Zhu Xi

Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, 1130-1200) was the most influential Neo-Confucian philosopher. He was a scholar during China’s Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). His honorific title is Zhu Zi (Master Zhu).

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Zhu Xi “ is known for his synthesis of Neo-Confucian philosophy. However, his concerns went far beyond the abstractions of philosophy; his purpose was to change (and improve, from his point of view) family life, society, and government. To this end, Zhu Xi was active in the theory and practice of education and in the compiling of a practical manual of family ritual. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Zhu Xi’s philosophical doctrine explained the world systematically using the concepts of “qi” (vital force) and “li” (principle), and is thus commonly referred to as “the study of li” in China. Dr. Eno wrote: “Zhu Xi was a brilliant metaphysician..his theories of the cosmos and its relation to man’s ethical tendencies represent a wonderful example of philosophical imagination – but when successful candidates sought to apply Zhu’s cosmic theories of Heavenly Principle, material force, and the moral intuitions of the sage heart to the problems of tax collection, flood control, and militia organization, they sometimes found that he was a little sketchy on the details.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

Zhu Xi’s Life

Zhu Xi was born in Nanping (Youxi), Fujian. He later resided in Kaoting, Jianyang in Fujian. His ancestors came from Wuyuan, Jiangxi. His father, a scholar, died when Zhu was 14. Zhu then moved with his mother to Wufuzhen, then a village near Mt. Wuyi. Zhu Xi spent about a half-century near Mt. Wuyi in Fujian Province.

He had style names Yuanhui and Zhonghui; the sobriquets Huian, Huiweng, and Tun- weng. Later in his life he was also referred to as Master Ziyang, the Sick Man of Cangzhou and Master Kaoting. He is respectfully referred to by posterity as "Zhuzi". Zhu Xi was very influential in the Confucian revival of his time. He spent his entire career pursuing an ambition of establishing a new order in China and wrote commentaries to the Four Books of the Confucian tradition and emphasized the Four Books as a basis for Confucian learning and the civil service examinations. Zhu Xi was also active in the theory and practice of education and in the compiling of a practical manual of family ritual. Zhu Xi’s synthesis was accepted as the orthodox interpretation of Confucianism in the later Ming and Qing dynasties, as well as in other East Asian countries.

Another rendering of Zhu Xi

Aya Igarashi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Zhu Xi may be a less familiar name than Confucius. But his great achievements in the codification of Confucian philosophy have caused many to see the two ancient Chinese philosophers as being of equal stature, as shown in the saying, “Confucius in the north, Zhu Xi in the south.” Zhu passed keju, an imperial examination for the state bureaucracy, when he was 19. But he served as a public servant for only nine years, mainly in what are now Fujian, Jiangxi, Zhejiang and Hunan provinces. He dedicated most of the remaining years of his life to contemplation, writing books and educating his disciples. In his later years, however, he became embroiled in the political power struggles of the Southern Song dynasty. As a result, the doctrines of Zhu and his followers were regarded as heretical.[Source: Aya Igarashi, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 12, 2014]

Though Zhu died without recovering his honor, things changed dramatically after his death and his doctrines became canonized within mainstream Confucianism. His doctrines, known as the Cheng-Zhu school, was convenient for rulers because it placed importance on social hierarchy and its justification. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Cheng-Zhu school became a subject on the imperial examination for state bureaucratic posts and was used to maintain the feudal order. The Cheng-Zhu school was imported to Japan, where it is known as “Shushi-gaku.” During the Edo period (1603-1867), Shushi-gaku was utilized as a basic tenet of rule by warlords. Thus the doctrine is now regarded as old-fashioned pomp.

During his lifetime Zhu Xi studied a great variety of fields; in addition to Confucianism, he had also written extensively on philosophy, ethics, history, political science, philology and philological theory. His youngest son, Zhu Zai, compiled his treatises and edited them to become the The Literary Collection of Zhu Xi. The Literary Collection of Zhu Xi comprises of 100 volumes and was compiled during the late of Ningzong Emperor and the early of Lizong Emperor.

