Neo-Confucianism and the Art of Self-Development


This past semester, I took a history course on Traditional East Asian Civilization, only to fulfill my Humanities General Education requirement. I was not really interested in the content of the class that much, due to the fact that there were too much readings and dry lectures. However, I managed to write the final research paper on a topic that I found particularly interesting: “Neo-Confucianism.” It is a philosophical movement to revive various strands of Confucian philosophy and political culture that began in the middle of the 9th century and reached new levels of intellectual and social creativity in the 11th century in the Northern Song Dynasty.

Neo-Confucianism and Floating Worlds in Japan

In the paper, I focus on the reasons why this school of thought became viral across different regions of Asia. The foundation for Neo-Confucianism was established by Chu Hsi (1130-1200), whose teachings relied heavily on the concept of Ta-hsueh, also known as the Great Learning. According to Chu Hsi, to do hsueh is to experience the moment when “everything naturally will fall into place and interconnect with everything else; each thing will have its order.” How can this be accomplished? Below are Neo Confucianism’s principal teachings:

  1. Achieving a state of balance and refining one’s moral self such that it is a reflection of the Way.
  2. Ample rest and reflection such that one achieves peace of mind.
  3. Setting priorities and knowing what is important is essential in one’s quest for moral refinement, for it allows one to focus on that which is of the greatest importance and that which is in line with the Way as outlined in Confucian teachings.
  4. One must bring his affairs and relationships into order and harmony.
  5. Each and every man is capable of learning and self-cultivation regardless of social, economic or political status.
  6. One must treat education as an intricate and interrelated system where one must strive for balance. No one aspect of learning is isolated from the other and failure to cultivate a single aspect of one’s learning will lead to the failure of learning as a whole.

Continuous Self-Development

That is how the ancient sages of China achieved ultimate self-development – methodologies that are easy to talk about but indeed very difficult to put into practice. Let me translate them to more descriptive and applicable languages so it is easier to grasp:

  1. “The Way” is different for every one. If you have a clear idea of what “your Way” is, eradicate the harmful forces that negatively affect your lives and focus on refining the forces that are in accordance with “your Way.” And another thing to remember: there might more than a way to achieve self-development, thus always keep yourself in a state of balance to look for the other ways.
  2. Reflect, Reflect, Reflect… The most important element to achieve self growth is to reflect on things you did, things you are doing, and things you will do.
  3. Prioritize. I recently came into realization that multi-tasking is bad for your productivity. So do important things first!
  4. The keyword is harmony. If you can arrange your personal and professional affairs into harmony, you will never have conflicting interests in your life again.
  5. In this hi-tech era within an increasingly digitalized world, resources exist everywhere, especially thanks to the Internet. YOU have equal opportunity to succeed as your peers, your mentors, your colleagues, your partners. Don’t complain about things you don’t have, take advantage of things you do have.
  6. Diversify your talents, skills, aspects of life you can improve. Learning comes into multiple dimensions of life: taking classes, travelling, making new connections, developing a new habit etc. Strive to be a well-rounded individual who is capable of thriving in various complexes of life.

How do you practice self-development? Do you think your methods are working? Share your advices.


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