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Zhu Xi

Category: Mystic

 

Zhu Xi or Chu Hsi or Zhu-Zi (Chinese: 朱熹, October 18, 1130 – April 23, 1200) was a Song dynasty Confucian mystic philosopher. 

He was also a poet and an artist specialising in calligraphy of some beauty. His poetry is not well known and although searching for some time, we could find no book in English of his poems, which is somewhat tragic, as they were penned in rather special circumstances

Zhu Xi as Poet – Zhiyi Yang [Goethe University Frankfurt]

In the eleventh month of 1167, Zhang Shi, a prominent teacher in Hunan, invited a visiting scholar and his disciple on a wintry excursion to the snow mantled South Paramount Heng.  Inspired by the merciless blizzards, the three of them composed 149 poems in 11 days.  The principal guest alone composed 51 poems.  After a solemn farewell, the guest headed east towards his Fujian hometown.  His spirit still burning, he produced another 96 poems in the 28 days of the journey.  This diligent poet was Zhu Xi, who a century later would be enshrined in Confucian temples across China

In order to remain spiritually aware, he used a form of daily meditation called jingzuo which we might equate to contemplation and detachment – thus a melding of daily ‘meditation’ at some point, with ongoing adherence to the core activities of:

 
Reducing and controlling emotions
Reducing desires
Reducing opportunities
Reducing threats
Squash the big I am
Suppressing memory
Suppressing obligations
Suppression of learning


His emphasis on the need for unbiased and clear observation (gewu), justice, and the synthesis of all fundamental Confucian concepts, formed the basis of Chinese bureaucracy and government for over 700 years. He has been called the second most influential thinker in Chinese history, after Confucius himself.

From 1313 to 1905, Zhu Xi's commentaries on the Four Books - the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean  - formed the basis of civil service examinations in China. For all these classics he wrote extensive commentaries that were not widely acknowledged in his time; however, they later became accepted as the standard commentaries. The Four Books served as the basis of civil service examinations up until 1905, and education in the classics often began with Zhu Xi's commentaries as the cornerstone for understanding them.

His philosophy survived the Intellectual Revolution of 1917 and became influential in Japan where it was known as Shushigaku (朱子学, School of Master Zhu), and in Korea where it was known as Jujahak (주자학), and became an orthodoxy.

Beliefs

the Mencius

Zhu Xi’s core teaching was based upon the key Taoist concepts of Qi – meaning Energy and then its various forms as Spirit.  Spirit could then be ‘coagulated’ spirit – Form, or active spirit - Function.  Form and function were inextricably united as one – in effect function animates form.  If we use the analogy of software and hardware, there is the software of the universe and the hardware of the universe, except that the analogy falls down a bit because hardware is also formed of software! 

According to Zhu Xi's epistemology, ‘memory/knowledge/data’ and function/activity – work together [like software in that software programs need data to work].

Knowledge and action always require each other. It is like a person who cannot walk without legs although he has eyes, and who cannot see without eyes although he has legs. With respect to order, knowledge comes first, and with respect to importance, action is more important.

Zhu Xi taught that there is order in the universe – system – and this he variously called the rational principle (or law).

The collective systems of the universe he termed Li.  The source and sum of Li is the Taiji (Wade-Giles: T‘ai Chi), meaning the Supreme Ultimate. No one appears to understand this term but it means the Ultimate Intelligence.  The Ultimate Intelligence is both the source of all the systems of the universe and is the systems of the universe – see the definition for more explanation.  The Supreme Ultimate was a rational principle, and Zhu Xi described it as an intelligent and ordering will behind the universe – a creator, destroyer and evolver as well as the created.

 

According to Zhu Xi's theory, every physical object and every person has its Li [systems] and therefore has contact in its metaphysical core with the Taiji. In effect, by virtue of the fact that we consist of ‘atoms’ which contain the systems of the universe, some of which are on and some off [see definition in link], everything effectively is the universe in its composition and we contain the Ultimate Intelligence within us, the important difference being however, that some of the functions in the atom are not active in us.

The human soul, mind, and Higher spirit all of which Zhu Xi recognised as existing [with the definition on this site], were simply a subset of the Taiji – the Ultimate Intelligence – albeit a very tiny subset!

Qi [Energy] and Li [system]  operate together in mutual dependence. Energy [Qi] as it recycles from abyss to abyss, flows through everything and ‘drives’ those things – the objects.  Energy [Qi] is expelled by function activation ad functions activate by energy received.  In effect there has to be constant change and action for anything to exist at all. 

Note that this is exactly the same mystic view held by all the greatest of the mystics, often poorly understood, but nevertheless totally consistent across the world.  All mystics sing to a common hymn sheet.

 

Yin and Yang are thus symbolic representations of this energy recycling.

Again, like all the great mystics, Zhu Xi stated categorically that the ‘software’ analogously – the Li, existed before the hardware.  In effect the systems of the universe were devised first and then forms – the 'million objects' – were last to be created using templates of form.

Ultimately much of what is in Zhu Xi’s philosophy can also be found in many of the old Chinese and Taoist texts, including such marvellous classics as the I Ching.  This harmony of thought is not understood today and much of his teaching appears to be misunderstood and poorly explained.

Back to the analogy.  In order to create a computer system – the software of the universe and subsequently evolve it, - one needs a plan.  In mystic thought this is the Great Work called the Tao or Dao in Taoism.  Li – the systems of the universe - was a different concept to the Tao, the plan for evolving the systems of the universe, although both are effectively made of spirit – Qi – or as Plato might have put it 'pure thought'.

Philosophy

 

Zhu Xi considered the earlier Confucian Xun Zi to be a ‘heretic’ for departing from Mencius' idea of innate human goodness. But the philosophical ideas here are quite complex. 

