historiographical sources

The Song period can be seen as the apogee of the development of two kinds of literature: ci 詞 poetry; and prose (sanwen 散文). Beyond these two literary styles that are not new but were perpetuated from the Tang period 唐, there was a third field of literature that should become mature in the centuries of the Song Dynasty before fully flowering during the Yuan period 元. The bookprint, invented during Tang Dynasty and quickly pressed forward by the need to distribute Buddhist sutras, reached a further stage during Song time: exchangeable types for bookprinting were invented during the middle of 11th century.

Poetry - shi 詩 and ci

Poetry played a very important role in Chinese literature throughout the ages. The two most popular patterns of Chinese poetry are shi 詩 poetry and ci 詞 poetry. The first was the regular style of poetry (lüshi 律詩) that matured under Tang but was still in use in the 20th century. It is characterized by equally long verses with 5 or 7, sometimes 6 syllables that bear end rhymes in the 2nd and 4th verse. Often shi poems are very short with only 4 or 8 lines (1 or 2 stanzas) and are then called jueju 絕句 "terminated sentences".
The other type of poem, ci, originated likewise during the Tang period and was based on songs whose text was replaced by new words without changing the rhyme pattern and the harmonical conditions (contrafactury). The poet then had to decide what was more important for him, either content or musical and lyric harmony. This kind of ci poetry became more fashionable during the Five Dynasties period 五代. But it was especially in the Song period that ci poetry became so widespread that there is surfacially the impression that it was the sole type of lyric composed in this time while shi poetry was restricted to Tang (Tang shi Song ci 唐詩宋詞).
Early Song shi lyric was still influenced of the late Tang and Five Dynasties poetry with its soft and beautiful style that did less emphasize content than rather impression. A representative of this style is Lin Bu 林逋 who imitated the style of the late Tang poets Jia Dao 賈島 and Yao He 姚合 with their elegant and pure verses that often lacked content. This style called "recluse poetry" (yinyi shifeng 隱逸詩風) was then replaced by the shi poetry of Liu Kai 柳開 and Wang Yucheng 王禹偁 who renewed the simple and natural style of the Tang writer Han Yu 韓愈. Another group of poets (the "cabinet group" taige shiren 臺閣詩人; also called Xikun Group 西昆派) were Yang Yi 楊億 and Liu Yun 劉筠 who single-mindedly copied the style of the Tang poet Li Shangyin 李商隱 and laid great stress on shape and harmony.
Under the impression of political reforms that took place during the 11th century, there was also the call for new practical contents in poetry to fill the empty cage of harmonious rules. Excellent poets like Su Shi 蘇軾 (Su Dongpo 蘇東坡) filled the grid of harmony and rhyme with a vivid and fresh style dealing with various practical themes without neglecting romanticism and beauty. Other poets at that period forgot that poetry had to be placid and introduced prose-like patterns into shi poetry. Opposed to this deformative style, Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 as father of the Jiangxi group 江西詩派 reintroduced the original metrical skills. Other members of this poetry group idealized shape and content and forgot that poetry could also be an instrument of expression of personal and of political thoughts. Exactly this task of poetry was discovered by Southern Song poets like Chen Yuyi 陳與義 who can be called the first in a line of poets who lamented the loss of northern China in 1126. Lu You 陸游, Yang Wanli 楊萬里 and Fan Chengda 范成大 are famous for their "honest and pure style" (chengzhaiti 誠齋體) and "manor poetry" (tianyuanshi 田園詩) whose content describes political, economic and social situations of their time. At the end of Southern Song, poets again left the sphere of reality and sung about recluse in mountains and escape from the realm of politics. The style of the "Four Genii" (siling 四靈: Xu Ji 徐璣, Xu Zhao 徐照, Weng Quan 翁卷, Zhao Shixiu 趙師秀) is again concentrated on formal topics, it is shape-oriented and estimates harmony and perfectness through well-carved sentences. There are only very few members of the Jianghu Group 江湖派 who stand in the tradition of Lu You in rethinking of the glory of past, like Dai Fugu 戴復古, Liu Kezhuang 劉克莊, Wen Tianxiang 文天祥, Wang Yuanliang 汪元量 and Liu Chenweng 劉辰翁. As the four great shi poets of Southern Song are valid: Lu You, Yang Wanli, Fan Chengda, and the less renowned You Mao 尤袤.
Early Northern Song ci poetry stood in the tradition of Five Dynasties, especially Southern Tang 南唐, xiaoling 小令 lyric with its narrow thematical field of love and women poetry like it is seen in the collection Huajianji 花間集. Yan Shu 晏殊 and Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 therefore widened the thematical content when they wrote their ci poems, a tendency that was continued by Zhang Xian 張先 and Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹. Yan Jidao 晏幾道 lead the early Song ci poetry to a first highlight. Liu Yong 柳永 incorporated popular song styles in his poetry and widened the thematical range of this type of lyric to cover even aspects of daily life. His language was less refined than usually but with harmonious elegance and vivid descriptions so that his poems were very popular among his contemporarians even with the average people. The famous writer Su Shi created a new ci poetry style called haofangci 豪放詞 "heroic abandon", leaving the traditional themes of moods and feelings and neglecting the strict rules of musical modes and harmonies (yinlü 音律). Ci poetry thus ceased to be music and became spoken/read poetry. The traditional school of ci poetry, called wanyueci 婉約詞 "poems of delicate restraint", lead by Qin Guan 秦觀, a friend of Su Shi, continued to estimate their poems to be expressions of beauty and elegance, and that modes and harmony had to control and to temper language. Although there were always poets who did not strictly adhere to one of these schools, like He Zhu 賀鑄, an ever refined style developed during the Northern Song Dynasty, induced by Zhou Bangyan 周邦彥, and whose representatives are called the "Standardized Rules Group" (gelüpai 格律派). Under the impression of the Song Dynasty's retreat to the south, a female poet called Li Qingzhao 李清照 incorporated descriptions of her own life to express her feelings toward her own times. Similarly, politicians - either successful or disappointed, made use of ci poems to express their sentiments, like Li Gang 李綱 Yue Fei 岳飛, Zhang Yuangan 張元干 or Zhang Xiaoxiang 張孝祥. All these various styles of ci poetry were brought together under the brush of one writer who is probably the most important Southern Song poet: Xin Qiji 辛棄疾 who is generally counted among the representatives of the open-minded haofang style. Among his disciples are Chen Liang 陳亮, Liu Guo 劉過, Liu Kezhuang and Liu Chenweng. Adherents of the form-oriented Gelü Group of late Song were Jiang Kui 姜夔, Zhang Yan 張炎 and Wu Wenying 吳文英 who reiterated the style of Zhou Bangyan.
Northern Song scholars developed a thoroughly new style of poetry critique, called shihua 詩話 and cihua 詞話 respectively. Although poetry was already rated as early as by Zhong Rong's 鍾嶸 Shipin 詩品 during the 6th century, Yan Yu's 嚴羽 Canglang shihua 滄浪詩話 was a new kind of lyric theory that deeply influenced critiques of later ages.

