An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Zhu Xi 朱熹

Apr 13, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200), courtesy name Yuanhui 元晦 or Zhonghui 仲晦, style Hui'an 晦庵, Huiweng 晦翁 or Ziyang 紫陽, called Zhuzi 朱子 "Master Zhu", was the most important Neo-Confucian philosopher of the Song period 宋 (960-1279; later called the Songxue 宋學 "Song-Period School"), and the "school of the universal principle" (lixue 理學) in particular, even if he did not produce thoroughly new concepts of his own.


Zhu Xi's ancestors lived in Wuyuan 婺源 in the prefecture of Huizhou 徽州 (today in Jiangxi), but he was born in Youxi 尤溪 in the prefecture of Nanjian 南劍州 (today's Nanping 南平, Fujian). Because he spent most of his life in the province of Fujian, the philosophical branch he founded is called the "Fujian School" (Minxue 閩學). His posthumous title is Duke Wen 朱文公.

In 1148, Zhu Xi obtained the jinshi degree and was first recorder (zhubu 主簿) of the district of Tong'an 同安 in Quanzhou 泉州, Fujian, and then headed the military prefecture of Nankang 南康軍 (Lushan 廬山, Jiangxi). Other steps in his career were tea-and-salt commissioner (tiju chayan shi 提舉茶鹽事) of Zhedong 浙東, prefect of Zhangzhou 漳州 (Fujian), of Tanzhou 潭州 (today's Changsha 長沙, Hunan), and edict attendant (daizhi 待制) and expositor-in-waiting (shijiang 侍講) of the Huanzhang Hall 煥章閣. He hid not really like public service and served the government for only nine years before he began to teach and lecture in his home province.

In 1175, Zhu Xi met with the philosophers Lü Zuqian 呂祖謙 (1137-1181) and Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1193) in Ehu Monastery (Ehu Si 鵝湖寺) on Mt. Qianshan 鉛山 in Shangrao 上饒 (today in Jiangxi) for a conference (known as the Ehu Conference, Ehu hui 鵝湖會). While Zhu Xi advocated the "study of things" beforehand Lü and Lu were convinced that the human mind was the place where personal studies had to begin. The two schools scorned each other and departed without having found much common ground.

The most important academy where Zhu Xi lectured was the White Deer Cavern Academy (Bailudong Shuyuan 白鹿洞書院) at the foot of Mt. Lushan (Jiujiang 九江, Jiangxi), for which he compiled school regulations (xuegui 學規) that became the model for many similar institutions. He had also reconstructed the Yuelu Academy (Yuelu Shuyuan 岳麓書院) in Tanzhou.

In his later years, Zhu Xi was unwillingly involved into a factional strife at the court, was stripped off his official post, and his teachings were called "illegal" (weixue 偽學). He died as a persona non grata, but shortly after his passing away, the court factions were dissolved, and Zhu Xi's rise as the superstar of Neo-Confucianism began. In 1209, he was posthumously granted the (obsolete) rank of an ordinary grand master (zhong dafu 中大夫) and the title of Duke Wen, and was given the rank of an academician (xueshi 學士) of the Baomo Hall 寶謨閣. In 1227, he was posthumously invested as Duke of Xin 信國公, then as Duke of Hui 徽國公, and granted the rank of Grand Preceptor (taishi 太師). Zhu Xi was seen as of equal standing to the "ten wise disciples of Confucius" (Kong men shi zhe 孔門十哲). In fact, the contents of his teachings and writings gave him the third position in the Confucian pantheon, just after Confucius (Kongzi 孔子, 551-479 BCE) himself and Meng Ke 孟軻 (Mengzi 孟子, 385-304 or 372-289 BCE).

From the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) on, Zhu Xi's interpretation of Neo-Confucianism (Zhuzixue/Shushi gaku 朱子學 "Zhuxi-ism") became the official version of Confucianism and not just deeply influenced traditional Chinese thought, culture and policy, but was also readily accepted by foreign states like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, and produced influential thinkers there like Cho Kwangjo 趙光祖 (1482-1520), Yi Hwang 李滉 (1501-1570), Ryu Sŏngryong 柳成龍 (1542-1607), Chŏng Ku 鄭逑 (Hangang 寒岡, 1543-1620), Fujiwara Seika 藤原惺窩 (1561-1619), Hayashi Razan 林羅山 (1583-1657), Arai Hakuseki 新井白石 (1657-1725) or Chu Văn An 朱文安 (1292–1370).

