Zhu Xi

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ZHU XI (11301200), philosopher, scholar, and formulator of what would for centuries be regarded as mainstream neo-Confucianism. The son of an official, Zhu Xi passed the highest civil service examination when he was only eighteen. In 1151 he was appointed a district registrar in Fujian province, where he served until 1158. He did not accept another official post until 1172, when he became prefect of Nankang in Jiangxi. Except for a month and a half in 1194, when Zhu Xi served at court, his government service was entirely at the local or regional level.

As a local official he built a strong record of conscientious service looking after the economic as well as moral welfare of the people. One notable acccomplishment was the establishment of communal granaries as a measure to combat famine. Less successful was his attempt to conduct a land survey. Most influential in the long run were his activities on behalf of education, especially the rehabilitation of private academies such as the White Deer Grotto Academy in Nankang. Such academies played a prime role in propagating neo-Confucianism.

In office or out, Zhu Xi was ever mindful of the plight of the Song dynasty, which had lost China's northern heartland to the non-Chinese Jin only three years before his own birth. In memorials and personal audiences he urged moral reform of the government beginning with the emperor himself. Both his ideas about moral government and his discussions on specific policy issues, however, had little influence on government. Zhu's brief period at court came to an end when a hostile faction came to power. Not content with purging their opponents from government, the men who ousted Zhu Xi went on to denounce him and fifty-eight other philosophers as guilty of "spurious" or "false" learning (weixue ). Zhu Xi was still in political disgrace at the time of his death.

In his prolific writings and recorded conversations with disciples Zhu Xi ranged over many areas of inquiry encompassing a host of topics and issues. His greatest achievement lay in shaping the varied and diffuse ideas of his eleventh-century predecessors into a coherent, organic philosophy. In the process he not only defined neo-Confucianism but established the Confucian core curriculum. It was Zhu Xi who joined the Daxue (Great learning) and the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the mean), originally two chapters in the Li ji (Book of rites), with the Lunyu (Analects) of Confucius and the Mengzi to comprise the so-called Four Books, a collection that formed the basis for the education of the Chinese elite until 1905.

Zhu Xi's thought was deeply religious in several senses. On a personal level, his was a creed to guide people's conduct as well as thinking, a quest for wisdom as well as truth, focused on an ideal of self-perfection (sagehood) to be pursued with the most earnest dedication. Part and parcel of this attitude was his reverence for Confucius and other past sages as well as his passionate concern with proper behavior and ritual. Furthermore, his view of the world and man was grounded in a sense of a transcendent reality and a vision of the unity of the cosmos and humanity.

Like Cheng Yi before him, Zhu Xi considered both the physical world of nature and the moral world of human relations as structured by li ("principle"), but he went beyond Cheng Yi to identify principle with the "supreme polarity" (supreme ultimate; taiji ) discussed by Zhou Dunyi (10171073) in his Taijitu shuo (Explanation of the diagram of the Supreme Polarity). Above and prior to form, the Supreme Polarity is itself without form. It contains all principles even as it is their source. It generates tranquillity and activity, the cosmic forces of yin and yang; indeed, its activity and tranquillity are yin and yang. It is transcendent but also immanent, for Zhu Xi stressed the unity of the one and the many. To illustrate this, he used the metaphor of the single moon that shines on and is reflected in rivers and lakes everywhere. Everything has the Supreme Polarity within it, yet the Supreme Polarity remains one whole.

Zhu's contemporary, Lu Jiuyuan (Lu Xiangshan, 11391193), objected to Zhou Dunyi's formulation, "the Non-Polarity [wuji, or Ultimate of Non-being] and yet the Supreme Polarity," as constituting the Daoist emphasis on nonbeing. But Zhu Xi insisted on retaining this formula because it makes clear that there is nothing beyond or prior to the Taiji and that Taiji cannot be limited or qualified in any way. As indicated in the diagram, the Non-Polarity and the Supreme Polarity are not two entities. According to Zhu Xi, in some contexts the Taiji need not itself be thought of as an entity at all.

