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The Yongjia and Yongkang Schools of Thought (Yongjia xuepai 永嘉學派, Yongkang xuepai 永康學派)

May 20, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

The Yongjia School of Thought (Yongjia xuepai 永嘉學派, Zhedong Yongjia xuepai 浙東永嘉學派), also called School of Practice (shigong xuepai 事功學派, shigong zhi xue 事功之學) or School of Benefit (gongli xuepai 功利學派, gongli zhi xue 功利之學), was a Neo-Confucian trend prevailing in the region of Zhedong 浙東 (today part of Zhejiang), and in the city of Yongjia 永嘉 (today's Wenzhou 溫州) in particular. It is therefore known as one of the two Zhedong Schools (Zhedong xuepai 浙東學派), the other one being the Yongkang School of Thought (Yongkang xuepai 永康學派, Zhedong Yongkang xuepai 浙東永康學派). These two traditions of the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) must not be confounded with a related school of thought which flourished during the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911, see Zhedong School). Some authors speak of a third Zhedong school, namely Lü Zuqian's 呂祖謙 (1137-1181) Jinhua School (Jinhua xuepai 金華學派).

Precursors like Li Gou 李覯 (1009-1059) or Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086) were active during the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), but it flourished in the teachings of Chen Liang 陳亮 (1143-1194, founder of the Yongkang School) and Ye Shi 葉適 (1150-1223, founder of the Yongjia School) during the Southern Song.

Li Gou is famous for his statement that "man cannot be without interests" (ren fei li bu sheng 人非利不生), and concluded that Confucian virtues like kindheartedness (ren 仁) and righteousness (yi 義) were in fact not altruistic, but yielded profits or benefits (yan you ren yi er bu li 焉有仁義而不利?).

The pioneers of the Yongjia School were Wang Kaizu 王開祖 (c. 1035-1068) and Ding Changqi 丁昌期, and the "nine masters from Yongjia" (Yongjia jiu xiansheng) Zhou Xingji 周行己 (1067-1125), Xu Jingheng 許景衡 (1072-1128), Liu Anije 劉安節 (d. 1116), Liu Anshang 劉安上 (1069-1128), Dai Shu 戴述 (b. 1074), Zhao Xiao 趙霄 (1062-1109), Zhang Hui 張輝, Shen Gongxing 沈躬行, and Jiang Yuanzhong 蔣元中.

These thinkers introduced the novel teachings of the Luoyang School (Luoxue 洛學, i.e. the brothers Cheng Hao 程顥, 1032-1085, and Cheng Yi 程頤, 1033-1107) and the Guanzhong School (Guanxue 關學, i. e. Zhang Zai 張載, 1020-1077) to the region of Zhedong. The teachings of these early Neo-Confucian masters were transmitted and transformed by Zheng Boxiong 鄭伯熊 (1124-1181), Xue Jixuan 薛季宣 (1134-1173), Chen Fuliang 陳傅良 (1137-1203) and Xu Yi 徐誼 (1144-1208).

Chen Liang is known as Longchuan Xiansheng 龍川先生, and the Yongkang School is accordingly also known with the designation Longchuan School (Longchuan xuepai 龍川學派). The most important disciples of Chen were Yu Minxian 喻民獻, Yu Yan 喻偘 (also written {亻嵒}, 1154-1237), Yu Nanqiang 喻南強, Qian Kuo 錢廓, Ling Jian 凌堅, He Daqiu 何大猷 and Wu Shen 吳深. Historians say that the "focus of their teachings were merit and benefit" (zhuan yan gong li 專言功利), and not the idle talk of the human character (xing 性) and mind (xin 心) and the innate knowledge about the universal principle (li 理).

They believed that the universal principle was not just embedded in objects and human beings, but also in human activities and deeds. Chen Liang introduced the proposition that "if efforts yield success, this is an expression of virtue" (gong dao cheng chu, bian shi you de 功到成處,便是有德), and "if action is of help, this is an expression of the universal principle" (shi dao ji chu, bian shi you li 事到濟處,便是有理). Going one step further, the universal principle was not expressed in shape and substance (xing qi 形氣), but rather in comportment and action (shi wu 事物). Righteousness and benefit went hand in glove (yi li shuang xing 義利雙行). This tenet was quite provocative for traditional Confucians who interpreted "profit" (li 利) in the mercantile sense as individualistic and selfish.

Chen Liang also contradicted Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), who was of the opinion that the rulers of the imperial age were imperfect, while only the sage sovereigns of high antiquity had been ideal rulers. Chen held that political realism required a combination of benevolent rule of the royal way and the strategic planning of a "hegemonial ruler" (wang ba bing yong 王霸并用). The Neo-Confucian belief that "exhausting one's heart" sufficed to gain knowledge about human nature (jin xin zhi xing 盡心知性) was a kind of self-deception (xiang meng xiang qi 相蒙相欺) and "purist self-righteousness" (chun ru zi lü 醇儒自律), or "vain talks of rotten Confucianism" (fu ru zhi tan 腐儒之談). The truth about the human nature was not to be found in the heart, but in practice, for instance, if a sovereign took care for his people. A perfect man would employ both moral virtue and practical expertise (cai de shuang xing 才德雙行).

