An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Lü Kun 呂坤

Feb 26, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Lü Kun 呂坤 (1536-1618), courtesy name Lü Shujian 呂叔簡, style Xinwu 新吾 or 心吾, Baodu jushu 抱獨居士 and Liaoxingting jushi 了醒亭居士, was a late Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar. He came from Ningling 寧陵 (modern Ningling, Henan) and was educated in the traditional way of Neo-Confucianism. In 1574 he passed the metropolitan examination and was appointed magistrate (zhixian 知縣) of Xiangyuan 襄垣, Shanxi, later of Datong 大同. He then climbed the career lader to the post of secretary in the Ministry of Personnel (libu zhushi 吏部主事), right administration vice commissioner (you canzheng 右參政) in the circuit of Jinan 濟南道 in the province of Shandong, surveillance commissioner (anchashi 按察使) of Shanxi, administration commissioner (buzhengshi 布政使) of Shaanxi, and finally provincial military commander (tidu 提督) and grand coordinator (xunfu 巡撫) of Shanxi. In 1597 he submitted a memorial to the throne that was later called Youweishu 憂危疏. In this text he warned the Ming court against the rising danger that the Manchus posed in the northeast. When his warning were neglected, he retired from office and returned to his home town, where the official became a private scholar.
Lü Kun saw himself not as a Neo-Confucian (wo bu shi daoxue 我不是道學), nor as a Buddhist, but simply as "himself" (wo zhi shi wo 我只是我), being independent of any of the large philosophical traditions. He nevertheless operated with the conventional Neo-Confucian terms and interpreted them in a similar way. The ten thousand things, he said, are all made of the same matter (yi qi 一氣), only in different densities. The universal Way (dao 道) and the "vessels" (qi 器), in which the Way is embedded, are inseparable, or even one and the same, in other word, the universal order (li 理), and the matter (qi) that constitutes the objects of the world, one and the same thing, and cannot be told apart. Matter or "vessel" give the shape, while the spirit behind them is nothing else than the Way. This kind of identification is a critique towards the Neo-Confucians who always differed between substance and spirit and supposed that the universal order (the spirit) existed earlier than the matter.
In his view of behaviour and practice, Lü Kun said that all activities of the responsible man must be adaptable to a practice that corresponds to the circumstances. It was traditionally believed by the ancient philosophers that knowledge will inevitably result in appropriate behaviour. Yet Lü Kun believed that only successful practice will show what is right. It is exactly this practical experience which corresponds to the Confucian concept of "measuring things" (ge wu 格物). His opposition to Buddhism can be seen in his negation of rebirth. On the other side Lü Kun believed that his own heart might be found elsewhere in later generations. Man was to make himself free of the believe that Heaven might influence him. Man is, he said, certainly able to overcome Heaven (ren ding zhen zu sheng tian 人定真足勝天).
Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) commentaries to the Classics, he said, are to confuse, and Song period 宋 (960-1279) commentaries did not know to separate the wheat from the chaff, with the result that Confucian learning had become incomprehensible. Zhu Xi's 朱熹 (1130-1200) stressing of the rules of propriety, for instance, caused a missing of true feelings during funerals, and the Yijing 周易 "Book of Changes" and the Zhongyong 中庸 "The Doctrine of the Mean" had become thoroughly vain texts without any statements. In Lü Kun's mind it was necessary to overcome the statements of the Six Classics and the "thousand saints", for all the commentaries had removed the Classics from the people's feelings, and incongruent with the facts.
Lü Kun's most important writings are Shenyinyu 呻吟語 and Quweizhai wenji 去偽齋文集. He is also known as a military writer, most prominently with the Jiumingshu 救命書, a book on city defense, a study on which has been written by Kai Filipiak (2012), "Saving Lives: Lü Kun's Manual on City Defense", in: Journal of Chinese Military History 1/2, pp. 139-188.

Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 181.