Zhu Xi (1130-1200) was a Confucian scholar of the Southern Song (1127-1276). Incredibly learned and prolific, he ushered in a Neo-Confucian revival. His commentaries on the Four Books, which he singled out as the core classics of the Confucian canon, became prescribed reading for government officials. 4
The Doctrine of the Mean
Though Sima Qian ascribes the work to the grandson of Confucius, Zisi, the introduction and conclusion of the work date later, to around 200 BC. Doctrine of the Mean is the standard translation of the Chinese 中庸, which A.C. Graham glosses as ‘the on-centre and the usual’. It was a term used by Confucius to represent moderation. The work as a whole focuses on the central importance of 誠, or ‘integrity’. One remains true to the Way, and in step with the Way, by being wholly what one ought to be.
The Great Learning
The Great Learning dates to around the same time as the Doctrine of the Mean. Its central idea is that the transformation of greater society can only be achieved when the family unit is correctly ordered and all members are in right relationship with one another. This ultimately means self-cultivation, to ensure that there is no hypocrisy. “The gentleman expects in others only what he has in himself.”
The Analects (論語) is a collection of sayings ascribed to Confucius. Among them are famous sayings such as “The gentleman understands moral duty; the petty person understands profit” and an inverted version of the Golden Rule from the Christian tradition: “Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you”. The work is a tantalising mixture of wisdom and personal reflections, such as the following celebrated resume: “By fifteen I was intent on learning; by thirty I was standing straight; by forty I was no longer confused; by fifty I knew heaven’s commands; by sixty I was attuned; and at seventy I could follow my heart’s desires without transgressing what is right.”
Mencius was a disciple of Zisi, the grandson of Confucius. The work to which he gives his name (孟子) contains philosophical discourse and a series of encounters with various kings. Famously, Mencius believed in the essential goodness of human nature, which tends towards the good as water tends to flow downwards. Seeing a baby about to fall into a well, says Mencius, anybody will automatically rush to help. At the core, therefore, humans are good. Of course, nature can be derailed and corrupted by environmental factors, beautifully evoked in the parable of Ox Mountain. This bare mountain was once naturally flourishing with plants, but deforestation and grazing animals reduced it to its present unnatural state. So too with human nature.