Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism

By Wing-Tsit Chan | Go to book overview

23

Chu Hsi and His World

BRIAN MCKNIGHT

CHU Hsi was a man of ideas, a thinker. As such his closest ties were often with men long dead. Even when he dealt with his contemporaries much of his discourse concerned ideas. On this intellectual side of Chu Hsi, and indeed on most other facets of his life, I am ill qualified to comment before such a distinguished gathering of intellectual historians. What I will try to do is more modest, to share some of the results of recent work on other facets of the history of his times—economic, social, and political—so that it may be possible to explore some of the ways in which Chu Hsi exemplified the trends of his times and other ways in which he was atypical.

Perhaps the first thing to be said about his lifetime is that it was a time of peace that was haunted by war. War, and more particularly the occupation of the old Chinese heartland by foreign peoples, lay like a shadow across the Southern Sung (1127-1279). Chu Hsi was born into a time of troubles. Only a few months before his birth in the ninth month of 1130, the fugitive Sung (960-1279) court had been driven to the seacoast in Wen-choua in Liang-cheb, 1 while the enemy ravaged the rich prefectures only a few hundred lic2 to the northwest. 3 When he died in 1200 the clouds of war were gathering, created by the foolish irridentism of Han T'o-choud(1151-1202). And in his middle years, immediately following his decisive break with Buddhism, Chu was deeply involved in the debate surrounding the Chin (1115-1234) invasion of 1161. His passionately argued views of this situation are one clear reminder of his involvement in the issues of the day.

And yet, although Chu Hsi's life was punctuated by conflicts with the Chin, and although he argued his position on war with the north at various times during his adult life, the years of his life were basically an age of peace. By the time he passed from boyhood to adolescence the border with the Chin had stabilized. He did not live to see the Sung invade the north in the early thirteenth century. Only the invasion of 1161-1164 marred a largely tranquil era.

The age was peaceful, but the troubles of the late Northern Sung (960‐ 1126), and the invasion that destroyed it, helped shape the conditions of his

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