Zhou Dunyi (1017–1073)

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Zhou Dunyi was the first eleventh-century Chinese thinker who argued for the inseparability of metaphysics and ethics. His two worksTaiji tushuo (An Explanation of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate) and Tongshu (Penetrating the Book of Changes)were major neo-Confucian writings on the metaphysical nature of moral cultivation.

In the Taiji tushuo, Zhou Dunyi comments on the Diagram of the Great Ultimate (Taiji tu ). The Diagram, created by the Daoist Chen Tuan (c. 906989), consists of five circles. The top circle is an empty one, symbolizing the universe as a self-generative and self-reproducing entity. The second circle contains intermixing semi-circles of dark and light colors, with the dark color representing the yin (the yielding cosmic force) and the light color the yang (the active cosmic force). The third circle is a group of five small circles, each represents one of the Five Phases (wu xing )water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. Describing biological reproduction, the fourth circle depicts how the yin moves the female, and the yang the male. Building on the fourth circle, the fifth circle likens the process by which the myriad beings are produced through the union of the two sexes.

For Zhou, the Diagram of the Great Ultimate is a graphic depiction of the two-way flow between the whole and the part, the one and the many. Reading from the top to the bottom, the Diagram shows how the one gives rise to the many. It explains the ways in which the intermixing of the yin and yang creates the Five Phases and the multitude of beings. However, reading from the bottom to the top, the Diagram describes how the many are in fact one. It traces the steps by which the myriad beings are derived from the Five Phases and the yin and yang. No matter whether it is from one to many or from many to one, the Diagram shows that the universe is an organic system wherein part and whole play equal role. On this basis, Zhou explains the metaphysical nature of moral cultivation. He suggests that human beings, given their sensibility and consciousness, are free to decide whether they are active participants or stubborn obstructers of the universe's self-renewal. Hence, daily moral practices are as much metaphysical as ethical, involving a conscious decision to render human activities to be a part of the universe's self-regeneration.

In the Tongshu, Zhou Dunyi further explains the metaphysical nature of moral cultivation. According to Zhou, there are two reasons why the innate human goodness is called sincerity (cheng ). First, the innate human goodness, although available to every human being, is hidden. One has to uncover it by being honest and true to oneself. Second, because all beings in this universe are intricately connected as a family of beings, to be true to oneself requires being true to others. Thus sincerity has to be rooted in altruism. For Zhou, Yan Hui (Confucius's favorite student) is a prime example of the cultivation of sincerity. Materially, Yan Hui was in an uninviting situationhaving only a single bamboo dish of rice, a single gourd dish of drink, and living in a mean narrow lane. But spiritually, Yan Hui was always upbeat because he had developed a noble state of mind that linked him to the universe.

In paying tribute to Yan Hui, Zhou Dunyi in effect redefines the Confucian learning. In earlier times, learning was understood by Confucian scholars as being a loyal government official. Hence, successful prime ministers (such as Yi Yin of the Shang Dynasty in the seventeenth century BCE) were considered to be exemplary students of Confucius. By promoting Yan Hui as the true student of Confucius, Zhou sees learning as an individual quest for broadening the mind. A learned person, then, is not just a person of action; he is also a person of the right mind, who recognizes the inherent connections among all beings in this universe. By focusing on the cultivation of the mind, Zhou helps to distinguish neo-Confucianism from Classical Confucianism.

See also Cheng Hao; Cheng Yi; Confucius; Shao Yong; Zhang Zai; Zhu Xi.


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Zhou Dunyi. Zhou Dunyi ji [Collected Works of Zhou Dunyi]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1990.

Tze-ki Hon (2005)