Zhu Xi’s Conversation with His Disciples

Zhu Xi is one of the most prominent philosophers of the Confucianism. His rationalist approach to the Confucianism resulted in thorough classification and synthesis of the main concepts that were mentioned in the works of Confucius, the original ideas about the investigation of gewu, or things. He also researched the notions of qi, which is the material force, the vital energy, and li, which is the principle of the cosmos (Ebrey, 172).

The works of Zhu Xi created the basis of the classical Chinese education, government and bureaucracy that are still urgent and actively used more than 7 centuries after the death of the philosopher. The Conversations With the Disciples is the written record of the discussions the philosopher had with his followers. They disclose the classical Confucian view concerning the most important philosophical and ethical categories like the ways in which a virtuous person should act, the essence of the past, and understanding of the surrounding nature. The Conversations With the Disciples feature the key concepts of Zhu Xi’s philosophy, that combine both traditional Confucian approach to the problems of universe and the essence of humanity, and the innovative insight into these issues.

The Conversations With the Disciples is the written record of the disputes between Zhu Xi and people who came to listen to him, and made this record. It was written approximately in the 12th century (Ebrey, 172). It is the part of the compilation the Classified Dialogues of Master Zhu (Kim, 27). The historical context to which The Conversations refer is interesting for a number of reasons. The main issue is that it belongs to the age of the revival of the Confucianism during the rule of the Song dynasty. Numerous philosophers appeared in that period of time, and there were many adult people who were willing to learn more about the philosophy and the wisdom. The majority of students who came to listen to the philosophers were preparing themselves to pass the examination on civil services. However, the rise of the philosophical thought was so active, that many of those students were inspired by the teachers to commit their lives to Confucianism and cultivation of knowledge (Ebrey, 172).

The dialogues of the philosopher and his students reflect the way in which the thoughts proposed by Confucius developed with the time in the Chinese society (Ebrey, 173-177). The first idea proposed by Zhu Xi that is worth mentioning is his understanding of the nature of human beings. The philosopher admits the possibility of the combination of the opposite notions in the nature of the particular person. According to him, one individual can be good and evil at the same time (Ebrey, 174). A peculiar issue is that the categories of good and evil are fully determined by the cultural Chinese context of that time. Good means friendly, kind and sensitive to all manifestations of the reality, while evil is what is logically opposite to these characteristics. The good traits can be found in every person, but the way they will be manifested depends on three main issues: social environment family, and inborn talents. Qi, which denotes the gifts of the particular person and the energy this person has to put his/her talent into practice, might differ, and thus it determines the the abilities for self-realization (Ebrey, 175).

These ideas about the nature of human beings were revolutionary in the times of Zhu Xi. His predecessors did not analyze the human nature as the complex notion and did not pay attention to the personal differences that obviously existed and influenced the development of every individual. According to the traditional point of view in the times before Zhu Xi, there was only one unified method of self-cultivation that required meditation and cleaning of the mind which might facilitate the person’s perception of the natural good (Kim, 62-63). The realization of the individual was not in the practical implementation of his/her talents, but rather in understanding the nature of self and the surrounding world. Zhu Xi asserted that every person should choose his/her own way of becoming self-conscious. He understood that the introspection was not his method of learning and acquiring wisdom, and thus he told his disciples to think critically about the ways that might help them (Thompson, 122-123).

Zhu Xi proposed a unique approach to the self-cultivation that was based on the thoughts of the classical Confucian world view. The philosopher claims that the main issue in understanding how to behave in the right way is understanding of the mechanisms that form the model of virtuous conduct, people, society, and the world in general. The interactive and the defining pattern that describes these mechanisms and principles of the universe is called li, and it contributes to the development of the main characteristic of the virtuous man, which is respect, or jing (Thompson, 135). As it was mentioned earlier, the teachings of Zhu Xi are based on the classical works of Confucius and his followers, that write about the the importance of the good nature, respect that comes in the process of clearing the mind, and as the result yi, which means appropriateness in all actions and thoughts. Zhu Xi claims that in case a person is guided by the feeling of respect to the others and understands the patterns that determine the functioning of the universe and the society, such person is able to develop the appropriate way of behavior and acquire zhuzai, or a good will (Thompson, 137).

Another issue that is important in understanding the philosophical heritage of Zhu Xi is his ideas concerning the humanity in general. He synthesizes the ideas proposed by the classical Confucian school of thought about ren, or the humanity, and proposes to consider this category both from human and cosmic points of view. The philosopher also introduces the ethical and the logical critique of the notion of humanity (Ebrey, 176).

He starts his investigation from acknowledging the authority of Confucius and his respect to the greatest Chinese philosopher, asserting that humanity is equal to the creativity of the cosmos. The earth and the heavens constitute the cosmos and its impulse is the humanity. Zhu Xi just like the followers of the classic Confucian school of thought considers the changes of the seasons that happen every year in the set cycle to be the example that supports the idea of the cosmic impulse (Thompson, 140). He claimed that the nature is benevolent to people, it gives them mild conditions to live and to feed themselves. An interesting thought in this discourse is that Zhu Xi states that the nature gives the impulse to people, so that they can live, and to hundreds of other creatures, who receive the similar impulse form humans, who allow them to live and help them. The philosopher sees the virtue of the humanity in the obligation to care about animals and nature (Thompson, 141).

Zhu Xi is the first philosopher who correlated the four main human virtues described by Confucius with the four stages that determine the cosmic creativity. Thus, wisdom, appropriateness, humanity, and ritual conduct (the human virtues according to Confucius) refer to firmness, growth, origination and flourishing of the nature (Kim, 15-16). Zhu Xi reflects upon the place of a human being in the universal flourishing of nature and the self-realization of the other people. He introduces the concept of the general love pattern and the general character of human mind, that he synthesizes in the notion of ren, or authoritative parenthood of people towards nature and the humanity in general. It is possible to claim that Zhu Xi was the first Chinese philosopher who introduced the idea that the realization of self is based upon the appropriately shown love for the others (Kim, 20-21).

The Conversations With the Disciples is the part of the compilation the Classified Dialogues of Master Zhu. The main points of the philosophical heritage of Zhu Xi are presented in the discussions he had with his disciples. First of all, the philosopher synthesized the ideas of Confucian classical school of thought, that was considered to be dominant in the 12th century, when the philosopher lived. Second, Zhu Xi introduced his own point of view concerning the major issues of the Confucian philosophy. The concepts of humanity, self-realization, cosmos, impulses that affect human life and the cardinal virtues are disclosed from the new perspective. The ideas of Zhu Xi had a great impact on the further development of the Chinese philosophy and ethics. It was the first step towards the classification of the ideas of Confucius and the individualization of the approach to self-cultivation. It is possible to assume that that Zhi Xi and the conversations he had with his disciples contributed to the active development of the Chinese thought by popularizing philosophy, making it more practical, at the same time being traditional and respectful to the authority of Confucius.



Ebrey, P. B. (2009). Chinese civilization: a sourcebook. New York: Simon and Schuster.


Kim, Y. S. (2000). The natural philosophy of Chu Hsi 1130-1200. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.


Thompson, K. O. (2007). The archery of wisdom in the stream of life: Zhu Xi’s reflections on the Four Books. Philosophy East and West, 56 (3), 110-142.

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