Zhou Dunyi: The Metaphysics and Practice of Sagehood

Joseph A. Adler

[In Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, 2nd ed., vol.1 (NY: Columbia University Press, 1999), ch. 20]
Zhou Dunyi (or Zhou Lianxi, 1017-1073) occupies a position in the Chinese tradition based on a role assigned to him by Zhu Xi (1130-1200),[1] the architect of the Neo-Confucian school that eventually became "orthodox." According to one version of the Succession to the Way (daotong) given by Zhu Xi, Zhou was the first true Confucian Sage since Mencius (4th c. BCE), and was a formative influence on Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi (Zhou's nephews), from whom Zhu Xi drew significant parts of his system of thought and practice. Thus Zhou Dunyi came to be known as the "founding ancestor" of the Cheng-Zhu school, which dominated Chinese philosophy for over 700 years. His "Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity" (Taijitu shuo), as interpreted by Zhu, became the accepted foundation of Neo-Confucian cosmology.[2] Along with his other major work, Penetrating the Classic of Change (Tongshu), it established the appendices to the Yijing as basic textual sources of the Neo-Confucian revival of the Song dynasty. And Zhou's short essay, "On the Love of the Lotus" (Ai lian shuo), is still a regular part of the high school curriculum in Taiwan.

Zhou was born to a family of scholar-officials in Hunan province. After his father died when he was about fourteen, he was adopted by his maternal uncle, Zheng Xiang, through whom he later obtained his first government post. Despite the increasing importance of the civil service examination system in determining status in Song society, Zhou never obtained the "Presented Scholar" (jinshi) degree. Consequently, while he earned praise for his service in a very active official career, he never rose to a high position.

Zhou's honorific name, Lianxi ("Lian Stream"), was the one he gave to his study, built in 1062 at the foot of Mt. Lu in Jiangxi province; it was named after a stream in Zhou's home village. He was posthumously honored in 1200 as Yuangong (Duke of Yuan), and in 1241 was accorded sacrifices in the official Confucian temple.

During his lifetime, Zhou was not an influential figure in Song political or intellectual life. He had few, if any, formal students other than his nephews, the Cheng brothers, who studied with him only briefly when they were teenagers. He was most remembered by his contemporaries for the evident quality of his personality and mind. He was known as a warm, humane man who felt a deep kinship with the natural world, a man with penetrating insight into the Way of Heaven, the natural-moral order. To later Confucians he personified the virtue of "authenticity" (cheng), the full realization of the innate goodness and wisdom of human nature.

Zhou's connection with the Cheng brothers was the ostensible rationale for his being considered the founder of the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism. Yet that connection was, in fact, slight. Although they later spoke fondly of their short time with him and were personally impressed with him (as were many other contemporaries), the Chengs did not acknowledge any specific philosophical debts to Zhou. Nor are any such debts evident in their teachings. In fact, Zhou's teachings were rather suspect in the eyes of many Song Confucians because of his evident debts to Daoism. This was especially true during the Southern Song (1127-1279), when Confucians increasingly defined themselves in opposition to Buddhism and Daoism. Indeed, Zhou's "Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity" attracted considerable interest among Daoists, and made its way into the Daoist Canon (Daozang).[3]

Given Zhou's tenuous connection with the Chengs, why then did Zhu Xi regard him as the first Sage of the Song? The question is significant, for had it not been for Zhu Xi's estimation of him, Zhou's writings would almost certainly not have become as central to the Neo-Confucian tradition as they are. They apparently were not widely known outside the circle of the Chengs and their students until the twelfth century, and today the only extant editions besides those edited by Zhu Xi are the Taijitu shuo in the Daoist Canon and the Tongshu in another anthology[4] , neither of which is accompanied by a commentary. So it is safe to say that Zhou Dunyi's place in the Chinese tradition is largely a creation of Zhu Xi.[5]

It was the content of Zhou's teachings in relation to Zhu Xi's system of thought and practice that persuaded Zhu to exalt Zhou Dunyi, to ignore his Daoist connections, and to stretch the available data concerning Zhou's affiliation with the Chengs.[6] Zhu was particularly interested in the relationship between the active, functioning mind (xin) and its metaphysical substance or nature (xing), and in the implications of that relationship for moral self-cultivation. Zhou's writings supported Zhu's position on these issues by integrating the metaphysical, psycho-physical, and ethical dimensions of the mind, chiefly by means of the concepts of "Supreme Polarity" (taiji), "authenticity" (cheng), and the interpenetration of activity (dong) and stillness (jing).

