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Zhu Xi

    Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200 AD) (pronounced ‘jew she’) is considered by many to be second only to Confucius in importance to Chinese thought. 

    But at the end of his life, his work was banned, his name was slandered, and his school of thought was blacklisted.

    Yet his prescribed classics curriculum (and commentaries) would go on to become orthodoxy. 

    His work was endorsed the state and studied by countless Chinese students for about 700 years…

    And aside from Confucius and Mencius, his name would receive the rare honour of being referred to alongside the word ‘Master’ (子).


    Portrait of Zhu Xi (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Early life

    Zhu Xi (朱熹 [Zhū Xī]; formerly written in English as Chu Hsi) was born in Youxi County (in today’s Sanming City, Fujian Province) during the latter half of the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD).

    His family was originally from Wuyuan (in today’s Jiangxi Province). They had moved to Youxi because of Zhu Xi’s father’s work – Zhu Song (1097 – 1143 AD) was a county sheriff.

    Zhu Song was (like his son!) an outspoken man. He was removed from office after speaking out against the Song policy appeasing the Jurchen Jin dynasty (see below, ‘The Southern Song period’).


    After his father’s removal from office, the five-year-old Zhu Xi was removed from school and taught at home by his father. 

    Unfortunately, when was Zhu Xi was 12 or 13, his father passed away. However, his education continued under his father’s close friends.

    It was – like all educated Chinese of the time – essentially a humanities-based and literary education, based on intensive study of the classical Chinese canon.

    One of these tutor’s, Liu Mianzhi (1091 – 1149 AD), would become his father-in-law in 1148.

    Another was Li Tong (1093 – 1163 AD), who had studied under a direct student – Yang Shi (1053 – 1135 AD) – of Cheng Yi (1033 – 1107 AD). Cheng’s work heavily influenced Zhu Xi’s thought.

    Zhu Xi passed the imperial exams, which were effectively a passport to an official career, at aged just 19. By the standards of the day, this was incredibly young.

    The Southern Song period (1124 – 1279 AD)

    The period Zhu Xi lived during the latter half of the Song dynasty, in what would later be labelled the Southern Song period

    In some ways, this was a unique time during Chinese history.

    China was prosperous and advanced. Its capital (Lin’an, today’s Hangzhou) was likely the largest city in the world at the time.

    However, just a few years before Zhu Xi was born, the empire’s northern half had been invaded and taken over by the non-Chinese Jurchens. 

    The royal court and government had moved south, where it still ruled over sixteen provinces. And for the next century and a half, it ultimately waited in vain for an opportunity to re-take its lost northern territory.

    1163 – 1165 AD: First official position

    Zhu’s first official posting was as sub-prefectural register in Tong’an (today a district of Xiamen, Fujian Province). 

    He worked here for around two years. He performed his duties well, which included building a library and temple, and performing sacrifices to Confucius.

    Around this time, he began to feel disaffected with the nation and its culture’s situation.

    [Many were] seeking vainly seeking immortality, which was demoralising the people, squandering national strength, and obstructing the nation’s rejuvenation.

    – Zhu Xi

    1165 – 1179 AD: Sinecure of a temple guardianship

    Zhu Xi left office in 1165 and took sinecure of a temple guardianship, which lasted over two decades. It enabled him to devote himself more fully to studying, writing, and teaching.

    During this time, he wrote and edited approximately 20 works and compiled (with Lu Zuqian) Reflections on Things at Hand (1176).

    The latter work was the most comprehensive collection of Chinese philosophical writings until that point.

    Printing for a living

    Zhu is believed to have been relatively poor throughout most of his life. 

    One of the ways in which he earned money, was through working in printing. 

    Not a lot is known about the specifics of this side of his career. Contemporary and later commentators barely mentioned it. 

    This is in part because many scholars would have seen it as beneath a great sage to engage in commercial activities.

    One of Zhu Xi’s friends, Zhang Shi (1133 – 1182), even wrote to Zhu Xi to ask him to find another way to earn money.

    Furthermore, printed text, which though not new in China at the time, was an increasingly mainstream industry during the Song dynasty. 

