Zhu Xi on liberal education

I’ve been reading Gardner’s Chu Hsi: Learning to be a Sage. The book consists of a long introduction to Zhu Xi and his work (He was the Thomas Aquinas of China, a comparison that does not mean much to American undergrads) and a translation of Conversations of Master Chu (朱子語類) ,thematic selections from Zhu’s many writings and commentaries on the classics.1 Two of the chapters are on reading, which was a major theme for Zhu and is a major theme for American academics. Trying to figure out what texts our students should read, trying to teach them how to approach these texts and trying to figure out what the heck they did with them as you read their reactions are some of the main things we do. In fact it they are -the- main things, since students will usually forget us, our lectures and our exam questions fairly quickly. They should not forget their encounters with Zhuangzi, Thomas Paine, or Paul Cohen, at least if liberal education has any meaning at all.

Zhu Xi was somewhat critical of reading. Book learning is a secondary matter for students. ( 4/1) since moral principle is originally complete in man, and does not need to be added from outside. Despite that he spends a lot of time on reading, since it is the a way to have contact with the sages and worthies. It is worth a lot of work.

Here’s what is necessary: one blow with a club, one scar, one slap on the face, a handful of blood. Your reading of what other people write should be just like this. Don’t be lax! (4.14)

American teachers would be happy to be able to inculcate that type of spirit. Zhu also has some handy advice  for students on how to approach a text.

4.11 In reading, you must look for an opening in the text; only then will you find the moral principle in it. If you do not see an opening, you’ll have no way to enter into the text. Once you find an opening, the coherence of the text will naturally become clear.

This is something teachers work on a lot the point is not just to run your eyes over the text it is to “enter” it and figure out what it is doing. You want to reach the point where you can look at the text like a scholar.

4.12. When scholars first look at a text, they see only a confused mass. In the course of time they come to see two or three chunks. But only when they see ten or more chunks will they make progress. It’s like Butcher Ting cutting up the ox—it was best when he no longer beheld the whole ox.

O.K., we know where we want to end up. How do we get there?

4.35- T0 be a man is just to be a man, to read a book is just to read a book. Ordinarily, if a man reads a book ten times and doesn’t understand it, he’ll read it twenty times. If he still doesn’t understand it, he’ll read it thirty times. With the fiftieth reading there’s sure to be some understanding. If with the fiftieth reading he’s still in the dark and doesn’t understand, it’s that his psychophysical stuff2 is no good. Nowadays people have yet to read a book ten times, and they say they can’t understand it.

Hmm. Not much like modern advice to students. If it first you don’t succeed try the same thing fifty more times. If it still does not work you are stupid. Still, he does complain about these kids today at the end, so he is not entirely unlike modern teachers.

Zhu Xi would not have been at all impressed with modern ideas of cultural literacy, the idea that to be educated one needs to read widely in a lot of texts to understand the cultural context in which to place whatever one reads. He favors much more limited reading.

4.21. Generally, in reading, students should keep to these three [dicta]: (1) read little but become intimately familiar with what you read; (2) don’t scrutinize the text, developing your own far-fetched views of it, but rather personally experience it over and over again; and (3) concentrate fully, without thought of gain.

4.22. Best to read less but to become intimately familiar with what you read. That children remember what they’ve read and adults frequently don’t is simply because children’s minds are focused. If in one day they are given one hundred characters, they keep to one hundred characters; if given two hundred characters, they keep to two hundred characters. Adults sometimes read one hundred pages of characters in one day—they aren’t so well focused. Often they read ten separate pieces when it would be best to read one part in ten.  Extend the time you give to your reading; limit the size of your curriculum.

You don’t want to read widely, you want to read a handful of texts and really understand them. This is almost the opposite of how we encourage our students to read. We want them to come up with their own theories, and like it or not we do encourage them to think of gain by giving them grades. This is one of the main things that makes Zhu Xi not a modern liberal of any sort. Unlike us he has a canon, a relatively small collection of texts that should be the basis of your education. These are not texts you should question in the sense of standing above them trying to pull out material you can use, but rather to mold yourself to it.

5.37. The problem with men is that they feel the views of others alone may be doubted, not their own. Should they try to reproach themselves as they reproach others, they may come to realize their own merits and demerits.

