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Taking on Proper Appearance and Putting It into Practice: Two Different Systems of Effort in Song and Ming Neo-Confucianism

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Both “jianxing” 践形 (taking on proper appearance) and “jianxing” 践行 (putting into practice) were concepts coined by Confucians before the Qin Dynasty. They largely referred to similar things. But because the “Daxue” 大学 (“Great Learning”) was listed as one of the Sishu 四书 (The Four Books) during the Song Dynasty, different explanations and trends in terms of the “Great Learning” resulted in “taking on proper appearance” and “putting into practice” becoming two different systems of efforts. The former formed a vertical kind of representation and a complete system of practice by “developing the sincerity of intentions inside and taking on proper appearance and looks outside” in “shendu” 慎独 (self-discipline when alone) and “chengyi” 诚意 (developing the sincerity of intentions), and the latter developed into a horizontal system of practice through the interdependency of zhi 知 (knowing or knowledge) and xing 行 (doing or practice). The “interdependence between knowledge and practice” promoted by the Cheng brothers and Zhu Xi represented the vertical practice of moral understanding, while the “integration of knowing and doing” advocated by Wang Yangming represented using the way in “developing the sincerity of intentions” to adjust and transform the representation of the relationship between knowledge and practice. The ideas that were frequently stressed, such as “the same effort” and “naturally being so,” were all from “developing the sincerity of intentions” and “taking on proper appearance,” and they were all the representation of “really making intentions sincere.” In fact, the confusion over “the integration of knowing and doing” reflected the tension between two different systems and inconsistency in their thoughts.


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