    This frustrated many scholars, who felt it damaged the tradition of memorising (and therefore truly knowing) texts. In fact, despite his own printing work, Zhu Xi himself was a prominent advocate of this view:

    When studying a text, [the ancients] would memorise it completely and afterwards receive instruction on it. For people studying today, even copying out a text has become bothersome – therefore, their reading is uneven.

    – Zhu Xi

    However, by working in printing, Zhu Xi could better oversee that material was accurate.

    The Goose Lake Temple meeting (1075 AD)

    In 1175, Zhu Xi met a philosophical rival, Lu Xiangshan (1139 – 1193 AD) and his brother Lu Jiuling (1132 – 1180) at Goose Lake Temple in Xinzhou (today’s Yanshan County, Jiangxi Province).

    The meeting spears to have been set up for the to hold philosophical discussions. However, given the intellectual split that followed, history has remembered it as a debate.

    The exact content of their discussions (or debate) is unknown. However, their follow up communications and comments made the nature of their disagreement clear.

    In short, Zhu Xi advocated a path focused mainly on study – ‘following the path of enquiry and study’ (道问学 [dào wèn xué]). By contrast, the Lu brothers advocated a path of ‘practice’ and self-reflection – ‘honouring one’s moral nature’ (尊德性 [zūn dé xìng).

    People desire to fix what they study their minds and embody it in their persons. But if they don’t read books, they won’t understand what it is they are acquiring.

    – Conversations with Master Zhu (5.1)

    (They would resume debating a decade and a half later, this time on the question of the Great Ultimate.)

    This episode caused a split between Zhu Xi’s and the Lu brother’s schools of thought for several centuries.

    However, their personal relations remained warm. They each later expressed regret at how they had worded criticisms against the other. And Zhu – at Lu Xiangshan’s request – even wrote a tomb inscription for Lu Jiuling.

    1179 – 1181 AD: Prefect of Nankang

    In 1178, Zhu Xi was once appointed to an official position in Nankang (today a district of Ganzhou, Jangxi Province). He arrived at his post in 1179.

    By this point, his reputation as a scholar was growing. And whilst in Nankang, he revied the White Deer Hollow Academy, which had been a leading academic institution during the Northern Song period.

    He famously created ‘White Deer Hollow Academy’s Articles for Learning’ for the school. These were ‘simply’ seven quotations from the classics, each with a few words of commentary from Zhu Xi. 

    However, they were very well chosen and ordered quotes. Because of this, they would go on to influence Chinese (and other east Asian) education for centuries.

    “Father and son have affection. Ruler and minister have righteousness. Husband and wife hold separate functions. Young and old have their places. Friends have trust” [from Mencius]. These are the items of the Five Teachings.

    Study broadly, weigh up accurately, think over carefully, distinguish clearly, practice earnestly [from Doctrine of the Mean]. This is the order of studyStudy, weigh, think, distinguish – all four so that reason is enriched.

    Speak with loyalty and good faith, act with dedication and deference [from the Analects]. Restrain wrath and repress desires. Progress towards good and correct one’s mistakes [From the Book of Changes]. These are essential for self-cultivation.

    Rectify moral principle and do not seek profit. Illuminate the way and do not count on success [from History of the Han].

    What you would not wish for yourself, do not do to others [from the Analects]. If you are unsuccessful in your conduct, turn inward and seek the cause [from Mencius]. These are the essentials for dealing with others.

    White Deer Hollow Academy’s Articles for Learning (白鹿洞书院揭示) (Zhu Xi’s comments are the sentences in italics above)

    1182 AD: Withdraws from office

    In 1182, Zhu Xi was appointed the intendant for granaries, tea and salt in for the eastern Liangzhe Circuit (today’s Zhejiang Province).

    He arrived as famine wrecked the area and helped to alleviate it with a community granary program.

    However, during his time here, he criticised the prefect of nearby Taizhou (and relative of the then-prime minister) Tang Zhongyou (ca. 1131 – 1183 AD). And he arrested a well-known prostitute, Yan Rui, who died in prison.

    This kind of upright behaviour, combined with his general outspokenness, led him to make some powerful political enemies.

    (Like his father had been, Zhu Xi was also vocal about his opposition to appeasing the Jin Dynasty that occupied northern China).

    He retired from office the same year.

