Birth of Zhu Xi Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Zhu Xi created a comprehensive system of Confucian ideas, referred to as neo-Confucianism, which has dominated Confucian thought, and to some degree Chinese and East Asian thought, to the present day.

Summary of Event

Zhu Xi was born in what is now Fujian Province after his father retired from a government position there. His early education in Confucianism came from his father, but he later studied with the tutor Li Tong (Li T’ung). Li came out of an intellectual tradition that can be traced back to the Cheng brothers, Cheng Yi Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao Cheng Hao . The work of these two brothers, particularly Cheng Yi, helped shape Zhu Xi’s philosophical views. According to some accounts, Zhu Xi showed his genius at an early age. When he was eighteen, he passed the jinshi examination, which made him eligible to serve in government posts. [kw]Birth of Zhu Xi (1130) [kw]Zhu Xi, Birth of (1130) Zhu Xi China;1130: Birth of Zhu Xi[1850] Cultural and intellectual history;1130: Birth of Zhu Xi[1850] Philosophy;1130: Birth of Zhu Xi[1850] Zhu Xi Cheng Hao Cheng Yi Zhou Dunyi Wang Yangming

For the most part, Zhu Xi refused to accept government posts although he did serve as keeper of records in the city of Tongan from 1151 to 1157. Zhu preferred to study and write even though this meant that he led a life of poverty. In 1175, he wrote his most notable work, Jin si lü (Reflections on Things at Hand Reflections on Things at Hand (Zhu Xi) , 1967), with Lu Zuqian Lu Zuqian (Lu Tsu-ch’ien; 1137-1181). In this work, Zhu Xi gave direction to neo-Confucianism Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] by pulling ideas from Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.), Mencius (c. 372-c. 289 b.c.e.), and others and making them into a coherent and comprehensive system. In the course of his life, Zhu Xi rebuilt the White Deer Hollow Academy White Deer Hollow Academy , helped found or reconstruct many other schools, taught more than four hundred students, and wrote, compiled, and edited more than eighty works. Education;China China;education

Before Zhu Xi, Confucian study had been centered on the Five Classics: Yijing (eighth to third century b.c.e.; English translation, 1876; also known as Book of Changes, 1986), Shijing (compiled fifth century b.c.e.; The Book of Songs, 1937), Shujing (compiled after first century b.c.e.; English translation in The Chinese Classics, Vol. 5, Parts 1 and 2, 1872; commonly know as Classic of History), Liji (compiled fifth century b.c.e.; The Liki, 1885; commonly known as Classic of Rituals), and Chunqiu (fifth century b.c.e.; The Ch’un Ts’ew with the Tso Chuen, 1872; commonly known as Spring and Autumn Annals). In 1190, Zhu Xi compiled the Four Books—Confucius’s Lunyu (late sixth-early fifth centuries b.c.e.; The Analects Analects, The (Confucius) , 1861), Mencius’s Mengzi (first transcribed in the early third century b.c.e.; English translation in The Confucian Classics, 1861; commonly known as Mencius Mencius (Mencius) ), the Da Xue (fifth-first century b.c.e.; The Great Learning Great Learning, The , 1861), and the Zhong yong (written c. 500 b.c.e.; The Doctrine of the Mean Doctrine of the Mean, The , 1861)—into a course of study that became the new foundation for Confucian learning. In Zhu Xi’s system, The Great Learning provided the pattern of thought, The Analects provided the foundation, Mencius provided the elaboration of ideas, and The Doctrine of the Mean provided subtlety and profundity. In 1313, the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) declared Zhu Xi’s interpretation of Confucianism and his commentaries on the Four Books the orthodox interpretation for the purposes of the civil service exams. They remained the standard until the exams were abolished in 1905.

Zhu Xi also described what became the accepted direct line of transmission of true Confucian ideas from Confucius through Mencius, to Zhou Dunyi Zhou Dunyi , Cheng Yi, Cheng Hao, and himself. His concept of the evolution of Confucian ideas clarified acceptable views and gave weight to Confucianism as a clear line of developed thought. One result of this line of transmission was that the teachings of important scholars such as Xunzi (Hsün-tzu; c. 307-c. 235 b.c.e.) were no longer part of the mainstream of Confucian thought.

