Neo-Confucianism has its origins in the Tang Dynasty; the Confucianist scholars Han Yu and Li Ao are seen as forebears of the neo-Confucianists of the Song Dynasty. The Song Dynasty philosopher Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073) is seen as the first true "pioneer" of neo-Confucianism, using Daoist metaphysics as a framework for his ethical philosophy. Neo-Confucianism developed both as a renaissance of traditional Confucian ideas, and as a reaction to the ideas of Buddhism and religious Daoism. Although the neo-Confucianists denounced Buddhist metaphysics, neo-Confucianism did borrow Daoist and Buddhist terminology and concepts.
One of the most important exponents of neo-Confucianism was Zhu Xi (1130–1200). He was a rather prolific writer, maintaining and defending his Confucian beliefs of social harmony and proper personal conduct. One of his most remembered was the book Family Rituals, where he provided detailed advice on how to conduct weddings, funerals, family ceremonies, and the veneration of ancestors. Buddhist thought soon attracted him, and he began to argue in Confucian style for the Buddhist observance of high moral standards. He also believed that it was important to practical affairs that one should engage in both academic and philosophical pursuits, although his writings are concentrated more on issues of theoretical (as opposed to practical) significance. It is reputed that he wrote many essays attempting to explain how his ideas were not Buddhist or Taoist, and included some heated denunciations of Buddhism and Taoism.
After the Xining era (1070), Wang Yangming (1472–1529) is commonly regarded as the most important neo-Confucian thinker. Wang's interpretation of Confucianism denied the rationalist dualism of Zhu's orthodox philosophy.
There were many competing views within the neo-Confucian community, but overall, a system emerged that resembled both Buddhist and Taoist (Daoist) thought of the time and some of the ideas expressed in the I Ching (Book of Changes) as well as other yin yang theories associated with the Taiji symbol (Taijitu). A well known neo-Confucian motif is paintings of Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu all drinking out of the same vinegar jar, paintings associated with the slogan "The three teachings are one!"
While neo-Confucianism incorporated Buddhist and Taoist ideas, many neo-Confucianists strongly opposed Buddhism and Taoism. Indeed, they rejected the Buddhist and Taoist religions. One of Han Yu's most famous essays decries the worship of Buddhist relics. Nonetheless, neo-Confucian writings adapted Buddhist thoughts and beliefs to the Confucian interest. In China neo-Confucianism was an officially recognized creed from its development during the Song dynasty until the early twentieth century, and lands in the sphere of Song China (Vietnam and Japan) were all deeply influenced by neo-Confucianism for more than half a millennium.