Generally speaking, Confucianism had been the dominate ideology and philosophy in China since the Han dynasty. It was founded by an ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius (551–479 BCE). His philosophy and teachings were constantly developed, reinterpreted, and refined by his followers throughout the course of Chinese history. The predominant theme of Confucianism is its emphasis on social ties and duties as designated in the proper behavior for "five relationships": sovereign-subject; husband-wife; parent-child; elder brother-younger brother; and friend-friend.
In the middle of the second century BCE, Confucianism was established as the official state ideology. However, during the Tang and Song dynasties influences from Taoism and Buddhism significantly challenged the dominant status of Confucian ideology. Confucian scholars met this challenge by integrating elements of both Taoist and other native philosophies into a single integrative ideology known as Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism can be described as the culmination of an effort to integrate and harmonize several different religious and philosophical traditions that had developed in China over the preceding thousand years, and as a way of making sense of several diverse and sometimes competing philosophies. The Confucian emphasis on principles such as “humaneness,” “filial piety,” and “ritual” was integrated with more abstract Taoist notions of a “the Way” (Tao) that governed all existence, as well numerous Buddhist principles.
Neo-Confucianism is perhaps an expression of the tendency to seek “harmony” in all things—in this case, to try to synthesize complex religious and philosophical views. What resulted was a highly syncretic philosophy that was often very technical in nature; some ancient texts even present what might be described as flowcharts for their readers! Yet seemingly opposed ideas were unified by the notion of li, literally meaning “pattern,” or more specifically the “patterned markings of a stone,” but usually translated as “principle.” Neo-Confucians sought to uncover the “pattern” of all things, and firmly believed that all phenomena, including life, nature, destiny, indeed the entirety of existence, were essentially a “pattern” that could be discerned if closely examined. This fundamental premise, many people believe, underlay the Song interest in all things “scientific,” minute, and even trivial—since even the smallest entity had the potential to reveal the underlying pattern or li of all things.