    1190 – 1191 AD: Briefly holds office again

    Prefect of Zhangzhou (Fujian Province) from 1190 – 1191 AD. 

    It was here that he first published his editions of the Four Books

    The Four Books

    One of Zhu Xi’s most important achievements was to popularise the four canonical texts in Chinese thought: the Four Books

    He did this by publishing Four Masters (四子) in 1190. This was his edited version of the Four Books, complete with selections from his – and others’ – commentaries. 

    He placed these works in his recommended order:

    • The Great Learning (大学): A chapter from the Book of Rites concerned primarily with morality and self-cultivation
    • The Analects (论语): A record of Confucius’ words
    • The Mencius (孟子): A recond of Mencius’s words
    • The Doctrine of the Mean (中庸): This was also originally a chapter of the Book of Rites. It expands on a concept first mentioned in the Analects

    Before Zhu Xi, a partially different canon of classic texts, the Five Classics, had essentially formed a core curriculum for Chinese students for about a millennium. 

    The famous Tang writer and intellectualHan Yu (768 – 824 AD), had advocated for the same four texts.

    However, Zhu Xi waged a more concerted campaign for them, complete with detailed commentaries.

    1194 – 1196 AD: Prefect and Lecturer-in-waiting for the emperor

    Portrait of Ningzong Emperor Seated
    Portrait of Ningzong Emperor Seated (Song dynasty) by unknown painter, hanging scroll, ink and colour on silk, 187 x 108.4 cm. (National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Zhu Xi served briefly as a prefect in Tanzhou (today’s Changsha, Hunan Province) in 1194 and  was then invited to be the lecturer-in-waiting for the new Emperor Ningzong (r. 1194 – 1224 AD).

    This post was organised for Zhu Xi to teach on the Great learning (大学). However, it only lasted 46 days before Zhu Xi left.

    Zhu Xi also involved himself in another series of controversies…

    • The Emperor Ningzong’s late grandfather, the Emperor Xiaozong (r. 1162 – 1189 AD) had died in 1194. Some had pointed out that his burial ground was low and wet, and therefore not suitable. Zhu Xi wrote a memorial to Emperor on this, which implied criticism of officials who had favoured not moving the late emperor’s burial site.
    • He also encouraged Emperor Ningzong to more carefully observe the rites in mourning his grandfather in place of his father (who was ill).
    • Zhu advised the emperor on where he should worship. And he complained to the emperor about the prime minister’s destruction of the imperial family’s ancestral temple. 

    After all of this, Zhu left his work as an official, forever. At this point, his enemies closed in. And 1196, his school of learning was proscribed by the emperor.

    A prominent enemy: Han Tuozhou

    Zhu Xi had a powerful enemy after the new emperor took over in 1194: the imperial grand chancellor Han Tuozhou (1152 – 1207 AD).

    Han was a relative of the emperor’s wife, the empress Han. He was openly against many in the court, including Neo-Confucians.

    Zhu Xi and his school of thought was attacked as a faction. One official even quoted the renowned Northern Song official and essayist Ouyang Xiu’s (1007 – 1072 AD) famous essay, On Factions

    This was quoted to attack the ‘faction-forming’ of Zhu Xi and others. In fact, the core point of the essay that factions by bad men are bad, but factions by good men are good:

    当其同利之时,暂相党引以为朋者,伪也。及其见利而争先,或利尽而交疏,则反相贼害。[…]君子则不然。所守者道义 […] 以之修身,则同道而相益,以之事国,则同心而共济,终始如一。
    When there is profit to be shared, petty men band together to as factions. This ‘friendship’ is false. As soon as they must compete for this profit, or it is depleted, they will harm one another or become estranged accordingly. […]
    Gentlemen are different. They adhere to the Way and justice […] they cultivate themselves. They help improve one another and the nation’s affairs. They become one mind that cooperates from start to finish.

    – Ouyang Xiu, On Factions

    Han was eventually assassinated and his policies were reversed. However, this happened in 1207 – seven years after Zhu Xi had passed away.

    A (missing) chicken and a bottle of wine

    Part of Zhu Xi’s downfall was caused – likely accidently – by his lack of proper hospitality for another official.

