Chu Hsi (1130-1200) was one of the greatest Chinese scholars and philosophers. The system of Neo-Confucianism of which Chu Hsi is regarded as the spokesman represents a summary of doctrines of his predecessors as well as original ideas of his own.
Sung-dynasty (960-1279) China, in which Chu Hsi lived, combined a high point in cultural development with a singular weakness in political administration and military power. The popularization of printing stimulated the establishment of numerous libraries and academies and the compilation of several encyclopedic works. There was also a phenomenal economic growth, as evidenced by largescale overseas commerce and the introduction of paper money. Politically and militarily, however, the Sung period had a bad start and grew steadily worse during its 3-century tenure. Sung never achieved a unified rule over the Chinese Empire, and it had to coexist, successively, with the Liao (the Khitans), the Chin (the Jürched), and the Yüan (the Mongols), who were in control of an ever-expanding territory in North China.
In 1123 the Chin replaced the Liao, and in 1127 they ransacked the Sung capital at Kaifeng, carrying away Emperor Ch'in Tsung; his father and predecessor, the artist-emperor Hui Tsung; and about 3,000 courtiers. The remnants of the Sung court rallied around Emperor Kao Tsung and established the national capital in Hangchow—hence the designation Southern Sung (1127-1279). National policy polarized the court officials into two camps: those who upheld national pride and advocated military recovery of the North, and those who counseled prudence and espoused a peace settlement with the Chin. Eventually Ch'in Kuei, leader of the "peace" group, won out, and a peace treaty was concluded with the Chin in 1142.
While serving as a court official, Chu Sung, father of Chu Hsi, had voiced his opposition to the peace policies of Ch'in Kuei. Chu Sung was promptly relieved of his post at the capital and, as a punishment, appointed magistrate of Yu-hsi Prefecture in mountainous central Fukien. There Chu Hsi was born in October 1130, although the family came from Anhui in the Yangtze River valley. Chu Sung retired from his government post in 1134 and devoted himself to the instruction of his precocious heir. When his father died, the 13-year-old boy continued his studies with three noted scholars whom his father had recommended. At the early age of 17 Chu Hsi passed the rigorous final civil service examination and was awarded the highest degree, a remarkable feat of scholarly achievement.
Three years later Chu Hsi was appointed to his first official post, as recorder in the T'ung An Prefecture. During his tenure, from 1151 to 1157, he introduced reforms in taxation and police, expanded the community library, raised the standard of the schools, and promulgated a code of proper and decorous conduct. This initial appointment turned out to be also the longest continuous period of public life on the part of Chu Hsi, as he spent only a total of about 3 more years in public service much later in life and amid intermittent dismissals and recalls. He was offered imperial appointments more than 20 times, but divergence in public policy, as well as recurrent attacks of beriberi, compelled Chu Hsi to decline most of them in favor of a succession of sinecures, such as the superintendency of one temple or another.
Chu Hsi spent the long stretches of semi-self-imposed leisure in vigorous pursuit of scholarship and development of his system of philosophy. First, he sought out Li T'ung, one of the ablest followers of the 11th-century Neo-Confucians. Under Li T'ung's influence Chu Hsi renounced his affiliation with Buddhism and Taoism and turned his allegiance completely to Confucianism. Chu Hsi was a diligent scholar and prolific writer. During the period of 15 years from 1163 to 1178 he completed a formidable list of 18 scholarly works.
As Government Official
Chu Hsi did not accept another appointment to office until 1179. By this time his literary accomplishments had firmly established him as a leading scholar and interpreter of the Northern Sung philosophers. The court desired Chu Hsi's participation for its prestige value but had no use for his criticisms and moralistic preachments. Chu Hsi, on the other hand, had to go through the struggle between the Confucian teaching that a good man should undertake leadership in government and the possible compromise of his principles by serving superiors of whose policies, and even of whose character, he disapproved. Eventually, Chu Hsi was appointed to serve, not in the central government at the national capital, but as prefect of Nan-k'ang, in modern Kiangsi Province. After much hesitation, Chu Hsi accepted the appointment and assumed his duties.
In Nan-k'ang, Chu Hsi reduced taxes and restored the White Grotto Academy, which flourished under his direction and attracted many students. Among the scholars invited to lecture at the academy was Lu Chiu-yuan, with whom Chu Hsi had held a vehement philosophical debate a few years earlier. When famine struck, Chu Hsi instituted several important relief measures, including repairs of the dikes along the Yangtze River, while working energetically for the welfare of the people. He thus gained a considerable reputation as a capable and compassionate administrator.