Prose writing (sanwen 散文)

Prose writings experienced a thorough development during Tang and Song periods, and the most eminent writers were categorized as the Eight Great Writers (Tang-Song ba da jia 唐宋八大家: Han Yu 韓愈, Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元, Wang Bo 王勃; Zeng Gong 曾鞏, Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修, and the three Sus [San Su 三蘇]: Su Xun 蘇洵 and his sons Su Shi 蘇軾 and Su Zhe 蘇轍; sometimes also Wang Anshi 王安石).
Similar to the development in shi poetry, there were two mainstreams contending about how to write prose literature. One school followed the intricate and highly sophisticated style that had prevailed during the period of division and again during the 9th and 10th centuries (pianwen 駢文 "coupled, paired or rhymed style"); and the second school that revived the simple and pleasing style once advocated by the great Tang writer Han Yu (guwen 古文 "old style"). The sophisticated literary style was preferred by writers like Yang Yi 楊億, Liu Yun 劉筠 and Qian Weiyan 錢惟演 at the begin of Northern Song who belonged to a literary circle called the Xikun Group 西昆文派. Their opponents were writers of the southern region (hence called Jianghu Group 江湖文派) like Wang Yucheng 王禹偁, Liu Kai 劉開 and Fan Zhongyan 范仲淹 who composed in a simplier and inornated style. But it was only the great scholar Ouyang Xiu whose influence and decisiveness helped the simple style to win overhand in the style debates. He was able to enforced the use of the simple style for the state examinations, but in the private sphere there were still literati using the form-perfected and baroque sophisticated style of prose writing. Fan Zhongyan in his Yueyanglou ji 岳陽樓記 "Notes from Yueyang Mansion" employs the parallel panti style for descriptive passages, the prose style for discussive contents. The main reason why Ouyang Xiu advocated the simple style was the fact that pianti pieces often neglected content in favour of formal criteria (hence called xingshipai 形式派 "formalist school", in opposition to xianshipai 現實派 "realists"). It was not only a simple matter of if the essay can be easily read, but also a question of how the content was able to obtain attention among a wider public. It is often said that Ouyang Xiu saw himself as a successor of Han Yu, but his essays and writings have not the same lingual depth as that of the great Tang scholar, they are even easier to read and to understand. While Han Yu preferred character in writing, Ouyang Xiu is said to estimate impetus and spirit. His discussions about court factions (Pengdang lun 朋黨論) and eunuchs (Huanzhue zhuan lun 宦者傳論) express a vigorous argumentation and strict logic, he employs pungent critique and ridicules his targeted opponents. On the other side, he is able to verbalize deep sentiments and regrets (Ji Shi Man qing wen 祭石曼卿文), and to contemplate about man and nature (Zuiwengting ji 醉翁亭記 "Notes from the Pavillion of a Drunken Vieillard"; or his rhapsody Qiutian fu 秋天賦 "Autumn Heaven"). When Ouyang Xiu rewrote the History of the Five Dynasties and compiled his New History of the Five Dynasties (Xin Wudaishi 新五代史) every chapter has a preface in which he deplores (wuhu 嗚呼 "Alas!") the uneasy circumstances of that period.
Perpetuating the begun reintroduction of the unostentatious guwen style are the two writers Mei Yaochen 梅堯臣 and Su Shunqin 蘇舜欽, the first being in first place a shi poet, the second also an essayist. In his Canglangting 滄浪亭"Green-wave Pavillion" Su Shunqin deplored the ingratitude of the court officials.
The politician Wang Anshi 王安石 is also a famous prose writer of the Northern Song period, whose essays exhibit tendencies to legalism (Shang Renzong Huangdi wannian shu 上仁宗皇帝萬年書). In a refined style, Wang Anshi spreads his thoughts and sentiments about man's decisive targets on a journey to Mt. Baochan (You Baochanshan ji 游褒禪山記). In Wang Anshi's prose writings he demonstrates that prose has gone far beyond the stage of contentless composing technique or pure verbalisms of sentimentality. Instead, like Ouyang Xiu, prose essays are an instrument of political critique that in the case of Wang Anshi displays great persuasive potency.