Zhu Xi is blamed for having unintentionally initiated the hardening of the social fetters of the "three guidelines and five virtues" (sangang guchang 三綱五常), namely the sovereign as guideline for his ministers, the father for his sons, and the husband for his wife, and the virtues of benevolence (ren 仁), propriety (yi 義), rituals (li 禮), wisdom (zhi 智), and trust (xin 信).


The corpus of Zhu Xi's writings is considerable. His interest in the Classic Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes" brought about the books Zhouyi benyi 周易本義, Yi qimengxue 易啟蒙學, Shigua kaowu 蓍卦考誤, Yizhuan 易傳, Guyi yinxun 古易音訓, Sunyi xiangshuo 損益象說, Yi dawen 易答問 and Zhu Wengong yishuo 朱文公易說. The Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" inspired the writings Shu gujing 書古經, Shuzhuan jishuo 書傳緝說, Shushuo 書說, Wengong shushuo 文公書說 and Shujing wenda 書經問答. Texts on rituals are Yili jingzhuan tongjie 儀禮經傳通解, Yili jingzhuan tujie 儀禮經傳圖解, Zhuzi jingtian pu 朱子井田譜, Liji bian 禮記辯, or Zhuzi lizuan 朱子禮纂. Studies of the Xiaojing 孝經 "Book of Filial Piety" are Xiaojing kanwu 孝經刊誤 and Xiaojing cunyi 孝經存異. Zhu Xi's interpretation of the Four Books (sishu 四書) include Sishu jizhu 四書集注, Sishu huowen 四書或問, Lun-Meng jingyi 論孟精義, Zhongyong jilüe 中庸輯略, Daxue jizhuan 大學集傳, Daxue xiangshuo 大學詳說, Daxue qimeng 大學啟蒙, Lunyi yaoyi 論語要義, Lunyu xunmeng kouyi 論語訓蒙口義, Lunyu xiangshuo 論語詳說, Mengzi jijie 孟子集解, Mengzi wenbian 孟子問辨 and Sishu yinxun 四書音訓.

The most influential book of Zhu Xi were his collected commentaries on the Four Books, Sishu jizhu or Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書章句集注. It became the textbook for the preparation of the state examinations until 1900. This collection of commentaries is the essence of his lifelong studies of the Four Books, and is a thorough study not just of the words of these ancient texts, but also an interpretation of society and the world in the Neo-Confucian sense. The way of Zhu Xi's studying of the Confucian texts and the world around him was a reflection of a tenet mentioned in the book Daxue 大學, namely to "complete knowledge by the investigation of things" (ge wu zhi zhi 格致致知).

Zhu Xi wrote commentaries on early Neo-Confucian writings like Taiji tishuo jie 太極圖說解, Tongshu jie 通書解, and Ximing jie 西銘解. Quite influential are furthermore the "classified sayings" Zhuzi yulei 朱子語類, and his family rites Zhuzi jiali 朱子家禮. His outstanding historiographical work is the book Tongjian gangmu 通鑒綱目. Zhu Xi's collected writings are called Zhu Wengong wenji 朱文公文集, Zhuzi quanshu 朱子全書 or Hui'anji 晦庵集.


Philosophy was always part of Zhu Xi's life. His father Zhu Song 朱松 (1097-1143) was a disciple of Luo Congyan 羅從彥 (1072-1135), who had himself been instructed by Yang Shi 楊時 (1053-1135) of the Luo School (Luoxue 洛學) founded by the brothers Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107). Other teachers of Zhu Song were Hu Xian 胡憲 (1086-1162), Liu Mianzhi 劉勉之 (1091-1149), and Liu Zihui 劉子翬 (1101-1147). Zhu Xi himself absorbed every writing, was trained in poetry, and even interested in Buddhism and Daoism, yet with the age of 24 sui, his teacher Li Tong 李侗 (1093-1163) inspired in him the interest in the interpretation of the world by the Neo-Confucian Luo School. Zhu Xi's wide range of interests are reflected in his teachings and writings that cover the study of traditional writings as well as historiography, literature, astronomy, geography, phonology and music. He saw himself as a successor of the Cheng brothers and adapted much of the thoughts of the early Neo-Confucians Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017-1073), Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077), and Shao Yong 邵雍 (1012-1077).

Following earlier Neo-Confucian visions, Zhu Xi's metaphysical concept assumes that all things on earth were constituted by two factors, namely matter or substance (qi 氣), and the universal principle (li 理), i.e. a physical, and a non-physical factor. It was not possible to separate the two from each other, even if the universal principle had existed right from the beginning of the cosmos, before matter came into being, and was rather a "patron" to matter rather than on equal terms with it. The universal principle was nothing else than the Daoist "utmost extreme" or infinity (taiji 太極) which – as one single unity (yi 一) - enclosed all things in the cosmos. Accordingly, all matter did inherently include perfect portions of the universal principle which endowed all things with form and character, with the potential of usefulness and goodness.

