An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Teachings of the Song Period (Songxue 宋學)

Feb 8, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald

The teachings of the Song-period 宋 (960-1279) masters (Songxue 宋學) is one of the many Chinese terms that can be translated as Neo-Confucianism. This term is used to contrast Neo-Confucian thinking with the new intellectual trend among Confucian scholars during the early and high Qing period 清 (1644-1911) which analysed the original Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) texts by philological methods. This was the Han-Texts School (Hanxue 宋學) or Qian-Jia School 乾嘉學派).

During the Han period, professorial officials (jingshi 經師) were responsible for teaching and exegesis of the Confucian Classics. A very striking feature of their commentaries was that even small sentences could be explained by very lengthy textual exegeses (xungu 訓詁). This type of over-burdened paragraph-and-sentence commentaries (zhangju 章句) was probably one reason for the downfall of Confucianism at the end of the Han period and its replacement by philosophical tendencies closer to Daoism, like the School of the Mystery (xuanxue 玄學).

At the beginning of the Song period, the National University (taixue 太學) made still use of the old commentaries of Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (574-648) from the Tang period 唐 (618-907) like Wujing zhengyi 五經正義. Yet in the mid-eleventh century the style of exegesis changed. Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086), much more famous for his political reforms, wrote a commentary called "New meanings of three Classics" (Sanjing xinyi 三經新義), in which he used a very different method of analysis that was not directly related to the structure of the text, but tried to explain the overall meaning of it by means of an own interpretation: the "explanations to the Classics" (jingshuo 經說).

Another forerunner of a new type of exegesis was Liu Chang 劉敞 (1019-1068) with his commentary Qijing xiaozhuan 七經小傳 "Small exegesis of seven classics". This example was followed by the great Neo-Confucian masters, the brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107), Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1193), and by the Ming-period 明 (1368-1644) philosopher Wang Shouren 王守仁 (Wang Yangming 王陽明, 1472-1529).

Zhou Dunyi's 周敦頤 (1017-1073) texts Taijitu 太極圖 and Yitong 易通 explained the concept of the Heavenly principle (li 理) from the viewpoint of the numerology of the Yijing "Book of Changes". Zhang Zai's 張載 (1020-1077) book Yishuo 易說 is even more abstract and used the Yijing conception of the universe to create his model of the "correct enlightenment" (zhengmeng 正蒙). Cheng Yi, too, made superficially use of the Yijing to explain the teachings of the Heavenly principle. Zhu Xi wrote the book Zhouyi benyi 周易本義 "Original meaning of the Changes", in which he speaks about the "actual meaning" of the Yijing. Yet he also wrote paragraph-and-sentence commentaries on the "Four Books", called Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書章句集注. His teachings can be seen as the essence and culmination of the philosophy of the universal principle (lixue 理學).

Lu Jiuyuan's philosophy of the mind (xinxue 心學) was spread by his disciple Yang Jian 楊簡 (1141-1226), who wrote a commentary on the Yijing and one on the Shijing "Book of Songs", Yizhuan 易傳 and Shizhuan 詩傳, respectively. Lu Jiuyuan refrained from writing explanations himself. He held that "the Classics would comment himself" (liujing dang zhu wo 六經當注我), rather than he the Classics texts. Zhu Xi, who interpreted the Classic Daxue 大學 "Great Learning" (one of the Four Books), stressed the principle to "investigate matters in order to perfect one's knowledge" (ge wu zhi zhi 格物致知). While Zhu Xi had in mind the intensive study of the Classics texts, Lu Jiuyuan was of the opinion that this principle effectively paved the way to make oneself free from the Confucian texts and to develop a private opinion or an individual way to comprehend the Way of Confucianism.

The feature of indirect explanation was the main reason why early Qing scholars called the theories of Neo-Confucianism "idle talk" (kongtan 空談, kongyan 空言, xuyan 虛言). They preferred the old method of textual analysis (kaojuxue 考據學). Gu Yanwu 顧炎武 (1613-1682) and Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 (1738-1801) can be seen as the forerunners of the philological school that heavily criticized the "useless talks" of the Neo-Confucians. They were also the first to use the term Songxue in a somewhat derogatory sense. On the other hand, Ji Yun 紀昀 (1724-1805) admitted that their thoughts were at least "profound and minute" (jingwei 精微), yet this term is today also used in the meaning of "abstruse" or "esoteric". An more neutral term for Song Studies is Song-Ming lixue 宋明理學 "Neo-Confucianism of the Song and Ming periods".

Li Yinghua 李英華 (1997). "Songxue 宋學", in Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 4, 36.
Xu Xinghai 徐興海 (1988). "Songxue 宋學", in Zhao Jihui 趙吉惠, Guo Hou'an 郭厚安, ed. Zhongguo ruxue cidian 中國儒學辭典 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 518.