Translated below are the complete text of his best-known work, the "Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity" (Taijitu shuo) and six of the forty short sections of Penetrating the Classic of Change (Tongshu). These works stand on their own as foundational texts of the Neo-Confucian tradition and as superb examples of the integration of Confucian ethics and Daoist naturalism.

[Click here for both texts, with Chu Hsi's commentaries, in Chinese -- requires Big5 Chinese reader.]

Diagram of the Supreme Polarity (Taiji tu)

Zhou's best-known contribution to the Neo-Confucian tradition was his brief "Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity" and the Diagram itself. The text has engendered controversy and debate ever since the twelfth century, when Zhu Xi and Lü Zuqian (1137-1181) placed it at the head of their Neo-Confucian anthology, Reflections on Things at Hand (Jinsilu), in 1175. It was controversial from a sectarian Confucian standpoint because the diagram explained by the text was attributed to a prominent Daoist master, Chen Tuan (Chen Xiyi, 906-989), and because the key terms of the text had well-known Daoist origins. Scholars to the present day have attempted to interpret what Zhou Dunyi meant by them.

The two key terms, which appear in the opening line of the Explanation, are wuji and taiji, translated here as "Non-Polar" and "Supreme Polarity."[7] Wuji had been used in the classical Daoist texts, Laozi (Chapter 28), Zhuangzi (Chapter 6), and Liezi (Chapter 5). Wu is a negation, roughly equivalent to "there is not;" ji is literally the ridgepole of a peaked roof, and usually means "limit" or "ultimate." So in these early texts wuji means "the unlimited," or "the infinite." But in later Daoist texts it came to denote a state of primordial chaos, prior to the differentiation of yin and yang, and sometimes equivalent to dao.

Taiji was found in several classical texts, mostly but not exclusively Daoist. For the Song Neo-Confucians, the locus classicus of taiji was the Appended Remarks (Xici), or Great Treatise (Dazhuan), one of the appendices of the Classic of Change (Yijing): "In change there is the Supreme Polarity, which generates the Two Modes [yin and yang]" (A.11.5). Taiji here is a generative principle of bipolarity.

But the term was much more prominent and nuanced in Daoism than in Confucianism. Taiji was the name of one of the Daoist heavens, and thus was prefixed to the names of many Daoist immortals, or divinities, and to the titles of the texts attributed to them. It was sometimes identified with Taiyi, the Supreme One (a Daoist divinity), and with the pole star of the Northern Dipper. It carried connotations of a turning point in a cycle, an end point before a reversal, and a pivot between bipolar processes. It became a standard part of Daoist cosmogonic schemes, where it usually denoted a stage of chaos later than wuji, a stage or state in which yin and yang have differentiated but have not yet become manifest. It thus represented a "complex unity," or the unity of potential multiplicity. In the form of Daoist meditation known as neidan, or physiological alchemy, it represented the energetic potential to reverse the normal process of aging by cultivating within one's body the spark of the primordial qi (psycho-physical substance), thereby "returning" to the primordial, creative state of chaos from which the cosmos evolved. Chen Tuan's Taiji Diagram, when read from the bottom upwards, is thought to have been originally a schematic representation of this process of "returning to wuji" (Laozi 28), the "Non-Polar," undifferentiated state.