Influence of Zhu Xi

After Zhu Xi’s death, his doctrine was transmitted to Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other neighboring countries. In Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate emphasized Shushi-gaku as its official academic doctrine

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Zhu Xi is most famous for having put together the various Neo-Confucian ideas of his time into one systematic philosophical package. His version of Neo-Confucianism came to be accepted as orthodoxy by the Ming and Qing imperial governments and the government of Tokugawa Japan. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Zhu Xi’s synthesis of Confucian thought and Buddhist, Taoist, and other ideas into Neo-Confucianism became the official imperial ideology from late Song times to the late nineteenth century. As incorporated into the examination system, Zhu Xi's philosophy evolved into a rigid official creed, which stressed the one-sided obligations of obedience and compliance of subject to ruler, child to father, wife to husband, and younger brother to elder brother. The effect was to inhibit the societal development of premodern China, resulting both in many generations of political, social, and spiritual stability and in a slowness of cultural and institutional change up to the nineteenth century. Neo-Confucian doctrines also came to play the dominant role in the intellectual life of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. [Source: Library of Congress]

Four Books of Zhu Xi

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ The Four Books, with a Collection of Comments and comprises of one volume of "Chapters from The Great Learning", ten volumes of "Compilations of The Analects of Confucius", seven volumes of "Compilations of Mencius", and one volume of "Chapters from Doctrine of the Mean". [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“The Great Learning and Doctrine of the Mean were originally chapters from The Classics of Rites, and were singled out and separately discussed only from Song Dynasty. The title The Four Books was given by Zhu Xi, who separated the classics from the biographies in The Great Learning, and also renumbered the chapters and supplemented missing sections from Doctrine of the Mean, referring to them as "Chapters". \=/

“The Analects of Confucius and Mencius were compilations of the various masters, and were therefore referred to as "Compilations". The original compilation placed the greatest emphasis on The Great Learning, followed by The Analects of Confucius, and then Mencius and Doctrine of the Mean, indicating the order of learning. The Four Books, with a Collection of Comments reflects Zhu Xi's scholarly style, carefully considering each and every sentence, referring to and combining accounts by other scholars, placing emphasis on elucidation of logic and annotating his own opinions. The main theme of Chapters from The Great Learning is an "inquiring mind", describing the learning process of "finding the righteous path in everything". \=/

“Zhu Xi had devoted his life to Compilations of the Four Books, and not only has a unique position and influence in the Neo-Confucianism, he had also included Mencius as one of the classics. Together with The Analects of Confucius, Erya: a Dictionary, The Book of Filial Piety and the "Nine Classics" from the Tang Dynasty, these now form the official "Thirteen Classics. The Four Books was a milestone in the history of Chinese literary classics.” \=/

Print and Calligraphy of Zhu Xi's Work

National Palace Museum, Taipei description of the calligraphy by Zhu Xi in the “Letter on Government Affairs” (album leaf, ink on paper, 33.3 x 47.8 centimeters): Zhu Xi was excited to hear that Emperor Xiaozong in his later years wanted to recruit Neo-Confucian scholars to reform the government, but unfortunately the emperor passed away not long after reforms had begun, bringing them to an abrupt end. This letter was written with great speed and force, being composed on Zhu Xi's way to the capital after leaving office as Administrator of Tanzhou (modern Changsha, Hunan) in the eighth month of 1194. The contents are directed to a subordinate in dealing with government matters in Tanzhou. The first passage mentions Zhu's sorrow at "national mourning," referring to the death of Xiaozong in the sixth month of that year. But with Emperor Ningzong assuming the throne in the seventh month, Zhu had the opportunity to teach at court, immediately bringing him great joy. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei ]

Zhu Xi's Four Books

On a Ming imprint by Liu Kuanyu in Fujian of “Zizhi Tongjian Gangmu: written by Zhu Xi and compiled and annotated by Huang Zhongzhao (Ming dynasty), the National Palace Museum, Taipei says: “Zizhi Tongjian Gangmu (Outline of the Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government) was written by Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and his disciples of the Southern Song Dynasty. Based on Zizhi Tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government) by Sima Guang (1019-1086), this book includes revised adding and deleting editorial works by Zhu and his students. The “outline of history” style that Zhu invented for this publication is a combination of chronology, biography, and event-based documentation. The NPM has the whole collection of 96 such volumes. All of them are of the stitched binding style, with enhanced upper and lower book spines, blue covers adorned with golden elements, and four-sided blue brocade covers decorated with the turtle-back patterns and florals of the Song style. Since the exterior colors are rather new, probably re-binding and re-decoration was done in the late Qing Dynasty.