Although many scholars see Zhu Xi as merely synthesizing the ideas of others, he actually added ideas to and clarified certain concepts in Confucianism. Drawing on the work of Cheng Yi and Cheng Hao, Zhu Xi refined what became the central concepts of “principle” (li) and “material force” (chi). All things, Zhu Xi explained, have principle. In fact, all things have the same basic principle. This principle existed even before Heaven and Earth. However, principle exists only together with material force because principle needs material force to which to “cling.” Material force, concomitantly, needs principle to shape it. The two are inseparable: There is never principle without material force and never material force without principle. One aim of neo-Confucians is to grasp principle (li) in themselves by first grasping it outside of themselves through “the investigation of things.”

The concepts of principle, material force, and the investigation of things became important when they were applied to self-improvement. Since the earliest ideas of Confucius, the goal of Confucians has been to perfect their virtue in order to serve society. Virtue, in Zhu Xi’s view, is equated with principle, which is obscured when material force becomes cloudy because of human desires. By grasping principle within themselves, Confucians can use principle to clarify their material force and allow their virtue to shine forth. Philosophy;China

Zhu Xi then linked principle and material force to the idea of the Great Ultimate, the beginning of all things, which was a concept developed by Zhou Dunyi. According to Zhou Dunyi, the Great Ultimate created yin and yang, the two basic forces of the universe. Yin and yang then created the five elements of earth, water, fire, metal, and wood. The interaction of yin and yang and the five elements created all things in the universe. For Zhu Xi, principle became associated with the Great Ultimate. This association gave the Confucians an answer to the origins of Heaven and Earth and supported the concept that principle runs through everything in the universe.

Zhu Xi also clarified the concept of jen, which was central to Confucians. Confucius was vague about this term, defining it only as “humanity.” Mencius elaborated by including the idea of jen as the natural empathy human beings have for one another. Zhu Xi added the idea of love but also equated jen with the mind of Heaven and Earth through which Heaven and Earth created things. Thus, jen changed from just a description of virtue to an active force in the universe.


Zhu Xi’s metaphysical interpretations helped Confucianism contend with Buddhism during his life and after. Buddhism Buddhism;Confucianism and had gained followers in the years of disunion between the Tang and the Song Dynasties (907-960). With the formulation of his ideas, Zhu Xi provided a view of the universe and its relationship to human virtue that could compete successfully with the ideas of Buddhism. He also provided a means for Confucians to focus on self-improvement outside of government and society, a fundamental idea in Buddhism that had appealed to the Chinese.

Zhu Xi’s work served as the foundation for later thinkers and became the basis for debate within Confucianism. When the noted neo-Confucian Wang Yangming Wang Yangming challenged Zhu Xi’s ideas, he did so in terms proposed by Zhu Xi. Wang argued that Zhu Xi had separated principle and material force, thus separating thought and action. For Wang, thought was connected to principle, while action was connected to material force. To act according to principle, there could be no separation between thought and action just as there could be no separation between principle and material force. Moreover, Wang felt principle should be grasped within the mind rather than in the investigation of things. The debate revolved around what terms such as “principle” and “material force” meant, not whether these fundamental concepts laid out by Zhu Xi were correct or not. The active debate over the theories of Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming spread throughout China and into Korea and Japan. Ultimately, Zhu Xi’s ideas were ultimately adopted as part of the ruling ideology by the Yi Dynasty in Korea (1392-1910) and the Tokugawa rulers in Japan (1600-1868).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Wing-tsit. Chu Hsi: Life and Thought. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. A compilation of articles by a major scholar of Zhu Xi and neo-Confucianism. Chan discusses Zhu Xi’s ideas and his legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. An invaluable source in Chinese philosophy. Chan provides an introductory essay, translations of sections of major works, and commentary.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chu Hsi. Further Reflections on Things at Hand. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991. Allen Wittenburn translated selections from several of Zhu Xi’s works, and arranged them by topic. His commentary is complex but good on outlining the wide range of Zhu Xi’s ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chu Hsi and Lu Tsu-ch’ien. Reflections on Things at Hand: The Neo-Confucian Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967. Wing-tsit Chan’s translation of a fundamental work that gave direction to neo-Confucianism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeBary, William T., Wing-tsit Chan, and Burton Watson, eds. Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. This work has short translations from major philosophical works with a general introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Liu Shu-hsien. Understanding Confucian Philosophy Classical and Sung-Ming. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. A discussion of the development of Confucian thought from the viewpoint of a contemporary neo-Confucian. The section on Zhu Xi is very good on the development of Zhu Xi’s ideas and the philosophical problems he faced and provides critical commentary on the views of current scholars studying Zhu Xi.

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