Zhou Dunyi ignored the bottom-up reading of the Diagram, leaving one or two of its elements unexplained. Focusing on the top-down differentiation of the cosmos from the primordial unity to the "myriad things," he departed from a Daoist interpretation by singling out the human being as the highest manifestation of cosmic creativity, thereby giving the Diagram a distinctly Confucian meaning. The enigmatic opening line of his Explanation suggests that the Supreme Polarity, the ultimate principle of differentiation, is itself fundamentally undifferentiated (this is stated explicitly a few sentences later). Similarly, activity and stillness, the first manifestations of polarity, each contains the seed of its opposite.[8]

In bringing this largely Daoist terminology into Confucian discourse (chaos was generally frowned upon by Confucians), Zhou may have been attempting to show that the Confucian view of humanity's role in the cosmos was not really opposed to the fundamentals of the Daoist worldview, in which human categories and values were thought to alienate human beings from the Dao. In effect, he was co-opting Daoist terminology to show that the Confucian worldview was actually more inclusive than the Daoist: it could accept a primordial chaos while still affirming the reality of the differentiated, phenomenal world. For Zhu Xi and his school, the most important contribution of this text was its integration of metaphysics (taiji, which Zhu equated with li, the ultimate natural/moral order) and cosmology (yin-yang and Five Phases).

"Diagram of the Supreme Polarity" (Taiji tu)[9]


"Explanation of the Diagram of the Supreme Polarity" (Taijitu shuo)[10]

Non-polar (wuji) and yet Supreme Polarity (taiji)![11] The Supreme Polarity in activity generates yang; yet at the limit of activity it is still. In stillness it generates yin; yet at the limit of stillness it is also active. Activity and stillness alternate; each is the basis of the other. In distinguishing yin and yang, the Two Modes are thereby established.
The alternation and combination of yang and yin generate water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. With these five [phases of] qi harmoniously arranged, the Four Seasons proceed through them. The Five Phases are simply yin and yang; yin and yang are simply the Supreme Polarity; the Supreme Polarity is fundamentally Non-polar. [Yet] in the generation of the Five Phases, each one has its nature.[12]
The reality of the Non-polar and the essence of the Two [Modes] and Five [Phases] mysteriously combine and coalesce. "The Way of Qian becomes the male; the Way of Kun becomes the female;"[14] the two qi stimulate each other, transforming and generating the myriad things.[14] The myriad things generate and regenerate, alternating and transforming without end.[15]
Only humans receive the finest and most spiritually efficacious [qi]. Once formed, they are born; when spirit (shen)[16] is manifested, they have intelligence; when their five-fold natures are stimulated into activity, good and evil are distinguished and the myriad affairs ensue.[17]
The Sage settles these [affairs] with centrality, correctness, humaneness and rightness (the Way of the Sage is simply humaneness, rightness, centrality and correctness) and emphasizes stillness. (Without desire, [he is] therefore still.)[18] In so doing he establishes the ultimate of humanity. Thus the Sage's "virtue equals that of Heaven and Earth; his clarity equals that of the sun and moon; his timeliness equals that of the four seasons; his good fortune and bad fortune equal those of ghosts and spirits."[19] The superior person cultivates these and has good fortune. The inferior person rejects these and has bad fortune.
Therefore [the Classic of Change says], "Establishing the Way of Heaven, [the Sages] speak of yin and yang; establishing the Way of Earth they speak of yielding and firm [hexagram lines]; establishing the Way of Humanity they speak of humaneness and rightness."[20] It also says, "[The Sage] investigates beginnings and follows them to their ends; therefore he understands death and birth."[21] Great indeed is [the Classic of] Change! Herein lies its perfection.

Penetrating the Classic of Change (Tongshu)

The Tongshu, in forty sections, focuses on the Sage as the model of humanity. Here Zhou Dunyi defines Sagehood in terms of "authenticity" (cheng), a term found prominently in the classical Confucian text, The Mean (Zhongyong). To be authentic is to be true to the innate goodness of one's nature; to actualize one's moral potential. Zhou defines authenticity in cosmological terms taken from the appendices to the Classic of Change (Yijing). In this way he uses the concept of authenticity to link cosmology and Confucian ethics. There is significant overlap between the Tongshu and theTaijitu shuo (above), especially in their discussions of activity and stillness as the basic expressions of yang and yin. But the Tongshu is less metaphysical; the emphasis here is on the moral psychology of the Sage. [Click here for a complete translation.]