Despite not being a modern liberal, the goal of his education is the same as our liberal education, to study a handful of works well enough that we can understand other things that we encounter.

4.38. [ Zhu quotes Shan-ku] “I don’t know which of all the Classics and all the histories I’m most intimately familiar with. In general, students are fond of breadth but often lack detailed understanding. They spread themselves over a hundred different books, which isn’t as good as having a detailed understanding of one—and if they still had the strength afterward, they could turn to other books. In this way, even if they were to wade and hunt through numerous works, they’d still get the gist. It seems that if our reading of books is based on our capabilities we will benefit from each and every passage, but if the books overwhelm us, even when we’re finished with them we’ll still be vague about their meaning.

This is the heart of liberal education. Undergraduate education is intended to lead the student through understanding a tiny handful of books (more than one, but then we have no canon) so that they reach the point where they can understand whatever else they may read. This is why college professors rarely take classes from their colleagues, despite the fact that we get free tuition. Why bother having someone lead you through a text when you can do it yourself? This is also why picking books for an intro class is such a trial. If this is going to be one of the six or seven books that make the foundation of a liberal education is this really the one I want? We do want students to re-think themselves as they read these books, just as Zhu wanted.

5.33- The problem students have with reading is simply that they wish to advance and are unwilling to retreat and reread. The more they advance, the more their reading lacks understanding. It’d be better if they were to retreat but fully comprehend what they read. In general, the problem is that they stick to their opinions and are unwilling to give them up. It’s just like hearing litigation: if beforehand the mind supports proposition B, it will simply search for the wrongs in A; and if beforehand it supports A, it will simply discover the wrongs in B. Better to put aside one’s views toward A and B and slowly examine them both. Only then will one be able to dis tinguish right from wrong. Heng-ch’ii said: “Wash away the old understanding and bring forth new ideas.” This statement is extremely apt. If one doesn’t wash away the old understanding, where will the new ideas arise? Students today have two kinds of flaws: one is that they let themselves be ruled by personal prejudices; the other is that they embrace received theories. Even if they wished to shake free of these, they’d still naturally be troubled  by them.

So Zhu does favor something that is not unlike our modern liberal education. His goal however, is not ours. We want to turn people into constant readers who are always dipping into this and that. He is not.

5.38. …He also said: People are afflicted with a desire to speed through [what they read]. I once read a collection of poetry with another man. He routinely skipped over the titles of the poems. Not even to read the titles of the poems—what kind of reading of poetry is that? I once saw the inside of Kung Shih-chih’s sedan chair. There was but one text to read, which shows he was focused and calm. He added: Normally when a person goes out, he places three or four texts in his sedan chair. He reads one book, and when he gets bored he reads another. What kind of effort is this?

How many books are you reading now? Probably too many. There is a lot more of interest in Gardner’s book, but I think I will take Zhu’s advice at least for a while

4.54 People beyond mid-life shouldn’t read much; they should simply turn the little they do read over and over in their minds. They they’ll naturally understand moral principle.

  1. The full text of his conversations with his disciples was compiled after his death and a thematic edition was published in 1270. Garner works from Chang Po-hsing’s 18th century abridgment with additions of this own. 

  2. qi 


  1. Would this be, in this vein, a good text for students? It sounds like it. I always feel like I’m giving neo-Confucianism short shrift (in fact, I’m doing that next week), but it’s hard to balance the intellectual against all the other stuff that’s going on.

  2. Jonathan,

    Yes, I think you could put together some nice snippets from the Gardner book to use in class. The whole book would be a bit much for most classes I could think of, but students might relate well to some of the stuff on teaching and learning. If the aphoristic nature of the text left them with only bits and pieces of knowledge about Zhu rather than a full and deep understanding of Zhu’s brand of Neo-Confucianism, well, its better than nothing.

  3. _Learning to Be a Sage_ is terrific, but if you were teaching Zhu Xi in depth, you might also look at Daniel Gardner’s more recent book, _Zhu Xi’s Reading of the Analects: Canon, Commentary and the Classical Tradition_. It does a great job of showing how Zhu Xi used commentaries to establish his ideas. _Learning to Be a Sage_ doesn’t really deal with that, but it could be important for teaching the ways in which Zhu Xi’s ideas transformed readings of the classics and influenced later imperial history.

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