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Bol offers a comprehensive interpretation and polemical analysis of the place where "Neo-Confucianism fits into our story of China's history." In reexamining China's Middle Period, he compares the role of literati in Song and Yuan with that of the early and late Ming dynasty. Highlighting the development of discourse on learning, he observes that neo-Confucianism shifts moral authority away from the political system and toward a new conception of self, importantly developing the category of mind as the basis of moral guidance grounded in an act of will. In the late Ming this move promoted limited government combined with a new emphasis on autonomy and individual social responsibility that extended to people of all backgrounds. Bol points out that in spite of changes in the model of neo-Confucianism in the 17th century and the Qing conquest, the imperial order later continued to look to local elite leadership as the strength of its own existence. He brings forth evidence to support his projection that dual voices can perhaps "speak to China today." Bol argues that neo-Confucianism could serve, not just as history, but as a resource for thinking about the present.
— J. M. Boyle