1.   Being authentic (cheng) (A)

Being authentic is the foundation of the Sage. "Great indeed is the originating [power] of Qian! The myriad things rely on it for their beginnings."[22] It is the source of being authentic. "The way of Qian is transformation, with each [thing] receiving its correct nature and endowment."[23] In this way authenticity is established. Being pure and flawless, it is perfectly good. Thus: "The alternation of yin and yang is called the Way. That which issues from it is good. That which fulfills it is human nature."[24] "Origination and development" are the penetration of authenticity;[25] "adaptation and correctness" are the recovery of authenticity. Great indeed is change (yi)![26] It is the source of human nature and endowment.[27]
2.   Being authentic (cheng) (B)
Being a Sage is nothing more than being authentic. Being authentic is the foundation of the Five Constant [Virtues] and the source of the Hundred Practices. It is imperceptible when [one is] still, and perceptible when [one is] active;[28] perfectly correct [in stillness] and clearly pervading [in activity]. When the Five Constants and Hundred Practices are not authentic, they are wrong; blocked by depravity and confusion.
Therefore one who is authentic has no [need for] undertakings (shi). It is perfectly easy, yet difficult to practice; when one is determined and precise, there is no difficulty with it. Therefore [Confucius said], "If in one day one could subdue the self and return to ritual decorum, then all under Heaven would recover their humanity."[29]
3.   Authenticity, Incipience, and Virtue (cheng ji de)
In being authentic there is no deliberate action (wuwei). In incipience (ji) there is good and evil.[30] As for the [Five Constant] Virtues, loving is called humaneness (ren), being right is called appropriateness (yi), being principled (li) is called ritual decorum (li), being penetrating is called wisdom (zhi), and preserving is called trustworthiness (hsin). One who is by nature like this, at ease like this, is called a Sage. One who recovers it and holds onto it is called a Worthy. One whose subtle signs of expression are imperceptible, and whose fullness is inexhaustible, is called Spiritual (shen).[31]
4.   Sagehood (sheng)[32]
That which is "completely silent and inactive"[33] is authenticity. That which "penetrates when stimulated"[34] is spirit (shen). That which is active but not yet formed, between existing and not existing, is incipient.[35] Authenticity is of the essence (jing), and therefore clear. Spirit is responsive, and therefore mysterious. Incipience is subtle, and therefore obscure. One who is authentic, spiritual, and incipient is called a Sage.[36]
16.   Activity and Stillness (dong jing)
Activity as the absence of stillness and stillness as the absence of activity characterize things (wu). Activity that is not [empirically] active and stillness that is not [empirically] still characterize spirit (shen). Being active and yet not active, still and yet not still, does not mean that [spirit] is neither active nor still. For while things do not [inter-]penetrate (tong),[37] spirit subtly [penetrates/pervades] the myriad things.
The yin of water is based in yang; the yang of fire is based in yin. The Five Phases are yin and yang; yin and yang are the Supreme Polarity.[38] The Four Seasons revolve; the myriad things end and begin [again]. How undifferentiated! How extensive! And how inexhaustible![39]
20.   Learning to be a Sage (sheng xue)
[Someone asked:] "Can Sagehood be learned?" Reply: It can. "Are there essentials (yao)?" Reply: There are. "I beg to hear them." Reply: To be unified (yi)[40] is essential. To be unified is to have no desire.[41] Without desire one is vacuous when still and direct in activity. Being vacuous when still, one will be clear (ming); being clear one will be penetrating (tong). Being direct in activity one will be impartial (gong); being impartial one will be all-embracing (pu). Being clear and penetrating, impartial and all-embracing, one is almost [a Sage].[42]


[1] Another version credited Cheng Hao with this. See next chapter, Preface to The Mean. [Back]

[2] For a note on the translation of taiji as "Supreme Polarity," see the introduction to the Taijitu shuo below. [Back]

