Zhu Xi’s writings on neo-Confucianism became the foundation of China’s civil service exams for nearly six hundred years, and thus were the focus of study for generations of hopeful scholar-officials.

Zhu Xi was perhaps the greatest neo-Confucian philosopher. His Collected Commentaries on the Four Books became the basis of the civil service examinations in 1315 until they were abolished in 1905; twenty-first-century Confucian scholars remain deeply influenced by Zhu’s interpretations.

Zhu Xi, born in Youzi in Fukien Province, was perhaps the greatest neo-Confucian philosopher. He developed and clarified the metaphysics of two earlier philosophers, Cheng Yi (1033–1107) and brother Cheng Hao (1032–1085). According to their view, everything in the universe has two aspects, li (principle) and qi. Li is a structuring principle that accounts for both the way a thing is and the way it ought to be. Although the li is completely present in each and every thing, things are distinguished by having different endowments of qi. Qi is a sort of self-moving ethereal substance, which has varying degrees of turbidity or clarity. Inanimate objects have the most turbid qi, with plants, animals, and humans having increasingly clearer qi.

Because the li is one, everything is part of a potentially harmonious whole. Consequently, a good person hasconcern for everything that exists. Because the qi differentiates things, people have greater obligations to those tied to them by particular bonds such as the five principal relationships: ruler and subject; father and son; elder brother and younger brother; husband and wife; friend and friend. The clearer one’s endowment of qi, the easier it is to appreciate one’s obligations.

Philosophy of Zhu Xi

While Zhu Xi, also known as Chu Hsi, is best known for his work Collected Commentaries on the Four Books and its contributions to Neo-Confucianism; he wrote on many topics, as seen below in his work on Heaven and Earth.

In the beginning of the universe there was only material force [ch’i] consisting of yin and yang. This force moved and circulated, turning this way and that. As this movement gained speed, a mass of sediment was pushed together and, since there was no outlet for this, it consolidated to form the earth in the center of the universe. The clear part of material force formed the sky, the sun and moon, the starts and zodiacal spaces. It is only on the outside that the encircling movement perpetually goes on. The earth exists motionless in the center of the system, not at the bottom.

In the beginning of the universe, when it was still in a state of undifferentiated chaos, I imagine there were only water and fire. The sediment from water formed the earth. If today we climb the high mountains and look around, we will see ranges of mountains in the shape of waves. This is because the water formed them like this, though we do not know at what period they solidified. This solidification was at first very soft, but in time it became hard.

Question: I imagine it is like the tide rushing upon and making waves in the save. [Is that right?]

Answer: Yes. The most turbid water formed the earth and the purest fire became wind, thunder, lightening, starts, and the like.

Further Question: Can the universe be destroyed?

Answer: It is indestructible. But in time man will lose all moral principles and everything will be thrown together in a chaos. Man and things will all die out, and then there will be a new beginning.

Source: McNeill, W. H., & Sedlar, J. W.. (Eds.). (1971). China, India, and Japan: The middle period. In Readings in World History, Vol. 7. Oxford, U.K. Oxford University Press, 83.

Relying on one’s own moral sense without education is dangerous because selfish desires obscure the li within people. Instead, people should study the classic texts under a wise teacher because the texts provide partial abstractions of the li from its particular embodiments in qi.

Prior to Zhu Xi, Confucian education emphasized the Five Classics: the Odes, the Documents, the Spring and Autumn Annals, the Record of Rites, and the I Ching (Yijing). These works had been central to Confucian education since the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). Zhu Xi proposed a new curriculum based on what came to be known as the “Four Books.” His Collected Commentaries on the Four Books, which gives a synthetic interpretation of these texts in the light of neo-Confucian metaphysics, became the basis of the Chinese civil service examinations in 1315 and was committed to memory by generations of scholars until the examinations were abolished in 1905. In the early twenty-first century the views of the majority of Confucians in East Asian communities, including the “new Confucian” philosophers, are deeply influenced by Zhu Xi’s interpretations.

Further Reading

Chan Wing-tsit. (Ed.). (1986). Chu Hsi and neo-Confucianism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Gardner, D. K. (1990). Chu Hsi: Learning to be a sage. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Graham, A. C. (1992). Two Chinese philosophers (2nd ed.). Chicago: Open Court Press.

Source: Van Norden, Bryan W. (2009). ZHU Xi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2652–2653. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

ZHU Xi (Zhū Xī 朱熹)|Zhū Xī 朱熹 (ZHU Xi)

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