Zhu Xi (1130-1200)
& the Development of Neo-Confucianism
Portrait of Zhu Xi (Wengong Xiansheng)
Neo-Confucianism Icon
Emperor presiding over the Imperial Examination
Medieval Confucianism
Even though the medieval period was marked by the ascendancy of Buddhism and Daoism, Confucianism continued to play a vital role in Chinese life — especially during the Tang period ... following the reunification of China and the establishment of a strong centralized state. The imperial state actively promoted classical scholarship and drew extensively on the ideological resources provided by the Confucian tradition, which legitimized its reign and helped consolidate the intricate structures of dynastic rule. The knowledge and skills of scholars trained in the Confucian canon proved to be indispensable to the Tang rulers in their organization of the government and the running of its institutions. Confucian teachings also provided key tools for the sanctioning of state power and royal prerogatives. Because of that, the imperial administration was a generous sponsor of canonical scholarship, most of which took place at official institutes and agencies in the capital. ...
Confucius with Laozi on the left and Bodhidharma on the right
On the whole, during the Tang era Confucianism was seen as being complementary to Buddhism and Daoism. The basic formula used to describe the harmonious relationship among the three teachings was “Confucianism for the external (world),” [and] “Buddhism and Daoism for the inner (world),” although of course this was a general schematization and there were exceptions to it. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 189-91)
Maps showing the changing boundaries of the Northern and Southern Song dynasties
The ancient sages Yao, Shun and Yu
The Transmission of the Way
According to Zhu Xi
[With the decline of the Zhou dynasty], the sage Confucius appeared, but being unable to attain the position of ruler-teacher by which to carry out government and education, he could do no more than recite the ways of the sage kings and pass them along, in order to make them known to later generations. ... [Among his disciples] it was only Zengzi who got the essential message and wrote this commentary [i.e. Daxue 大學 (The Great Learning)] to expound its meaning. Then, with the death of Mencius [whose master, Zisi, was Confucius grandson and Zengzis pupil], the transmission vanished. ...
Yet Heaven’s cycle goes on turning, and nothing goes forth without returning [for a new start]. The virtuous power of the Song Dynasty rose up, and both government and education shone with great luster, whereupon the two Cheng masters of He’nan appeared and connected up with the tradition from Mencius [that had been long broken off]. ...
Cheng Yi
Cheng Hao
Although I am not very clever, it was my good fortune through indirect association [with a teacher among the followers of the Cheng brothers] to hear about this. (Introduction to the Great Learning, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 723-4; cf. Introduction to the Doctrine of the Mean, Sources of Chinese Tradition, 732-4)
The Four Books

From “Top Down” to “Bottom Up”
Until this time Confucianism had focused on the Way of the sage kings or Way of the noble person as social and political leader. ... Given the difficulties — military, political, and economic — in which Southern Song [1127-1279] Neo-Confucians found themselves after the … loss of the North to non-Chinese conquerors, they … looked more to what individuals could do through self-discipline, personal initiative, and voluntary association on the local level. This depended in turn on restraint and unselfish serving of the common good. Thus the sagely ideal was meant to inspire heroic self-sacrifice on the part of all, but especially of the educated leadership class of scholar-officials and, above all, of the ruler. ... A philosophy concerned very much with this world, at the center of which is always the human, Neo-Confucianism reasserted in an even more far-reaching manner what Confucius and his followers had always taught — that the human sense of order and value does not leave one alienated from the universe but is precisely what unites one to it. The world of human ethics, of social relations, of history and political endeavor is a real one, an unfolding growth process, and not just a passing dream or nightmare from which men must be awakened to the truth of Emptiness or Nothingness. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 668-9)
Statue of Zhu Xi at the White Deer Grotto Academy
The White Deer Grotto Academy
As prefect of Nangan, Jiangxi, Zhu Xi led an effort to revive the White Deer Grotto Academy, located at the foot of Mount Lu by the great bend of the Yangtze River, a scenic spot famous as the site of Buddhist temples and Daoist sanctuaries. It is significant that Zhu took a strong interest in both public schools and the “private” (i.e., quasi-independent) academies that were centers of scholarship and ritual for the educated elite in local settings.
       The articles translated [on pages 743-4] are a set of stated precepts, posted for all to see as the basis for the conduct of instruction in the academy when it was reopened in 1180. As was typical of Zhu’s work, the articles or precepts consist mostly of quotations from the classics or other early writings (unattributed by him, since he assumed that his readers would recognize the source from memory). Zhu Xi’s contribution was in pulling them together in a definite order and sequence. Particularly to be noted is the balance that Zhu strikes between personal cultivation and social relations, as well as that between moral and intellectual development. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 742-3)
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Zhu Xi's "Family Rituals"
Zhu Xi’s “Family Rituals”
Although the main focus of Zhu Xi’s work was the theory and practice of self-cultivation, the defining and shaping of the self always took place in a social context, and the study of rites remained a major concern of his, as it had been earlier for the Confucius of the Analects, in which humaneness and rites were twin themes. Throughout his lifetime, Zhu sustained a strong interest in the classical rites, the critical, historical study of which he recognized as of great importance, as well as in the question, already of concern to predecessors such as the Cheng brothers and Sima Guang, of how these might be adapted to his own times. This reflects Zhu’s strong conviction that scholarly study of the ancient rites was not enough; one must somehow put them into practice.
