Composition of Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Great Learning provided a capsule statement of the connections among philosophical inquiry, good character, and government/social order and was established as the first of the Confucian Four Books.

Summary of Event

Political turmoil forms the backdrop to the composition of Da Xue (The Great Learning, 1861). In the late sixth and early fifth centuries b.c.e., the kingdoms that would become China had been warring with one another for three hundred years. This warfare would only increase in intensity and brutality during the ensuing Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.). The Zhou Dynasty (Chou; c. 1066-256 b.c.e.), headed by the Tian Zi (T’ien Tzu, or the son of heaven), performed a ceremonial and symbolic function but was increasingly unable to provide peace and harmony. The Great Learning’s great editor and commentator, Zhu Xi, attributes the failure of the Zhou to the absence of good and wise sovereigns. Confucius Zengzi Zhu Xi

Confucius and his followers attempted to rectify this troubled situation, largely through affirming traditional political morality against the amoral Legalism of the aggressive kingdom of Qin (Ch’in). Their philosophical statement intended to instruct active rulers—The Great Learning—is appropriately brief. The main text may be easily accommodated on a single printed page. This original portion is now divided into seven sections, each only a sentence or two long, but the pivotal central sections, four and five, are each rendered as one very long sentence. The Great Learning is framed by a preface and a postscript by Zhu Xi, who also contributed two notes and two comments. The classic portion is followed by a commentary traditionally attributed to Confucius’s devoted follower Zengzi. This commentary consists of ten very short chapters, with 9 and 10 being the longest by far—a page or two. In all, The Great Learning, with the commentary and Zhu Xi’s remarks included, runs about ten standard book pages.

Given its brevity, the authority of this text must be considered; first, however, a small but significant point: Traditionally, Da Xue (Ta-hsueh) has been translated as The Great Learning. Recently, however, the tendency has been to speak of The Greater Learning, because in Zhu Xi’s preface, the “greater” learning is contrasted with the “lesser.” He argues that gradually in the course of the three dynasties—Xia (Hsia; c. 2100-1600 b.c.e.), Shang (1600-1066 b.c.e.), and Zhou—widely attended schools of lesser learning were established. These schools instructed in good manners and in the six arts of ritual, music, archery, charioteering, calligraphy, and mathematics. Following this instruction, the sons of aristocrats and the most gifted young (male) commoners advanced to the school of greater learning, which was a school of philosophy, especially moral and political philosophy. The comprehensive educational pattern is very similar to that proposed in the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s Politeia (388-368 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) but with the striking differences that it was realized practically much earlier and on a much larger scale.

According to the Confucian tradition as represented by Zhu Xi, the authority behind The Great Learning is a vast expanse of time. The much-disputed issue of authorship must be seen within this temporal framework. Zhu Xi’s premise is that fundamental understanding is characteristic of the very best human beings. In the course of two or three millennia, the number of such persons will be very small. It is these connected persons, the Confucian line of “transmission of the Way, Dao tong (Tao-t’ung),” who are the joint “authors” of The Great Learning.

More specifically, the line of transmission begins (according to Zhu Xi) long before Confucius, with “sovereign-instructors” who discovered and practiced the Way. The implication is vitally important: The Way is found through practical action, especially governing, and is transmitted not primarily in words but through correct, effective behavior that manifests sound character. In a word, those who govern, learn; and those who learn, govern. This suggests that writing down the Way is of relatively little value or, in historical context, is an indication of a much-deteriorated educational and political situation.

This is Zhu Xi’s interpretation of Confucius’s situation. The integration of understanding and governing had all but ended. Through a heroic combination of study, thought, and experience—that is, through “learning” broadly understood—Confucius recovered this Way, but he did not hold practical governing power. He was able only to suggest the philosophical and educational foundations of political order. Zhu Xi intimates that Confucius did not write The Great Learning but instead transmitted it to his followers orally and exemplified his words with actions.

The historical point at which The Great Learning was written, and by whom, remains in dispute. This is a lesser problem, given the Confucian “transmission” orientation; however, the question deserves attention. Examination of the wording of Zengzi’s commentary in relation to the main text suggests that one of Zhu Xi’s speculations on textual creation may be correct: that Confucius repeated certain inherited words and phrases in a certain order and that his listeners remembered, recalled, repeated, and recorded this “text” with general accuracy but some variations. This process may have continued, from master to disciple, until a written text stabilized.

