Chu Hsi

4 Directions:   East          South        West          North   
4 Seasons:      Spring        Summer       Autumn        Winter
5 Elements:     Wood          Fire         Metal/Earth   Water
4 Virtues:      Humanity      Propriety    Righteousness Wisdom
4 Characters:   Mild          Functional   Judgemental   Contracting
4 Wills:        Creation      Growth       Maturity      Storing
4 Beginnings:   Empathy       Modesty      Shame         Right & wrong
4               Birth         Growth       Collecting    Preservation
4               Morality      Flourish     Advantage     Firmness
4 Times:        Sunrise       Noon         Sunset        Midnight

Chu Hsi, Learning to be a Sage
Chu Hsi and NeoConfucianism
The Confucian Way of Contemplation
Chu Hsi's Family Rituals
Chu Hsi, New Studies

The beliefs of a civilization inevitably change over time influencing the course of its history, and this is certainly true of the Chinese civilization. During the time of Chu Hsi, (1130-1200AD), Confucian doctrine had been in stagnation for more than a thousand years, being supplanted by Taoist and Buddhist systems of thought. He successfully reversed this trend, infusing new life into the value of Confucian ideals, which are based on practical ethical principles that support harmonius community life. The essence of Chu Hsi's thought can be summed up in two phrases: "total substance and great functioning" and "wisdom as hidden and stored." It is his thinking on the latter that gave rise to a unifying philosophy that is both profound and significant.

"Total substance and great functioning" refers to the functioning of the mind. Chu Hsi believed that unless effort is made to preserve the mind, it lapses into chaos and unintelligibility. Without constant challenges, it becomes insulated and inflexible, declining in power and wholeness. To preserve the mind, Chu Hsi said it must be exercised, through the investigation of things until their fundamental principles are understood. As ones knowledge and learning continues, one will "awaken all of a sudden" to what is harmonius and unified, which is manifested as "total substance and great functioning." If the mind is not properly cultivated, Chu Hsi asserted that the extension of knowledge would deteriorate into empty learning.

It was not until the winter of his life, at the age of sixty-five, and at full maturity of his thought, that Chu Hsi began to focus his attention on the concept of "wisdom as hidden and stored." This idea first originated in the "Book of Changes," a text which is said to contain the nucleus of Chinese thought. The idea was passed down from generation to generation of Chinese thinkers, but it was Chu Hsi who crystallized its essence, organizing its many related ideas into a grand philosophical system of thought.

The Book of Changes describes all phenomena in the world, whether in human affairs or the natural order, as being driven by a cyclical current of coming and going, growth and decline. Accordingly, the material force (ch'i) alternates between "yin," the passive and static principle, and "yang," the active and dynamic principle. This successive rise and fall of yin and yang was thus used to explain all natural phenomena, such as the rotation of the sun and the moon, the alternation of night and day and the four seasons. It is said that the great virtue of Heaven and Earth is called life, and the endless production of things is called Change. What drives this endless Change is the never ceasing flow and exchange between negative and positive principles, or yin-yang. Since the Book of Changes is a book on divination, one hopes to discover ones fate by consulting its hexagrams.

Gradually, the separate ideas of Chinese thought started to coalesce and become equated with each other. So, for example, the Four seasons, became equated with the Four directions, and then to the Five Elements*. Then these ideas merged with the ethics of Confucianism, its Four Virtues of Heaven, the Four Wills to Life, and the Four Beginnings. Just as the four seasons endlessly cycle, emerged the idea that even virtues of mankind would follow a cyclical pattern too, which would be manifested in human affairs, such as politics and economics. Li Ting-tso of the T'ang period

"equated the virtue of humanity, which is the spirit of life in the spring, with the east and Wood; the virtue of propriety, which governs nourishment of things in the summer, with the south and Fire; the virtue of righteousness, which governs the maturing of things in the autumn, with the west and Metal; and the virtue of wisdom, which governs the perserving of life in the winter, with the north and Water. He also quoted Confucius saying, 'The man of humanity enjoys the mountain while the man of wisdom enjoys water.'

When winter comes, things contract themselves into storage and preservation and, as a result, become quiet. Likewise, a will for life also contracts itself into such preservation that it leaves hardly any traces on the surface. But the will of Heaven and Earth for life, which is ready to activate itself limitlessly, can be seen lying deep there. The nature of wisdom as hidden and stored is easy to understand in terms of the preservation of life in the winter." (p203)

Mencius had described the Four Beginnings as "feelings" of: commiseration and empathy, of shame and dislike, of modesty and complaisance, and of right and wrong. Chu Hsi identified the Four Beginnings as functions of nature, i.e. governing laws or principles, not feelings. Since the Han dynasty, the Five Constant Virtues: humanity, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and truthfulness had also been presented as elements of nature. Chu Hsi considered the first four as all true, and declared that it was redundant to include truthfulness as a separate entity, thus reiterating the doctrine of the Four Virtues as originally advanced by Mencius. Thus, a correspondence can now be made. According the Chu Hsi, since humanity, propriety, and righteousness are manifested as feelings of empathy, complaisance and shame, respectively, their operation in human affairs is visible. On the other hand, wisdom and the corresponding ability to decide between right and wrong is invisible in its operations. Thus it is hidden and stored.

From the standpoint of principles, with reference to the will for life, "humanity is the creation of life, propriety is the growth of life, righteousness is the maturity of life, and wisdom is the storing of life. Wisdom is, therefore symbolized as winter in terms of the four seasons, the limit of quietude of yin in terms of the activity and tranquillity of yin and yang, or the hour of tzu at midnight in terms of day. It is in wisdom as hidden and stored that all things are stored and preserved and all forms or phenomena hide themselves. Thus it becomes clear for Chu Hsi, wisdom has the meaning of 'being laid up in store and preservation.'"(p204)

Chu Hsi "characterized humanity as being mild, propriety as being outwardly functional, righteousness as being strict and judgemental, and wisdom as contracting. This is explained in terms of birth in the spring, growth in the summer, collecting in the autumn, and preservation in the winter. According to Chu Hsi, though the will for life may rise or fall in the spring, summer, autumn, and the winter, it penetrates through everything. Even in severe frost or snow during autumn or winter, there is the will of life, which never stops."(p205)

"If we fully realize the meaning of wisdom as hidden and stored, we can appreciate why Chu Hsi attached great importance to the extension of knowledge. When we have reached this profound wisdom after our persistent quest for it, we will be able to solve anything. Chu Hsi considers the investigation of things to be essential for the extension of knowledge and thinks that one will find all principles suddenly unfold before one's eyes if one preseveres in his quest."(p207)

The essence of Chu Hsi's philosophy of "wisdom as hidden and stored" is crystallized in the wordmap that I have place at the top of this webpage. While the depiction is in matrix form, actually it is an endlessly repeating cycle. The quotes are all from Okada Takehiko's essay entitled "Chu Hsi and Wisdom as Hidden and Stored," which appears in the book "Chu Hsi and Neo-Confucianism" edited by Wing-tsit Chan, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, HI (1986).

*My own family apparently has also simplified this to Four Elements, in a genealogical naming rule we have used for more than 300 years.

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Last updated 9 October1998

Copyright © 1998 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.


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