       As a practical matter for the local elite, Zhu gave family ritual priority over the royal and state rituals that occupied so much of the Zhou texts. Yet Zhu’s preface reveals his keen awareness of how much the circumstances of the Song scholar-official class (shi) have changed from those of the ancient Zhou aristocracy; indeed he himself was much too poor to carry on the classic rites. Accordingly, he sought to make them simpler, less costly, and more practical for the average family. Thus he focused on the more common ones: capping (coming of age), weddings, funerals, and ancestral rites. ... Subsequently, Zhu’s prescriptions became models for the cultural and social elite, adopted widely in premodern East Asia. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 744-5)
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Community Compact
The Lü Family Community Compact
Although Zhu Xi was remarkable for both his originality and his powers of high-level synthesis, he characteristically expressed himself by editing or commenting on some earlier work — not only the classics but often the work of recent predecessors, as if to build on the prior insights and experience of others who either represented a kind of local, indigenous tradition or have tried to deal with the same problems as he in circumstances not too different from his own. ... Such is no doubt the case with the Lü Family Communit Compact, originally composed by Lü Dajun (1031-1082), in the Northern Song, which represented an attempt by members of the cultural and social elite to lead in the organization of local associations that would embody in contemporary (eleventh century) form some of the communitarian values that Confucians identified with the ancient enfeoffment system. ... Many variations of this basic pattern were attempted later in imperial China and Korea, but while local structures differed, the key elements were those classified under the four headings indicated at the beginning of the compact’s text: (1) mutual encouragement of virtue and meritorious deeds; (2) mutual correction of faults; (3) mutual association in rites and customs; and (4) mutual sympathy [aid] in calamities and difficulties. ... Although the excerpts included here may not fairly represent it, the compact as a whole expresses Zhu’s conviction that education through joint participation in proper rites and community functions is far more effective for achieving social harmony and promoting the general welfare than attempts at forced indoctrination or punitive laws. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 751-2)
Every month there shall be a meeting where a meal is served. Once every three months there shall be a gathering where wine and a meal are served. The person in charge each month shall be responsible for covering these expenses. At these meetings, good and bad deeds shall be entered in a register and rewards and penalties administered. Any troublesome matter should be dealt with on the basis of general discussion (gongyi). (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 754)
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The Dharma Body of the Body (i.e. the totality of space-time) Confucius
Yin-Yang, Five Phases, EightTrigrams and Sixty-Four Hexagrams
The Neo-Confucian Response to Daoism & Buddhism
When applied to the tradition’s early historical development, Neo-Confucianism is a general designation that encompasses the thought and writings of a number of thinkers. ... The leaders of the Neo-Confucian movement during its formative period — five of whom retroactively came to be celebrated as the five great masters of the Northern Song era — were creative and reform minded scholars that engaged in far-reaching rethinking of the ancient Confucian heritage. On the whole, there was a palpable purist or fundamentalist streak in their basic intellectual orientations and religious attitudes, in the sense of an overarching concern with getting back to the inimitable truths and timeless insights of the Confucian tradition, which they believed to have been lost for many centuries.
       The refashioning of Confucian norms and ideas at the hand of the Song era reformers was accompanied with overt critiques of the doctrines and practices of Buddhism and Daoism. ... While openly criticizing Buddhism and Daoism the Neo-Confucian reformers were influenced by the ideas of the two competing religions, which most of them studied during their formative years. Much of their thinking and speculation about the nature of mind and reality, along with the manner in which they framed key philosophical issues, were shaped by their encounters with Buddhist — and to a smaller degree Daoist — teachings. In that sense, the rise of the Neo-Confucian movement must be placed in the context of its leaders’ responses to the perceived dominance of Buddhism and their engagements with its teachings and practices.
