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Responses to My Readings

Zhu, Xi 1 (1127-1200 CE)


A small square pond 2 reflects like a mirror.
The reflections of light 3 and clouds 4 pace back and forth together 5.
I wonder how the water has become so clear.
It is because running water flows from its source 6.


Spring water swelled the river last night.
A large boat floats as lightly as a feather.
When grounded at the dock, it was difficult to move 7.
Today it sails smoothly midstream 8.


1 Yuan-hui, Zhong-hui, Hui-an, Hui-weng ("weng" means "old man"), Kao-ting-xian-sheng ("xian-sheng" means "mister"), Yun-gu-lao-ren ("lao-ren" means "old man"), Cang-Zhou-bing-sou ("bing-sou" means "sick, old man"), and ni-weng were Xi Zhu's other first names. His ancestors lived in Wu-yuan-xian City (present day Wu-yuan City in Jiangxi Province) in Hui-zhou-fu County. Xi Zhu was born in You-xi City in Nan-jian-zhou County (present day San-ming County) during the Southern Song dynasty. His father died when he was fourteen years old. Later, he followed his mother as they moved to Chong-an-xian City in Jian-yang County. Honoring the wishes expressed in his father’s will, he studied with Yuan-zhong Hu, Zhi-zhong Liu, and Zi-hui Liu. Zhi-zhong Liu married his daughter to Xi Zhu. In 1147, Xi Zhu passed the local exam because of his outstanding comprehension of Zen philosophy. The examiner, Zi Cai, commented, "Xi Zhu has a vision for the nation. He will be a great man someday." In 1148, Xi Zhu passed the Advanced Exam. In 1151, he was appointed mayor's secretary at Tong-an-xian City in Chuan-zhou County. In 1153, he studied under the tutelage of Tong Li, a third generation disciple of Hao Cheng, and established his own philosophy of idealism. Tong Li gave Xi Zhu a new first name, Yuan-hui ("Yuan" means "seek"; "hui" means "hidden meanings"). After finished his term as mayor, he resigned his office and traveled to various academies of classical learning to promote his philosophy.
    Xi Zhu was a master of "Li-xue (study of principles; metaphysics)", a school of philosophy founded by scholars during the Song dynasty who attempted to search for the common roots of various classics of Chinese philosophy. Following the legacies of Dun-yi Zhou, Hao Cheng, and Yi Cheng, the founders of Li-xue, Xi Zhu forged Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism in one stove with one flame and carried Li-xue forward. The main theme of his philosophy is to be respectful: one should study and practice the principles of virtue and control desire. Xi Zhu advocated studying the phenomena of nature to understand the underlying principles and then putting the principles of virtue into practice through self-examination. Here are some of his important ideas: The principles of nature and the principles of virtue are one; the principles of virtue and spirits are inseparable: the principles in nature govern spirits and spirits embody the principles in nature; the principles of virtue are more fundamental than spirits; comprehension of principles and practice of virtue stimulate each other and lead one toward ever greater understanding.
    In 1163, Xi Zhu wrote to Emperor Xiao-zong and proposed to him three suggestions: 1. Study the phenomena of nature to understand the underlying principles. 2. Fight against the Kingdom of Jin rather than negotiate peace with them. 3. Appoint the wise and able to government positions. Emperor Xiao-zong offered Zhu a position but neglected his suggestions. The emperor's court was full of capitulators. Consequently, Xi Zhu resigned his position and returned to his hometown. In 1164, the Kingdom of Jin signed a peace treaty with the Kingdom of Song under the condition that the latter had to treated former like an uncle. Xi Zhu turned his energy towards a continuation of developing and promoting his philosophy. The emperor court recruited him several times, but he declined all the offers.
    During this period, his hometown suffered a flood, a famine, and then a riot. These incidents inspired Xi Zhu to design a relief plan for disasters. His method of providing disaster relief was to first donate several scores or hundreds of hectoliters of grain and then store them in a grain depot. If there was a temporary shortage, the depot would loan grain to disaster victims. In the winter, the victims would repay the loan with 20% interest. In years with poor harvests, the interest charge was reduced to 10%. In years of famine, there was no interest except for a small charge of three liters of grain. Later, Xi Zhu enforced his method in Fujian Province. Then other provinces followed his example, as did later generations.
    In 1178, through Prime Minister Hao Shi's recommendation, Xi Zhu was appointed to command the troops in Nan-kang District. During this period, he established Bai-lu-dong Academy of Classical Learning and gave lectures there. His school regulations were as follows:
"The Goals of education: Take good care of one's parents, be loyal to the emperor, love your spouse, respect seniors, and be trustworthy.
