Lecture Nineteen

Zhu Xi and Neo-Confucianism

Scope: In this lecture, we will return to the developments taking place in thought and deal with one of the greatest figures in Chinese intellectual history, Zhu Xi (1130-1200). In the 12th century, Zhu Xi brought together many elements from the debates of the 11th century and forged what is sometimes called the Neo-Confucian synthesis.Basically, this was a shift in the way moral values were conceived. Rather than being based on the accumulated historical experience of human society, Zhu Xi’s view of moral values was based in a cosmic order. He emphasized the concepts of li (“pattern” or “principle”) and dao (“the Way”), or the proper order of things. His teaching is known in Chinese as Daoxue, the “Learning of the Way.” Daoxue, especially in the form of Zhu Xi’s commentaries on the Confucian classical texts, became the only officially accepted interpretation of the ideas and concepts at the heart of the examination system.


I. Zhu Xi was arguably the most significant intellectual figure in China since Han Yu.

A. In some ways analogous to the role of Thomas Aquinas in Western intellectual history, Zhu Xi was both an innovator and an advocate of a return to antiquity.

1. Zhu Xi felt that much of the interpretive commentarial tradition that had grown up in Confucianism had obscured the original teachings.

2. His main argument was that one should seek to understand the inherent patterns in nature and derive an understanding of the principles of morality from them.

3. He argued that this was, in fact, what the sages of antiquity had done and that the gentleman should seek to emulate their models, rather than simply read texts.

4. Nonetheless, he advocated a clear program of Confucian study and produced critical commentaries of his own on the classical texts.

B. Zhu Xi’s ideas emphasized the need for self-cultivation by the gentleman.

1. It was the duty of the gentleman to learn from antiquity and to observe the world around him.

2. Zhu Xi used the phrase gewu, which means the “investigation of things,” to describe this process.

3. By developing his own sense of knowledge and morality, the gentleman prepared himself to serve in government or to lead in private life.

II. Among the texts he emphasized, one called The Great Learning was perhaps most important.

A. The Great Learning (Daxue) was an ancient text, originally part of a larger book on ritual.

1. Zhu Xi selected this passage, and another known as the Doctrine of the Mean, from the Liji, or Record of Rites.

2. He made these two texts freestanding works in their own right.

3. Along with the Analects of Confucius and the book of Mencius, they became known as the Four Books and were the central texts of Confucian learning from then on.

B. The Great Learning describes the connections between public life and individual moral cultivation.

1. It begins with the efforts of the ancients to seek a well-ordered world.

2. It moves from the realm of the state, to the family, to the individual, and to the internal consciousness of the individual.

3. The key to everything is gewu, the “investigation of things,” which can yield a perception and understanding of li, the patterns and principles of the universe.

4. Once these are grasped, an individual can rectify his own thought and behavior, can bring order to his family, can govern his own state, and in the end, the whole world will come to be properly ordered.

III. The concepts of li and qі are central to Zhu Xi’s thought.

A. Li is a natural pattern or principle.

B. Qi is the substance that gives physical existence to the patterns of li.

1. Li and qi are, in essence, inseparable.

2. Qi can be “muddy” or “clear.”

3. The clearer it is, the more fully the li, the natural pattern, is made manifest and the more it is in harmony with the Way.

IV. Zhu Xi’s teachings, known as Daoxue, are often called Neo-Confucianism.

A. In accord with Chinese culture, Zhu Xi presented himself as one who returned to the wisdom of antiquity.

1. He based his ideas on the authority of classical texts.

2. He argued that he wanted to revive the Way of the Sages, not create something new.

ВYet his ideas were, in many ways, innovative.

1. His metaphysical interpretation of the source of moral values was a sharp break with the established Confucian discourse.

2. His willingness to edit and revise the inherited classical canon was radical.

3. His emphasis on moral self-cultivation put a new emphasis on the role of the individual and has been seen, in some ways, in harmony with the developing commercial economy of the Song.

4. As with economic development, however, the course of intellectual change was severely disrupted by the trauma and drama of the Mongol conquests, the story of which we will take up in the next lecture.

Essential Reading:

Donald J. Munro, Images of Human Nature.

Supplemental Reading:

Daniel K. Gardner, Chu Hsi and the Ta-hsueh.

Questions to Consider:

1. Zhu Xi’s synthesis of Neo-Confucianism took place in a context of economic, political, and social instability and flux. Why might his metaphysical interpretation of Confucianism have found a particularly receptive audience in such a context?

2. What does Zhu Xi’s reconfiguration of the classical canon suggest about his view of writing, in contrast, perhaps, to that of Han Yu?

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