Chu Hsi Essay - Critical Essays

Chu Hsi


Chu Hsi 1130-1200

Chinese philosopher.

Often referred to as the “Great Synthesizer,” Chu Hsi, was the principal exponent of Neo-Confucianism in his day. He brought together and systematized the various threads of Neo-Confucian thought professed by other philosophers, who tended to focus on individual principles of philosophy rather than a more unified system. Chu Hsi's teachings in later centuries became the orthodox views of the state and also influenced thinkers in other parts of East Asia.

Biographical Information

Born in Anhui, China, Chu Hsi studied for a number of years under his father, who headed various departments of the government. Chu Hsi's opposition to official state policies, such as accepting peace terms from invaders, compelled him to leave the capital, and for years resulted in his declining of offered official positions, or his removal or demotion from the government positions in which he served. Although he spent nine years in public service, his philosophical positions were viewed as too radical by his superiors. In 1196, a censor accused Chu Hsi of several crimes, including the refusal to serve and spreading false learning. He was officially removed from his posts and died several years after, in 1200.

Major Works

Chu Hsi's most recognized achievement is Chin-ssu lu, orReflections on Things at Hand, written in 1175. The work is viewed as the classic statement of Neo-Confucianism and is an anthology of the views of the Sung dynasty philosophers who conceptualized and formulated a new Confucian metaphysical system. Compiled by Chu Hsi and Lü Tsu-ch’ien, with the preface written by Chu Hsi, the work reflects, through both its selections and editing, Chu Hsi's personal philosophy. The Chin-ssu lu emphasizes the concept of li, or principle, as the basis for all truth. The prominence of li in Neo-Confucianism is one of the primary contrasts between the new philosophy and Confucianism, in which the li is less significant. Other doctrines of the Neo-Confucianism espoused by Chu Hsi in the Chin-ssu lu include the advocating of investigation and the “exercise of seriousness” in order to know li and live in accordance with it. The work also re-evaluates classic Confucian texts, such as the Book of Changes, using a rationalist approach as opposed to the spiritual approach typical of the Taoists. Chu Hsi also collected various commentaries on Confucian texts and wrote the “Jen-shuo” (c. 1171), or “Treatise on Humanity.” In this work, revised over a number of years, Chu Hsi analyzes the concept of jen, roughly translated as “humanity” or “humaneness.” Chu Hsi discusses jen as “the character of the mind” and as “the principle of love.” Scholars have also learned more about the essence of Chu Hsi's philosophy by studying his correspondence with other philosophers.

Critical Reception

Chu Hsi's approach to such aspects of Neo-Confucianist thought as the concepts of li, Tao, and jen, have been analyzed by modern critics who seek to explain Chu Hsi's views and to contrast Chu Hsi's philosophy with Buddhist and Taoist doctrines. Other critics have studied Chu Hsi's philosophy in comparison with Western philosophical principles. J. Percy Bruce studies Chu Hsi's beliefs regarding Tao, translated as the “Way,” and understood as universal moral law. Bruce examines the difference between moral principle, or li, and Tao, in Chu Hsi's system. In addition, Bruce compares Chu Hsi's conception of Tao with that of his contemporary Taoists of his time, arguing that while Chu Hsi accepted the transcendental nature of Tao, he rejected the “ultra-transcendentalism” preached by the Taoists of his time. Russell Hatton focuses his analysis on the role of li in Chu Hsi's philosophy. Hatton compares the concept of li to that of Western philosophy's “substantial form.” While some critics have maintained the equivalency of li and substantial form, Hatton challenges such conclusions. Allen Wittenborn, on the other hand, offers a different approach to the study of li in Chu Hsi's philosophy. In analyzing what he views as the problematic relationship between li and ch’i, Wittenborn states that to Chu Hsi, li is the determinant of the nature or essence of every individual thing and ch’i is the “constitutive energy” that brings about the thing in question through interaction with li. Wittenborn praises Chu Hsi for developing a theory of knowledge founded on psychological principles and for presenting a forceful argument for the existence of li, rather than merely presupposing it. Tomoeda Ryūtarō assesses the influence of Zen Buddhism on Chu Hsi's thought on Tao and li, contending that Chu Hsi demonstrated an early interest in Buddhism but later rejected its principles. For example, Zen emphasizes intuitive enlightenment, whereas Chu Hsi stressed reflection and inquiry into the principles of things. Chu Hsi's notion of jen has also been the subject of critical examination. Wing-tsit Chan reviews Chu Hsi's motivation for writing the “Jen-shuo,” arguing that the philosopher sought to dispel the confusion among his contemporary scholars regarding jen. Chan further discusses the originality of Chu Hsi's conception of jen as the “correct principle” or “character” of the mind, and also reviews Chu Hsi's thoughts on jen as the “principle of love.” Additionally, Chan discusses the correspondence between Chu Hsi and another philosopher, Chang Shih, on the subject of jen, and notes that Chu Hsi made some revisions to the “Jen-shuo” due to his discussions with Chang Shih. John Borthrong, taking another critical avenue, investigates Chu Hsi's ethics as revealed in his discussions of the concepts of jen and ch’eng. Finding genius in an ethics often viewed as derivative, Borthrong explains that to Chu Hsi, jen represents “humaneness,” or the unforced element of the principle of love, and that ch’eng is the process of self-realization by which jen is achieved. Like Chan, Hoyt Cleveland Tillman investigates Chu Hsi's correspondence with Chang Shih, and maintains that Chang Shih had a significant impacto on the development of Chu Hsi's philosophy, particularly in the areas of self-cultivation and the understanding of the mind. Tillman summarizes their relationship by quoting that while Chu Hsi's focus was on theory, Chang Shih emphasized the practice of the principles the two philosophers discussed.

