ZHOU DUNYI (1017–1073), also known as Zhou Lianxi, was the first major neo-Confucian thinker generally credited with formulating a Confucian cosmology and metaphysics. Zhou Dunyi was a native of Daozhou in modern Hunan province in China. Zhou held a series of modest official positions throughout his career but because he refused to participate in the official civil service examinations, he was limited in the positions he could occupy and never achieved high level appointments with their accompanying status and recognition. He briefly served as tutor to both Cheng Hao (1032–1085) and Cheng Yi (1033–1107), the brothers who were to become major exponents of what later became known as the two principal schools of neo-Confucianism. Apart from his interactions with the Cheng brothers, he was generally not a well known figure until Zhu Xi (1130–1200) later raised his status to one of the founding figures of the neo-Confucian movement. It seems to have been primarily for his role in the development of a neo-Confucian cosmology and metaphysics that Zhou Dunyi was considered by Zhu Xi to be the first teacher in the traditional lineage of neo-Confucians. Zhou Dunyi's major exposition of this cosmology and metaphysics, an interest new to the Confucian school, is found in his two major works, the Taijitu shuo (An explanation of the diagram of the Great Ultimate) and the Tongshu (Penetrating the book of changes).
At the center of Zhou Dunyi's system of thought lies what is called the Diagram of the Great Ultimate, which may have been transmitted to him by a Daoist priest. For Zhou, the Great Ultimate (taiji ) is seen as the source of all things in the universe, that which lies both within and behind all things. In its capacity for tranquillity it gives rise to yin, the symbol of the mysterious and the female in Chinese thought. In its capacity for activity it gives rise to yang, the symbol of the rational and the male. It is the source of the basic patterns or phases of change known as the Five Elements (wuxing ) and forms the foundation of the two major symbols of the Yi jing (Book of changes): qian, the heavenly principle, and kun, the earthly principle, themselves again symbols of male and female. Humankind in Zhou Dunyi's system receives the highest, most rarefied form of the Five Elements, and thus is seen as capable of playing a critical role in the life of the universe. On this point the system finds its characteristically Confucian focus, for in humankind lies the foundation for understanding the universe as a whole. Particularly in the ideal form as a sage, the human being is the central figure in the universe. In this way, a metaphysical framework is established that incorporates the Confucian emphasis upon the unique relation of humankind and heaven (tian ) that forms the basic moral structure of the universe.
One of the most frequently debated points of Zhou Dunyi's thought is the first sentence of his Explanation of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate. The sentence reads "The Ultimate of Non-being and also the Great Ultimate!" (Chan, 1963, p. 463). The wuji, or Ultimate of Non-being, is often cited as evidence of Daoist influence, for it first occurs in the Dao de jing. To simply identify its source does not, however, explain what particular meaning it has for Zhou Dunyi. From Zhou's point of view the entire universe, all being itself, is ultimately derived from the Great Ultimate. By suggesting that the Great Ultimate is also the Ultimate of Non-being, Zhou affirms the all-inclusive nature of the source of things. The measure of its all-inclusiveness is that even its own opposite is included: there is nothing that is excluded from the Great Ultimate. This interpretation of the Great Ultimate also has a very practical side to it, for by suggesting that the Great Ultimate includes the Ultimate of Non-being, Zhou Dunyi emphasizes the degree to which Confucianism already includes Buddhist and Daoist symbols. Thus, what the Buddhists refer to as emptiness (kong ) or the Daoists as voidness (xu ) is, according to Zhou, already subsumed in the Great Ultimate. This is not to be understood as some kind of syncretism, but instead as a reaffirmation of the Confucian claim for the ontological priority of the Great Ultimate and thus of the Confucian affirmation of life itself as the ultimate ground for the achievement of sagehood.
There are other areas of Daoist influence in Zhou's thought beyond that evinced in his interpretation of the Great Ultimate. At the center of his practices and teachings are the ideas of quietude or tranquillity (jing ) and desirelessness (wuyu ). The sage is defined by Zhou Dunyi as one who is able to achieve a state of profound quietude and who is without desires. Zhu Xi felt that such ideas if carried to excess could lead dangerously close to the ways of the Buddhists and the Daoists. It may be because of this reservation that Zhu Xi chose to emphasize the metaphysical structure of Zhou Dunyi's thought and qualified Zhou's views by insisting upon the need for serious study rather than the cultivation of states of quietude and desirelessness.
The religious significance of Zhou Dunyi's thought for the development of neo-Confucianism is found in part in the degree to which he isolates the Great Ultimate as a symbol of ultimate meaning. The significance of this symbol persists throughout the course of the neo-Confucian tradition and reaffirms the central Confucian idea of the ultimate importance of life. But Zhou Dunyi's own life serves as a neo-Confucian religious model as well. In Zhou Dunyi we have someone who told his disciples that the whole purpose of learning is to achieve the goal of sagehood, and someone who in his own life displayed a seriousness and a humility that speak directly to the authenticity of the neo-Confucian religious perspective. When asked at one point why he refrained from cutting the grass outside his window, Zhou said that the grass's feeling and his own were the same. This has suggested to most readers Zhou Dunyi's extraordinary respect for and love of all forms of life, not to the detriment of the unique role of humankind, but rather as the extension and enlargement of humankind's own focus. It also suggests Zhou Dunyi's own religious sense of the continuity of all life and its common root in the Great Ultimate.
Introductory essays on Zhou Dunyi with a partial translation of his major writings are found in the two major sourcebooks on Chinese thought: A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, translated by Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton, 1963), pp. 460–480, and Sources of Chinese Tradition, From Earliest Times to 1600, 2d ed., edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom (New York, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 669–678. Both contain selections from An Explanation of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate and Penetrating the Book of Changes. Zhou Dunyi's writings are included in part in a thirteenth-century anthology of neo-Confucianism compiled by Zhu Hsi and Lü Zuqian, translated into English by Wing-tsit Chan as Reflections on Things at Hand (New York, 1967). Discussions of specific aspects of Zhou Dunyi's thought may be found in Fung Yu-lan's A History of Chinese Philosophy, 2d ed., translated by Derk Bodde (Princeton, 1953), vol. 2, pp. 434–451; and Carsun Chang's The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, 2 vols. (New York, 1957–1962), vol. 1, pp. 137–158. General studies including material on Zhou Dunyi are Xinghong Yao, An Introduction to Confucianism (Cambridge, UK, 2000), pp 98–104; John H. Berthrong, Transformations of the Confucian Way (Boulder, Colo., 1998), pp. 86–114.
Rodney L. Taylor (1987 and 2005)