Even if Daoism and Buddhism used similar expressions as the Neo-Confucians, the difference between the Daoist and Buddhist dao 道 (i.e. li) and that of Zhu Xi is that the former interpreted the Dao as "void" (kong 空, xu 虛, Sanskr. śūnya), while the latter perceived the universal principle as "filled" or "substantial" (shi 實) with factors of characteristics and potentials. Zhu Xi's "principle" also differed from the ancient concepts of the Dao as a binding element between Heaven and Earth, Yin and Yang 陰陽, former and later, and inner and outer dimensions. These concepts do not play a substantial role in Neo-Confucian thought, even if Zhu Xi used this traditional concept to explain the emergence of the "ten thousand being" (wanwu 萬物) out of the five agents or elements (wuqi 五氣), which were products of Yin and Yang. Yet Zhu Xi saw the "two potentials" (liang yi 兩儀) of Yin and Yang not as absolute conditions, but as uncertain moments of rest and motion that constantly switched to the other state (bian 變 being a transgression/acceleration from Yin to Yang, and hua 化 a transformation/deceleration from Yang to Yin). Even then, the status of rest (jing 靜) prevailed over movement (dong 動) in the natural principle, and was to be aspired for by self-cultivation.

As to human nature, the Neo-Confucians all tried to reconcile the elements "human heart" or "human mind" (xin 心) with "human character" (xing 性), the latter directly being influenced by the universal principle. In his interpretation of the book Zhongyong 中庸 "Doctrine of the Mean", Zhu Xi in his early years believed that character alone allowed "no stirrings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, or joy" (wei fa 未發), while these feelings (qing 情) could only be aroused by the human heart (yi fa 已發). The human character alone was corresponding to the universal principle, and therefore provided all potentials equally, in a state of equilibrium (zhong 中). Unlike in the Western concept of temperaments, xing is fundamentally neutral, and not characterized by basic individual differences. The human heart or mind was able to connect this universal human character with the realm of feelings. The universal human character was the "body" (ti 體) of the human heart or mind, and feelings were the practical expression (yong 用) of it.

Zhu Xi later discerned between "Heavenly-endowed character" (tianming zhi xing 天命之性, daoxin 道心 "universal [and pure] mind") and "matter-determined character" (qizhi zhi xing 氣質之性, renxin 人心 "human [and tainted] mind"), holding that man was born with a pure (good) character given by Heaven according to the (neutral and well-balanced) natural principle, but matter and substance - as well as the environment - might contaminate this pure natural character and lead to improper conduct or "human desires" (renyu 人欲).

He also discerned between "human character" (renxing 人性), which was influenced by the natural principle, and "object character" (wuxing 物性) that was bound to matter and environment and just imperfectly able to yield the innate goodness of the natural principle. Zhu Xi warned to equalize the human mind (renxin) and human desires (renyu), and compared the human mind with a boat, and the universal mind (daoxin) with the rudder by which the boat had to be steered. In practice, Confucian virtues like kindness, propriety, rites, and knowledge, or the "three guidelines and five virtues", would help to guide back the human mind to its origins, the natural principle. Human desires were partially natural phenomena of the physical body, like hunger and thirst, but also selfish and destructive actions running contrary to the social rules that were part of the natural principles. In order to "fully eliminate human desires" (ge jin renyu 革盡人欲) and completely re-establish the natural principles (fu jin tianli 復盡天理) in the human mind, education or the "tempering of the physical matter" (bianhua qizhi 變化氣質) was the right instrument.

Yet in Zhu Xi's eyes, education could not work correctly in the way contemporary schools used to prepare for the state examinations. This was an educational mode of selfishness "forgetting the roots and pursuing the extremes", and just aiming at profit by the access to salaried offices. A man with a "pure Confucian mind" (chunru 醇儒) would train himself and then wait for the emperor to call him. On the other hand, Zhu Xi was not very fond of practical matters in education like technical expertise in agriculture, as advocated by the philosophers Chen Liang 陳亮 (1143 1194) and Ye Shi 葉適 (1150-1223).

The educational concept of Zhu Xi discerned between "lesser learning" (xiaoxue 小學) before the age of 15 sui, and "greater learning" (daxue 大學) from that age on. The lesser learning focused on the basic concepts of the social construct of Confucianism. It operated with examples and paradigms of ancient writings, so-called "model words" (geyan 格言), adhortations (xunjie 訓誡), and exemplary stories (gushi 故事). Zhu Xi himself compiled several books for this purpose, like Xiaoxue jizhu 小學集注 or Tongmeng xuzhi 童蒙須知. With the help of them, young boy mainly learnt – apart from reading and writing - discipline, decorum, diligence, and obedience, with one word, "what things had to be" (suo dang ran 所當然).