Principal Works

“Jen-shuo” [“Treatise on Humanity”] (treatise) c. 1171

Chin-ssu lu [Reflections on Things at Hand] (editor, with Lü Tsu-ch’ien) (anthology) 1175

Reflections on Things at Hand (translated by Wing-tsit Chan) 1967

Learning to Be a Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu, Arranged Topically (translated by Daniel K. Gardner) 1990

Chu Hsi's “Family Rituals” (translated by Patricia Buckley Ebey) 1991


Herbert A. Giles (essay date 1901)

SOURCE: “History—Classical and General Literature,” in A History of Chinese Literature, D. Appleton and Company, 1931, pp. 212-31.

[In the excerpt below, Giles offers a brief overview of Chu Hsi's life and his major contributions to Chinese philosophy.]

… The name of Chu Hsi (1130-1200) is a household word throughout the length and breadth of literary China. He graduated at nineteen, and entered upon a highly successful official career. He apparently had a strong leaning towards Buddhism—some say that he actually became a Buddhist priest; at any rate, he soon saw the error of his ways, and gave himself up completely to a study of the orthodox doctrine. He was...

(The entire section is 954 words.)

J. Percy Bruce (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: “The Moral Order,” in Chu Hsi and His Masters: An Introduction to Chu Hsi and the Sung School of Chinese Philosophy, Probsthain & Co., 1923, pp. 161-83.

[In the essay below, Bruce analyzes the concept of Tao and examines how Chu Hsi's interpretation of it differed from that of contemporary Taoists. Bruce emphasizes that Chu Hsi opposed the “ultra-transcendental” view of Tao held by the Taoists of his day.]

… [The] fundamental meaning of the word Li is Law; that it is essentially ethical; and that, while it derives its name from the fact that every single thing has its own rule of existence, it also has a universal application....

(The entire section is 6451 words.)

Wing-tsit Chan (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “The Great Synthesis in Chu Hsi,” in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, translated and compiled by Wing-tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, 1963, pp. 588-604.

[In the essay below, Chan discusses Chu Hsi's contribution to Neo-Confucianism, arguing that Chu Hsi eliminated the remnants of Buddhist and Taoist traditions in Neo-Confucianism, as well as refined and synthesized the six major concepts advocated by various Neo-Confucian philosophers. Chan also introduces several brief essays by Chu Hsi, included here.]

No one has exercised greater influence on Chinese thought than Chu Hsi (Chu Yüan-hui, 1130-1200), except Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu, and Chuang...

(The entire section is 8050 words.)

Wing-tsit Chan (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: An introduction to Reflections on Things at Hand: The Neo-Confucian Anthology, compiled by Chu Hsi and Lu Tsu-Ch’ien, translated by Wing-tsit Chan, Columbia University Press, 1967, pp. xvii-xli.

[In the essay that follows, Chan examines the way in which Chu Hsi's anthology, Reflections on Things at Hand, treats three major doctrines of Neo-Confucianism. Chan also maintains that Chu Hsi was objective in selecting and editing the sayings of the Confucian masters included in the text.]

Reflections on Things at Hand is the classic statement of Neo-Confucian philosophy by its leading exponent, Chu Hsi. It brings together the views of the Sung dynasty...

(The entire section is 11235 words.)

Tomoeda Ryūtarō (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “The Characteristics of Chu Hsi's Thought,” in Acta Asiatica, Vol. 21, 1971, pp. 52-72.

[In the following essay, Ryūtarō examines the way in which Chu Hsi criticized his predecessors and developed his own philosophical system. In particular, Ryūtarō traces the influence of Zen Buddhism on Chu Hsi's thought and discusses the differences between the Zen and Neo-Confucian treatment of various philosophical principles. Chinese characters have been deleted from this essay.]


What are the characteristics of Chu Hsi's philosophy? I shall try to elucidate its outline in this article by re-examining my past studies which I...

(The entire section is 8265 words.)

Allen Wittenborn (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Some Aspects of Mind and the Problem of Knowledge in Chu Hsi's Philosophy,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 1, March, 1982, pp. 11-43.