The Tao – the Great Work – as a plan is, by its nature bound to be ‘right’, but individual people may perceive the effects on them to be ‘bad’, thus ‘good’ and ‘bad’ tend to be human terms related to our perception of how an event affects us, whereas the absolute ‘good’ is not in question.

Thus even if people display immoral behaviour, this does not call into question the idea that the supreme regulative principle was 'right', as morality is a human concept.  But immorality – hate and hurt – did have an effect in that they prevented us from obtaining any form of spiritual experience.  Thus there was value in trying to prevent hurt and hate – which of course then leads to the concepts of morality and equality important the concept of Justice – the latter being as important, as the former.

The task of moral cultivation is to clear our qi. If our qi is clear and balanced, then we will act in a perfectly moral way

and we will get spiritual input and act in concert with the Tao.  Acting out of sync with the Great Work, - the Tao, - inevitably led to misery.

The role of the sage and ‘learning how to learn’

 

Zhu Xi promoted the idea that the spiritual life is an active not a passive one.  Although one might devote part of the day to thinking passively and quietly, one was part of the Great Work and thus had a Destiny.  We were not here to somehow further our own progress, progress was made based on what we did and contributed.

He believed his was the path of the sage [or symbolic hermit] and he thus had a duty to teach and explain.  One interesting feature of his time was that he complained that the introduction of more modern printing techniques had simply resulted in a proliferation of poor quality books.  This had a number of unfortunate repercussions.

In the first place it resulted in the muddying of ideas by people who simply understood very little.  Secondly, it had the effect of making his students think that books were the source of the best ideas, when they should have been going ‘beyond themselves’ – revelation and not perspiration.   

 

He counteracted this by teaching his students how to appraise books and, more crucially, challenge their ideas.  It is a method we could do with today given the plethora of books that are appearing on the market.  Disappointed by local schools in China, he even established his own academy, White Deer Grotto Academy, to instruct students properly and in the proper fashion.

The third crucial idea was that education was about teaching people how to learn.  How to observe correctly, how to analyse, how to synthesise, how to verify, for details see. 

He called this gewu, the correct investigation of things. How to investigate and learn.

His ideas are still a source of much debate even today and of course run against much of the way today’s conventional education works with its rote learning, emphasis on memory and not reasoning power and its method of assessment via exams, which have little to do with the way we are judged in real life, nor with our value to society.  Computers can spew out what they have input, but it doesn’t mean they are intelligent.

Life

 

Zhu Xi, whose family originated in Wuyuan County, Huizhou (in modern Jiangxi province), was born in Fujian, where his father worked as the subprefectural sheriff. After his father was forced from office due to his opposition to the government appeasement policy towards the Jurchen in 1140, Zhu Xi received instruction from his father at home.

Upon his father's death in 1143, he studied with his father's friends Hu Xian, Liu Zihui, and Liu Mianzhi. In 1148, at the age of 19, Zhu Xi passed the Imperial Examination and became a presented scholar. Zhu Xi's first official dispatch position was as Subprefectural Registrar of Tong'an (同安縣主簿), which he served from 1153 - 1156. From 1153 he began to study under Li Tong, who followed the Neo-Confucian tradition of Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, and formally became his student in 1160.

Serving in a number of government posts he helped with the floods in 1167 and in 1171 started a granary to help with famine relief.  A drought in 1180 resulted in widespread distress and Zhu Xi opened the granaries to the poor, with imperial support, in 35 locations.  Over 125,000 adults and 90,000 children received help.

Zhu Xi married and had three sons and five daughters.  His wife died in 1176.  It was only after the death of his wife, that he started the commentaries on the four books.  The Collected commentaries on the Four books was published in 1190.  His eldest son died in 1191.

 In 1179, after not serving in an official capacity since 1156, Zhu Xi was appointed Prefect of Nankang Military District (南康軍), where he revived White Deer Grotto Academy (白鹿洞書院).

After visiting a number of prefectures, as part of the famine relief programme, he reported back on the locust plagues, and the drought, but also on the corrupt local officials.  This news was not welcomed and he was actually criticised for attacking the incompetency and corruption of influential officials.

This pattern of attempting to root out injustice and corruption, but being persecuted for it, repeated itself  on numerous occasions.  There were several instances of his receiving an appointment and subsequently being demoted or worse. On one occasion, he was accused of numerous crimes and a petition was made for his execution.

In 1196, the official censor impeached Zhu for ten crimes classified as 'false learning'.  He was dismissed from his job.  The attacks continued for the next three years and one disciple was exiled.  In 1199, despite the persecution, he completed his Commentaries on The Song of the South.  Zhu Xi died in 1200 in the presence of his disciples and family.  Even though his teachings had been severely attacked by establishment figures, over a thousand [with estimates even reaching 3000] brave people attended his funeral.  By 1313, his Collected Commentaries on the Four books were being used in Civil service examinations.

 

As so often happens with people of principle, who stand up for the rights of others and justice, his achievements were not recognised until after his death and, if one is being cynical, they have ceased to be able to have any more effect. 

In 1208, eight years after his death, Emperor Ningzong of Song ‘rehabilitated’ Zhu Xi and honoured him with the posthumous name of Wen Gong (文公), meaning “Venerable gentleman of culture”.

Around 1228, Emperor Lizong of Song honoured him with the posthumous noble title Duke of (State) Hui (徽國公).

In 1241, a memorial tablet to Zhu Xi was placed in the Confucian Temple at Qufu, thereby elevating him to Confucian sainthood.

Today, Zhu Xi is venerated as one of the "Twelve Philosophers" (十二哲) of Confucianism. Modern Sinologists and Chinese often refer to him as Zhu Wen Kung (朱文公) in lieu of his name.

References

Zhu Xi Calligraohy gallery

 

Observations

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