       Nonetheless, while the influences of Buddhism (and Daoism) are readily observable in the teachings propounded by the major exponents of Neo-Confucianism, it is important to note that they ultimately went back to the Confucian classics as their main sources of inspiration and guidance. They produced a comprehensive system of thought that explained the whole of reality, in all of its multifacetedness and complexity. ... Most notably, they reoriented Confucian learning towards metaphysical speculation about the structure of the cosmos and the nature of reality. At the same time, they made concentrated efforts to focus attention on the processes of spiritual cultivation that culminated in the perfection of sagehood. They thus covered the two key areas — metaphysical reflection and spiritual cultivation — that previously were dominated by the Buddhists and the Daoists. ... [In] the long run the Neo-Confucian reformers were successful in bringing about a gradual shift in intellectual interest away from Buddhism and towards Confucianism, with profound significance for the subsequent history of China. They influenced the protracted decline of Buddhism, as Buddhist leaders largely failed to provide compelling responses to the Neo-Confucian challenge. (
Introducing Chinese Religions, 193-4)
Taijitu (Diagram of the Great Ultimate)
Taiji (yin-yang symbol)Non-Polar (wuji) and yet Supreme Polarity (taiji)! The Supreme Polarity in activity generates yang; yet at the limit of activity it is still. In stillness it generates yin; yet at the limit of stillness it is also active. Activity and stillness alternate; each is the basis of the other. In distinguishing yin and yang, the Two Modes are thereby established.
Compare with the Daodejing
The nameless is the beginning of Heaven and Earth;
The named is the mother of all things.
(Daodejing, Chapter 1 [translated by Brian Hoffert])
The alternation and combination of yang and yin generate water, fire, wood, metal and earth. With these Five [Phases of] qi harmoniously arranged, the Four Seasons proceed through them. The Five Phases are simply yin and yang; yin and yang are simply the Supreme Polarity; the Supreme Polarity is fundamentally Non-Polar. [Yet] in the generation of the Five Phases, each one has its nature.Five Phases
64 Yijing hexagrams with 8 trigrams, 5 Phases, and yin-yangThe reality of the Non-Polar and the essence of the Two [Modes] and Five [Phases] mysteriously combine and coalesce. “The Way of qian [i.e. Heaven] becomes the male; the Way of kun [i.e. Earth] becomes the female”; the two qi stimulate each other, transforming and generating the myriad things. The myriad things generate and regenerate, alternating and transforming without end.
Only humans receive the finest and most spiritually efficacious [qi]. Once formed, they are born; when spirit (shen) is manifested, they have intelligence; when their fivefold natures are stimulated into activity, good and evil are distinguished and the myriad affairs ensue. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 673-5)"Human nature is good" (Mencius)
Daoist meditator
If those in inferior positions do not have the confidence of their superiors, they will not be able to govern the people. There is a way to have the confidence of the superiors: If one is not trusted by his friends, he will not have the confidence of his superiors. There is a way to be trusted by one’s friends: If one is not obedient to his parents, he will not be trusted by his friends. There is a way to obey one’s parents: If one examines himself and finds himself to be insincere, he will not be obedient to his parents. There is a way to be sincere with oneself: If one does not understand what is good, he will not be sincere with himself.
Chinese character for "sincerity" (cheng)
Sincerity is the Way of Heaven. To think how to be sincere is the way of man. He who is sincere is one who hits upon what is right without effort and apprehends without thinking. He is naturally and easily in harmony with the Way. Such a man is a sage. He who tries to be sincere is one who chooses the good and holds fast to it.
Neo-Confucianism Icon
Zhang Zai's "Western Inscription"
Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother, and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst.
       Therefore that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature.
       All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companions.
       The great ruler [the emperor] is the eldest son of my parents [Heaven and Earth], and the great ministers are his stewards. Respect the aged — this is the way to treat them as elders should be treated. Show affection toward the orphaned and the weak — this is the way to treat them as the young should be treated. The sage identifies his virtue with that of Heaven and Earth, and the worthy is the best [among the children of Heaven and Earth]. Even those who are tired and infirm, crippled or sick, those who have no brothers or children, wives or husbands, are all my brothers who are in distress and have no one to turn to.
       When the time comes, to keep himself from harm — this is the care of a son. To rejoice in Heaven and have no anxiety — this is filiality at its purest.
       One who disobeys [the principle of Heaven] violates virtue. One who destroys humanity (ren) is a robber. One who promotes evil lacks [moral] capacity. But one who puts his moral nature into practice and brings his physical existence to complete fulfillment can match [Heaven and Earth].
       One who knows the principles of transformation will skillfully carry forward the undertakings [of Heaven and Earth], and one who penetrates spirit to the highest degree will skillfully carry out their will. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 683-4)
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Chinese character for "principle" (li)
Dynamic relationship between "principle" and "phenomena"
Chinese character for "Phenomena" (shi)
The Influence of Buddhism
From “Principle and Phenomena” to “Principle and Material Force”
In formulating [the Neo-Confucian response], Song Confucians faced fundamental challenges on the philosophical level. ... One was the need for a more coherent and systematic cosmology on which to ground its central conception of human nature as moral, rational, and (following Mencius) fundamentally good. Another need, in defense of the Confucian belief in constant human values, was to meet the challenge of the Buddhist doctrines of impermanence, “Emptiness,” and moral relativism. Implicit in these latter doctrines was a profound questioning of the existence of the “self” or “self-nature,” which tended to undermine the Confucians’ prime concern with the moral person and practical self-cultivation.
