Yen Yuan (1635-1704) was a widely learned man who, like many Chinese philosophers throughout history, ultimately called for a return to what he believed was authentic yet oft-neglected (Confucian) Way.
Yen Yuan felt that most Confucians both historically and in his day had misunderstood concepts such as learning (hsueh) and training/culture/refiniment (wen), and consequently misunderstood “practice” and the Way (tao). He believed that the Confucianism of his day, having become dominated with abstract Buddhist-influenced theories and practices, as well as excessive book study (especially meticulous commentaries on texts, and major attention to minor matter like punctuation), resulted in a gread deal of pointless activity that drew people towards a passive, inactive, and overly cerebral form of life, and away from true Confucian broad practice of Tao. Yen Yuan also rejected the “quiet sitting” practice the Chinese adopted from the Buddhists, and felt that this so-called “ultimate and extreme mystery” was really just surface and illusory, and lacking reality and substance. Yen Yuan criticized metaphysical speculation and meditation, saying they impeded an active practical, dynamic, strong, healthy, and useful spirit. He felt mere book learning, book writing, empty talks, and meditation had weakened China and its people.
Yen Yuan promoted the idea that everything in the authentic Confucian Way had a very direct, broad, clear, simple, and generally common sense aim at what a person should be and do. The Confucians of his era overcomplicated the teachings and neglected its true essentials. Their pursuit of scholarly activities and abstract theoretical philosophical discussions often caused them to neglect the legitimate practice of learning. Confucius and Mencius emphasized activity and actual work, while the thinkers of his day merely played with words.
To Yen Yuan, one’s self and one’s actions are what can constitute the Way and reaching Sage-hood, while one’s books are only about the Way, but must never be confused with the Way itself.
Yen Yuan called himseld "hsi-chai," a "man of practice." He emphasized that Confucius and his disciples were balanced and active in a variety of fields, such as dancing, music, military affairs, agriculture, business, politics, and ceremony.
Confucius’s disciples talked and discussed, but they also practiced what they learned. They would read the books on ceremony, and then practice the ceremonies; or they would read the books on music, and then practice the music. ... For them, it would have been impossible to conceive that learning was merely a matter of reading and discussion.
In my view, when a person is active he will be a strong man; when a family is active, it will be a strong unit; when an entire country is active, it will be powerful; when the world is active, it will be strong and healthy.