In the tradition of Wang Anshi stood Zeng Gong who is less renowned but is important as one of the supporters of Ouyang Xiu and his plain literary style. As displayed in his essay Mochiji 墨池記 "Notes from the Ink Pond", it is not that man has talent by nature, but he must educate himself by diligent study. This is opposed to Daoism and even to Buddhism and proves that Zeng Gong was rather inclining to Confucianism – different to his contemporaries who were often influences by all three philosophy-religions.
By far the most famous Song period writer is Su Shi 蘇軾 (Su Dongpo 蘇東坡) who was a multi-talent in every realm of literature and art. It is said that Su Shi, his father and brother were able to compose a perfect essay out of just nothing, like Su Shi's "Rhapsody of the Red Cliff" (Chibi fu 赤壁賦; a prose-rhapsody sanfu 散賦) where he develops a profound discussion about human existence out from a simple journey to a historic place. In this piece he demonstrates his high skill of mastering language and composing techniques. Song period writers like Su Shi were not strict Confucians, but their world of thinking is likewise influenced by Daoist and Buddhist philosophy. Worldly affairs like politics stood in the range of Northern Song Dynasty writers as well as philosophising about man's place in nature and the universe. Su Shi is also called a master of ci poetry, he influenced a whole group of ci poets like Chao Buzhi 晁補之, Zhang Lei 張耒, Qin Guan and Huang Tingjian. Ouyang Xiu and Su Shi are often mentioned as the pair Ou-Su 歐蘇.
Su Shi's father Su Xun 蘇洵 (Su the Elder 老蘇) studied the old masters and has written a couple of political essays that display critique on the actual politics of the Song court, enrobed in a refined environment, like Liuguo lun 六國論 "About the Six Dynasties". His younger son Su Zhe 蘇轍 (the Lesser Su 小蘇) likewise dared to criticize the Song court with his essays like Sanguo lun 三國論 "About the Three Kingdoms", but his strength lies in biographical descriptions of imaginative and real persons (Meng De zhuan 孟德傳, Chao Gu zhuan 巢谷傳, Dongxuan ji 東軒記 "Notes from the Eastern Studio"). Persons, landscape, their moods and ideals are alloyed together in his rhaposody Mozhu fu 墨竹賦 "Ink Bamboo".
Southern Song begin Hu Quan 胡銓 advocates a policy of reconquering against the Jurchen, attacking Wang Lun 王倫 and Qin Hui 秦檜. Similarly, Chen Liang proposed to fight against the Jurchen in his Zhongxing wulun 中興五論 "Five Notes in a Period of Flourishing". Ye Shi 葉適 explained to Emperor Xiaozong the reasons of the difficult circumstances of his time. While during Northern Song, the essay (ji 記) was the preeminent form of prose, Southern Dynasties writers often used the commentative type (xu 序) of prose. The most important prose writers of Southern Song were Lu You and Xin Qiji. Lu You stood under the influence of Zeng Gong's writings and described the details of daily life as it was personally experienced by scholar-officials of Southern Song, like in his diary Ru shu ji 入蜀記 "Entering Shu (modern Sichuan)", or in his late work Laoxue'an biji 老學庵筆記 "Essay from the Studio of an Old Man Studying" where he reports all kinds of stories and anecdotes he heard among the people.
Ouyang Xiu
Su Shi , Su Che, Su Xun
Wang Anshi
Zhu Xi 朱熹 Zhuzi Yulei 朱子語類 "Master Zhu [Xi]'s categorized talks" Prose writing during the Southern Song period is largely characterized by political circumstances. Writers lamented about the occupation of Northern China, the weakness of the Song government, and proposed measures to encounter these difficulties, either by the vehement appel to reconquer the north or by advocating a policy of appeasement. There were scarcely other themes of prose writing, not even philosophical discussions among the Neoconfucian scholars, like during the Northern Song period. Important political writers of this period are Hu Quan 胡銓, Lu You, Xin Qiji, Chen Liang, Ye Shi 葉適 and Yue Fei. Resent and disappointment on the eve of Song China's end can be found in the works of Wen Tianxiang, Xie Ao 謝翱, Zheng Sixiao 鄭思肖, Deng Mu 鄧牧 and Lu Xiufu 陸秀夫.