[3]Zhengtong Daozang (1962 Taibei ed.), case 8, vol. 7. [Back]

[4] Zhuru mingdao ji (Writings by Various Confucians for Propagating the Dao), compiled in the 1160s. [Back]

[5] Nevertheless, Zhu was not the first to consider Zhou as a founder. Hu Hong (Hu Wufeng, 1105-1155) had earlier done so, and had written a preface to the Tongshu, but his edition of the text itself did not survive. Zhu Xi wrote first drafts of his commentaries on Zhou's works in 1169; they were completed in 1179 and 1187. [Back]

[6] Zhu Xi used a qualified genealogical model of the Succession to the Way (daotong) for its transmission in the Song. But whether he attributed its resumption to Zhou Dunyi or to Cheng Hao, this repossession of the Way came after a break of more than a millenium since Mencius, a view similar to Han Yu's in his essay on the Way (see Ch. 17). Thus Zhu asserted no claim to direct or continuous genealogical succession (as in the Daoist priesthood from Zhang Daoling, the first "Heavenly Master") or "from mind to mind" (as in the patriarchal succession in Chan Buddhism). Zhu was the first to use the term daotong for a succession that actually meant a reconstituting or repossessing of the Way. [Back]

[7] Taiji is usually translated as "Supreme Ultimate" and sometimes as "Supreme Pole," but neither of these terms conveys the meaning that both Zhou Dunyi and Zhu Xi seem to have intended. For example, in both texts translated here, Zhou identifies the yin-yang polarity as taiji. And Zhu Xi says: "Change is the alternation of yin and yang. Taiji is this principle (li)" (Zhu Xi, Zhouyi benyi [The Original Meaning of the Yijing] [1177; rpt. Taibei: Hualian, 1978], 3:14b, comment on Xici A.11.5, quoted below). He also insists that taiji is not a thing (hence "Supreme Pole" will not do). Thus, for both Zhou and Zhu, taiji is the yin-yang principle of bipolarity, which is the most fundamental ordering principle, the cosmic "first principle." Wuji as "non-polar" follows from this. Both are also consistent with Daoist usage of the terms (see below), with which Zhou must certainly have been familiar.
For my summary of the Taoist uses of these terms I am heavily indebted to Isabelle Robinet, “The Place and Meaning of the Notion of Taiji in Taoist Sources Prior to the Ming Dynasty,” History of Religions, 23, no. 4 (1990), pp. 373-411.[Back]

[8] This is reiterated in Tongshu (below), section 16. [Back]

[9]Zhou Lianxi ji (Zhou Dunyi's Collected Works), comp. Zhang Boxing, in Zhengyitang quanshu (Baibu congshu jicheng ed.), 1:1b.[Back]

[10]Zhou Lianxi ji, 1:2a-b. [Back]

[11] The line reads simply, "Wuji er taiji." Since er can mean "and also," "and yet," or "under these circumstances," the precise meaning of the line is far from clear. Another possible translation would be, "The Supreme Polarity that is non-polar!" It seems to be an expression of awe and wonder at the paradoxical nature of the ultimate reality. [Back]

[12] In other words: seen as a whole system, the Five Phases are based on the yin-yang polarity; the yin-yang polarity is the Supreme Polarity; and the Supreme Polarity is fundamentally Non-polar. However, taken individually as temporal phases, the Five Phases each have their own natures (as do yin and yang). [Back]

[13] Yijing (Classic of Change), Xici (Appended Remarks), A.1.4 (Zhouyi benyi, 3:1b). Qian and Kun are the first two hexagrams, symbolizing pure yang and pure yin, or Heaven and Earth, respectively. [Back]

[14] Paraphrasing Yijing, Tuan commentary to hexagram 31 (Xian): "The two qi stimulate and respond in mutual influence, the male going beneath the female.... Heaven and Earth are stimulated and the myriad things are transformed and generated" (Zhouyi benyi, 2:1a-b). [Back]

[15] Cf. Xici A.5.6, "Generation and regeneration are what is meant by yi (change)" (Zhouyi benyi, 3:6a). [Back]

