Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism

By Wing-Tsit Chan | Go to book overview

17

Chu Hsi on Personal Cultivation

JULIA CHING

CHU HSI IS HEIR to a tradition, the Confucian tradition as transmitted and interpreted by Mencius (372-289 B.C.?) and others. In this tradition, a key doctrine concerns universal human perfectibility—that every person can become a sage like the ancients Yao and Shun.al This is an optimistic teaching, which claims to see the unity of humankind in the universally accessible goal of sagehood. This teaching is grounded in the belief that human nature is originally good and can be made perfect by personal cultivation. Indeed, the affirmation that human nature is perfectible, that the human being possesses naturally a desire to transcend the narrow goals of self-survival and self-satisfaction, implies the affirmation that this desire is somehow possible of fulfillment. But how? There is need to show a way by which such fulfillment is to be realized. For, without praxis, there is no assurance that theory can be tested, and without testing, theory remains empty—a powerless wish, or rather, a wish capable of destroying the person through frustration, but incapable of its own fulfillment.

When we turn from Chu Hsi's cosmology and metaphysics of human nature to his practical moral philosophy, we shall find a certain continuity of both language and thought. In his ethics and theory of cultivation, Chu Hsi continues to speak of T'ai-chib (Great Ultimate), of lic (principle), and of ch'id (matter, energy). He does not abandon one realm, that of speculative thought, in order to enter another, that of moral action and spiritual cultivation. He integrates the two in a philosophy that is, on every level, both theoretical and practical.

As we examine at closer range Chu Hsi's practical doctrines, we shall discover further evidence against accepting a widespread, conventional image of him as a model of rigid moral propriety and a dispenser of prescriptions and proscriptions regarding the correctness of human relationships. True, Chu Hsi does speak of the Three Bonds and the Five Relationships 2—the warp and woof of Confucian social morality. He was himself a model of correct living, by his own account watchful over the least movements of his mind and heart.

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