Zhu Xi was a prominent Neo-Confucian scholar of China's Song Dynasty. His interpretations of Confucian doctrine, including the concepts of lǐ, qì, and rén, and his determinations as to which of the Confucian Classics should be studied, became, from the 14th century or so onwards, the orthodox form of "traditional" Confucian learning studied, practiced, and employed in Confucian exams throughout East Asia.
Zhu is credited with spurring an explosion of private academies in the 12th-13th centuries, and is known for his emphasis on the importance of the inclusion of practical learning, as well as humanistic values and morality, in formal study. The Song Imperial Court had established hundreds of state-sponsored schools throughout the country, designed to train young men for the Chinese imperial examinations, through which candidates could earn positions in the imperial bureaucracy. Zhu Xi felt that these schools focused too heavily on rote memorization, stifled creative thinking, and lacked sufficient moral purpose and humanistic learning in their curricula. His arguments inspired the establishment of roughly 140 private academies in the 12th and 13th centuries, dedicated to a slightly more flexible mode of teaching the Confucian classics, in which philosophical discussion, creative thinking, and moral purpose occupied a larger space in the curriculum. Many families who agreed with Zhu Xi's ideals, or who believed these methods would lead to greater intellectual & career success, enrolled their children in these academies; many others enrolled their children in private academies chiefly because their children might find greater success in the examinations purely based on the prestige of the names of their teachers.
He was rather prolific in his writings, with his "complete works," known as Zhuwengong wenji, amounting to some 121 volumes. Another collection, entitled Zhuzi yulei and amounting to 140 volumes, collects lectures given by Zhu Xi, and conversations with his students.
Zhu Xi, drawing upon the ideas of the brothers Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi (1033-1107), postulated a universe comprised of qi 氣 - the material/energy essence that composes all things - and li 理 - the fundamental guiding principle by which all things are what they are. He identified li as a "pattern" within the broader, more general path that is The Way (the Tao), and exhorted his students to understand the fundamental concepts of qi and li, rather than simply studying how to behave; Zhu is quoted as saying, "Compare this to a person walking along a road ... If he does not see [the road], how can he walk on it?"
Aside from his more philosophical or conceptual teachings, politically, Zhu Xi was a powerful advocate for the inclusion of practical knowledge in the education and testing of Confucian scholars. In addition, he suggested a curriculum based not on the broader set of Confucian classics studied previously, but rather on the Analects of Confucius (Lúnyǔ), the writings of Mencius (Mèngzǐ), and two chapters he excerpted from the Book of Rites (Lǐjì): the Great Learning (Dàxué), and The Mean (Zhōngyōng). Together, these came to be known as "the Four Books."
Zhu Xi completed his commentaries on the Analects, entitled Lunyu jizhu, in ten volumes, and on the Mencius, Mengzi jizhu, in 14 volumes, by 1177. Zhu then completed his commentaries on the Great Learning, Daxue zhangju, and on the Doctrine of the Mean, Zhongyong zhangju, each in only one volume, by 1189. Zhu continued to revise and refine these commentaries until his death, however. Together, these commentaries are known as the Sishu jizhu (Commentaries on the Four Books). Along with the four canonical texts, Zhu's own commentaries came to form the standard canon to be studied, and tested on the exams.
Zhu Xi's attitudes and approaches were rather non-orthodox in his time, and were banned in 1196; however, not long after his death, the Song authorized his teachings, and by 1241 he was permitted to be deified at a Confucius shrine. Sometime shortly afterwards, the civil examination system was altered to embrace his approaches, ideals, and selection of texts, as the new orthodox method for studying, and applying, the Confucian classics.
Zhu Xi posited that in the beginning of the universe, there was only li and qi, swirling around in a completely amorphous form. As it came to swirl faster and faster, qi began to settle out in a material sort of form, the form of the five elements. The qi coalesced into Heaven and Earth, in accordance with the underlying principle, the guiding pattern, li, with a motionless Earth at the center of the universe, and the still-moving, still-swirling Heaven around it. The Earth was formed chiefly from the element of water, as evidenced by the wave-like forms of mountain ranges, while the element of fire formed the stars, lightning, and wind.
In his conception, li contains within it humanity, propriety, wisdom, and righteousness, while qi consists of the five elements: wood, fire, water, earth, and metal. All things are composed of qi, organized into a given form by the immaterial li contained within all qi. Humans are, of course, composed of a balance of all five elements, and of both yin and yang.
The universe, in this view, is thus indestructible. Heaven and Earth may be thrown into chaos, all physical material things breaking down and returning to swirling qi material-force, but li and qi themselves will continue to exist, along with the universe they comprise.
- Bonnie Smith et al. Crossroads and Cultures. Bedford/St. Martins (2012), 431.
- Patricia Ebrey, Chinese Civilization, Second Edition, New York: The Free Press (1993), 172-177.
- "The Synthesis of Sung Neo-Confucianism in Chu Hsi", in William Theodore de Bary et al, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, Columbia University Press (1960), 534-557.
- Watanabe Hiroshi, A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901, International House of Japan (2012), 105.
- Ebrey (trans.) in Ebrey, 173.
- Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 357.
- Takatsu Takashi, “Ming Jianyang Prints and the Spread of the Teachings of Zhu Xi to Japan and the Ryukyu Kingdom in the Seventeenth Century,” in Angela Schottenhammer (ed.), The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Harrassowitz Verlag (2008), 254.