Zhu Xi compared the relationship between Taiji, which he identified with principle or pattern (li), and the flux of activity and tranquillity, which he identified with material force (qi), to that of a man riding a horse, going wherever the horse goes in an inseparable union. In a crucial disagreement with Buddhists, Zhu Xi emphasized that principle is not something empty and detached, insisting instead that principle and concrete things never exist in isolation from one another. Without the material force (qi), principle (li) would have nothing to attach itself to. Accordingly, qi plays an important role in Zhu Xi's thought, so much so that an extensive literature has debated whether his thought may be more properly characterized as monism or dualism. Perhaps one may say that he was capable of adopting both perspectives, but that in ultimate metaphysical terms he saw reality as one.

Human beings are, of course, very much part of this reality. Like all Neo-Confucians, Zhu Xi accepted Mengzi's teaching that human nature is fundamentally good and that it contains within it the "beginnings" of the virtues. He equates this nature with principle: it belongs to the individual but is also shared with the world. While nature is good in its original quiescent state, once aroused to activity, goodness consists in following it, while evil results from going against it. What makes evil possible is that in man, as in the cosmos, principle needs to attach itself to material force in order to become actualized. Just as water may be clear or turbid, the physical nature people receive at birth may be pure or gross in varying degree. The more turbid the physical nature, the more seriously will principle be obstructed, but human beings, unlike animals, are able to penetrate their turbidity to recover the underlying principles.

Essential to Zhu Xi's view of man and the process of self-perfection is the activity of the "mind-and-heart" (xin, hereafter "mind"). Drawing on Zhang Zai, Zhu Xi held that the mind unites and controls the nature and the feelings. Thus, unlike Lu Jiuyuan and the "school of Mind" (Xinxue), Zhu Xi does not identify the mind with principle. For him, principles are contained in the mind, which, however, is constituted of highly rarefied qi. While the nature, identified with substance (ti), is good, the feelings, identified as function (yong ), need to be maintained in proper balance. Some, such as the feeling of commiseration, are good, but there is always the danger posed by selfish desires. As a result, the human mind (ren-xin ) is in a precarious state, ever subject to errors that prevent it from returning to the original "mind of the Way" (dao-xin, moral mind). The nature, as principle in general, is inert. Consequently, Zhu Xi places special emphasis on the mind as the active master whose role it is to engage in the strenuous effort to discriminate between moral error and the correct way and then to maintain constant correctness. Self-cultivation requires utmost exertion and commitment.

In his methodology of self-development Zhu Xi emphasized intellectual learning, but, in keeping with the general inclusive and synthetic cast of his mind, he by no means rejected meditation, or "quiet sitting" (qingzuo ), as the neo-Confucians called it. He once even advised a student to spend half his day in quiet sitting and the other half in reading. As a young man Zhu Xi was greatly influenced by the concept of quietism, but changed his views under the influence of his friend Zhang Shi (11331180) and the ideas of the philosopher Hu Hong (11061162). It was not until 1169 that he worked out a doctrine of self-cultivation that involved watchfulness over one's emotions and feelings both before and after they have been aroused. Central to this doctrine was the cultivation and practice of "seriousness" (jing, also rendered as "reverence, mindfulness"). The locus classicus for the concept of seriousness, so prominent in the thought of Cheng Yi as well as Zhu Xi, is a passage in the Yi jing (Book of changes) that couples "seriousness to straighten the internal life" with "righteousness to square the external life."

Zhu Xi is especially noted for stressing "the investigation of things" (gewu, a term from Daxue ), by which he meant the investigation of the principles of all things and events. It was on this issue that he had his famous debate with Lu Jiuyuan in 1175 at the Goose Lake Temple in Jiangxi. In contrast to Lu, whose philosophy of inwardness de-emphasized external learning or book knowledge, Zhu Xi maintained that principle was to be investigated in the external world as well as within one's self. According to Zhu, the extension of knowledge (zhi-zhi, another term from Daxue ) is a gradual process of investigating the principles of one thing after another until a great breakthrough takes place and the perfection of knowledge is attained. Like other Confucians, he taught that such knowledge must necessarily be manifested in action, but unlike the Ming dynasty philosopher Wang Yangming (14721529), Zhu Xi taught that knowledge must precede action.

The prime virtue, the source of all other virtues and thus the object of all endeavor is "humaneness" (ren, also rendered as "humanity, benevolence"). In keeping with the centrality of this concept in Confucian thought, Zhu Xi gave much attention to working out his own theory of humaneness. Rejecting an interpretation given by one of Cheng Yi's disciples, who defined it as consciousness, as well as that of another disciple, who equated it to unity with all things, Zhu Xi characterized ren as the principle of love and the very character of the mind. Vital and creative, ren is the spirit of life found in the mind of Heaven and earth. Thus, through humaneness people partake of the creative process of the universe.

