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In Class With Sam Yamashita: "Asian Traditions"

In the classroom with Professor of History Sam Yamashita on "Asian Traditions"

The following is an edited excerpt from a classroom discussion in the course in Asian Traditions taught by Professor Sam Yamashita during spring 2009.

Yamashita: Last week we continued our discussion of medieval China and the three so-called “slow changes” that took place in this extended period that runs from Song into the Ming Dynasty. In addition to economic and technological changes, I talked about interesting intellectual changes that resulted in something modern scholars call NeoConfucianism…

Today, let’s talk about NeoConfucianism and whether you think the ruling elite shared a discourse, and what you’ve found in your reading to support your point of view.

Kelly: All these writers had a stake in the potential of individuals and faith in their ability to create an ideal society based on morality and collective responsibility. When they developed this new Confucianist dialogue in response to Buddhism and Daoism; there was an idea that humans are innately good and full of intelligence and can produce an effective society.

Yamashita: Did anyone argue against the idea of a shared discourse?

Eliot: I didn’t feel that there were a lot of shared ideas. I was looking at Wang Anshi, and it seemed his primary concern was the Chinese state and his secondary concern was the welfare of the people. In his writing, he supported the service exemption law and the benefits he listed were meeting the manpower and financial needs of the state and strengthening military power. Instead of arguing for the benefits of the people, he was arguing for the state.

Yamashita: Wang Anshi did write some poetry where he expresses some concerns for the people, the hungry and the homeless, but it was not included in your reading. That might lead you to change your thoughts. What would be something that would make you think that someone is not a Neo-Confucian? Mr. Chang has suggested it might be a preponderant interest in the state as opposed to the individual.

James: It would seem to me from the reading that Neo-Confucianism was more secular than spiritual, that what would disqualify one from being a NeoConfucian would have to do with an obsession with spiritual beliefs and less dealing with the state and the secular.

Yamashita: Because Neo-Confucians were very interested in the state, in the welfare of the people, you’re saying if someone were obsessed with individual spiritual cultivation that might disqualify them?

Christopher: I would say they would be disqualified by advocating withdrawal from any social or political institutions.

Yamashita: In concrete terms what would we look for?

Christopher: If someone spent weekends away at a monastery and wasn’t attentive to family.

Yamashita: Let me play the devil’s advocate. We’ve all recognized to some degree that there are Confucian and Legalist elements [in what you read].  What if we consider leaving out Legalist elements and have a discourse that is highly Confucian—maybe even eliminate Legalist elements. Would that work?


Cosimo: I think it would not work quite as well to get rid of the Legalist traditions because it seems to somewhat ground Confucianism as far the state is concerned. A lot of Confucian morality has to do with family relations and filial relations and I feel like the Legalist additions to it allows it to apply more to state relationships.

Yamashita: But remember that some of us believe that what is most important is the person as opposed to law, and so couldn’t we just choose good Confucians, people who were well versed in Confucian philosophy and practice and trust them with making sure that Confucianism is grounded and having them execute the policies of the state?

Cosimo: I suppose it’s theoretically possible. I’m not sure if it was done in practice.

Yamashita: Anyone want to argue strongly that one could have a state that was run exclusively on Confucian principles?

Christopher: I saw them grappling with that problem in their discussions about the examination system. They saw that forcing people to know all the Confucian classics did not necessarily create good people; it created people who were good at memorizing books. A lot of them advocated creating a more personal examination system that involved conversing with people and learning whether they had good moral sensibilities.

Calum: The only way you could stick to Confucian ideas is if you had an incredible cult of personality but you would still have to have a law component because that cult might be powerful enough around the capital but to make that cult be feared you would have to have a legal element that would be effective 1,000 miles away.

Yamashita: So you think it’s possible if one is careful. What if we were to shift to the other side of the equation and eliminate Confucianism and have a state run solely according to Legalist principles, focusing on law and punishment?

Leslie: With states that are larger and have more people I feel it would be better to rule more with the law than Confucian ideals; if you have a small town where everyone knows everyone else you have a sense for how people are and what morals they abide by. In a large state you can’t know what people believe and how they act and in order to control that and create civility it would be more important to have laws that can keep people in check.

Ian: I don’t think it’s possible to have an entirely Legalist state—the Legalist system doesn’t provide morality or values and creates an atmosphere where people were out for themselves. I could see a legal system combined with Buddhism and Daoism.

Yamashita: That’s an argument for combining Legalism with Confucianism or maybe Buddhism or Daoism. In point of fact, most individuals who passed the civil service exams were familiar with Legalism; they knew the Chinese classics but they also were familiar with Daoism and to some extent with Buddhism, and we see this best in their private writings, poetry and essays, in their paintings and their inscriptions. The elite was pretty well versed in all these things. Legalism and Confucianism were main elements in their public lives and Daoism was central in their private lives; some combination of these three religions and philosophies mattered. So it’s an interesting case that, whether by accident or design, this elite was trained internally and externally; trained as private individuals but also public personas as well.


Legalism is a classical Chinese philosophy that dates from the Zhou period (771-221 B.C.E.) and promotes the use of law, reward and punishment in governing.

Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) followed a period of Mongol rule and found China changing its orientation from a maritime to a continental state.

Neo-Confucianism was a synthetic philosophy that was created during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and combined Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist ideas, practices and institutions.

Song Dynasty (960-1279), one of China’s great dynasties, is regarded by students of world history as the most advanced state of the day.

Wang Anshi (1021-1086) was a brilliant statesman, reformer and poet who proposed a series of state-centered reforms known as the “New Laws” that included a farm loan program and state marketing system.


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