Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Middle Ages)
Article abstract: Through writings and educational activities, Zhu Xi reformulated Confucianism. His work helped Confucianism regain intellectual ascendancy from Buddhism and Daoism, establishing basic Confucian orientations for centuries and influencing East Asian culture.
Zhu Xi’s early years were dominated by the uncertainty in the wake of the loss of northern China to Jurchen conquerors and the reestablishment of the Song Dynasty in the south in 1128. His father, Zhu Song (1097-1143), after protesting against peace talks, was sent to a local post in Fujian; his fortunes continued to decline to the point that he even lost his position as sheriff of Youxi shortly before Zhu Xi’s birth there in 1130. In the traditional pattern of accounts of great scholars, biographers have presented Zhu Xi as a precocious child, with exceptional interest in metaphysics, filial piety, and classical scholarship; Zhu Xi claimed that by the time he was nine, he was determined to become a Confucian sage.
In 1140, his father’s second term of governmental service ended because of his continued opposition to the peace party. Having studied with disciples of the brothers Cheng Hao (1032-1085) and Cheng I (1033-1107), Zhu Xi’s father devoted three years to teaching his son; on his deathbed, he entrusted Zhu Xi to three neighboring scholars. Five years after his father’s death, Zhu Xi passed the national civil service examinations at the age of eighteen, which was about half the average age of successful candidates that year. During these early years, Zhu Xi suffered much grief; in addition to his father, two brothers and two of the three neighboring scholars who taught him died. These deaths may have contributed to Zhu Xi’s fascination with Buddhism and Daoism during his teens as well as his sense of mission as a survivor. He was apparently of good health, in spite of complaints beginning in his mid-fifties about unspecified illnesses and foot ailments.
Beginning in 1153 and lasting for five years, Zhu Xi held his first government position as a registrar in Tong-an County in Fujian, where he concentrated on reforming the management of local taxation and police, upgrading educational standards, and drafting codes for decorum and ritual. After leaving that post, he enjoyed his first sinecure appointment as overseer of a mountain temple; such honorary positions provided him with the leisure to study and write.
An invasion by the Jurchen, which renewed debate about foreign policy, provoked Zhu Xi into submitting memorials to the emperor in 1162 and 1163. In those memorials and the resulting audience with the emperor, he followed his father’s lead in criticizing peace advocates. To Zhu Xi, war to liberate northern China was the only moral course of action. Although appointed a professor at the military academy, he resigned upon hearing that the government was making peace. Returning home to Fujian, he repeatedly declined office until 1178. Yet he remained active in local affairs, such as emergency famine relief.
During the 1150’s and 1160’s, Zhu Xi continued to evolve intellectually. His teacher Li Tong convinced him to abandon Buddhism and Daoism and led him to a definitive embrace of Confucianism by the time he was twenty-eight. During the 1160’s he accepted as standard the teachings of the Cheng brothers; moreover, his exchange of letters with Zhang Shi about the cultivation of the mind in action and tranquillity demonstrated that by 1169, nearing forty, Zhu Xi had attained intellectual maturity in his interpretation of Confucianism.
Although he repeatedly declined many offices during his remaining thirty years, Zhu Xi’s political career was eventful. In 1178, he was appointed a prefect in Nanjing, Jiangsu, where he concentrated on preventing famine and improving education. In addition to lecturing advanced students at least once every five days, he reestablished the once-flourishing White Deer Grotto Academy. Under Zhu Xi’s leadership, the academy became an educational model which endured for almost seven centuries. The next post he assumed was as a regional superintendent in Zhejiang, where he was in charge of famine relief. In addition to establishing community granaries and other relief measures, he toured the countryside to ferret out corrupt and incompetent officials. Impeaching several county and prefectural heads—including Tang Zhongyou, who was a relative of the prime minister—Zhu Xi aroused such controversy that he resigned from office after serving for roughly a year.
The indictment of a noted scholar whose Confucianism differed from Zhu Xi’s added to the controversy about the Dao xue (learning of the true way) tradition, which was rooted in the teachings of the Cheng brothers. In his memorials to the emperor, Zhu expounded upon the need for government officials to follow the ethical principles of...
(The entire section is 2033 words.)
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Zhu Xi’s neo-Confucianism embraces cosmology and metaphysics as well as ethics and a theory of evil. What he calls the supreme ultimate (tai ji) is the summation of emptiness, or the realm of no-things (li), which is “above shapes”; it is the ideal prototype and standard that determines the nature of things. The concrete physical world is determined by the vital force (qi; literally, “breath”), which is “within shapes.” It individuates each thing. In this way, each thing has a nature (li) and a specific character (qi). Every single thing is instilled with the supreme ultimate, which is the totality of li in all things. Every man can cultivate tai ji through earnest investigation of things and extend his knowledge of li; such research includes the study of the Four Books (Ssu shu) of Confucianism and the study of ethical conduct. People are born with either good or bad qi: If it is pure and clear, they are talented and wise; if it is impure and turgid, they are foolish and degenerate. In China, Zhu Xi’s philosophy was called the school of li (li xue). From a Western point of view, it is a species of idealism.