This creative process is natural and unending. Because the universe constantly rotates, the heaviest material force concentrates at the center to form the earth while the most rarefied qi is farthest out, forming the sky, sun, moon, and celestial bodies. When Zhu Xi discussed the "mind of heaven and earth," the word translated as "heaven" is tian, which, depending on the context, can also be rendered as "sky" or "nature." Asked about its meaning in the classics, Zhu Xi replied that in some cases it meant "the lord" and in some "principle." The question of whether Zhu Xi was a deist was much debated among Jesuit and other Western scholars of Chinese philosophy and forms an important chapter in the history of Western sinology rather than in that of neo-Confucianism in China or East Asia.

In both his official capacity and in his personal life Zhu Xi participated wholeheartedly in religious ceremonies, including, for instance, prayers for rain in times of drought, sacrifices to former sages, and ancestor worship. As a man of his time, he believed in the existence of ghosts but sought to explain natural phenomena in terms of li. He strongly rejected the Buddhist idea of reincarnation, Daoist beliefs in longevity, and shamanism. Living in disgrace in his old age, he wrote a memorial condemning the men in power, much to the alarm of his disciples, who were concerned for his safety. Finally, they persuaded him to let divination decide whether to risk sending the memorial. Zhu Xi accepted the negative verdict of the milfoil. It was a dramatic and poignant expression of his conviction of the unity of the universe and man.

A brief summary of as subtle and prolific a thinker as Zhu Xi inevitably runs into the danger of oversimplification. It also tends to disguise the extent to which the modern scholar is engaged in a task of interpretation and reconstruction, for Zhu Xi, like other Chinese thinkers, did not set forth his ideas in a systematic magnum opus. Although there are some essays on specific subjects, for the most part he developed his ideas in commentaries on the classics, letters to friends, prefaces and the like, as well as in conversations recorded by disciples. His works are a rich source for modern students of many aspects of twelfth-century China and continue to provide scholars within the tradition with numerous issues for cogitation and debate. Recent years have seen major advances in the study of Zhu Xi, but the work continues.

See Also

Chinese Religion; Confucianism; Li; Lu Xiangshan; Mengzi; Qi; Ren and Yi; Taiji; Tian; Zhang Zai; Zhou Dunyi.


Wing-tsit Chan's "The Study of Chu Hsi in the West," Journal of Asian Studies 35 (August 1976): 555577, is a comprehensive survey and a most useful guide. Professor Chan has included translations from Zhu Xi in his A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, 1963) and translated Zhu Xi and Lü Ziqian's anthology of Northern Song neo-Confucianism, the Jinsi lu, under the title Reflections on Things at Hand (New York, 1967). Studies published since the appearance of Professor Chan's article include Journal of Chinese Philosophy 5.2 (June 1978), a special issue on Zhu Xi; Hoyt C. Tillman's Utilitarian Confucianism: Chen Liang's Challenge to Zhu Xi (Cambridge, Mass., 1982); Daniel K. Gardner's meticulous translations and insightful studies: Zhu Xi and the Da-xue (Cambridge, Mass., 1986); Learning to Be a Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu (Berkeley, 1990); and Zhu Xi's Reading of the Analects: Canon, Commentary, and the Classical Tradition (New York, 2003). Also see Kim Yuk-sik, Natural Philosophy of Chu Hsi (Philadelphia, 2000) and Zhu Xi and Neo-Confucianism, edited by Wing-tsit Chan (Honolulu, 1986).

Mu's Zhuzi xin xuean (Taipei, 1971) remains authorative. Wing-tsit Chan's Zhu xue lunji (Taipei, 1982) includes an essay on Zhu Xi's religious practice. An excellent study published in the Peoples' Republic is Zhang Liwen's Zhu Xi sixiang yanjiu (Beijing, 1981). Japanese scholars have made major contributions to the study of Zhu Xi. An extensive modern translation of Zhu Xi and others associated with him is the fifteen-volume Shushigaku taikei (Tokyo, 19741983).

Conrad Schirokauer (1987 and 2005)