Preface to the Great Learning by Chapter and Phrase By Zhu Xi

In his commentary on two classic texts — The Great Learning and The Mean — in regard to education, Zhu Xi wrote: “The Book of the Great Learning comprises the method by which people were taught in the higher learning of antiquity. When Heaven gives birth to the people, it gives each one, without exception, a nature of humaneness, rightness, ritual decorum, and wisdom. They could not however, be equal in their physical endowments, and thus they do not all have the capacity to know what that nature consists in or how to preserve it whole. Once someone appears among them who is most intelligent and wise, and able fully to develop his nature, Heaven is sure to commission him as ruler and teacher of the myriad peoples, so that, being governed and instructed, they may be able to recover their original nature. This is how Fu Xi, the Divine Farmer, the Yellow Emperor, and [the sage kings] Yao and Shun succeeded to [the work of] Heaven, establishing the norm [for all to follow], and how they came to set up the post of Minister of Education and the office of Director of Music.

Zhu Xi's comments on the Four Classics

“In the flourishing days of the Three Dynasties [Xia, Shang, and Zhou] their institutions were steadily perfected until everyone, from the king’s court and feudal capitals down to the smallest lane or alley, had schooling. At the age of eight all children of the king and dukes, on down to the common people, started their elementary learning, in which they were instructed in the [social] disciplines of sprinkling and sweeping, responding to others, and coming forward or withdrawing from [the presence of others] [as recorded in Analects 19:12], and in the polite arts of ritual, music, archery, charioteering, writing, and arithmetic. Then at the age of fifteen starting with the heir apparent and other princes, and down through the legitimate sons of the dukes, chief ministers, grandees, and lower aristocracy to the talented sons of the common people — all started their higher learning, in which they were taught the way of self-cultivation and governance of men through the fathoming of principle and rectifying of the mind. This is also how the distinction was made in the gradations of elementary and higher instruction in schools.

“Thus widely were schools established, and thus precisely defined was the art of instruction in the details of its sequence and itemized content! As to the reasons for providing this instruction they followed naturally from the superabundance of the ruler’s personal attention to the practice of virtue and did not need to go beyond the constant norms that govern the people’s livelihood and everyday needs. This being the case, there was no one without learning in those times, and as to the learning itself, no one would be without an understanding of what was inherent in his individual nature or what was proper to the performance of his individual duties so that each could exert himself to the fullest extent of his energies. This is why, in the great days of high antiquity, good government prevailed on high and beautiful customs below to a degree that later ages have not been able to attain.

Nature As Principle by Zhu Xi

In the following document Zhu Xi, states his opinion on The Principal: “42:6a The Way is identical with the nature of man and things and their nature is identical with the Way. They are one and the same. But we must understand why it is called the nature and why it is called the Way. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 704-705; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Zhu Xi's Letter on Government Affairs

“42:6b After reading some essays by Xun [Huang Xun (1147.1212), a disciple of Zhu Xi] and others on the nature, the Teacher said: In discussing the nature it is important to know first of all what kind of thing it really is. Cheng Yi put it best when he said that “the nature is the same as principle.” Now if we regard it as principle, then surely it has neither physical form nor shadow. It is nothing but this very principle. In human beings, humaneness, rightness, ritual decorum, and wisdom are his nature but what physical shape or form have they? All they have are the principles of humaneness rightness, decorum, and wisdom. As they possess these principles, many deeds are carried out and human beings are able to have the feelings of commiseration, shame, deference and compliance, and of right and wrong. … In human beings, the nature is merely humaneness, rightness, decorum, and wisdom. According to Mencius, these four fundamental virtues are rooted in the mind.and.heart. When, for example, he speaks of the mind of commiseration, he attributes feeling to the mind.

“42:9b.10a Original nature is an all.pervading perfection not contrasted with evil. This is true of what Heaven has endowed in the self. But when it operates in human beings, there is the differentiation of good and evil. When humans act in accord with it, there is goodness. When humans act out of accord with it, there is evil. How can it be said that the good is not the original nature? It is in its operation in human beings that the distinction of good and evil arises, but conduct in accord with the original nature is due to the original nature. If, as they say, there is the original goodness and there is another goodness contrasted with evil, there must be two natures.

