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The genius of Zhu Xi

Zhu Xi or Chu Hsi (Chinese Neo-Confucian philosopher, Song Dynasty, 1130–1200). Considered the greatest of the Neo-Confucian scholars, Zhu Xi’s thought initially represented a challenge to orthodox Neo-Confucianism. His commentaries on “The Four Books”, however, would eventually form the basis for all civil service examinations conducted in China for the next 400 years, until that system was abolished in 1905.

Life magazine ranked Zhu Xi as the 45th most important person in the last millennium.

Zhu Xi Poem in Monument House Utrecht

Feeling on reading a book

Zhu Xi Poem in Monument House Utrecht
1. My half a mu square pond is like a mirror in an open box

2. The sunlight and shadow of clouds linger in the mirror together;

3. I ask the pond how it gets the water so limpid (clear),

4. That is because running water is coming from the source.

Big thanks to Anne Ku

Zhu Xi’s views on human nature

Zhu Xi (reads Chu Hsi in the Wade-Giles system, 1130-1200) was a late Song scholar who synthesized the earlier Song scholars of Zhou Dunyi, Cheng Hao, Cheng Yi, and Zhang Zai, and edited the Four Books. It was he who gave what was later accepted as the standard interpretation of Confucian learning in the imperial examinations, completing a second wave of canonizing Confucian learning after the Confucian scholar Dong Zhongshu succeeded in having the emperor Han Wudi accept Confucian learning as the state ethic in the Han Dynasty.

The Cheng-Zhu school of Confucian learning (named after the Cheng brothers and Zhu Xi) absorbed many elements from Daoist and Buddhist teachings but combated the other worldly tendencies of both teachings. It became Confucian orthodoxy for 500-600 hundred years before challenged by Confucian scholars who wanted to go back to the Confucian classics before they were abridged into the Four Books.

In the 20th century, Neo-Confucian learning saw its revival in East Asia and what one could call the Chinese diaspora: areas where large Chinese communities reside, including southeast Asia and Chinese communities in America.

In Zhu Xi’s struggles with Daoism and Buddhism, like his predecessors, he integrates elements of both into his writings. In what follows I will examine first the Daoist influence on him, then the Buddhist influence, and how he reinterpreted Confucian learning in light of both.

1. Influence of Daoism:

Linking primordial chaos with civilization through seeing nature as constant movement, generating the myriad things on its own: Like Zhou Dunyi (see notes or early part of chap.20 of de Bary), Zhu Xi attempted to bridge Daoism and Confucian this-worldliness. Seeing the primordial state of nature that the Daoists longed to return to not as a quiet pristine scene, but a site of constant movement generated from within itself, Zhu Xi borrowed from Zhou Dunyi the idea of the Supreme Ultimate Polarity to describe this constant self-generated movement and the moments when it stops: when the movement goes on, it has a force called yang, and when it momentarily stops, the stillness is called yin. The different combinations of the yin and yang lead to the myriad things in this world. (de Bary, 699-700)

The Confucian Way and the workings of the Supreme Ultimate: Having argued that the primordial chaos of the Daoists and the Confucian civilized world were in a continuum, the former naturally generating the latter, Zhu Xi built a greater linkage between the Confucian and the Daoist worlds by arguing that the Confucian principles (li) were directly embedded in the primordial chaos: it was they that generated the force called yang, leading to the changes which led to civilization and the myriad things. (701-702) In another place, Zhu Xi more specifically describes how the myriad things were created, emphasizing that it was the material force [directed by the Confucian principles which caused the ying-yang movements] that created the universe. (702-703)

2. Influence of Buddhism

Differentiation between the material and spiritual worlds on the basis of purity/impurity: As we know, the Buddhist belief that human perceptions are false is based on their belief in the impurity of the world (meaning the world is made up of composites). Only purity is permanent and the impure composites disintegrate over time. In his attempt to fight against the other-worldly tendencies of Buddhism, Zhu Xi emphasized the authenticity of the material world.

