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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2033

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.

Early Life

Zhu Xi’s early years were dominated by the uncertainty in the wake of the loss...

(The entire section contains 2033 words.)

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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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 this tradition if they were to reform themselves and provide for the welfare of the people. Resentment at court toward such advice hindered his career, but he did serve as prefect of Zhangzhou, Fujian (from 1190 to 1191), and of Tanzhou, Hunan (1194), where he continued his educational and community service reforms.

In 1194, Zhu Xi was summoned to court to be a lecturer to the emperor but was so outspoken that he was dismissed and returned to Fujian after only some forty days as a member of the emperor’s court. Soon the officials whom he had criticized launched a purge of political opponents and an attack upon Dao xue for being “false learning.” Although every major intellectual of the day was implicated in this attack, Zhu Xi was the leading figure whose teachings were proscribed. Zhu Xi died in 1200, still in official disfavor, but several thousand people dared to attend his funeral; indeed, he was regarded by many of the literati of the era as a martyr and a symbol of the Confucian scholar defending ethical principles against arbitrary exercise of governmental power. Soon the political climate improved, and he was exonerated. Later, in 1241, the government honored him with a place in Confucian temples.

Although he held office for only nine years, Zhu Xi contributed significantly to reform of educational and community institutions and family rituals. Nevertheless, his reputation rests primarily on his scholarship. Over the course of forty years, he wrote a series of commentaries on the “Four Books,” and these commentaries best demonstrate his agenda. The Four Books are ancient classics, available in English translation since 1861: Confucius’ Lun-yü (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects), Mencius’ Mengtzu (wr. 311-289 b.c.e.), the Ta hsüeh (Great Learning), and the Chung yung (Doctrine of the Mean). Although some earlier Dao xue masters had focused on these four works, Zhu Xi was the first to make them explicitly the pedagogical foundation of all Confucian studies. In his series of commentaries on these books, he corrected the mistakes of earlier Confucians and established what he considered to be the true interpretation of these most crucial texts. Zhu Xi reinterpreted other classics as well and directed a rewriting of the standard history of China in order to subject historical issues to ethical judgments.

Zhu Xi’s writings and activities aimed at building a community among Confucian scholars. Joining with Lü Zuquian (1137-1181), he compiled the Chin ssu-lü (1175; Reflections on Things at Hand, 1967) as a primer to direct Confucian learning based on statements by earlier Dao xue masters. In 1175, he began having disagreements with Lu Chiu-yüan about the relative priority of erudition and intuition of essential virtues as a basis for the Confucian way of life. In the 1180’s, Zhu Xi was challenged by Chen Liang’s utilitarian idea of using results to define virtues and his historicist penchant for regarding the Dao as having evolved with temporal and spatial changes. To Zhu Xi, Lu Jiu-yuan followed the mistakes of Chan Buddhists in concentrating too exclusively on personal enlightenment and reducing normative patterns to aspects of the mind. Chen Liang pursued social and political achievement at the expense of ethical training; moreover, historicism devalued the constancy of ethical norms, according to Zhu Xi.

These Confucians did agree on a wide range of political and philosophical issues; moreover, they shared a sense that scholars needed to be part of a community with a sharper awareness of Confucian traditions. Although Lu Jiu-yuan more often reached beyond scholars directly to the masses and Chen Liang directed his comments mostly to scholar-officials, Zhu Xi had a clearer educational pedagogy; hence, although he concentrated more on the literati and sought to reach the masses through them, his educational work and his work for the community reached the largest audience.

Zhu Xi was arguably the most systematic philosopher, with the broadest scope of interests in traditional China; moreover, he sought to apply his philosophical understanding to all areas of inquiry: Each thing had an inherent pattern (order or principle) that should be investigated and placed in the context of its relation to the universal order. Although he made careful observations of diverse things, the subject of Zhu Xi’s inquiry was essentially Confucian ethical thought and action.


The scope of Zhu Xi’s scholarship and the power of his intellect joined with his contributions to education, community oneness, and ritual bonding within the family to make him the most influential scholar after Confucius in China. Even if they disagreed with his restructuring of the tradition, Chinese scholars have been unable to ignore his writings and terms of discourse. From 1313 to 1905, his commentaries on the Four Books were decreed to be the standard interpretation and the authority of the civil service examinations.

Later emperors, far more autocratic than the ones he personally admonished, observed the popularity of Zhu Xi among the literati and discovered that aspects of his philosophy of inherent pattern and his effort to build a Confucian community could be appropriated to enhance intellectual orthodoxy as well as hierarchical social and political order. Appealing to both literati and rulers in traditional Korea and Japan, Zhu Xi has also had more influence than any other Chinese thinker since the third century b.c.e. on various areas of culture in those countries. Although he has been blamed by intellectuals and political reformers during the twentieth century for much of the oppressiveness in East Asian cultures, some since the 1960’s have increasingly emphasized positive impacts of his legacy on philosophy, education, and ethics.


Bruce, J. Percy. Chu Hsi and His Masters: An Introduction to Zhu Xi and the Sung School of Chinese Philosophy. London: Probsthain and Co., 1923. The first major study in English of Zhu Xi’s life and his principal mentors. Although dated, it is useful, because English-language accounts are still limited. Includes an index.

Chan, Wing-tsit. Chu Hsi: Life and Thought. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1987. Essays survey the history of Zhu Xi’s impact on China, Korea, Japan, Europe, and the United States. Special attention is given to changing attitudes toward Zhu Xi in the twentieth century. Chan has done more than anyone else to introduce Zhu Xi’s philosophy in the English language. Includes bibliography and index.

Chan, Wing-tsit, ed. Chu Hsi and Neo- Confucianism. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986. An international collection of essays by thirty-one senior scholars covers diverse areas of Zhu Xi’s philosophy but emphasizes his metaphysics. The volume is especially noteworthy for including most of the major twentieth century Chinese and Japanese historians of Chinese thought. One essay relates Zhu Xi’s life to his philosophy, and several evaluate his influence upon later generations in East Asia. Includes an index.

Gardner, Daniel K. Chu Shi and the “Ta- hsüeh”: Neo-Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. In addition to an original annotated translation based on Zhu Xi’s writings, Gardner provides a study of the Ta hsüeh text, its history through the Sung, and the reasons Zhu Xi found the text so philosophically compelling. Includes annotations, bibliography, index, and the Chinese text.

Tillman, Hoyt Cleveland. Utilitarian Confucianism: Ch’en Liang’s Challenge to Chu Hsi. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982. In addition to analyzing the issues between Ch’en Liang and Zhu Xi, this study also surveys the evolving intellectual and political environment during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The lives and personal relations of the two principals are also discussed. Includes bibliography and index.

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