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The Song Dynasty (960-1279), The Scholar-Officials and Neo-Confucianism

Zhu Xi, century teacher, Cheng Yi, Neo-Confucianism, government posts

The Song period was in many ways the great age of the scholar-official. Printing had been invented in the late Tang, and by Song times books were more widely available and much less expensive. Increased access to education and the expanded civil service examination system brought more scholars into government service than ever before. As competition for civil service positions increased, the prestige of scholar-officials also grew, and by the end of the Song period, the scholar-official had achieved significant cultural, social, and political importance.

The Song period also saw a revival of Confucianism, known as Neo-Confucianism. The revival was accomplished by master teachers who gathered around them adult students. Particularly notable teachers include the brothers Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107), who developed theories about the workings of the cosmos in terms of li (immaterial universal principle) and qi (the substance of which all material things are made). Zhu Xi, an important 12th-century teacher, served several times in government posts; wrote, compiled, or edited nearly a hundred books; corresponded with dozens of other scholars; and still regularly taught groups of disciples. After his death, his commentaries on the classics became required reading for everyone studying to take the civil service examinations.

From the Song period to the early 20th century, men in China who aspired to hold office or be part of the educated elite pursued years of intensive Confucian study and formed close, often lifelong relationships with their teachers. Many scholars also pursued refined activities such as collecting antiques and cultivating the arts, especially poetry, calligraphy, and painting.



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