Ironically, once this great text was created it was, in a sense, lost. The Great Learning was included in the Liji (compiled first century b.c.e.; The Liki, 1885; commonly known as Classic of Rituals), buried as the thirty-ninth “book” of a mixed assortment. The Classic of Rituals is traditionally attributed to Dai Sheng (Tai Sheng; fl. 51 b.c.e.). The Great Learning was then all but ignored for one thousand years, until Neo-Confucians sought to recover the “true” Way, in opposition to Daoism (Taoism) and Buddhism. Zhu Xi gives principal credit to the Cheng (Ch’eng) brothers, Cheng Hao (Ch’eng Hao; 1032-1088 c.e.) and Cheng Yi (Ch’eng I; 1033-1107 c.e.), for continuing the Way (Dao tong). However, it was Sima Guang (Ssu-ma Kuang; 1019-1086 c.e.) who separated The Great Learning, together with the Zhong yong (Chung-yung; written c. 500 b.c.e.; The Doctrine of the Mean, 1861), from the Classic of Rituals, and thus began the process that resulted in their establishment as the first and the fourth, respectively, of the Confucian Four Books.


The influence of The Great Learning, as the first book, may best be compared with that of the first four chapters of the biblical book of Genesis or with the first three or four chapters of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s Ethica Nicomachea (335-323 b.c.e.; Nicomachean Ethics, 1797) and Politica (335-323 b.c.e.; Politics, 1598). Each of these brief texts establishes the fundamentals of a distinctive way of human existence, respectively the Confucian, the Judeo-Christian, and the Western classical. If anything, the influence of The Great Learning is greater, in that it was more authoritative for more people. In 1313, the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) established the Four Books—identified by Zhu Xi as Sishu (Ssu-shu, or the four masters)—as the basis of the empire’s civil service examinations. They shaped the minds of those who ruled China until 1912, date of the final overthrow of the Qing Dynasty (Ch’ing; 1644-1912)—just as Confucius and his followers believed that The Great Learning expressed the Way of those who created China three to four millennia ago. Small wonder that today, even after The Great Learning has lost official status, scholars continue to discuss the authenticity and meaning of every word.

This connection between past and present is a part of the (Confucian) Way. More of the Way lies in the sustained effort to understand fully the line zhi zhi zai ge wu (chih chih tsai ko wu), which lies at the center of the main text. This stretching of people’s understanding by endeavoring to grasp the principle or essence of things remains an interpretive, philosophical, and practical challenge to every reader of The Great Learning. More than this, however, the effort to understand connects humanity, people’s activities, their social institutions, and their aspirations to permanent reality and thus intimates a Way that transcends time itself.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Wing-tsit, ed. Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986. An outstanding collection of papers from the International Conference on Zhu Xi. The papers by A. C. Graham (chapter 10) and Kao Ming (chapter 19) are especially relevant for The Great Learning. Chapter notes and glossaries, appendices, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finer, S. E. Ancient Monarchies and Empires. Vol. 1 in The History of Government. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. The paperback edition of Finer’s masterwork discusses the historical and political philosophical context of The Great Learning in book 2, chapters 5 and 6. Chronologies, tables, footnotes, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardner, Daniel K. Chu Hsi and the Ta-hsueh: Neo-Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. An important commentary on and edition of the text that Gardner identifies as The Greater Learning. He traces the history of the text through its establishment as canonical. Includes Gardner’s study, English translation with extensive notes, the Chinese text, bibliography, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, David L., and Roger T. Ames. Thinking Through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. The first work in the Hall and Ames series interpreting Confucian thought in relation to Western philosophy. Especially relevant to The Great Learning is the discussion of learning (xue), reflecting (si), and realizing (zhi). Wade-Giles/Pinyin conversion table, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moore, Charles A., ed. The Chinese Mind: Essentials of Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1968. A widely used paperback treatment of the Chinese tradition. Regarded as fundamental to Confucian philosophy, The Great Learning is discussed throughout. Chapter notes, appendix, and index.
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