Authorship and Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1897

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Tradition attributes The Great Learning to Zengzi (b. 505 b.c.e.), one of the most influential of Confucius's original seventy-seven disciples. Zengzi is frequently quoted in Confucius's Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects, 1861), usually in clarification of the master's statements. Although the Analects portrays Zengzi as the ultimate figure of Confucian orthodoxy, some critics have accused him of overemphasizing the concept of filial piety--in effect transforming Confucius's scattered admonitions on the subject into a fundamental principle of the Confucian creed.

Zengzi's preeminence among the master's disciples is illustrated by the number of anecdotes relating to him in the Analects. Most notable is an incident in which Confucius once puzzled his disciples with a complicated exposition of his philosophy: Zengzi explained--to the master's evident delight--that his principles were ultimately based on yi (righteousness) and ren (benevolence). After Confucius's death, Zengzi perpetuated the school that the master had founded. This assumption of authority is underscored by the structure of the Analects itself; in the latter chapters, Zengzi appears more frequently, particularly in an extended anecdote relating to his steadfast virtue in the face of a near-fatal illness. In a consummate display of filial piety, the stricken Zengzi asked his disciples to note his still healthy hands and feet, proudly explaining that he had maintained them in the condition in which he had received them from his parents. Mencius's Mengzi (early third century b.c.e.; The Works of Mencius, 1861; commonly known as Mengzi) makes Zengzi's role as Confucius's ideological heir even more explicit. It is recorded there that after the death of Confucius, some of his disciples initially devoted themselves to one of their peers simply because he physically resembled the master--until Zengzi reminded them that the master's virtue, not his appearance, was the proper object of their veneration.

Although Confucian orthodoxy has exalted Zengzi himself to the level of a sage, his ultimate importance to the creed lies in his position as transitional figure between Confucius and Mencius. Tradition credits Zengzi with having been the teacher of Zi Si (483-402 b.c.e.), Confucius's grandson and the reputed master of Mencius (c. 372-289 b.c.e.). Although the years in which they lived, according to modern scholarship, would seem to rule out an actual personal connection between Zi Si and Mencius, they are linked by a similar interpretation of the Confucian tradition. Zi Si is credited with the authorship of Zhong Yong (fifth to fourth century b.c.e.; The Doctrine of the Mean, 1861), another of the Four Books that, like The Great Learning, shifts the focus of Confucianism away from a unquestioning reverence for antiquity toward an inquiry-centered rational humanism. Some scholars have suggested that Zi Si composed The Great Learning as well--perhaps serving in the role of amanuensis for his master Zengzi.

Mencius, the so-called Second Sage of Confucianism, is regarded as having formalized the peripatetic insights of Confucius into a systematic philosophy. Significantly, Zengzi makes frequent appearances in Mengzi, perhaps in an attempt by its author to establish a canonical line between himself and the master. Zengzi often acts as the voice of Mencius as the Second Sage identifies rational self-examination as the core of Confucius's philosophy.

Most scholars are willing to give Zengzi or his disciple Zi Si credit for authoring some of The Great Learning, particularly the simpler anecdotal sections reminiscent of the Analects. The simplicity and repetitive nature of some sections suggest that parts of the work may have been chanted by Zengzi and his disciples, a practice common in the semiliterate China of the fifth century b.c.e. Perhaps the best example of this is the famous sorites, or extended syllogism, that summarizes the work:The ancients who wished to illustrate virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

However, other sections exhibit a literary sophistication well beyond the era in which Zengzi and Zi Si flourished. The complex structure of The Great Learning's introductory chapter suggests a literary rather than an oral audience and presumes a familiarity with the lun (essay) form that in the fourth century b.c.e. had begun to supplant the jing (anecdotal) form as the primary means of philosophic discourse. Certain phrases, too, point to later date of composition--or at least to later interpolations within an older text. For instance, the term zhong guo (literally, middle kingdom) as a designation for the collection of Chinese states is common in the work and does not seem to have been much in use before the fourth century b.c.e.

The subject matter of the book also points to the Warring States period (475-221 b.c.e.), characterized by social and philosophic upheaval. In this respect, it is tempting to view The Great Learning, so preoccupied with maintaining social hierarchy, as a call to the traditional Chinese values that had fallen into disrepute in this unstable era. Scholar E. R. Hughes speculates, quite convincingly, that the work may have been a response to the materialistic philosophy of the fa jia, or Legalist, school. Legalism had risen to prominence in the Warring States period, offering a philosophic rationalization for the hegemony of petty warlords seeking to extend their power within the shell of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-221 b.c.e.). For instance, the Legalists argued that the ruler's word was law (fa) and advocated the ruler's use of absolute power for the greater material good of his subjects. In contrast, The Great Learning posits a bond of reciprocity between ruler and ruled based on the Confucian principle of ren, or benevolence.

