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Zhu Xi — Great Philosopher of Neo Confucianism

Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), courtesy name Yuanhui or Zhonghui, respected as Zhu Zi or Zhu Wengong, was an exceptional philosopher of Neo Confucianism that had been the most influential doctrine in Chinese culture for the next 700 years.

He absorbed concepts from other philosophical schools and formed his new ideology, the Theory of Li, in which scientific concepts regarding the universe were added to complete Confucianism and to oppose superstitious ideas of Buddhism and Taoism Religion.

Besides being a great philosopher, Zhu Xi was also a remarkable scientist, poet, calligrapher, and exceptional educator with a large number of disciples.

Part of "Cheng Nan Chang He Shi Juan" the Excellent Calligraphy and Poems of Zhu Xi

Part of "Cheng Nan Chang He Shi Juan" the Excellent Calligraphy and Poems of Zhu Xi — Palace Museum

Well Educated Genius and Intelligent Official

Born into an official family, Zhu Xi was sent to school when he was a toddler, where he showed his exceptional talent and great curiosity about everything.

After his father passed away young, he was educated by a group of his father’s intelligent and knowledgeable friends. 

When he was 18, he gained a good score in the Imperial Examination and was assigned some political positions. 

Since Zhu Xi was born, the Song Dynasty already had two emperors (Zhao Ji and Zhao Huan) captured and half territory occupied, by the nomadic regime Jin in the north.

Afterward, many people of Song had been searching for revenge, to take their lost realm and dignity back.

Perfume (Xiang Bing) Blended by Emperor Zhao Gou of the Southern Song Dynasty, Carved with CHaracters of "Recovery and Prosperity"

Perfume (Xiang Bing) Blended by Emperor Zhao Gou of the Southern Song Dynasty, Carved with Characters of "Recovery and Prosperity" — Changzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Resigning From Political Positions to Continue Learning

After years of working in different places in China, Zhu Xi found that many people, both the ruling class and civilians, were believers in Buddhism or Taoism Religion.

In addition, many of their superstitious activities, in his opinion, were a waste of money and time, as well as being huge obstacles to his empire’s getting stronger for revenge. 

Therefore, when his term of office was completed, Zhu Xi didn’t take other political occupations.

Instead, he respected a famous intellectual as his master. In the meanwhile, he also dedicated himself to teaching and writing, and discussing philosophical ideas with other scholars.

Portrait of Zhu Xi, Painted by Guo Xu (1456 — 1532)

Portrait of Zhu Xi, Painted by Guo Xu (1456 — 1532)

Completion of the Theory of Li 

A few years later when Zhu Xi was 32 years old, Emperor Zhao Shen ascended to the throne and asked for governance advice nationwide.

Zhu Xi then wrote an impressive article, which allowed him to present his ideology to the emperor in person.

He suggested the emperor suppress the superstitious activities and fight back bravely against the nomadic regime Jin. 

But the doves in the government had more advantages over the new emperor, and his advice was abandoned. 

Afterward, Zhu Xi rejected the offer to teach at the imperial school and came back to his hometown. 

His entire theory was completed during this period when he also used his influence to establish an efficient system to help victims of natural calamities.

Commentaries of Four Books by Great Confucisnist Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480

Commentaries of Four Books by Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480 — Shandong Museum (Photo by AlexHe34)

Contribution As An Excellent Governor

When Zhu Xi was 48, he again was summoned and assigned to a political position that allowed him to govern a city.

As expected, he did a good job establishing an influential education system, building schools, constructing irrigation projects, and defeating natural disasters.

In the next decade, he got promoted several times and made a great contribution to protecting civilians’ interests, opening up many private colleges, and solving severe problems for the government.

White Deer Grotto Academy in Mount Lu, Firstly Built in 940, Great Philosopher Zhu Xi Reconstructed and Taught there.

White Deer Grotto Academy in Mount Lu, Firstly Built in 940,  Zhu Xi Reconstructed and Taught there. 

Promotion and Cruel Defamation

When Zhu Xi was 64, he was assigned to teach the new emperor. 

However, his theory regarding restraining the monarch’s power and strict self-discipline displeased the new emperor.

Soon, the prime minister who respected and introduced him to the new emperor failed in a political conflict.

Afterward, Zhu Xi was forced to leave the royal palace, only after half a month of being the emperor’s teacher.

What’s more, his political enemy gained the new emperor’s trust and became quite powerful, who then kept defaming his reputation, accusing the Theory of Li hypocritical, and having arrested many of his powerful students. 

Since then, his Theory of Li was banned nationwide, and his students and believers were not allowed to participate in the Imperial Examination, nor take political positions. 

Unearthed Crystal Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Southern Song Dynasty

Unearthed Crystal Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Southern Song Dynasty — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Diligent Writing Under Wide Criticism and Slander

In Zhu Xi's last few years, he lived under the accusations of “incest, hypocrite, infidelity, and corruption”, while hundreds of his excellent students were imprisoned or got banished far away.

But he kept writing diligently until his last day, hoping that his ideology could be appreciated and inherited someday.

After he passed away old and sick, despite the nationwide banning of his theory, thousands of his students and believers traveled long distances to see him off, including his great friend Xin Qiji, another exceptional poet and patriot.

Great Influence of Neo Confucianism

Eight years after Zhu Xi’s departure, his name and ideology were redressed by the next emperor.

Since then, he was highly respected by following monarchs in the history of China, and his theory had been the main subject in Imperial Examinations since 1313, until the last feudal kingdom, the Qing Dynasty, perished in 1912.

Main ideas

Main Beliefs of Zhu Xi

  • Li is the pattern and law of everything, Qi is the element of everything.


The whole of the universe is constituted of Li and Qi together. 


Heaven, earth, human being, and every object have their own Li and Qi. 


  • Qi, the element of everything, could be divided into Yin Yang and the Five Elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and earth). They are visible and moving constantly; therefore, static is relative. 


  • Li of humans is identical, while Qi of humans is different. This determines whether people can be born good or bad, and explains the diverse humanities.


  • Learning and understanding the Li of Heaven and Morals is the most important aspect of every human being. Afterward, people should adjust their behavior and desire, to follow the Li of Heaven. 


Reasonable needs are the Li of Heaven, like eating food and getting married, which humans should follow.


Unreasoning desires are improper lusts, like luxurious feasts and debauchery, which people should restrain and eliminate.  

Chinese Philosophy
  • Li of the universe is an objective existence that humans cannot influence, but can learn. 

  • The learning process should be divided into two stages, each of which should have explicit rules and textbooks.


The first stage is for students from 8 to 15 years old, in which they need to be taught basic knowledge, and form fundamental moral standards. 


People over 15 years old could enter the second stage to learn and research the Li of everything, in which self-study and communication with others are all highly recommended. 


  • Since everything has its own Li and Qi, Zhu Xi studied and researched many objects, trying to figure out their special Li and Qi.


Therefore, he achieved exceptionally in geology, astronomy, medicine, agriculture, and biology. 

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