TAIJI . In the Yi jing (Book of Changes; a wisdom book in ancient China that is widely believed to have been a major source of inspiration for Confucianism and Daoism), the term Taiji ("great ultimate") signifies the origin and ground of Heaven and earth and of all beings. It is the Great Ultimate that is said to engender or produce yin and yang, the twin cosmic forces, which in turn give rise to the symbols, patterns, and ideas that are, indeed, forms of yin and yang. The interaction of the two modalities of these cosmic forces bring about the eight trigrams that constitute the basis of the Yi jing. Combining any two of the eight trigrams, each of which contains three broken (yin) and three unbroken (yang) lines, forms one of the sixty-four hexagrams. These are taken as codes for all possible forms of change, transformation, existence, life, situations, and institutions both in nature and in culture. The Great Ultimate, then, is the highest and the most fundamental reality, and is said to generate and underlie all phenomena.
However, it is misleading to conceive of the Great Ultimate as the functional equivalent of either the Judeo-Christian concept of God or the Greek idea of Logos. The Great Ultimate is neither the willful creator nor pristine reason, but an integral part of an organic cosmic process. The inherent assumption of this interpretation is that the universe is in a dynamic process of transformation and, at the same time, has an organic unity and an underlying harmony. The universe, in Joseph Needham's understanding, is well-coordinated and well-ordered but lacks an ordainer. The Great Ultimate, so conceived, is a source or root, and is thus inseparable from what issues from it.
It was the Song-dynasty neo-Confucian master Zhou Dunyi (Zhou Lianxi, 1017–1073) who significantly contributed to the philosophical elaboration of the notion. In his Taijitu shuo (Explanation of the diagram of the Great Ultimate), strongly influenced by the cosmology of the Yi jing, Zhou specifies the cosmic process as follows: the Great Ultimate through movement and tranquility generates the two primordial cosmic forces, which in turn transform and unite to give rise to the Five Agents or Five Phases (wuxing, water, fire, wood, metal, and earth). When the five vital forces (qi), corresponding to each of the five "elements" (agents or phases), interact among themselves and reach a harmonious order, the four seasons run their orderly course. This provides the proper environment for the Five Agents to come into "mysterious union." Such a union embraces the two primordial cosmic forces, the female and the male, which interact with each other to engender and transform all things. The continuous production and reproduction of the myriad things make the universe an unending process of transformation. It is in this sense, Zhou Dunyi states, that "the Five Agents constitute a manifestation of yin and yang, and yin and yang constitute a manifestation of the Great Ultimate." This is the basis for the commonly accepted neo-Confucian assertion that the Great Ultimate is embodied both singly by each thing and collectively by all things.
It has been documented that Zhou's Taijitu shuo grew out of a long Daoist tradition. Indeed, it is believed that Zhou received the diagram itself from a Daoist master: Daoist influences are evident even in his explanatory notes. His introduction of the term "the Non-Ultimate" or "the Ultimate of Non-being" (wuji) generated much controversy among Song and Ming dynasty Confucian thinkers because the notion "non-ultimate" or "non-being" seems closer to the Daoist idea of nothingness than the Confucian concept that the human world is real. However, by defining human spirituality in terms of the notion that it is "man alone who receives the cosmic forces and the Five Agents in their most refined essence, and who is therefore most sensitive," Zhou clearly presents a philosophical anthropology in the tradition of Confucian humanism.
A similar attempt to read a humanist message into the seemingly naturalistic doctrine of the Great Ultimate is also found in the writings of Shao Yong (Shao Kangjie, 1011–1077), perhaps one of the most metaphysical Confucian masters of the Song dynasty. Shao's cosmology is presented as the numerical progression of the one to the many: "The Great Ultimate is the One. It produces the two (yin and yang ) without engaging in activity. The two (in their wonderful changes and transformations) constitute the spirit. Spirit engenders number, number engenders form, and form engenders concrete things" (Chan, 1969, pp. 492–493). Shao further maintains that the human mind in its original state is the Great Ultimate. If one's mind can regain its original calm, tranquility, and enlightenment it has the capacity to investigate principle (li) to the utmost. The mind can then fully embody the Great Ultimate not only as the defining characteristic of its true nature but also as an experienced reality, a realized truth. This paradoxical conception that the Great Ultimate is part of the deep structure of our minds but that it can be fully realized only as a presence in our daily lives is widely shared among neo-Confucian thinkers.
Zhu Xi (1130–1200), in a rationalist attempt to provide an overall cosmological and metaphysical vision, defines the Great Ultimate as "nothing other than principle," or, alternately, as "merely the principle of Heaven and earth and the myriad things." Perhaps inadvertently, Zhu Xi restricted the Great Ultimate so as to acknowledge its function as the ground of all beings but not necessarily its role in the generation of the universe. However, there is fruitful ambiguity in Zhu Xi's position. In response to the challenging question as to whether the Great Ultimate must split into parts to become the possession of each of the myriad things, Zhu Xi employed the famous Buddhist analogy of moonlight scattered upon rivers and lakes. That there is only one moon in the sky does not prevent its being seen everywhere without losing its singularity and wholeness. Zhu Xi further depicts the Great Ultimate as having neither space nor form. The Great Ultimate, although symbolizing the principle of activity and tranquility, is not directly involved in the creative transformation of the universe. Nevertheless, like Zhou Dunyi and other neo-Confucian thinkers, Zhu Xi insisted that the truth of the Great Ultimate must be personally realized through moral self-cultivation: the truth of the Great Ultimate is not simply knowledge about some external reality but a personal knowledge rooted in self-awareness in the ethico-religious sense.
In the folk tradition, the symbol of the Great Ultimate carries a connotation of mysterious creativity. The spiritual and physical exercise known as Taiji quan (a form of traditional Chinese shadowboxing) is still widely practiced. This slow, firm, and rhythmic exercise disciplines the body and purifies the mind through coordinated movements and regulated breathing. It is a remarkable demonstration that cosmological thought can be translated into physical and mental instruction for practical living without losing its intellectual sophistication. After all, in the Chinese order of things, to know the highest truth is not simply to know about something but to know how to do it properly through personal knowledge.
Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, 1969. See chapters 28, 29, and 31.
Fung Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. 2 vols. Princeton, 1952–1953. See volume 2, pages 435–442, 457–458, and 537–545.
Graham, A. C. Two Chinese Philosophers. London, 1958.
Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China. 5 vols. Cambridge, 1954–.
Tu Wei-ming. Humanity and Self-Cultivation: Essays in Confucian Thought. Berkeley, 1979. See chapter 5, pages 72–76.
Tu Wei-ming (1987)