The twentieth century scholar Fung Yu-Lan is willing to push the date of the text as late as the third century b.c.e., locating in it numerous echoes of the work of Xunzi (c. 313-after 238 b.c.e.). Whether the final version of the text was a product of the fourth or third centuries, it clearly seems to have developed over time, perhaps building upon either an oral or a written text established by Zengzi or his disciples centuries before. One interesting theory, proposed by Hughes, places the origin of the text in the late third century b.c.e. He suggests that it may have been composed in one of the smaller, more vulnerable states such as Qi, or even Confucius's native state of Lu, both of which had clung to their Confucian heritage in the face of external threats; the text's familiarity with leisure sports such as archery and its emphasis on governance certainly support the notion that it was originally intended for an elite audience.

According to tradition, The Great Learning was originally a chapter in the Li Ji (sixth to fifth century b.c.e.; Book of Rites, 1885), a ritual manual and one of the Five Classics purportedly edited by Confucius. However, this ascription is difficult to authenticate because the Book of Rites, originally written on bamboo slips, fell into considerable disarray during the Warring States period. An increasingly rationalistic Confucianism, faced with competition from popular philosophies such as Daoism, Mohism, and Legalism, seemed willing to dissociate itself from the type of archaic ritual prescribed in the Book of Rites. The work barely survived the Qin regime's burning of the books in 213 b.c.e.; however, during the restoration of learning in the Han Dynasty (207 b.c.e.-220c.e.), Ma Yong attempted to assemble a text of the Book of Rites using the surviving, and often misarranged, bamboo slips. Ma Yong's edition included The Great Learning, though it remains unclear whether the work was originally part of the Book of Rites edited by Confucius or a later addition. Nevertheless Ma Yong's The Great Learning served as the standard edition for more than a millennium.

The fragmentary nature of the text and its continued inclusion in the increasingly marginalized Book of Rites prevented the work from reaching a wide audience until the book was rediscovered by Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the father of the neo-Confucian movement during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Zhu Xi lifted the text from relative obscurity and ordained it one of the Four Books, including it in such austere company as the Analects, Mengzi, and The Doctrine of the Mean. Zhu Xi's edition remains the standard, even though he took various liberties with the Ma Yong text. Although he reassembled the chapters and interpolated lengthy commentaries to fill gaps, perhaps his most significant revision concerns a single word in the text. In Ma Yong's edition, the ruler is exhorted to love the people; however, Zhu Xi, following the scholar Cheng Yi, changed "love" to "renovate" or "make new," reconfiguring the regent's role from that of patriarchal benefactor to active agent of change. With very little basis in the text itself, Zhu Xi also arbitrarily divided the work into sections: a short introductory statement that he attributed to Confucius himself and a lengthy subsequent commentary attributed to Zengzi. Zhu Xi also interpreted the title The Great Learning, which literally translates "great learning," in the more narrow sense of higher education, implying that the work was an introductory textbook to Confucianism rather than a philosophical treatise best understood within the context of the Book of Rites. This narrow reading of the title became institutionalized in 1313 when The Great Learning and the rest of the Four Books became the subject matter of the state's civil service examinations.

Zhu Xi's edition of the Four Books with interpolated commentary made him the undisputed father of the neo-Confucian movement and accorded him the status of sage, subordinate only to Confucius and Mencius. However, by the Ching Dynasty (1644-1912), Confucian scholars began to question Zhu Xi's editing practice, preferring the older variants assembled during the Han Dynasty. Most notably, scholars attacked the commentary that Zhu Xi had interpolated into the text of The Great Learning. Ironically, however, the Ching scholars retained the text as one of the preeminent books of Confucianism. Even as they adopted modern, more scientific techniques of textual analysis, they seemed unable to propose a definitive version of the text to supplant Zhu Xi's. Of course, part of their problem lay in the fragmentary nature of the Ma Yong and other Han Dynasty variants of the texts from which they worked. In a broader sense, however, their revisionary work was undermined by the very respect for tradition (even when questionable) implicit in Confucianism.

In twentieth century China, waning interest in the Confucian tradition--spurred by the open hostility of the Communist movement--contributed to the stagnation of editorial efforts to create a standardized text. Though Chinese interest in Confucianism renewed at the end of the century with a state subsidy for Confucian research, Zhu Xi's text remains the dominant, if not universally accepted, version of The Great Learning. This lack of a standard edition is mirrored in the lack of a standard English translation. Significantly, the two most obvious contenders--James Legge's formal 1861 text and Wing-tsit Chan's spirited 1963 translation--both rely on Zhu Xi's text while stating their reservations.