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From Neo-Confucianism to the Kobunji-ha

From Neo-Confucianism to the Kobunji-ha
Razan and the other Confucian scholars were devotees of Neo-Confucianism, a philosophical approach developed in the Song period(#) by the philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Neo-Confucianism explains nature, society, and even individual behavior through metaphysical concepts such as “reason” (li [J. ri], the fundamental principle behind all phenomena), “matter” (qi [J. ki], matter as directed by reason which makes up all things), “nature” (xing [J. sei], reason as manifested within each person), and “emotions” (qing [J. ], “nature” in action). Although the key texts of Neo-Confucianism are the Five Classics and the Four Books (the same as in Confucianism), Neo-Confucian theories are nowhere to be found in these texts; rather, they were fashioned by freely pasting together and interpreting select passages.
The turn of the 18th century saw the appearance of Confucian scholars like Itō Jinsai (1627-1705) and Ogyū Sorai (1666-1728), who thought that such theories were actually an obstacle to man’s actual nature (Jinsai), or who viewed political and social life as essentially separate from individual morality (Sorai). They offered a critique of Neo-Confucianism and sought a return to the orthodox interpretation of the core texts, which, for them, meant interpreting them in the light of the language and culture of their time. The meaning of words changes with time and the way texts are read and interpreted always inevitably reflects at least in part the spirit of the time in which they are read.
So how is one to recapture—to the extent that it is possible—their original meaning? These scholars (and Ogyū Sorai in particular) not only studied extensively ancient texts, but endeavored to imitate their style in their own writing. Because ancient literary works reflect the feelings and thoughts of the ancients, by mimicking their style, Sorai and his associates hoped to get closer to the hearts and ways of feeling of these authors. This literary movement is known as the Kobunji-ha (“Writing-in-the-Ancient-Style school”) and it originated in China in the 16th century. In Japan, it thrived in the 18th century with Sorai and his disciples as the most representative figures.
The Chinese “Writing in the Ancient Style School” favored “the prose of the Qin[#] and the Han[#] and the poetry of the High Tang[#].” Most people knew the latter through the popular, late-Ming[#] anthology Tangshi xuan (J. Tōshisen, “Selection of Tang Poetry,” late 16th or early 17th c.) When the Tangshi xuan was published in Japan, it was an immediate sensation. Like the Santishi, it eventually spawned a wealth of derivative works, including original commentaries and even parodies. In the following steps, we will look at some of these works and their position in the burgeoning print culture of the Edo period.

Another popular Chinese classic is the “Tangshi xuan”, a selection of poems from the Tang period of China (7th and 8th centuries C.E.).

Let us trace its reception in Japan by looking at trends in scholarship in the 17th and 18th centuries, from Shushigaku (Neo-Confucianism) to Kobunjigaku (the study of archaic words and phrases school).

Concepts of Neo-Confucianism

  • Reason (li [J. ri]):fundamental principle behind all phenomena
  • Matter (qi [J. ki]): matter as directed by reason which makes up all things
  • Nature (xing [J. sei]) : reason as manifested within each person
  • Emotions (qing [J. ], “nature” in action

Keywords introduced in the video

Keio University books introduced in the video

  • Tangshi xuan, Kan’ei 7 (or Ansei 1, 1854), private collection.
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Sino-Japanese Interactions Through Rare Books

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