[16] The word shen can refer either to a deity or to the finest form of qi (psycho-physical substance), which is capable of penetrating and pervading things and accounts for human intelligence. See Tongshu (below), chs. 3, 4, and 16. See also Joseph A. Adler, "Varieties of Spiritual Experience: Shen in Neo-Confucian Discourse," in Confucian Spirituality, ed. Tu Wei-ming and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Vol. 11 of World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, ed. Ewert Cousins (Crossroad Publ. Co., in press). [Back]

[17] The five-fold nature consists of the "Five Constant Virtues": humanity (jen), rightness (yi), propriety (li), wisdom (zhi), and trustworthiness (xin). They correspond to the Five Phases. For incipient activity and the differentiation of good and evil, see Tongshu (below), section 3.[Back]

[18] The two parenthetical notes are by Zhou; they are taken from Tongshu, section 6 and section 20 (below). The terms "without desire" and "emphasizing stillness" were questionable to many Confucians, who usually preferred to speak of limiting desires (especially selfish desires), but not eliminating them. Both terms had Buddhist as well as Daoist connotations. [Back]

[19] Yijing, Wenyan (Remarks on the Text), under hexagram 1 (Qian) (Zhouyi benyi, 1:8b).[Back]

[20]Yijing, Shuogua (Remarks on Trigrams), 2 (Zhouyi benyi, 4:1b). [Back]

[21] Yijing, Xici, A.4.2 (Zhouyi benyi, 3:4a-b). [Back]

[22]Yijing, Tuan commentary on hexagram 1 (Qian) (Zhouyi benyi, 1:3a) [Back]

[23] Ibid. (Zhouyi benyi, 1:3b). [Back]

[24] Yijing, Xici, A.5.1 (Zhouyi benyi, 3:5a). [Back]

[25] "Origination, development, adaptation and correctness" are from the Qian hexagram text, and came to be known as the "Four Virtues (or Powers)" of Qian (see Zhouyi benyi, 1:1a). [Back]

[26] This sentence is the same as the penultimate sentence of the "Explanation," where yi is interpreted as the Classic of Change rather than the process of change (following Zhu Xi's readings). But, while the different readings make sense in their contexts, both meanings were probably intended by Zhou in both cases. This would reflect a traditional view (expressed in the Xici appendix of the Classic of Change) that the hexagrams comprising the core of the text are "spiritual things" (shenwu); they are manifestations of the cosmic process, not merely symbols of it. [Back]

[27] Zhou Lianxi ji, 5:2a-3b. [Back]

[28] "Imperceptible" and "perceptible" are wu and you, literally "absent" and "present." [Back]

[29]Analects 12:1, referring to the ruler. Zhou Lianxi ji, 5:9a-10a. [Back]

[30] As explained below and in the previous section, the Sage is authentically good without deliberate effort. "Incipience" is the first subtle stirring of activity, and the first point at which good and evil can meaningfully be differentiated. The "Five Constant Virtues" are the full expression of the innately good nature. [Back]

[31] Zhou Lianxi ji, 5:11b-12a. [Back]

[32] The characteristics described here refer specifically to the mind of the Sage. [Back]

[33]Yijing, Xici, A.10.4 (Zhouyi benyi, 3:12b). [Back]

[34] Ibid. [Back]

[35] I.e., the point at which mental activity has begun but is not yet apparent. [Back]

[36] Zhou Lianxi ji, 5:17b-18a. In other words, the mind of the Sage expresses the moral nature, it responds immediately to stimuli, and it is aware of the first stirrings of its activity. [Back]

[37] I.e. they are limited by their physical forms. [Back]

[38] There is a nearly identical sentence in the "Explanation," above. [Back]

[39]Zhou Lianxi ji, 5:33b-34b. [Back]

[40] I.e. to focus the mind on fundamentals. [Back]

[41] See Zhou's parenthetical note in the "Explanation," above. [Back]

[42] Zhou Lianxi ji, 5:38b. [Back]

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