    At some point during Zhu Xi’s time in office, the official Hu Hong called on him for a visit in the Wuyi Mountains (Fujian Province). This was later reported on in the Official Song History (宋史).

    Hu was expecting to be greeted with wine and chicken. However, Zhu Xi only gave him rice. Hu, suspecting a snub, left immediately.

    The consensus is that this was a misunderstanding. Zhu Xi was, after all, both relatively poor and strictly proper in his protocol. 

    In other words, even if he could afford an elaborate feast, he would not have hosted one as it would be extravagant and therefore un-Confucian.

    Zhu Xi’s ‘Six Crimes’ and ‘Four Evil Deeds’

    After his ‘snub’, Hong’s drafted a memorial on Zhu Xi’s ‘Six Crimes’. This memorial was completed and submitted to the emperor by Shen’s friend, Shen Jizu:

    1. Being unfilial to his mother by feeding her coarse rice from the market
    2. Disrespecting the emperor by selectively declining official positions 
    3. Disloyalty to the empire by promoting incorrect theories on burial grounds (done with the aim of helping promote his friend Cai Jitong (1138 – 1198)
    4. Insulting the court by scheming with Zhao Ruyu (1140 – 1196) to initially turn down the position of lecturer-in-waiting
    5. Publicly mourning Zhao Ruyou’s death (who had been hated by the court)
    6. Damaging societal customs by transferring Confucius’ image to a Buddhist temple. This was done in an attempt to control a county school

    The additional ‘Four Evil Deeds’ were:

    1. Not cultivating himself
    2. Not managing his family
    3. Not governing the people
    4. Lacking in altruism for others

    This memorial, and the emperor’s ruling on Zhu Xi’s teaching being ‘false learning’, were a huge blow to Zhu Xi himself. 

    Within four years, Zhu Xi passed away.

    Zhu Xi’s calligraphy

    Letter to the Commandery Administrator Huizhi calligraphy piece by Zhu Xi
    Letter to the Commandery Administrator Huizhi (In the Depths of Autumn) (1194 AD) by Zhu Xi, running script, ink on paper.National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data).

    Calligraphy was central to Zhu Xi’s life. This might come as a surprise to some, who understand calligraphy as above all a fine art for the elites.

    However, aside from aesthetes, calligraphy was central to the lives of most Song intellectuals and officials

    After all, despite the increasing prominence of printed books, writing itself still had to be done by hand.

    Furthermore, it was commonly held that calligraphy reflected a man’s character. Zhu Xi himself clearly subscribed to this idea. 

    Letter to District Defender Yanxiu calligraphy piece by Zhu Xi
    Letter to District Defender Yanxiu by Zhu Xi, running-cursive script, ink on paper.National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data).

    He particularly admired the calligraphy of the famously upright and articulate official Ouyang Xiu (1007 – 1072 AD). He praised Ouyang’s calligraphy as – like the man himself – outwardly relaxed but firm.

    Zhu also had strong opinions on the most famous four Song calligraphers: 

    • Cai Xiang (1012 – 1067): Zhu praised Cai’s calligraphy as upright and conforming to traditional forms. This was similar to praise he had lavished on Cai’s friend and colleague, Ouyang Xiu.
    • Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD): Arguably the most famous Song dynasty calligrapher. Zhu Xi was opposed to Su’s philosophy more generally, as Su was a philosophical rival of the Cheng brothers (who were an important influence on Zhu’s thinking). Zhu saw Su’s attitude towards calligraphy and art more generally as frivolous. 
    • Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1105 AD): Huang was the greatest practitioner of cursive script during the Song dynasty. Zhu Xi criticised him for his slanted characters (i.e., characters that weren’t upright enough for Zhu’s liking!)
    • Mi Fu (1051 – 1107 AD): The eccentric art theorist, calligrapher and painter Mi Fu was widely considered to be an innovative running script master. Zhu Xi did not approve of his calligraphy, either!

    Zhu Xi’s emphasis on being upright extended to calligraphy. He even advocated for informal letters, usually written in a casual, personal running script, being written in the more formal and impersonal standard script!

    However, from Zhu Xi’s many existing works, it’s clear that he himself did not always live up to this standard. 

    However, given the sheer volume of words he wrote during his lifetime, this is not unexpected…