Theatre and Plays

Although almost all pieces of Song period theatre are lost, we cannot underestimate the meaning of Song "miscellaneous dramas" (zaju 雜劇) or "southern plays" (nanxi 南戲) as fundament for the flourishing of Yuan drama and Chinese theatre.
Unfortunately there is no piece fragment preserved of Song theatre, we only know that is was well-developed as the base for the famous Yuan drama. At least we know a few hundred titles of Song dramas from Zhou Mi's 周密 essay Wulin jiushi 武林舊事 "Ancient matters from Wulin Garden" and Tao Jiucheng's 陶九成 essay Chuogenglu 輟耕錄 "Tilling after retirement". There were two types of Song drama: miscellaneous plays (zaju) and "hall dramas" (yuanben 院本), both with four acts (zhe 折) and introductions (xiezi 楔子).

Novels and popular stories (huaben 話本)

With the growing urbanization and population growth in Song China the public need for orally performed fiction and for printed stories rised substantially. Urban dwellers listened to and read stories of any imagineable topic written in plain-language (baihua 白話). While traditional stories in China often focused on stories of strange events (zhiguai 志怪), Song period popular stories (huaben 話本) had a much wider range to offer for their readers.
With the urbanization of Song China there was a growing need for entertainment on the streets and markets not only in the metropoles like Kaifeng and Hangzhou, but also in the smaller towns around the countryside. It was especially in the last century of Tang that the strict wards of the city markets were dissolved, night markets sprang up, and entertainment areas develop, the so-called wazi 瓦子 ("bricks"). This were the places were story tellers met their customers and narrated their tales (shuo hua 説話). There were four different kinds of stories: amusement novels (xiaoshuo 小説) about various topics, especially stories of ghosts and strange events (lingguai 靈怪), love stories (yanfen 煙粉), detective stories (gong'an 公案); stories about heroes (tieqi 鐵騎; chuanqi 傳奇); stories about Buddhist teachings; and stories about historic events, especially of the Three Kingdoms and Five Dynasties periods, like Xinbian Wudai shi pinghua 新編五代史評話 "Newly compiled annotated account of the Five Dynasties' history" or Quanxiang sanfen shilüe 全像三分事略 "Completely illustrated comprehensive account of the threepartition", or accounts of the monk Xuanzang's 玄奘 journey to the west (Da Tang Sanzang Fashi qu jing ji 大唐三藏法師取經記 "Account of how the Dharma master Tripitaka of the Great Tang obtained the sutras"). Two of these narrative oral stories should provide the ground for the great novels Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 and Xiyouji 西遊記. A very famous collection that is based on Song period stories is Jingben tongsu xiaoshuo canben 京本通俗小説殘本 "Popular novels in fragments, published in the capital".
The first books writing down (huaben 話本) such orally transmitted tales were normally written by hand, but as soon as printing with moveable types became normal, storyteller novels were also printed and widely spread among the public. Nevertheless this kind of new literature was estimated as inferior, mainly because it was written in plain vernacular language (baihua 白話) that already differed greatly from the written language. Many of these old oral Song stories are preserved in the Qing period collection Pingshantang Liushijia xiaoshuo 平山堂六十家小説 "Novels of Sixty Masters from the Pingshan Hall" by Hong Pian 洪楩, in the novel collections of Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 of the Ming period, and in the collections Zuiweng tanlu 醉翁談錄 "Talks of a Drunken Vielliard" and Nianyu Guanyin 碾玉觀音 "The Buddha grinding jade". Novels in vernacular language created a base for many of the great novels of the Yuan, Ming and Qing periods.
Besides novels in everyday language, there were also important collections of novels written in traditional language (wenyan 文言; "classical Chinese"), like Xuanhe yishi 宣和遺事 "Events from the Xuanhe Period", Zhang Shizheng's 張師正 Kuoyizhi 括異志 "Enlarged Account of Strange [Events]", Guo Tuan's 郭彖 Kuichezhi 睽車志, and Hong Mai's 洪邁 Yijianzhi 夷堅志. Most themes cover stories of historic persons and heroes or love stories. Many other traditional language novel collections are lost or only preserved in fragments.
Weitere wenyan shihua: Chengzhai shihua 誠齋詩話 von Yang Wanli 楊萬里; Houcun shihua 後村詩話 von Liu Kezhuang 劉克莊, Yuyin conghua 漁隱叢話 von Hu Zi 胡仔; Shiren yuxie 詩人玉屑 von Wei Qingzhi 魏慶之.