“Facts” of the Universe and Mankind by Zhu Xi

In “Facts” of the Universe, Zhu Xi wrote: “Mankind has been generated as the finest product of the cosmos, its ultimate end: The Great Ultimate, through movement, generates the force of Yang. When its activity reaches its limit, it becomes tranquil and thus generates the force of Yin. By the transformation of Yang and its union with Yin, the Five Forces arise: Water, Fire, Wood, Metal, and Earth. It is man alone who receives them in their highest excellence. The five moral principles of his nature are aroused by, and react to, the external world, and engage in activity. Good and bad are distinguished and human affairs take their place. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“The universe is a dualism; it is composed of “material force” (“qi”, close in meaning to “matter”) and “heavenly principle” (the natural and proper contours of the cosmos and human affairs). In the universe there has never been any material force that has not been guided by heavenly principle, nor has principle ever existed other than in material force.... Fundamentally, principle and material force cannot be spoken of as prior or posterior. But if we trace their origin, we are obliged to say that principle is prior. Although material force in the universe integrates and disintegrates, attracts and repels in a hundred ways, nevertheless the principle according to which it operates has unerring order. /+/

Zhu Xi's Thatched Hut Handscroll

Human beings are a mix of heavenly principle (moral social nature) and impure material force (selfish desires). Human nature is nothing but heavenly principle.... Our nature consists of concrete principle, complete with humanity (ren), righteousness, ritual, and wisdom. One’s nature comes from Heaven, whereas one’s personal capacities come from material force. When a person is endowed with clear material force, his capacities will be clear. When a person possesses turbid material force, his capacities are impure. /+/

“The imperative for man is to perfect himself and return to his “heavenly nature.”The clarity of water is comparable to the goodness of human nature. As water may be turbid to a greater or lesser extent, so one’s material force may be pure or impure to varying degrees. We cannot say that turbid water ceases to be water, and just so, although a man may be darkened by material force and degenerate into evil, his nature does not cease to be inherent in him. If one can overcome material force through learning, one can know this harmonious and unified nature.4, This requires complete concentration of mind on the world, to the point of forgetting the “self.”, The essential path is to concentrate on one thing. This means having no desires. Having no desires, one is vacuous while tranquil and straightforward in action. Being vacuous while tranquil, one becomes intelligent and penetrating; being straightforward in action, one becomes impartial, and hence all.embracing. /+/

“The result is ren: the unity of self and other. The man of ren forms one body with all things without any differentiation. Righteousness, ritual, wisdom, and faithfulness are all expressions of ren. As ren is nourished, self and other are identified. Ultimately, the heavenly principle of the mind enters into a single body with the heavenly principle that “flows” through all things in the universe. /+/

“The sage regards everything in the world as his own self. The mind that leaves something outside itself is not capable of uniting with Heaven. In the end, the practice of the Neo-Confucian sage is none other than the realm of human interaction (the roles of the Five Relationships) and the Confucian classics and histories. There is no better way to penetrate principle to the utmost than to pay attention to everything in our reading of books and handling of affairs. Although there may not seem to be substantial progress, nevertheless after a long period of accumulation, without realizing it, one will have become saturated with principle, and achieve harmony and understanding.” /+/

Zhu Xi in Communist China

Aya Igarashi wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “A fundamental shift occurred after the Communist Party of China seized the reins of the government in China. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) launched by Mao Zedong, the Cheng-Zhu school was criticized as a symbol of feudalism, which Mao demanded be brought to an end. Zhu Meizhen, 60, a 27th-generation descendant of Zhu Xi, recalled the hardship she experienced, saying, “At the time, I resented the fact that my family name was Zhu.” [Source: Aya Igarashi, Yomiuri Shimbun August 12, 2014]

In November 2012, Zhu Meizhen noticed a phrase in the speech Xi Jinping made upon his assumption of the post of general secretary of the Communist Party of China. When promoting “The Chinese Dream” as a slogan, Xi quoted a line from Zhu Xi’s writings, “Succeed the work of your ancestors and pave a way to the future.” Compared with the situation during the Cultural Revolution, Zhu Meizhen said, “A good era, in which we can take pride in our traditional culture, has arrived.” “But Zhu Meizhen, who majored in philosophy in university, sees things differently. “Compared with Western philosophers, Zhu Xi was more tolerant and open-minded,” she said.

“In the present-day Wufuzhen area of Wuyishan is China’s one and only primary and middle school named after the philosopher. It is a public school named Wuyishan Shi Zhuzi School. As officials of the school said its students are obliged to recite Zhu Xi’s Family Instructions, I asked a male student heading home, “Can you do it?” His face instantly turned red, and he shook his head and ran away like a scared rabbit. No problem, kid. I think if he keeps studying hard, Zhu Xi will gaze upon him warmly.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei\=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.