After a 2-year term at Nan-k'ang, Chu Hsi was appointed as tea and salt commissioner of Chekiang Province, an area suffering from famine. He indicted a number of remiss and corrupt officials. One of the officials indicted happened to be related by marriage to a powerful minister at court, and mounting obstructions to his office and attacks on Chu Hsi himself began to occur. The weak Emperor vacillated between Chu Hsi and his enemies, and several imperial appointments to Chu Hsi were not implemented. When Emperor Kuang Tsung ascended the throne in 1189, Chu Hsi was conferred high honors and persuaded to accept the post of prefect of Chang-chou (modern Amoy) which he held for less than a year. He next served, in 1194, as prefect of T'an-chou (modern Changsha), where he restored the famous Yü-li Academy. But within a month he resigned in protest of a gross misconduct at court. Chu Hsi was highly recommended to the attention of the new emperor Ning Tsung, who had replaced Kuang Tsung, and summoned to the capital to serve as court academician and lecturer. Within a matter of weeks, however, he was "granted leave" and permanently relieved of government posts.
As His Majesty's Loyal Opposition
Chu Hsi's avoidance of public office was by no means an indication of a lack of interest in public affairs. As a matter of fact, he expressed himself only too freely and forcefully in a number of memorials presented to and at audiences with the succession of emperors during his lifetime. Chu Hsi assumed the role of guardian of Confucian principles and His Majesty's mentor and loyal opposition. The sealed memorial which he presented to Emperor Hsiao Tsung in 1188 in response to a summons to the court was especially lengthy and noteworthy. It began with an explanation of Chu Hsi's reasons for declining repeated appointments; namely, it would be inconsistent both for him and for the government if he occupied a government post while his advice and policies were rejected. Then it proceeded to the key point of the memorial—a basic teaching of Confucius—that good government could be achieved only through the "rectification" of the person of the Emperor. Chu Hsi stressed this theme repeatedly, because he held the conviction that the rectification of the Emperor would set off a chain reaction of moral regeneration leading from the Emperor to his family, the court officials, the civil servants, and ultimately the whole population. The welfare of the state therefore depended on the moral state of the mind of the Emperor. Conversely, the moral turpitude in the palace and corruption in the bureaucracy, which were prevalent, were symptoms of the Emperor's failure to achieve rectitude. To correct this serious defect, the Emperor must surround himself with wise and righteous ministers. Emperor Hsiao Tsung got up from bed to read the memorial by candlelight but decided that he could not make use of Chu Hsi's advice. Instead, the Emperor abdicated a few months later in favor of his son.
Chu Hsi's frank and forceful criticisms were not confined to the Emperor. During the few months he served as court lecturer in 1194, he warned the young emperor Ning Tsung of the scheming ambitions of Han T'o-chou, a high minister. This action triggered a broad purge from government of Chu Hsi and his friends and followers and also brought on vehement denunciations and fantastic rumors against him and his doctrines. In 1196 the Emperor proscribed Tao-hsueh (a term referring mainly to the Neo-Confucian system), and in 1198 a list was drawn up of 59 men guilty of belonging to the "rebel clique of false learning," which significantly included four of Han T'o-chou's major political enemies.
Chu Hsi devoted the last 5 years of his life exclusively to study and teaching; he died in 1200. In spite of himself he had become the center of a politicointellectual struggle, and the attendance at his funeral by thousands of friends, pupils, and admirers was considered by his enemies as a gathering to mourn the "teacher of rebellious falsehoods." After the public execution of Han T'o-chou in 1206 and the disgrace of his followers, opinion became more favorable to Chu Hsi. In 1208 Chu Hsi was accorded the posthumous title of master of literature, and in 1241 his tablet was admitted to the Confucian Temple.
Exemplification of the Sage Ideal
Chu Hsi objected to Buddhism on the grounds of its teachings and its practice of monasticism and tried to conduct his life according to Confucian teachings, to stand as a living example of Confucian sagehood. Chu Hsi's daily life is vividly described in a eulogistic account written by Huang Kan, his disciple and son-in-law: "As regards his conduct and character, his appearance was dignified and his language to the point. He moved with an easy gait and he sat in an erect posture. Ordinarily he rose before dawn, wearing his long robe, a hat, and square shoes, and began the day by paying respects to his departed ancestors and the early sages at the ancestral temple. Then he repaired to his study, where the desks and tables, books and stationery were all arranged in good order. For his meals, the soups and dishes and spoons and chopsticks were placed each in its appointed place. When it was time to retire, he would first rest a while by closing his eyes while sitting erect. Then he would rise and walk to his bed in measured steps. By midnight he was asleep, and if he awoke in the night he would sit up in bed until dawn. This ordered life pattern remained constant for him from youth to old age, from one season to another, and under all circumstances.