While he did not want to separate ideas from the material world for fear that would destroy the Confucian belief in human innate rationality, he wanted to distinguish between ideas/principles and the material world. so he chose to use the binary of pure/impure to describe the difference: on the one hand, principles were inherent in the material world [just as moral ideas were inherent in the human mind, as Confucians argued], on the other hand, principles were pure, while the material world was impure.(699-700)

This way, Zhu Xi managed to state the slight superiority of principles over the material world while not separating them into two different worlds. Zhu Xi hastened to add that however, principles would not work without material force. Here the material force referred to the five phases or elements, and principles the Confucian ones including humaneness, rightness, ritual decorum, and wisdom. (700)

Principle and material force were inseparable: As a good Confucian who focused on practical results, Zhu Xi pointed out that the principles could not function without material force, thus with death and disintegration the spirit within the human being was gone because the spirit could not function without the body.(701)

It was a rebuttal to the Buddhist argument of the transmigration of souls, showing that rationality or spirituality do not exist aside from individual humans, emphasizing rationality as an instrument for this worldly activities. Zhu follows a similar logic in his piece “Spiritual Beings,” although he leaves room for ancestral worship: the worship of the spirit of the ancestors because their material bodies decayed gradually, helping the spirit to linger on for a while after death.

Because of the centrality of the issue of human innate rationality, Zhu Xi argued for the integration of principles and material force in many places. In “The Mind-and-Heart,” he compared them to candle flames (spirit), which could not burn without the candle (material force).

He argued that the mind could access the whole universe, since they shared the same principles, and controlled the universe instead of being controlled by it. (708-709) This was a rebuttal to the Buddhist argument that human perceptions are illusions and truth was separate from human experience in this world.

The thing is, by creating this all powerful mind that could access the whole universe, Zhu Xi himself was perilously close to the argument that thinking could be separate from human experience, something he desperately tried to combat.

Human nature: Just as in the Consciousness-Only Buddhist schools of thought, where human knowledge is divided into pure or true knowledge stored in the alaya, and contaminated knowledge as transmitted through the six senses, so Zhu Xi used this binary of purity versus contamination to describe what he termed the original human nature of perfection and its operation, during which evil arises.

He describes this original human nature not yet put in practice as identical with the Confucian principles, the same principles that led to the ying-yang forces to create the myriad things in the universe.(704-705)

Even though human thinking and the material world shared the same principles, Zhu Xi tried to differentiate between the human and material world, not qualitatively, but only through degrees. Thus like his contemporaries, he equated the universe with the moral universe:

Thus consciousness and movement proceed from material force, while humaneness, rightness, decorum, and wisdom proceed from principle. Both human beings and things are capable of consciousness and movement, but though things possess humaneness, rightness, decorum, and wisdom, they cannot have them completely….(706)

Avoiding vagueness in defining human nature: Perhaps more than any earlier Confucian, Zhu Xi was extremely conscious of the difference between principle and practice. When Confucius was asked to define humaneness, as recorded in the Analects, he only pointed out which aspects of humaneness his individual students were lacking in.

When Zhu Xi tried to define humaneness, he pondered about whether to define it as a principle or a practice. His concern was it should not be too vague or too specific, and yet it should have enough substance to serve as a guideline for action. Defining it as a principle, “to talk about ren in general terms of the unity of things and the self will lead people to be vague, confused, neglected, and make no effort to be alert.” (712)

Therefore Zhu Xi confined the definition of humaneness to a function, or a sub-principle to a larger principle called impartiality, which he said should be in place before humaneness could be developed. (712)

After limiting humaneness to the framework of impartiality, which basically means other-regarding, in contrast to partiality, which in this context means concerned primarily of one’s self-interests, Zhu Xi further defined humaneness as a principle of which empathy and love are functions.(712-713)

Love, what made humaneness specific and practicable, on the other hand, could not be specifically defined because to “talk about love in specific terms of consciousness will lead people to be nervous, irascible, and devoid of any quality of depth;” (713) in general it would just be too restricting to people and deprive them of the freer exercise of their (moral) nature. In his definition of humaneness, therefore, one can see that Zhu Xi wanted to achieve both the effect of universal principles clearly defined and to adhere to the traditional Confucian goal of making all principles practicable.

Both the universality and the practicability of humaneness thus defined were to combat the vagueness of Buddhist teachings about this world and the Buddhist views of the universe (as empty or illusive).


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September 24, 2008 Posted by | OTHER_LITERATURE, OTHER_Philosophy, Zhu Xi, _OTHER, _POETRY | Leave a comment