Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism

By Wing-Tsit Chan | Go to book overview

3

Chu Hsi's Contribution to
Confucian Learning and the Flaws
in His Theoretical Thinking

LIANG SHUMING

TO BEGIN WITH, we must clarify what kind of learning Confucianism is. Having done so, we can then evaluate Chu Hsi's contribution to this tradition. I shall proceed with my discussion in this sequence.

Describing his own process of learning and intellectual maturity, Confucius (551-479 B.C.) once remarked, "At fifteen I set my mind on learning. At thirty I had established myself. At forty I no longer had perplexities. At fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven. At sixty I became at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart's desires without transgressing moral principles." 1 It is thus evident that what Confucius called learning is both a conscious reflection upon one's life and one's manner of living and a search for gradual improvement of both. Scholars in the past have offered various conjectures to interpret the different stages of development outlined by Confucius. To explain the sentence, "At sixty I became at ease with whatever I heard," for example, some scholars have suggested something like "When the sound enters, the mind is penetrated." This is a highly inappropriate explanation. When we reflect upon the matter seriously, even Confucius himself did not know what stage of development he would reach before he actually reached it. How can we venture any reckless guess? We should strictly observe the dictum that "when we do not know, we acknowledge our ignorance." 2 What we do know, however, is that Confucian learning is nothing other than the conscious reflection upon one's life and one's manner of living.

The way Confucius' disciple Yen Huia3 (c. 521-490 B.C.) undertook his study is the best illustration of Confucian learning:

When Duke Aib of Luc asked him which of his disciples was fond of learning, Confucius replied, "There was one Yen Hui who was fond of learning. He did not vent his anger upon an innocent party, nor did he make the same mistake twice. Unfortunately his allotted span of life was a short one and he died. Now there is no one. I have not come across another as fond of learning as he was." 4

What is meant by "not venting anger upon an innocent party"? What is meant by "not making the same mistake twice"? From Confucius' tone of

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