Encyclopaedias (leishu 類書)

Song dynasty scholars tried to gain an overview of the knowledge of their time and composed, under the guidance of emperors, many encyclopaedias. Among the most important encyclopaedias of Chinese literature history are the "Four great books of Song dynasty" (Song Si Da Shu 宋四大書), the anthology Wenyuan Yinghua 文苑英華, the story anthology Taiping Guangji 太平廣記, and the monographical encyclopaedias Taiping Yulan 太平御覽 and Cefu Yuangui 冊府元龜. Other important encyclopaedias are Zheng Qiao's 鄭樵 Tongzhi 通治 "Comprehensive Treatise on Government", Wang Yinglin's 王應麟 Yuhai 玉海 "Jade Ocean", and Ma Duanlin's 馬端臨 Wenxian Tongkao 文獻通考 "Comprehensive Studies in Literature". Shilin guangji 事林廣記 "Vast records of endless topics" by Chen Yuanjing 陳元靚

Private authorship

The Song time governmental official was different from his counterpart of the Tang Dynasty. While Tang nobles engaged in physical activities like playing polo, Song scholars were only interested in learning and preserving their own intellectual life-style in the library. People began to write monographies and to compose anthologies for their own purposes: mathematical or technical texts like Shen Gua's 沈括 Mengxi bitan 夢溪筆談 "Brush discussions from a dream creek", or Fu Gong's 傅肱 Xiepu 蟹譜 "Manual for crabs". Especially geography and mathematics were of broad interest for Song scholars, but there were also people beginning to analyse inscriptions and artefacts of old times, like the Zhou bronze vessels or old coins. Have a look at the encyclopaedias to see the progress in science and technique during the Song period. Very popular was the essay, "brush notes" biji or suibi, with the famous representatives Su Xun 蘇洵 and his sons Su Zhe 蘇轍 and Su Shi 蘇軾 (Su Dongpo 蘇東坡). Except these three, to the famous Tang and Song authors (Tang Song Ba Da Jia 唐宋八大家) also belong Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 and Wang Anshi 王安石, but still of great importance are Wang Yucheng 王禹偁, Li Gefei 李格非, Fan Zhongyan 范中淹, Sima Guang 司馬光, Li Gou 李覯, and Zeng Gong 曾鞏.
During Tang Dynasty, the regulated poem (lüshi 律詩 or gushi 古詩) was the typical form of poems. Now, under Song, the melodious poem (ci 詞), written to a melody already existing, became popular. All important people engaged in writing poems as the mastership of poetry was a part of general education. In the towns and cities and among the normal people, entertainment was an important part of their life. Many of the anecdotes or tales that the storytellers and theatre players presented to the people became so popular that they even found entrance into the written literature.

New ways in historiography

Chinese historiography had long won its traditional shape that followed the monographical pattern of Sima Qian's 司馬遷 masterpiece Shiji 史記. Song Dynasty historians like Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 followed this pattern, but they imposed their special interpretation of history as a moral and ethical didactic for later generations. Ouyang Xiu rewrote the Histories of Tang (Tangshu 唐書) and that of the Five Dynasties (Wudaishi 五代史) because he saw influence of Buddhism too strong and the description of the former emperors as too good. The first critical views of historiography were already seen by Tang scholars. A further masterpiece incorporating source critics is Sima Guang's 司馬光 Zizhi Tongjian 資治通鑑 "Comprehensive mirror providing material for government", a universal history from the Warring States period to the beginning of the Song. Sima Guang does not follow the monographical style of the Shiji, but he reports history in a chronological order. The philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 wrote a condensation of Sima Guang's opus, called Tongjian Gangmu 通鑑綱目 "Essentials of the Comprehensive Mirror", but with a moral touch. Going back to a monographical style reporting special themes from the "Mirror", Yuan Shu 袁樞 created a third new style of historiography with his Tongjian Jishi Benmo 通鑑紀事本末 "Reporting origin and result of historic events from the Comprehensive Mirror".
Except these great writings, there are still extant many books or documents about Song history, like Xu Mengxin's 徐夢莘 Sanchao Beimeng Huibian 三朝北盟會編 (covering 1117-1162, the defeat by the Jin-Jürched and the withdrawal to the south), the Liangchao Gangmu Beiyao 兩朝綱目備要 (covering 1190-1203), Li You's 李攸 Songchao shishi 宋朝事實, or Songshi Yi 宋史翼 by the Qing scholar Lu Xinyuan 陸心源 . The Yuan official Tuotuo 脫脫 compiled the official dynastic history of Song, the Songshi 宋史. An institutional history of Song can be found in the compilation Song Huiyao (Jigao) 宋會要輯稿 by the Qing scholar Wang Yunhai 王雲海 .


