Daxue 大学 “The Great Learning”


The Daxue 大学 “Great Learning” is a Confucian Classic. It is part of the canon of the Sishu 四书 “Four Books”, to which it was added as integral Confucian writing on the order and harmony of society. It was originally a chapter of the ritual classic Liji 礼记. The Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126) Neo-Confucian scholars Cheng Hao 程颢 and Cheng Yi 程颐 were the first to regard it as a separate treatise. The Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) Neo-Confucianist Zhu Xi 朱熹 divided it into a classic (jing 经) and a commentary (zhuan 传), wrote a philological study (zhangju 章句) to the Daxue and made it part of the canon of the “Four Books”. Zhu Xi believed that the part he called “classic” had been compiled by Zeng Shen 曾参, a disciple of Confucius, while the the “commentary” was compiled by followers of Zeng Sen. This dispartment of the text is rather arbitrary and not based on scholarly evidence. The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Chen Que 陈确 therefore contradicted this assumption and brought forward, on the base of textual evidence, that the Daxue must have been compiled only during the Former Han period 前汉 (206 BCE-8 CE), and not during the age in which Confucius and his disciples lived (5th cent. BCE).

The text of the Daxue interrelates the moral self-cultivation of the self with the general harmony in state and society. The objective of building up a moral character is to “enlighten the lucid virtue” (ming ming de 明明德), to “approach the people” (qin min 亲民) and “to stop at the utmost goodness” (zhi yu zhi shan 止于至善). These targets are to be reached by those standing in a higher social position, especially the ruler. A benevolent ruler, nevertheless, is not sufficient for the welfare of a people. It is necessary that everybody is willing to study the world (ge wu 格物), before he can reach perfect knowledge (zhi zhi 致知), and only with perfect knowledge he will be able to accomplish sincerity (cheng yi 诚意). Only with the help of sincerity, one will be able to rectify one’s heart (zheng xin 正心), and only with a such, man will be able to undergo self-cultivation (xiu shen 修身). Once cultivated, the own family is brought to unison (jia qi 家齐), and only with families in unison, a state can be governed (zhi guo 治国) in the right way. If all these points are fulfilled, there will be peace on earth ( 天下平). This chain of conditions has to be fulfilled in each detail, otherwise the whole concept will not bear fruits. The core condition is self-cultivation, which has to be undertaken by everyone, from the ruler down to the common man. If everybody undergoes self-cultivation, social harmony can be achieved on all levels, and the state will be in peace and prosperity.

This approach of a state philosophy is very idealistic and does not consider social, economical and political conditions at all. It is a very simplistic and theoretical model useful for the Neo-Confucian concept of learning and exploring the natural order in oneself and in all things on earth. The concept of self-cultivation, which was stressed as very important by the Neo-Confucian scholars, shows the influence of Buddhism. On the other side, the text of the Daxue shows how important the concept of harmony was to the traditional society generally, and which prominence the government’s benevolence had in imperial China: “If capital is concentrated in a few hands, the people will be in a bad state, but in a state where money is spread among the people, the population will grow.” This is a monetary theory which shows the Confucian’s concern for social welfare. TheDaxue was thus created with a practical mind, and not only as a theoretical essay.

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