On Zhu Xi's Theory of Mind and Methods of Self-Cultivation
Excerpted from Smith, Bol, Adler, and Wyatt, Sung Dynasty Uses of the I Ching (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 170-172:
... [B]y the time of the Southern Song there was a growing disenchantment with politics as the focus of Confucian moral activity (de xing). The failure of the Northern Song political reforms and the threat of military subjugation by northern tribes persuaded Zhu Xi and many of his contemporaries that the prerequisite to solving the problems of the Song was the inner cultivation of moral character by the literati class. This was a return to the fundamental Confucian notions that moral power (de, or "virtue") is superior to physical coercion ("laws and punishments") as a foundation of government,(1) and that without humanity or humaneness (ren) proper behavior (li) is meaningless.(2) In the Northern Song, the "external" measures of institutional and political reform had been tried and had failed. Through Zhu Xi's efforts, the debate over the source of values and the question of whether one can know the Way had been won by the Cheng school, according to which values are inherent in the Heaven-endowed moral nature and can be known and put into effect by means of self-cultivation. For Zhu Xi self-cultivation was the ultimate criterion of literati learning.(3) The problems now to be faced concerned practice: how to know the Way and how to put it into effect. This was a socio-political problem as well as a religious one, for access to a Way rooted in heaven-and-earth and human nature afforded literati a source of moral authority independent of the state. Thus we find Zhu Xi concentrating on the inner life of the individual, on the Great Learning's premise that "self-cultivation is the root" of social and political order.(4) Zhu's fundamental problematic, the basis of all his intellectual concerns, was the possibility and the difficulty of attaining sagehood by means of self-cultivation. It is in this context that we must situate his approach to the Yijing [I Ching].

The problem of attaining sagehood in Zhu Xi's system is connected with his theory of mind. We shall, therefore, briefly examine this complex topic before we look more closely at Zhu's approach to the Yijing.

The problem of mind

According to Zhu Xi, mind or mind/heart (xin) is composed of qi, the psycho-physical substrate of all things, in which inheres li, the principle or coherence or order or pattern underlying the cosmos. The li of the mind is human nature (xing), which is inherently good. The qi of the mind is the clearest, most refined form of qi, but the degree of this clarity varies from person to person. The sage is a person whose mind is composed of perfectly clear qi; it is free of the obstruction or cloudiness ordinarily caused by the mind's physical endowment (qizhi). Thus the sage possesses complete knowledge of the moral pattern inherent in all things, including his own mind. He therefore has perfect self-knowledge and fully manifests the goodness of human nature. By acting as an exemplar of human virtue the sage can exert a transforming influence on society.

Every person has, theoretically, the potential to become a sage. While those of us with murkier endowments of ch'i have less chance of becoming sages than those born (by chance(5)) with clearer endowments, still each of us knows li to some extent. Our knowledge of li, partial as it may be, is not essentially different from the sage's perfect knowledge. To become a sage is therefore a matter of purifying our qi, or "transforming the physical endowment" (bianhua qizhi) by means of various intellectual and spiritual practices. These methods of self-cultivation include:(6)

(1) "Abiding in reverent composure" (ju jing), an attitude that orients and unifies one's activity, underlying and making possible the following:

(2) "Prudence in solitude" (shen du), or extreme care taken to heighten awareness of psychic phenomena (ideas, feelings, intentions) in their incipient (ji) phases, at the point when the unexpressed (weifa) mind first expresses itself,

(3) "Self-examination" (xing cha), to distinguish the good psychic phenomena from the evil or selfish ones,(7)

(4) "Preserving and nourishing" (cun yang) the good psychic phenomena, and the innate moral mind and nature of which they are the direct expressions,

(5) "Conquering the self" (ke ji),(8) or eliminating the bad psychic phenomena, such as selfish desires,

(6) "Quiet-sitting" (jing zuo), or meditation, conceived as a quiescent phase in a daily cycle of activity and stillness, when one collects oneself without banishing thoughts; a relatively (but not totally) inactive period that nourishes creative activity,(9)

(7) "Investigating things and extending knowledge" (gewu zhizhi), i.e. "completely fathoming the patterns of things and events,"(10) both externally and within oneself, eventually to arrive at a cognitive "interpenetration" (guan tong) of all things, conceived as an enlightenment experience, and

(8) "Practice" (xing), to put into effect one's knowledge, in effect to validate one's self-cultivation.


1. Analects 2:1, 2:3.

2.  Analects 3:3.

3. See Peter K. Bol, "Chu Hsi's Redefinition of Literati Learning," in John Chaffee and Wm. Theodore de Bary, eds., Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

4.  See Daniel K. Gardner, Chu Hsi and the Ta-hsueh: Neo-Confucian Reflection on the Confucian Canon (Cambridge: Harvard University Council on East Asian Studies, 1986); and Conrad Schirokauer, "Chu Hsi's Political Career: A Study in Ambivalence," in Arthur F. Wright and Denis Twitchett, eds., Confucian Personalities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), pp.162-188. For the Great Learning see Chan, Source Book, p. 87. On the matter of intellectual changes between Northern and Southern Sung see Robert P. Hymes, Statesmen and Gentlemen: The Elite of Fu-chou, Chiang-hsi, in Northern and Southern Sung (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Hymes argues that a development parallel to the one outlined here was the shift in literati political thought and action from a national frame of reference to a more local one (see especially pp.121-122, 132-135).

5. On the role of chance in the appearance of sages, see Chu-tzu yü-lei (Chu Hsi's Classified Conversations), comp. Li Ching-te (1270; rpt. Taipei: Cheng-chung, 1970), ch. 4, p.129.

6. See T'ang Chün-i, "The Development of the Concept of Moral Mind from Wang Yang-ming to Wang Chi," in Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed., Self and Society in Ming Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), pp. 93-120.

7.  The capacity to distinguish good and evil was said to be an innate characteristic of the human mind, corresponding to "wisdom," one of the Five Constant Virtues (or Four Virtues in Mencius 2A:6). See Donald Munro, The Concept of Man in Early China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1969), pp. 49-58.

8.  Cf. Analects 12:1.

9.  See Okada Takehiko, Zazen to Seiza (Sitting-meditation and Quiet-sitting) (Tokyo: Ofusha, 1966).

10.  Chu Hsi, Ta-hsüeh chang-chü (The Great Learning in chapters and verses), in Ssu-shu chi-chu (Collected Commentaries on the Four Books) (Ssu-pu pei-yao ed.), p. 2a.