[In the essay below, Wittenborn studies Chu Hsi's theory of the mind, maintaining that although the theory represents the least successful facet of Chu Hsi's philosophical synthesis, his investigation of this issue resulted in a theory of knowledge rooted in a “firm psychological foundation.” Wittenborn further contends that Chu Hsi argues convincingly for the existence of li, or constitutive principle, rather than simply presupposing its existence, as did many of his predecessors and contemporaries.]


(The entire section is 12960 words.)

Russell Hatton (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “A Comparison of Li and Substantial Form,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 1, March, 1982, pp. 45-71.

[In the essay that follows, Hatton compares Chu Hsi's conception of li with the Western notion of “substantial form.” Hatton traces the origins of this debate, and challenges those critics who have suggested that li and substantial form are equivalent.]


The concept of lia is central in the philosophy of the Sung Dynasty Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsib (1130-1200). In discussions of his philosophy by Western or Westernized interpreters, li...

(The entire section is 10474 words.)

Daniel K. Gardner (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Chu Hsi's Reading of the Ta-hsueh: A Neo-Confucian's Quest for Truth,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1983, pp. 183-204.

[In the following essay, Gardner investigates Chu Hsi's fascination with the shortest text in Confucian canon, the Ta-hsueh, reviewing the evidence of Chu Hsi's “endless” revision of his commentary on it. He argues that Chu Hsi's intensive study of the text resulted in an understanding of it that challenged the traditional reading of the Ta-hsueh.]

The Ta-hsüeha is the shortest text in the Confucian canon. With its scant 1747 characters it can be read, even memorized, in a matter of...

(The entire section is 7307 words.)

John Borthrong (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Chu Hsi's Ethics: Jen and Ch’eng,” in Journal of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 14, No. 2, June, 1987, pp. 161-178.

[In the following essay, Borthrong contends that although Chu Hsi's views on ethics have been criticized as unoriginal and derivative, they display an ingenious approach based on the concept of humanity. Borthrong goes on to explore how Chu Hsi's conception of jenand ch’eng contribute to his views on the development of one's full humanity.]


For over a decade Chu Hsi's thought has fascinated me—in a positive sense. I further think that Master Chu deserves to be considered second...

(The entire section is 6044 words.)

Wing-tsit Chan (essaydate 1989)

SOURCE: “Chu Hsi's Jen-shuo” (Treatise on Humanity),” in Chu Hsi: New Studies, University of Hawaii Press, 1989, pp. 151-83.

[In the essay below, Chan studies Chu Hsi's Jen-shuo (“Treatise on Humanity”), examining the reasons Chu Hsi wrote the treatise, discussing the likely period of composition, and reviewing the major concepts—the character of the mind and the principle of love—explored by Chu Hsi within the treatise.]

Chu Hsi's philosophical thought centered on the basic concepts of the Great Ultimate (T’ai-chi), principle (li), material force (ch’i), humanity (jen), righteousness (i), equilibrium...

(The entire section is 15485 words.)

William Theodore De Bary (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “The Learning of the Mind-and-Heart in the Early Chu Hsi School,” in The Message of the Mind in Neo-Confucianism, Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 24-52.

[In the essay below, De Bary examines the way in which the interpretation of Chu Hsi's teachings concerning the learning of the mind has resulted in confusion regarding the role of the “mind-and-heart” in his philosophy.]

In Neo-Confucian Orthodoxy and the Learning of the Mind-and-Heart1 I reported on developments in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries which saw the rise of the new Learning of the Mind-and-Heart as an accompaniment to Neo-Confucianism's establishment as an...

(The entire section is 14347 words.)

Hoyt Cleveland Tillman (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Chu Hsi and Chang Shih,” in Confucian Discourse and Chu Hsi's Ascendancy, University of Hawaii Press, 1992, pp. 59-82.

[In the essay that follows, Tillman states that much of Chu Hsi's philosophical development resulted from his relationship with Chang Shih and the correspondence exchanged between the two philosophers. Tillman reviews the issues they discussed, including self-cultivation and the understanding of the mind; Hu Hung's text on the relationship between goodness and one's actions and original inner nature; and humaneness and how it is achieved. Overall, Tillman notes, Chu Hsi's focus was on theory, whereas Chang Shih's emphasis was on practice.]


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Further Reading


Birge, Bettine. “Chu Hsi and Women's Education.” Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and John W. Chaffee, pp. 325-67. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Examines Chu Hsi's writings about women's education and the role of women in society, contrasting the severe standard of behavior Chu Hsi proscribed with the accounts of the virtuous activity of women in the philosopher's other writings.

Chan, Wing-tsit. “Chu Hsi and Yüan Neo-Confucianism.” Yüan Thought: Chinese Thought and Religion under the Mongols, pp. 197-228. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.


(The entire section is 369 words.)