Chu Hsi Introduction - Essay


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.