Order of Study: study comprehensively, ask questions, contemplate, make a clear distinction between right and wrong, and practice one's beliefs.
Cultivation of virtue: Be honest to earn trust, be benevolent to earn respect, control anger and desire, and correct mistakes.
Participating in society: prioritize virtue rather than profit when conducting business; promote virtue without considering rewards.
Ways to get along with people: Do as you want to be done by; if one fails due to lack of assistance, one should use introspection to correct one's faults."
Xi Zhu's school regulations became the example for other schools in China and had far-reaching influence on later generations.
    In 1181, through Prime Minister Huai Wang's recommendation, Xi Zhu was appointed chief official in charge of tea and salt sales in the eastern part of Zhejiang Province. He investigated corruption and tried to impeach corrupt officials including Huai Wang. Wang ordered someone to attack Zhu's philosophy and call it "fake philosophy". Xi Zhu was dismissed from his position.
    In 1187, Xi Zhu became the chief official in charge of punishment at both Gan-zhou City (present day Gan-xian City) and Jiang-zhou City (present day Jiu-jiang City). Before long, Prime Minister Huai Wang resigned and Zhu's school of philosophy became the orthodox school of Confucianism. Several years later, through Prime Minister Ru-yu Zhao's recommendation, Xi Zhu became Emperor Ning-zong's tutor and advisor. When he taught Emperor Ning-zong The Great Learning, he also criticized government. Zhu's criticism displeased the emperor. Soon after, Xi Zhu was accused of interfering with government affairs and banished from the emperor's court.
    In 1190, Xi Zhu was the mayor of Zhang-zhou City in Fujian Province. At that time, many tenant-peasants paid property taxes for landlords. Xi Zhu proposed to verify the deeds and tax the landlords. His proposal was strongly opposed by landlords and was never carried out. Xi Zhu was so angry that he resigned his position in protest.
    In 1193, Xi Zhu served in Hunan Province. Out of his busy life, he found time to renovate Yue-lu Academy of Classical Learning and gave lectures there.
    In 1195, Prime Minister Ru-yu Zhao, a patron of Xi Zhu, was forced to resign by the influential official, Tuo-zhou Han. Because Xi Zhu had joined Zhao to attack Han, Han initiated a campaign to attack Zhu's philosophy. In 1196, Zhu Ye proposed to burn all the books written by Xi Zhu and fail any examinee who would quote Xi Zhu's work when taking the Advanced Exam. Ji-zu Shen took the opportunity to falsely accused Xi Zhu of ten crimes and proposed to sentence him to death. The emperor's court branded Xi Zhu "fake master", his philosophy "fake scholarship", and his followers "fake disciples". Anyone who studied Xi Zhu's philosophy and was recommended to be a government official would be declined. Xi Zhu was too popular to be sentenced, but he never saw his reputation restored during his lifetime. In 1313, Emperor Ren-zong of the Yuan dynasty restored the civil service exams. The examiners adopted Xi Zhu's Annotations of the Four Books (the four books are The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, Confucian Analects, and The Works of Mencius) as the standard textbook for designing exam questions. In 1368, Emperor Tai-zu founded the Ming dynasty. The following year the civil service exams also began to use Xi Zhu's Annotations of the Four Books for designing exam questions. From then on, any scholar who wanted to acquire a government position had to study Xi Zhu's work.
    Xi Zhu served four emperors: Gao-zong, Xiao-zong, Guang-zong, and Ning-zong. At the peak of his career, he was appointed to Director of Bao-wen (treasured writings) Tower and responsible for updating documents, literary classics, and historical books. Xi Zhu was famous for his commentary on the Confucian classics. He is considered the most distinguished scholar of Confucianism since Mencius.

2 A small square pond is in the shape of a book.

3 "The reflection of light" refers to "wisdom, inspirations, enlightenment, etc."

4 "The reflection of clouds" refers to "questions, difficulties, obstacles, frustrations, etc."

5 This line says, "Comprehension and questions stimulate each other and lead one toward ever greater understanding."

6 "Source" and "running water" refer to the origin and drive of development. The elegance of achievements results from the creativity of many generations; a successful scholar should constantly learn new things to stimulate his thoughts; one should not expect sudden success.

7 This line says, "It is difficult to learn a trade in the beginning. Consider writing as an example. At first, one may follow a master's steps by imitating his style. Once one masters one style of writing, one will easily understand other styles of writing. Hard work will eventually allow one to establish one’s own style."

8 This line says, "A breakthrough results from hard work. When the conditions are ripe, success will come."