Neo-Confucian views on human nature

Of the members in the Neo-Confucian school of thought, there was a diverse range of interpretations of Confucian learning.  Eventually, the interpretations of some of them were treated as the new standard interpretation of Confucian learning and orthodox culture in China.  This school was called the Cheng-Zhu School, after the Cheng brothers Hao and Yi, and Zhu Xi.  This school also included a number of others.  Its beginning member  was usually regarded as Zhou Dunyi, and another important member, the uncle of the Cheng brothers, Zhang Zai.  In their definitions of human nature, the Cheng-Zhu school battled against Buddhism and Daoism.  In the Cheng brothers' criticism of Buddhism, they charged that the Buddhists severed the human family relationships and tried to run away from the world when young men and women abandoned their parents and headed for the monastery.  Their attempt to avoid the pain of death was selfish and not practical because birth without death was impossible.  (de Bary, 697)  Similarly, the Cheng-Zhu school criticized Daoism in its other-worldly tendencies.  In their battles against Buddhism and Daoism, however, the Cheng-Zhu school, just like the other Neo-Confucian schools of thought, also absorbed Buddhist and Daoist elements.  Although claiming from Confucius and Mencius, their interpretations of Confucian learning was a synthesis of Daoist, Buddhist, and Confucian teachings.  The Cheng-Zhu school's ultimate goal was to break the other worldly tendencies of Buddhism and Daoism and relocate reality back to this world.  In doing so, however, they identified reality with the human perception of reality, and nature with the human moral universe.

1. Zhou Dunyi, an attempt to bridge Confucian learning and Daoism.

Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), a Confucian in the northern Song Dynasty, was most famous for his "Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity," in which he tried to  reconcile the Ying-Yang School of Thought with Confucian orthodoxy.  Long held as one of the classical pieces of Neo-Confucian learning, he came under criticism later on, especially in the 20th century, for the Daoist influence on his writings.  To me, however, Zhou Dunyi was characteristic of all Neo-Confucians in his attempt to reinterpret Confucian learning through (an intended or unintended) synthesis of Confucian and non-Confucian teachings.  This is perhaps also true of all cultural/intellectual borrowings in general: in accepting or reconciling different ideas, you give up a bit of the original meaning of an idea and incorporate some meaning from different ways of thinking.

Reinterpreting a Daoist diagram of how the myriad of things could ultimately be traced to a state of primordial chaos (wuji), Zhou Dunyi tried to show how humanity and human activities were not opposed to the primordial, undifferentiated nature, as the Daoists claimed.  Zhou tried to show that this primordial chaos also embedded in itself a force of movement that generated two opposite tendencies (taiji, or Supreme Polarity).  Thus when it was moving it created the force of yang (masculine, strong, positive), and when it was still it created yin (feminine, weak, negative).  These two opposites were really two ends of the same spectrum, and their different combinations led to the creation of different elements in the world: water, fire, earth, wood, and metal.  And the different combinations of these five elements led to the four seasons.  These five elements, water, fire, wood, metal, and earth, also corresponded to the basic Confucian virtues: humanity (ren), rightness (yi), ritual decorum (li), wisdom (zhi), and trustworthiness (xin) (de Bary,  673-674)  

What Zhou tried to assert here was that the primordial chaos that the Daoists favored and the myriads in this world that the this-worldly Confucians favored were in a continuum and not opposed to each other.  Thus humans were endowed with the same qi that infused the universe and the five elements that constituted the world, earth, fire, water, metal, and wood, also constituted human nature.  (In Chinese cosmology, each year is associated with a particular animal and one of the five elements.  There are 12 animals to go around, which means each animal will assume one of the five elements in a particular year.  For instance, this is the year of the sheep, and every 12 years, the sheep will assume one of the five characteristics of water, fire, earth, wood, and metal.  Each human born in a particular year is associated with an animal and one of the five elements, presumably also bearing the characteristics of the animal and the element.)  

Zhou's conclusion is that the sage properly cultivates the qi (de Bary, 675), which goes back to the Mencian definition of cultivation.  On the other hand, the premise he started from, the continuum between primordial chaos and civilization, was something neither Confucius nor Mencius bothered to talk about.  Ultimately, Zhou tried to reconcile the Yin-Yang School of thought with Confucian learning, and Confucian learning with Daoism.

2. Redefining the universe as human moral universe.

Because the Confucians tried to reclaim the innate rationality of human thought from the Buddhists, who believed that human thinking is an illusion, as well as the meaningfulness of human conduct from Daoism, who wanted to abandon civilization and go back to the state of nature, they tried to reinterpret the universe as rational, comprehensible, and in alignment with human endeavors.  In doing so, the Neo-Confucians often identified the universe with the human moral universe. 

Zhang Zai (1020-1077) continues Zhou Dunyi's attempt to equate Confucian virtues with a cosmology: seeing the correlation between Confucian practices and the natural world (in the case of Zhou, the five elements that formed the world also corresponded with the five Confucian virtues).  Thus instead of interpreting filial piety as piety to one's biological parents, Zhang in the "Western Inscription" linked filial piety with heaven and earth and described the empire as one big family with their heaven and earth parents.  In this interpretation, the emperor is the oldest son of heaven, and to rejoice heaven and have no anxiety is filiality at its purest.  Zhang then went on to equate piety to one's birth parents to piety to heaven and earth. (de Bary, 683-684)

Zhang also argues that all knowledge could be sought through a full development of one's nature, the "one source of all things." (de Bary, 688)

In the Cheng brothers' writings, the "mind of each human being is one with the mind of Heaven and Earth.  The principle of each thing is one with the principle of all things." (690)

For the Cheng brothers, reverent seriousness toward humanity, understanding humanity (including its expressions through rightness, decorum, wisdom and trustworthiness), constituted all knowledge, because "Things and the self are governed by the same principle." And the "investigation of principle to the utmost, the complete development of human nature, and the fulfillment of destiny are one and only one." (de Bary, 696-697, 694-695)

3. Influence of Daoism and Buddhism

In their redefinition of Confucian learning, the Neo-Confucians introduced a sizable amount of Daoism and Buddhism into Confucian culture. 

In Zhou Dunyi's definition of Confucian moral cultivation, for instance, he equated the Daoist term wuwei (doing nothing) with the ideal state of balance between the various elements and basis of the Confucian virtues. (de Bary, 676-677)

In Zhang Zai's discussion of the universe, he tried to combine the Confucian concept of qi with the Daoist/Buddhist ideas of nature being chaos or Vacuity (emptiness): the universe was infused with qi, an invisible material force that shaped everything in this world.  (685-687)

In the Cheng brothers' explanations of the human mind, one sees a strong reminiscence of the Buddhist explanation of human nature, of course with a different outcome.  In the Consciousness Only schools of Buddhist explanation (see lecture notes on Buddhist schools of thought, especially Chan Buddhism), the original human thought, in its pure form called alaya, was good and true.  But its representations through the six senses, which were in contact with the impure world, became distorted.  The Cheng brothers' interpretation of human nature very much followed this logic: "The mind itself is originally good.  As it expresses itself in thoughts and ideas, it is sometimes evil.  When the mind has been aroused, it should be described in terms of feelings, and not as the mind itself." (de Bary, 691)  Here, the Cheng brothers tried to differentiate between the mind in its original form from the mind when it was in contact with this world.

Elsewhere, like the Buddhists, Cheng Hao criticized "selfishness" and "intellectual cleverness" as factors in human nature that obscure truth.  (deBary, 693)  In thus arguing, however, Cheng Hao compromised the Confucian position that human nature is good.