Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) (1130–1200)

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Zhu Xi was a leading scholar, thinker, and teacher of the revival of philosophical Confucianism known at the time as Daoxue (learning of the way), often referred to as neo-Confucianism. The prolific author of texts synthesizing the views of his immediate predecessors and reinterpreting the classical canon, Zhu Xi attained a status in the Chinese tradition comparable to that of Thomas Aquinas in the European world. Zhu's influence has been even more pervasive and long-lived, however; from 1313 until their abolition in 1905, China's civil service examinations took Zhu's commentaries to be the authoritative interpretations of the classics. Hence for nearly a millennium every literate individual in China had at least some familiarity with Zhu's teachings.

Zhu was born into turbulent times. In 1127 Jurchen people conquered northern China. Zhu's father was among many who protested the humiliating peace treaty that China was forced to accept, and he was demoted to a rural position in Anhui, where Zhu was born. Zhu took up his father's politics as he matured, committing himself to the hawkish group that wanted to take back the north. Partly out of disenchantment with the regime's failure to follow such policies, Zhu never played a significant role in the national bureaucracy despite having passed the highest-level civil service exam and having received his jinshi degree at the age of nineteen.

At first Zhu was quite eclectic in his intellectual and spiritual interests, but several encounters in his twenties with the staunch Confucian Li Tong (10951163) convinced him to commit himself wholeheartedly to the Confucianism associated with two celebrated thinkers from the eleventh century, the brothers Cheng Hao (10321085) and Cheng Yi (10331107). Over much of the rest of his life, Zhu held sinecure positions as a temple guardian and devoted himself to study, writing, and teaching. He produced a huge corpus of essays and commentaries that, together with the voluminous recorded and published conversations between Zhu and his students, articulated and defended a creative synthesis that has come to define mainstream neo-Confucianism.

Zhu's philosophical system was the product of the range of interlocking areas his writings encompassed: ontology, cosmology, nature (human and otherwise), psychology, epistemology, moral cultivation, ethics, and politics. In addition, despite his distance from national politics, he was deeply concerned with the practical import of his views; among other things, he worked to revitalize independent academies and advocated a form of village self-government known as a "community compact." Like most long-lived and prolific thinkers, Zhu revised his outlook over time, and many expressions of his ideas are highly contextual, depending on the circumstances he was addressing.

The central concepts in Zhu's ontology are li (pattern or principle) and qi (material force). Zhu saw that the patterns followed by one thing or in one affair interact with those of countless others, as when the unchecked growth of one tree stunts the growth of others nearby, and argued that there is an all-encompassing li in accord with which the myriad subsidiary patterns are able to develop in order and harmony. Li are the patterns underlying the constant change of the psychological and material world; qi is the dynamic stuff of which this world is composed. Qi, in turn, can be analyzed as either yin or yang, depending on whether it is contracting or expanding, soft or hard, dark or light, and so on. Each thing or affair has its own li, which in one sense can be understood as the possibilities for that thing: the patterns of change it can instantiate. Zhu held that the patterns followed by one thing interact with those of countless others, as when the unchecked growth of one tree stunts the growth of others nearby; he argued that there is an all-encompassing li in accord with which the myriad subsidiary patterns are able to develop in order and harmony.

From the human perspective, this all-encompassing li is called "moral pattern (yi li )"; applied to the cosmos, it is "nature's pattern (tian li )." Zhu believed li to have logical priority over qi but to have no existence independent of qi. He borrowed the term "Great Ultimate (taiji )" from Zhou Dunyi (10171073) to refer to the source of all creativity, the not-yet-material totality of all patterns in which qi has yet to be differentiated into yin and yang. The ideas of unceasing creativity and its original goodness lie at the heart of Zhu's metaphysics.

The view that nature has at its core goodness, harmony, creativity, and order applies equally to humans and to the cosmos at large. Zhu developed ideas of Cheng Yi and others to explain how we can be said to have good natures yet regularly have problematic thoughts and feelings. He also discussed the things we need to do to realize the pure goodness of our original natures. One core idea is that problems occur when our "unactualized (weifa )" minds become "actualized (yifa )" via our real and imperfect bodies and their desires. Our moral natures themselves have some reality, as can be seen by the near-ubiquitous spontaneous compassionate response we have to the suffering of innocents, but our qi the psycho-physical reality of our emotions, habits, and so onis not, except in sages, purely expressive of the equilibrium in our unactualized minds.

What is to be done? Zhu believed that education should begin with a period of "lesser learning" in which one learns good habits without delving into the reasoning that justifies them. In the subsequent "greater learning," one continues to nurture the "reverence (jing )" for moral pattern while beginning to investigate the theoretical grounding of those patterns. This "investigation of things (gewu )," which relied in part on a controversial redaction of the brief classic text Greater Learning, was the subject of much subsequent debate. Zhu seems to have had two kinds of investigation foremost in mind: the patterns observed in peoples' interactions with one another and the patterns instantiated by ancient sages and worthies, as recorded in the classics and histories. Indeed, reading was a central focus of his teaching, just as textual scholarship was a central focus of his scholarship. Zhu believed that without reference to external models of proper patterns, students would be too easily misled by introspection into their own reactions and motivations, which might be clouded by the impurities of one's qi. The goal of Zhu's teachings was practical: Given the centrality of "benevolence (ren )" in the life of the morally worthy person (and in the acme of human personality, the sage), he sought to motivate people to improve themselves by the most reliable method.

See also Cheng Hao; Cheng Yi; Chinese Philosophy; Confucius; Cosmology; Ontology, History of; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Zhou Dunyi.


original sources

A great deal of work has been done since 1990 in compiling modern editions of Zhu's corpus. Most comprehensive is the Complete Works of Zhu Xi (Zhuzi Quanshu ) from Shanghai Classics Press and Anhui Education Press; the first volumes began to appear in 2002. In 1996 Sichuan Education Press published Collected Works of Zhu Xi (Zhu Xi Ji ) in ten volumes, which contains all of Zhu's formal writings. In addition, there are numerous editions of Zhu's collected sayings (Zhuzi Yulei ) and other monographs available.


Daniel Gardner has provided perhaps the best introduction to Zhu's thought by translating selections from Zhu's conversations about learning, in Learning to Be a Sage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). Further depth is provided by Allen Wittenborn's excellent, complete translation of Zhu's Further Reflections on Things at Hand (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991). Wing-tsit Chan's translations are still quite helpful; see both the section on Zhu in his Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963) and the numerous comments from Zhu included in the important collection of earlier neo-Confucian writings that Zhu coedited, Reflections on Things at Hand (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967).

secondary studies

The closest thing to a general, book-length study of Zhu in English is Julia Ching, The Religious Thought of Chu Hsi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Donald Munro's Images of Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988) critically engages a range of Zhu's ideas by focusing on the images he uses to structure his thinking. The best work in English on the intellectual context in which Zhu's ideas developed is Hoyt Tillman, Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi's Ascendancy (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1992). There are also a handful of more specialized monographs and many articles devoted to Zhu; a particularly high-quality collection of the latter is Wing-tsit Chan, ed., Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism (Honolulu, 1986). Chan's Chu Hsi: New Studies (Honolulu, 1989) also contains a wide range of helpful essays. Finally, Chinese-language studies of Zhu are flourishing. Two particularly important works are Chen Lai, A Study of Zhu Xi's Philosophy (Zhu Xi zhexue yanjiu ) (Beijing, 1988) and Yu Yingshi, Zhu Xi's Historical World (Zhu Xi de lishi shijie ) (Taibei, 2003).

Stephen C. Angle (2005)