As a philosophical stream during Song Dynasty, Confucianism was defined newly and seen from different standpoints. Confucianism (rujiao 儒教) has been a state doctrine since the mid of Former Han Dynasty (Qianhan [Qian Han]) 前漢. But it has not only been a fundament for a centralized and autocratic state, but also a basis for wide discussions about the relation between Heaven, nature and man. Song time philosophers tried to redefine man's position in the universe. The literary movement to go back to the roots of Confucianism to heal the diseases of the state, called "Old literature movement (guwen yundong 古文運動)", was started by the Tang period 唐 scholars Han Yu 韓愈 and Li Ao 李翱. The Song time historian Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修 stressed that cultural norms and education serve to practise a better policy. Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤, Shao Yong 邵雍 and the brothers Cheng Yi 程頤 and Cheng Hao 程顥 based their speculations about a better society on the Confucian classics, but it was the great Southern Song philosopher Zhu Xi 朱熹 who founded a school with the interest to newly interprete the old classical works. His school focused on the explanation of human nature and universal order and was therefore called "School of Nature and Order" (xinglixue 性理學 or short Lixue 理學), in the West known as Neo-Confucianism. Zhu Xi's philosophy saw the world determined by a dualism between a rational natural and moral order (li 理) and odem or non-organized stuff (qi 氣), or shape and matter. Deeply interested in a comprehensive interpretation of the Confucian classics, Zhu Xi wrote numerous comments to the old books. Some of his discussions are collected in the book Zhuzi Yulei 朱子語類 "Master Zhu's categorized talks". Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵, another philosopher, interpreted the world in a more monistic sense, assuming that the universe is a spatial and temporal expression of spirit. His school of thinking is called "School of the Mind" (xinxue 心學).
Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017-1073) was highly interested in the interpretation of the Yijing 易經 "Classic of Changes". Basing on this divination classic that is deeply influenced by Daoist thinking (daojiao 道教), Zhou Dunyi wrote his short "Explanation of the Diagram of Highest Extreme" Taijitu shuo (Taiji tu shuo, Taiji tushuo) 太極圖說 and traced back all existing phenomena like seasons, the Five Elements (wuxing 五行), the active and inactive principles yin 陰 and yang 陽, and even the highest extreme, to be born out of a deep silence and motionlessness (wuji 無極). More important for Confucian thinking is his book "Comprehensive (Explanations) of the Book of Changes" (Yitong 易通, also called "Comprehensive Book" Tongshu 通書). Motionlessness being the source of everything, it is also the basis for acheiving sincerity (cheng 誠) which is the condition of becoming a perfect man (junzi 君子) or a saint (shengren 聖人). Sincerity, although being non-acting (wuwei 無為), is determining good (shan 善) or bad (e 惡). Virtue (de 德) is expressed as love or humanity (ai 愛, ren 仁), properness or righteousness (yi 宜, yi 義), order or ritus (li 理, li 禮), comprehending or knowing (tong 通, zhi 智), keeping or trusting (shou 守, xin 信). With the luminant principle yang, Heaven creates the ten thousand beings (wanwu 萬物) and gives them a natural sense for human relationship, by the dark principle yin, Heaven accomplishes all beings, giving them righteousness. Heaven directly influences man, and the holy rulers as representatives educated their subjects by humanity and righteousness, by rites (li 禮) to bring order (li 理) to people, and by music (yue 樂) to bring harmony (he 和) to the empire.
Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077) further developed the metaphysical background for the Confucian revival. He concentrated on the Yijing 易經 "Classic of Changes" and the Zhongyong 中庸 "Doctrine of the Mean". In his book Zhengmeng 正蒙 "Correcting the Ignorant", Zhang Zai postulated that the basic elementary component of the universe and all beings is odem, breath or matter (qi 氣) which he called "Great Emptiness" (taixu 太虛; i.e. shapelessness or unoccupiedness) - that is in fact not vain like the Buddhist emptiness (śūnyatā; kong 空), but is a substance to give shape to all things, from lowest to highest density. All phenomena within the universe are made from the Great Emptiness, only with different densities. The Great Emptiness bears the potential for movement and for a good and virtuous character, and every being possesses these potentials. Ximing 西銘 "Western Inscriptions" is another theoretical work of Zhang Zai, by that he stresses the unity of Heaven (Tian 天), Earth (Di 地) and all beings. All people are brothers and sisters because everybody is being born by Heaven. The ruler is the Son of Heaven, and the sage man possesses the highest virtue produced by Heaven. The human nature also finds its source in Heaven and is therefore equally good in every man. The different character of people is expressed by the "quality of his/her substantiation" (qizhi 氣質), and even a bad substantiation can be lead back to its good origin by proper education and self-control.
The mathematician Shao Yong 邵雍 (1011-1077) tried to explain the universal metaphysics with Daoist number speculations, basing on the Yijing 易經 "Classic of Changes". All different beings in the universe, he states in his book Huangji Jingshi 皇極經世 "Generic Canon of the Imperial Extreme", find their source in the "Highest Extreme" (taiji 太極), which is nothing else than Heaven. He discriminates between the Primary Heaven (Xiantian 先天), consisting of sun, moon, stars and the elements on earth, and the Secondary Heaven (Houtian 後天) that is responsible for the universal coherence according to the Five Agents. If the moving character and the silent character of the elements is mixed up in a right way, the universal way is properly founded. The beings are created by a division of one into two, two into four and four into eight, a relation reflected in the Eight Hexagrams in the Book of Changes. Everything is born by the Highest Extreme, the center, heart or mind (xin 心) of the universe. The nature of every man and every being is therefore the same, it originating in the Primary Heaven and is given to man and the ten thousand beings with their birth. Concerning the life cycle of history and dynasties, Shao Yong speculates that there exist four different stages, like there are four different qualities in the kind of rule and exertion the Heavenly Mandate. Unfortunately, he does not create a scenario for the future.
The brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107; also called Master Yichuan 伊川先生) further developed these Proto-Neo-Confucian thoughts by getting rid of the Daoist influence in the cosmological theories. They concentrated on explaining and commenting important Confucian Classics like the Mengzi 孟子 (Mencius), the Lunyu 論語 "Confucian Analects", the Daxue 大學 "The Great Learning" and the Zhongyong 中庸 "The Doctrine of the Mean". The never changing base of the universe is the universal order (li 理). It is this order that causes everything to come into being by providing it with breath or matter (qi 氣) that is ranging somewhere between a positive (yang 陽) and a negative side (yin 陰). Everything can be traced back to the universal order and can not be without it. Each person depends on it, each social relation and every personal character is determined by the universal order. Human nature (xing 性) should be good because it is given by the universal order. But the transformation into a being with the help of breath (qi 氣) can make a man either good or bad. But even bad character is an expression of the human ability (cai 才). To become a good person, one has to keep away from extremes and to follow a middle path. The good man has to observe the Heavenly path of universal order. Together with Zhu Xi the teachings of Cheng Yi are later called the "teachings of Cheng and Zhu" (Cheng-Zhu zhi xue 程朱之學).
The greatest person of Song period Neo-Confucianism is Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), also called "Master Zhu" (Zhuzi 朱子). Because Neo-Confucian philosophers laid stress on an existing single-source of all universal phenomena, the universal order (li 理), Neo-Confucianism is called in Chinese the "Teachings of the Order" (lixue 理學). Zhu Xi's teachings are the essence of the former philosophers and became orthodox under the Yuan dynasty. Zhu Xi explained that the unique source of the whole universe is the Heavenly Order (tianli 天理), also called the Highest Extreme (taiji 太極). This order and the universal breath (qi 氣) of dense or scattered matter are able to give shape to every beings. There does not exist order without the shaping breath or matter, and no breath without the order. Every being has the same amount and character of order, but every being is characterized by a different amount and character of breath, thus making different elements, different beings, appearances and distinguishable people with different character, good or bad. Therefore, everybody seems to have a different order or character, what is in fact only the same order: One basis, different shapes (li yi fen shu 理一分殊), or with Zhu Xi's words, "taking water out of a river with a bowl or a bucket, you obtain different measures of water", but it is still water, only in different amounts and in a different environment. The human nature is determined by the environment, like "a pearl lying in water or in mud". But while the human nature is good in every man, the passions can be good or bad. Human nature is the universal order in the heart of man, that can be influenced by the environment.
Zhu Xi is the most important person of Confucianism after Confucius and Mengzi. He has not only been an important commentator of the classical and canonical texts, but his interpretations are undertaken as an explanation of the whole corpus of classical texts. His interpretations have been the orthodox exegesis of Confucian texts until the end of the Chinese empire. Secondly, Zhu Xi has accumulated the whole new cosmological and metaphysical interpretations of the Song Dynasty and has incorporated them into a new school, later known to us as Neo-Confucianism.
Zhu Xi's disciples further developed the theories of the universal order. The most important are the Song scholar Zhang Shi 張栻 (1133-1180), and the Qing scholars Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) and Wang Fuzhi 王夫之 (1619-1692).
The most famous collection of Zhu Xi's philosophy is the Zhuzi yulei 朱子語類 "Discourses of Master Zhu, arranged thematically". But "Master Zhu" has written a large treasury of interpretations and exegeses of many different philosophical matters (e.g. the interpretation of the Yijing Hexagrams in Yixue qimeng 易學啟蒙 "Enlighenment in the Teachings of the Changes"). And, like most Chinese scholars, Zhu Xi also engaged in calligraphy and poetry.
Zhang Shi 張栻 (1133-1180, studio name: Nanxuan 南軒) was founder of the Hu-Xiang school 湖湘學派 (also called Hunan school 湖南學派) of Neo-Confucianism. Although he declares himself a disciple of Hu Hong 胡宏 he only met him once - but nonetheless has inherited the philosophy of Hu's teacher Cheng Hao. For Zhang Shi,the nature of the natural order (li 理) is the Heavenly mandate, in humans the natural order is expressed by individual character (xing 性), and as controlling force of the of the character, it is expressed in the mind (xin 心). In each individual the "amount" of natural order might be different, but the substance is the same: the natural order penetrates each individual and every single object. If the Highest Extreme, source of the natural order, moves, the two odems (er qi 二氣: yin and yang) take shape, and then produce the ten thousand beings (wanwu 萬物). The mind controls character and behaviour and is therefore a linkage between a single individual and the natural order. This thought clearly shows tendences to the "school of the mind" by Lu Jiuyuan (see below). Virtuous behaviour is only an expression of the natural goodness (shan 善) that is given by nature, and not man-made (wu suo wei, er ran 無所為而然). Human desires and the wish to gain profits (li 利) are not natural, but man-made. Zhang Shi was also one of the first Neo-Confucian scholars to discuss Hu Hong's thoughts that were collected in the writing Zhiyan 知言.
Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1191) hat a somewhat different approach to the metaphysical theories of Zhu Xi and his forerunners. Still equally to these people, Lu and his brothers saw the cosm as bound by one single constant, the universal order (li 理 or dao 道 "way"). This order reached down to the social division between upper and lower, as granted by nature. People following this order are rewarded, disobedient people are chastised by Heaven. The old rulers and sage emperors recognized the patterns of this order in all natural phenomena. Or, as Lu Jiuyuan said, they enlighened their heart or mind (xin 心). The heart of man is therefore equal to the universal order, it is a reflection of the natural patterns. The heart of the sage man is naturally equal to the heart of a mean man. In this point, Lu contradicts Zhu Xi who taught that the will and temperament of man (qing 情, yu 欲) destroys this natural order in the human nature (xing 性). If Heaven is order and man only wishes, they cannot be equal, is the argument of Lu Jiuyuan. While Zhu Xi stresses that spirit or mind is an objective reality, a composition of universal order and breath or matter, Lu Jiuyuan sees the spirit as dependent of sensual perception. Lu's philosophical school was therefore called "Philosophy of the Mind" (xinxue 心學 ). There came up severe struggles between the disciples of Zhu Xi and that of Lu Jiuyuan, but Zhu Xi's school had lost its strength and was overtopped by the great Ming philosopher Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明), a representative of the Philosophy of the Mind.