Ni Pu 倪樸 (1105-1195) urged to study military matters instead of books, in order to resist the Jurchen Jin empire 金 (1115-1234) which occupied north China. Wang Zizhong 王自中 (1140-1199) stressed the importance of combining expertise in agriculture with that of military matters.

The Yongjia School was founded by Ye Shi and Cai Yongxue 蔡幼學 (1154-1217), a disciple of Chen Fuliang. To a certain extent, Ye Shi took over the practical approach of Lü Zuqian and founded a trend in Neo-Confucian teaching that deviated from the mainstream of Zhu Xi, the School of the Universal Principle (lixue 理學), and the lesser tradition of Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1193), founder of the School of the Mind (xinxue 心學). Lü Zuqian is said to have reconciled the traditions of Zhu and Lu. Lü Zuqian believed that nothing was better than active and individual practice if wanting to achieve success (qie yao gong fu, mo ru jiu shi, shen ti li xing 切要功夫,莫如就實,身體力行)

The teachings of Ye Shi were influenced by the economic prosperity of the region which was founded on the activities of salesmen, banks and overseas merchants. In their business success, a Confucian thinker as Ye Shi saw the influence of the universal principle (li 理) which pervaded all objects and beings. Unlike traditional Confucians, Ye Shi did not condemn entrepreneurs as selfish, but integrated them into the Neo-Confucian worldview. The proceeds or profits (gongli 功利) from business activities were inseparable from the Confucian virtue of righteousness (yi 義). Benefits (li 利) could be used to harmonize correct behaviour (yi li he yi 以利和義), just as the universal principle could not exist outside of "implements", i.e. objects or human beings (dao bu li qi 道不離器).

Ye Shi stressed that "practice meant solidity, and non-practice idleness" (wu sih er bu wu xu 務實而不務虛). Theoretical values like the principle of righteousness (yi 義) could only be valued by applying them in practice. He thus contradicted Zhu Xi's paradigm of investigating matters in order to perfect one's knowledge (ge wu zhi zhi 格物致知) which aimed at the study of things by means of analyzing the Confucian Classics, and not by action. Without practice, every talk of virtues and the universal principle was idle talk (wu yong zhi xuyu 無用之虛語). The critique thus even included Lu Jiuyuan's idealistic methods of contemplation to obtain insight into the principles behind the world.

Unlike the mainstream Neo-Confucians, who mainly investigated the Confucian Classics in general and the Four Books (sishu 四書) in particular, the Yongjia School advocated the study of historiographical writings in search for practical examples from the past to serve as paradigms for political practice, from rituals and ceremonial music to military matters and agriculture. Only solid matters could profit the state, and not the "vain talks" of Zhu Xi and Lu Jiuyuan and their adherents.

The human character, endowed with innate knowledge about virtue, could not exist for itself in a kind of anterior Heaven (xiantian 先天), and could thus only be assessed in true life (houtian 後天 "posterior Heaven") by the deeds and activities by a person. In the same way, virtuous conduct had to make use of both the innate knowledge about virtuous conduct and active doing. The focus on the inner heart and character was not sufficient to produce persons of moral integrity. The contemplative practice of Neo-Confucians was not in accordance with the exchange of inner values and outer work (nei-wai jiaoxiang 內外交相) as it had been applied by the sages of the past.

The last masters of the Yongjia School were Ye Shi's disciples Chen Xiqing 陳耆卿 (b. 1180-1236), Zhou Nan 周南, Song Jun 宋駒 (1159-1220) and Dai Xu 戴栩 (jinshi degree 1208). The last representatives of the Yongkang School were Yan Yuan 顏元 (1635-1704) and Li Gong 李塨 (1659-1733) in the early Qing period 清 (1644-1911).

Just as the activity of ploughing and sowing was not an end in itself, benevolence and righteousness could only be validated by employing them for certain benefits, as Yan Yuan explained. Yan turned around Dong Zhongshu's 董仲舒 (179-104 BCE) ancient principle that one had to "rectify suitable conduct and not to reap benefits" (zheng qi yi bu mou qi li 正其誼[=義]不謀其利) to the request that one had to rectify one's conduct in order to reap benefits" (zheng qi yi yi mou qi li 正其誼以謀其利), and to "clarify the Way in order to expect merits" (ming qi dao er ji qi gong 明其道而計其功), where Dong Zhongshu had suggested to abstain from reckoning with profits (ming qi dao bu ji qi gong 明其道不計其功).

The amplified scope of Confucian virtues by this school allowed to integrate economic practice and realist policies into the Neo-Confucian world of thoughts. The belief in the importance of practice was revived in the early 19th century, as can be seen in the writings of Wei Yuan 魏源 (1794-1857).

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