The realm of the greater learning focused on "affairs" (shi 事) as practical expressions of the natural principle, or the question "why things were as they were" (suo yi ran 所以然). This could be found out by intensive study and interpretation of the ancient Classics, where all information on the patterns behind the natural principle could be found out. The idea behind was the Neo-Confucian concept that the natural principle was perfectly found in all different things and persons (li yi fen shu 理一分殊), even if all individuals were bound to the natural principle by a different aspect, like benevolence in case of a ruler, or obedience in case of a commoner.

The Confucian scholar would have to follow a certain sequence of learning (explained in the Zhongyong text) in order to "study principles thoroughly", namely extensive study (bo xue 博學), accurate inquiry about it (shen wen 審問), careful reflection on it (shen si 慎思), the clear discrimination (ming bian 明辨) of it, and the earnest practice (du xing 篤行) of it. Cheng Duanli 程端禮 (1271-1345) later compiled a kind of curriculum on the mode of Neo-Confucian learning, called Dushu fennian richeng 讀書分年日程.

Zhu Xi's epistemology followed the principle that detailed investigation of things would lead to complete knowledge. For this reason, the "approach to things" (ji wu 即物) was fundamental to "study their principles thoroughly" (qiong li 窮理) and to the utmost (zhi ji 至極). Zhu Xi saw that the book Daxue did not provide an explanation of its principle of detailed investigation, and felt that the brothers Cheng had only imperfectly described it. He held that detailed knowledge of the inherent principles was the precondition for action (zhi xian xing hou 知先行後 "knowledge first, action second"), even if action and practice were the ultimate goal of studies (xing zhong zhi qing 行重知輕 "practice is important, knowledge less important"), particularly in the field of propriety, moral, and virtue, and in reconciling the (good) universal principle with the (tainted) human mind. Knowledge and action required each other (zhi xing hu fa 知行互發).

The method of reconciliation of li and xin was self-cultivation, expressed by self-restraint or the ability to control oneself (hanyang 涵養) and the internal focus on reverence (zhu jing 主敬) towards others, ceremonies, actions, and oneself. In all his actions, man had to attempt to create an equilibrium among all potential feelings to prevent any "stirrings" of them, in other words, to establish a mode of even temper or abstraction from emotions. In this way, man would be able to "preserve the Heavenly principle" (cun tianli 存天理) and ward off inappropriate human desires (qu renyu 去人欲, e renyu 遏人欲).

In his interpretation of history, Zhu Xi was of the opinion that the rulers of the three dynasties of old (sandai 三代, i.e. Xia 夏, Shang 商, and Zhou 周) mastered the "skill of the mind" (xinshu 心術) and were able to follow the universal principle in the "way of kings" (wangdao 王道), while the rulers of imperial times drifted away to selfishness and followed the "way of hegemons" (badao 霸道), having lost the connection to the universal principle (daotong 道統), and "pretending kindness and benevolence to feed their selfish desires" (jia ren yi yi ji si yu 假仁義以濟私欲).

The universal principle was visible in the arts, mainly music, according to Confucius’ proposition that the ideal type of music was "perfectly good and perfectly beautiful" (jin shan jin mei 盡善盡美). If man was able to detect this goodness and beauty in himself, this was "trust" (xin 信), and if it was possible to radiate its effects, music was "grand" (da 大). If able to transform people or bring them back to the universal principle, music was "sacred" (sheng 聖), and if having a mysterious character, it was "divine" (shen 神) indeed. Where Meng Ke had believed that the music of his time was that same as in ancient times, Zhu Xi believed in a difference in "intensity" (dan 淡) and harmony (he 和). A state in which the rites had fallen into oblivion and the people were neglected could only produce tasteless and unharmonious music.

Zhu Xi's novel interpretation in the realm of arts referred to literature, of which Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824) and Su Shi 蘇軾 (1037-1101) had once said that "literature was a direct way to the Dao" (wen yi guan dao 文以貫道) and that "literature was in any case joint to the Dao" (wen bi yu dao ju 文必與道俱). The Neo-Confucian master was not of this opinion, and criticized that the two great writers had put literature in the first place and the natural principle Dao only in the second. The Dao, he said, was the basis of literature, and the latter only a product of it. Writings could only be called "literature" if they were an expression of the Dao, even if they had been written by acknowledged masters as Han Yu and Su Shi.

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