The philosophy of Principle

Buddhism, Taoism, and what was called “mysterious learning” were popular among the learned people and scholars during the Wei and Jin and the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties. After this division was the Sui Dynasty which only lasted 40 years, and then replaced by the Tang Dynasty. Many of the scholars in Tang, such as Han Yu and Li Ao were determined to restore the Confucianism by attacking Buddhism and Taoism. A serials of new thoughts and ideas related to the universe and human life were referred and discussed by scholars and officials, such as principle (li) and material-force (qi), the Dao (way) and the Qi (instrument), Yin and Yang, human nature and human feelings, principle (li) and desire, knowledge and practice, etc. The discussion of these categories showed that the scholars in this period of time were concerned with more and newer questions than earlier philosophers. The philosophy in this time was entitled as “philosophy of principle”, was indeed more systematic, more speculative, more subtle, larger in scope, and richer in content than earlier philosophy. Its core was certainly Confucianism, but it contained some Buddhism and Taoism.

Zhu Xi

In the Southern Song, the philosophy of principle was further developed. With Zhu Xi this philosophy reached its climax and completion. Zhu may be considered as the synthesizer not only for the philosophy of principle, but of Chinese philosophy from Dong Zhongshu to his day.

Zhu (1130-1200) was born into a scholar’s family in Wuyuan, Jiangxi. He had a wide study of Confucianism, Buddhism, especially the Zen, and Taoism when young, and he also did research work in history and literature, all of the above enabled him to be profoundly knowledgeable in many fields. He worked as government official for a few years after passing the civil service exam, but as a truly learned person he then turned his interests in teaching and writing. He compiled many books with the most well-known four called the Four Books, comprising the Analects, the Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. The Four Books and the notes and commentaries he wrote for them were to become standard textbooks studied by all scholars who intend to sit for the civil service exams in later dynasties. His conversation with his students on various philosophical topics were recorded and edited, and made up a huge book called Classified Conversation of Zhu Zi.


Zhu thought and advocated differently from some of the previous scholars, his disclosure of philosophy of principle seemed to instill great vitality to Confucianism which was of great importance of keeping feudalism in a long-term integrity. Below are some of his thoughts and main points he discussed,

Principle and material-force

Zhu held that the principle was the origin of the universe. In other words, there was first the principle and then there was the universe and all the things in it. But principle and material-force cannot be separated. There is no material-force without principle, nor is there principle without material-force. Before there was a chair, he said, the principle of the chair was already there. A chair has to have four legs-that is something determined by the principle.

There are countless things in the world. Does it follow that there are countless principles? Zhu emphasized that there is only one original principle-the Supreme Ultimate. The countless principles embodied in countless things are all derived from the original principle. This is comparable to the fact that there is only one moon in the sky, but in ten thousand rivers and lakes there its reflection.

But some of the philosophers came up with the different thoughts, who believed that the material-force is the basis of existence. It is eternal, boundless, present everywhere at any time, while the principle is an attribute of material-force. It does not exist before the material-force, but within it.

Human Nature

Zhu and some philosophers in his time believed that human nature is principle embodied in human being. It is good, pure and virtuous. But not everyone is virtuous. The reason is that human beings are made of different types of material-force, and this difference makes them different in moral qualities. Sages are endowed with pure material-force; so their nature is like a pearl in clear water. Evil people are endowed with dirty material-force, and their nature is like a pearl in muddy water. In short, human nature as a reflection of principle is good, but personal qualities affected by material-force may be evil.

Heavenly principle and selfish desire

Zhu advocated that human nature corresponds to heavenly principle, and it finds expression in the four virtues of humanity, rightness, propriety, and wisdom, and the ethical code that governs the relations between father and son, brother and brother, and husband and wife. But human desire may be bad, selfish and dangerous. Therefore Zhu called on people to “keep the heavenly principle and get rid of the selfish desire.” This view suggested that the rulers be just and virtuous, and the common people be obedient, law-abiding and uphold the ethical code—All people should behave according to the heavenly principle, which has never changed and will never change. But he did not say who was to ensure that the ruler behaved according to heavenly principle and removed selfish desire.


The necessity of examining concrete objects

Zhu said that to understand the principle one should examine the manifestations of in concrete objects. The more objects one examines, the wider one’s knowledge will be. This is a process of the accumulation of knowledge, and the result will be the thorough understanding of the principle, or enlightment. Based on the Doctrine of the Mean, he held that the correct study method should be to “learn extensively, inquire carefully, think deeply, differentiate clearly, and practice faithfully.”

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