Chinese character for "principle" (li)
Diagram showing relationship between principle and material force with a blueprint and the completed house
Chinese character for "material force" (qi)
In response to these challenges the Neo-Confucians came up with a new doctrine of human nature as integrated with a cosmic infrastructure of principle (li) and material-force (qi), along with a reaffirmation of the morally responsible and socially responsive self. This culminated in a lofty spirituality of the sage, preserving a stability and serenity of mind even while acting on a social conscience in a troubled world.
Daoist with the eight trigrams of the YijingAll things under Heaven can be understood by their principle. As there are things, there must be specific principles of their being. ... Due to the interaction of the two material forces [yin and yang] and the Five Phases, things vary as weak and strong in thousands of ways. ... What the sage follows, however, is the one principle. People must return to their original nature [which is one with principle]. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 690)
The mind of each human being is one with the mind of Heaven and Earth. The principle of each thing is one with the principle of all things. … There is only one principle in the world. You may extend it over the four seas and it is everywhere true. It is the unchangeable principle that “can be laid before heaven and Earth” and is “tested by the experience of the three kings.” Therefore to be serious (reverent, jing) is to be serious with this principle. To be humane is to be humane according to this principle. And to be truthful is to be truthful to this principle. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 690)
Chinese character for "principle" (li)
animated image of dna
Chinese character for "material force" (qi)
The nature comes from Heaven, whereas capacity comes from material-force. When material-force is clear, capacity is clear. On the other hand, when material-force is turbid, capacity is turbid. ... Human nature is universally good. In cases where there is evil it is because of one’s capacity. The nature is the same as principle, and principle is the same whether in the sage emperors Yao and Shun or in the common man in the street. Material-force, which may be either clear or turbid, is the source of capacity. Men endowed with clear material-force are wise, while those endowed with turbid material-force are stupid.
       Further Question: Can stupidity be changed?
       Answer: Yes. ... Since all have the same basic nature, who cannot be changed? Because they ruin and cast themselves away and are not willing to learn, people are unable to change. In principle, if they are willing to learn, they could change. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 691)
Animated Blueprint
The Interdependence of
Li and Qi
Despite the interdependence of principle and psychophysical stuff (i.e. material-force), Zhu insists that there is some sense in which principle is “prior,” for one can imagine the “pattern” of the universe apart from its manifestation, whereas one can never imagine the manifest universe without the pattern through which it is manifest:
Question:  Which exists first, principle or material-force?
Answer:  Principle has never been separated from material-force. However, principle is above the realm of corporeality, whereas material-force is within the realm of corporeality. Hence when spoken of as being above or within the realm of corporeality, is there not a difference of priority and posteriority? Principle has no corporeal form, but material-force is coarse and contains impurities.
       Fundamentally, principle and material-force cannot be spoken of as prior or posterior. But if we must trace their origin, we are obliged to say that principle is prior. However, principle is not a separate entity. It exists right in material-force. Without material-force, principle would have nothing to adhere to. Material-force consists of the Five Phases of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth, while principle includes humaneness, rightness, ritual decorum, and wisdom. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 699-700)
Animated heart-mind as water drop
Although principle is identical in each and every “thing,” the diversity of the universe is explained by the suggestion that the material-force through which principle is manifest comes in many different forms, from the most dense (the earth) to the most rarefied (heaven). In the following passage, Zhu Xi explains the difference between humans and beasts; the point is that only humans begin with sufficiently clear material-force (manifest as human nature within the heart/mind) to realize the “moral” dimension of universal principle:

Heart-Mind as a clockNature is similar to water. If it flows through a clear channel, it remains clear; if it flows through a filthy channel, it becomes turbid. [Nature] that acquires clear and balanced psychophysical stuff will remain whole — this is what happens to man. [Nature] that acquires turbid and unbalanced psychophysical stuff will become obscured. This is what happens to beasts. Psychophysical stuff is both clear and turbid. Men acquire the clear stuff, beasts acquire the turbid stuff. Men, for the most part, are fundamentally clear and thus different from beasts. But there are also those who are turbid and so not very different from beasts. (Chu Hsi: Learning to be a Sage, 98)
Man building a wall
After exerting himself for a long time, he will one day experience a breakthrough to integral comprehension. Then the qualities of all things, whether internal or external, refined or coarse, will all be apprehended and the mind, in its whole substance and great functioning, will all be clearly manifested. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 729)
Wikipedia ball with puzzle piece missing