Historiographical sources

  • The official dynastic history of the Song Dynasty is the Songshi 宋史 compiled under the guidance of the Yuan official Tuo Tuo 脫脫 (Toghto, Toqtoghan) in 1345.
  • Sanchao beimeng huibian 三朝北盟會編 (reign periods Zhengxuan, Jingkang, Yanxing ), by Xu Mengxin 徐夢莘, jishbenmo type
  • Dongdu shilüe 東都事略, by Wang Cheng 王稱, bieshi
  • Songchao shishi 宋朝事實, by Li You 李攸, zhengshu
  • Liangchao gangmu beiyao 兩朝綱目備要 (Emperors Song Guangzong 宋光宗 and Song Ningzong 宋寧宗b), anonymous, biannian
  • Jingkang yaolu 靖康要錄, anonymous, biannian
  • Xu Zizhi tongjian changbian 續資治通鑑長編
  • Jianyan yilai chaoye zaji 建炎以來朝野雜記, by Li Xinchuan 李心傅, zhengshu
  • Songshi yi 宋史翼
  • Songchao shichao gangyao 宋朝十朝綱要
  • Song huiyao jigao 宋會要輯稿
  • Huangsong Zhongxing liangchao shengzheng 皇宋中興兩朝聖政
  • Zhuchen zouyi 諸臣奏議
  • Song mingchen yanxing lu 宋名臣言行錄
  • Taiping huanyu ji 太平寰宇記, geography