Neo-Confucianism may be traced to earlier Confucianists, but tin one who really opened its vista and determined its direction was Chow Tun-i (Chou Lien-hsi, 1017-1073), who is generally called the pioneer of Neo-Confucianism. In two short treatises, the T'ai-chi-t'u shuo (As Explanation of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate) and the T'ung-shn (Penetrating the Book of Changes), he laid the pattern of metaphysics and ethics for later Neo-Confucianism. Whether he got the diagram from a Taoist priest is a debatable point, but the strong Taoist influence on him is unmistakable. The very concept of the Ultimate of Non-being (Wu-chi) comes from Lao Tzu.- But his diagram is not exactly like any diagram of the Taoists, and in his evolutionary process of creation from the Great Ultimate through the passive cosmic force, yin, and the active cosmic force, yang, to the myriad things, he faithfully followed the Book of Changes rather than Taoism.
Furthermore, he developed the idea that "the many are [ultimately] one, and the one is actually differentiated into the many," and that "the one and many each has its own correct state of being," thus starting another fundamental concept of Neo-Confucianism and anticipating Ch'eng I (Ch'eng I-ch'uan, 1033-1107) .4 He also spoke of principle (1i), the nature, and destiny together, which eventually became the three cardinal concepts in Neo-Confucian thought.
Chou was a native of Tao-chou in present Hunan. His personal name was Tun-i and courtesy name Mao-shu. He named his study after the stream Lien-hsi (Stream of Waterfalls) which he loved, and posterity has honored him by calling him Master of Lien-hsi. He loved lotus flowers ardently, evidently because of their purity and tranquillity. His love for life was so strong that he would not cut the grass outside his window. The two Ch'eng brothers had once studied under him (in 1046-1047) and were much influenced by him. Because of his influence the brothers did not take the civil service examination or hunt. He was a great admirer of Buddhism, and Cheng I called him "Poor Zen fellow. But strangely, Buddhist influence on him is negligible. In fact, he may be said to have set the course for Neo-Confucianism in such a way that neither Buddhist nor Taoist influence changed its fundamentally Confucian character.
Chou had a busy official career. He was district keeper of records ( 1040), magistrate in various districts (1046-1054), prefectural staff supervisor (1056-1059), professor of the directorate ofeducation and assistant prefect (1061-1064), among others. It was when he was assistant prefect that he built his study, "Stream of Waterfalls." He resigned from his governmental position in 1072, the year before he died. See Sung shih (History of the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279), SPTK, 427:2b-5a and Bruce, Chu Hsi and His Masters, pp. 18-24.
Source : Wing-Tsit Chan, in Chinese Philosophy