Neo-Confucianism gained popularity in China during the Song Dynasty in the 11th century. As Buddhism and the reemergence of Taoism began to take hold within China, scholars reevaluated and reinterpreted Confucian philosophy into a new system of belief that addressed not only social and intellectual concerns but also spiritual ones. Neo-Confucian teachings took hold in China and soon spread to Korea and Japan.


The roots of Neo-Confuciansim date back to the Tang Dynasty when the spread of Buddhism necessitated a reaction from Confucian thinkers. Confucian thinkers began to take ideas from Buddhism as well as the Chinese religion of Taoism when writing about Confucian texts. The result was a new mixed philosophy that incorporated ideas from all three schools of thought. One of the most important scholars of this tradition was Zhu Xi who established many of the early principles of Neo-Confucianism and provided instructions on how to conduct weddings, funerals and other ceremonies.


The central belief of Neo-Confucianism like classic Confucianism is the idea of teaching oneself to become a better person. However, Neo-Confucians took the Buddhist ideal of attaining spiritual transcendence and synthesized the two ideas into a new system. In Neo-Confucianism traditional Confucian ethics dictate life in the material world while Buddhist tradition informs an individual's spiritual life. Neo-Confucians believe that the correct way of living (the Heavenly Way) is expressed in two forms: principle (li) and matter (qi). Many scholars believe this conception was informed by the Buddhist idea that the material world is an illusion. According to Neo-Confucian thinking, li is perfect, but human beings exist in the material world and know things through their qi. Therefore, human beings sometimes make mistake and conflicts occur. To avoid these conflicts, individuals need to try and understand the li of all things.

Later Additions

One of the first major additions to Neo-Confucianism came from one of Zhu Xi's friends who suggested a number of more practical laws and systems based on Confucian ideas. These suggestions gave Neo-Confucianism a formal structure that governments in China and other Asian cultures would later adopt. Another important addition to Neo-Confucianism introduced the idea that the principle of all things exists within every individual. Because of this, individuals can understand the external world through introspection an meditation.

Outside of China

Over the centuries, Neo-Confucianism spread around Asia and eventually the world. Different cultures changed and adapted many of the principles behind it. Korean philosophers debated the roles of qi and li questioning how the two forces interacted and arguing that the forces were more closely related than Zhu Xi originally argued. Similarly, a prominent Japanese philosopher changed Neo-Confucianism when he argued that that there should not be a strong distinction between something's ideal nature, as expressed in (li) and its material manifestation (qi).