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Chinese Philosophy - The Song School (songxue 宋學)

The teachings of the Song period 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) to analyse the original Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) texts (the so-called Han Texts School Hanxue 宋學, see 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 commentary (zhangju 章句) was probably one reason for the downfall of Confucianism at the end of the Han period.
At the beginning of the Song period 宋 (960-1279), the National University (taixue 太學) made still use of the old commentaries of Kong Yingda 孔穎達 (Wujing zhengyi 五經正義) from the Tang period 唐 (618-907). Yet in the mid-eleventh century the style of exegesis changed. Wang Anshi 王安石, 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 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 and Cheng Yi 程頤, Zhu Xi 朱熹, Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵, and by the Ming period 明 (1368-1644) philosopher Wang Yangming 王陽明. Zhou Dunyi's 周敦頤 texts Taijitu 太極圖 and Yitong 易通 explained the concept of the Heavenly principle (li 理) from the viewpoint of the Yijing "Book of Changes". Zhang Zai's 張載 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 to the "Four Books", called Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書章句集注. Lu Jiuyuan's philosophy of the mind (xinxue 心學) was spread by his disciple Yang Jian 楊簡 who wrote a commentary to the Yijing and one to the Shijing "Book of Songs", Yizhuan 易傳 and Shizhuan 詩傳. Lu Jiuyuan refrained from writing explanations himself. He explained that "the Classics would comment him" (liujing dang zhu wo 六經當注我), and not he the Classics. 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). This principle effectively offered the possibility 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 and Zhang Xuecheng 章學誠 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 admitted that their thoughts were at least "profund and minutely" (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 "Song and Ming period Neo-Confucianism".

Sources: 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, p. 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), p. 518.

February 8, 2014 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail