Cheng-Zhu or Chengs v. Zhu?

I didn’t make a big thing of it in class, and nobody seems to have noticed the discrepancy, but there’s something of a disparity between my World History textbook (Brummet, et al., Civilization: Past and Present, 11e) and my own understanding of the development of Neo-Confucianism. Now that the semester’s (almost) over, I’d like to throw it open for comment.

My understanding, based in no small part on the new editions of the Columbia Sourcebooks, is that Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi were largely in agreement on the matter of li [principle] and qi [essence, force, energy, etc.], but that Cheng Yi emphasized qi as the most important consideration in personal development while Cheng Hao emphasized jen [humaneness] as the key to education and moral understanding. Zhu Xi, then, while a student of both brothers, was more a follower of Cheng Yi, focusing on the function of qi; thus the term Cheng-Zhu Confucianism.

Cheng Hao, on the other hand, was the progenitor of the Cheng-Lu strain, emphasizing, along with Lu Xiangshan, the unity of xin [mind, soul, heart, etc] with the Ultimate substrate of existence and the li principle. This is important particularly because it’s the foundation for the development of Wang Yangming thought, which was very influential in Japan.

Civilization, though, puts the Cheng brothers together as developers of li-qi theory, and claims that Zhu Xi “differed from the Chengs by ascribing greater importance to li over qi and by positing the existence of a Supreme Ultimate to which all li was connected.” (304)

Am I splitting hairs to see the textbook as oversimplifying to the point of error? How do you teach the Song Renaissance?


  1. Johnathan,

    I’m not sure I can help you much, since I rarely get that far into Confucian metaphysics even in the East Asia survey. I think Brummet has done the best he can with this. I think the most important things Zhu Xi does are as a compiler and synthesizer and his practical advice on self-cultivation. Also, if they have not really done Zhou Dunyi the Great Ultimate and its cosmology it is worth bringing it up under Zhu Xi. Actually, when I teach this I lump the whole school under his name and use the time saved to talk about the social position of the new elite. Differentiating the Cheng brothers seems like a lot of intellectual work for very little pay-off in a class like that. Of course, I am less concerned with putting Wang Yangming into a Confucian context so I can ship him to Japan than you probably are.

  2. As a student of Korean intellectual history, I always run into the same issue: what do I call this “thing” that I variably refer to as Neo-Confucianism, Cheng-Zhu Learning, Zhu Xi Learning, Learning of the Way, etc.?

    I don’t think I will ever find a satisfactory answer. For a general world history class or even an introductory Chinese history class, I think it is suffice to call it “Neo-Confucianism.” At that stage, I don’t think that students will benefit much from more alien labels like Cheng-Zhu, Cheng-Lu, daoxue and so on.

    When I write “Cheng-Zhu” in papers addressed to specialists, I define it very narrowly: by that I am referring to Zhu Xi’s construction of the Way lineage and his claim to authority as the only true successor to Cheng Yi. I distinguish this from “daoxue” a broader category which could include other Cheng brother followers whom Zhu Xi eliminated from the orthodox succession.

    As for whether li or qi was more important in the philosophy of Zhu Xi, my answer is: Does it matter in a history class? That would be of interest in a Chinese philosophy class. I personally think that it would be more useful to introduce perhaps a summary of Peter Bol’s thesis. That way your students would come to understand Neo-Confucianism as a historical development and as something of historical significance.

  3. I’m sorry this response comes two years after the question, but I just now discovered this site. I think that the problem is with the way the question is posed: “Which is more important for Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi, li or qi?” They are equally important, but for different reasons. The emphasis on qi concerns the idea that it is one’s “physical nature” (qizhi zhi xing) that clouds one’s understanding of the “original (moral) nature” (benran zhi xing), and so self-cultivation requires “transforming the physical nature” (bianhua qizhi, a concept ). The emphasis on li concerns the idea that the moral nature is the human instantiation of li(=xing), and constitutes the norm or goal of self-cultivation. The equal importance might be symbolized by Zhu Xi’s claim that the two aspects of mind (human mind/renxin and moral mind/daoxin), which correspond to these two aspects of human nature and to qi and li respectively, are really just that – two aspects of the one mind.

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