"Within the family, he practiced utmost filial piety toward his parents and compassion toward his inferiors. There was a sweet harmony resulting from mutual kindness and propriety among the members of the clan. … Toward the relatives and townspeople, proper expressions were given on all occasions of joy or sorrow and assistance offered to all in need. At the same time, his own wants were few: enough clothes to cover his body, enough food to satisfy his hunger, lodging to keep out wind and rain. Living conditions which other people might have found unbearable, he accepted in contentment."
It is evident that in his private life the philosopher strove to live according to what he conceived of as the rigorous standards of a Confucian sage. Chu Hsi has been respected and admired as a superior man after the Confucian model not only by posterity but also by his contemporaries, even including Lu Chiu-yuan (1139-1192) and Ch'en Liang (1143-1194), who vigorously disagreed with his philosophic views. It is with good reason that the Chinese refer to Chu Hsi as Chu Fu-tzu, the "Great Master" Chu.
System of Neo-Confucianism
With the passage of time the political controversies and factional struggles involving Chu Hsi have receded in importance, and he has come to be remembered—and revered—as a great scholar and philosopher. Chu Hsi's complete works, in 62 volumes, cover all fields of Chinese learning. In the field of classics Chu Hsi's commentaries were accorded the recognition of orthodoxy in the government examinations from 1313 until 1905, when the examinations were abolished. These commentaries often served as occasions for the author to express his own ideas and tenets, expositions of which are also preserved in the voluminous letters he wrote and in the lecture notes and dialogues kept by his disciples.
Chu Hsi's system of philosophy, known as Li-hsueh, or Li learning, represents a synthesis of the ideas of a number of his predecessors with the imprint of his own genius. The term li, which means principle, came into prominence first in the ancient classic I Ching and became central in the thought of Ch'eng I, whom Chu Hsi acknowledged as his master. Identifying li with the Supreme Ultimate in the system of the philosopher Chou Tun-i, Chu Hsi regarded it as the underlying order or rationale of all existence. He said: "There is nothing in the universe but motion and quiescence alternating with each other without cease: this is called i, change. There must be a li, principle, governing this motion and quiescence: this is called the T'ai-chi, the Supreme Ultimate."
Li, according to Chu Hsi, is "without birth and indestructible" and it is "the intrinsic nature of all things." In its actualization in existent things, li is combined with ch'i, the material force, a concept advanced by Chang Tsai. With regard to the relation between li and ch'i, Chu Hsi said: "Before creation, there is li. When there is li there is the world. If there were no li there would be no world." But also, "When there is no condensation of ch'i, li will have no place to inhere." Hence the principle element and the material element are mutually dependent in the phenomenal world, but in the realm "above shape," li is prior and can subsist without ch'i.
The material force, ch'i, provides also a basis for individuation. In each thing there is its li, and the totality of the individuated li might be called the total Li, or the Supreme Ultimate. The relation between the individual li and the total Li is not one of whole and part but is like that of the moon and its reflections. It is interesting to note that Leibniz had a fair knowledge of Chu Hsi's system of Li, and the close similarity between this system and Leibniz's system of monadology is perhaps no mere coincidence.
Man's nature, according to Chu Hsi, is his li, and therefore Chu Hsi could repeat after Confucius that "by nature all men are alike" and after Mencius that "the nature of man is good." Evil in man is accounted for by the ch'i element, which is clear in some people and turbid in some others. Personal cultivation consists in cleansing the ch'i of the turbidity and recovering the purity of one's original nature, which is also said to be establishing the supremacy of the "laws of heaven" over the "desires of men." For this undertaking Chu Hsi recommended the procedures found in the Great Learning, namely, "the extension of knowledge through the investigation of things," which should also be accompanied by "the attentiveness of the mind."
Further Reading on Chu Hsi
The only volume on Chu Hsi is J. Percy Bruce, Chu Hsi and His Masters (1923). Substantial chapters are also found in Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, vol. 2 (trans. 1953); Carson Chang, The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, vol. 1 (1957); Conrad M. Schirokauer, "Chu Hsi's Political Career," in Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett, eds., Confucian Personalities (1962); and Wing-tsit Chan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (1963).
Additional Biography Sources
Chan, Wing-tsit, Chu Hsi, life and thought, Hong Kong: Chinese University Press; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.