An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Daxue 大學

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Daxue 大學 "The Great Learning" is a Confucian Classic. It is part of the canon of the Sishu 四書 "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 禮記.

The Neo-Confucian scholars Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032-1085) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033-1107) were the first to consider it as a separate treatise. The Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) master Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130-1200) divided it into a classic (jing 經) and a commentary (zhuan 傳), wrote a philological study (zhangju 章句) on the Daxue and made it part of the canon of the "Four Books" (see Sishu zhangju jizhu 四書章句集注). Zhu Xi believed that the part he called "classic" had been compiled by Zeng Shen 曾參 (Zengzi 曾子, 505-436), a disciple of Confucius, while the "commentary" was compiled by followers of Zeng Sen. This cutting-up of the text is rather arbitrary and not based on scholarly evidence. The early Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Chen Que 陳確 (1604-1677) therefore contradicted this assumption and, based on textual evidence, offered the opinion that the Daxue must have been compiled only during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE), and not at the time when Confucius and his disciples lived (5th cent. BCE).

The text of the Daxue interrelates the moral self-cultivation with the general harmony in state and society. The objective of building up a moral character was to "enlighten the lucid virtue" (ming ming de 明明德), to "approach the people" (qin min 親民) and "to stop at the utmost goodness" (zhi yu zhi shan 止于至善). These targets were to be reached by those of a higher social position, especially the ruler. A benevolent ruler, nevertheless, was not sufficient for the welfare of a people. It was necessary that everybody was willing to study the world (ge wu 格物), before they could reach perfect knowledge (zhi zhi 致知), and only with perfect knowledge they would be able to accomplish sincerity (cheng yi 誠意). Only with the help of sincerity, one would be able to rectify one's heart (zheng xin 正心), and only this way man would be able to practice self-cultivation (xiu shen 修身). Once cultivated, the own family was brought to unison (jia qi 家齊), and only with families in unison a state could be governed (zhi guo 治國) in the right way. If all this were achieved, there would be peace on earth (tianxia ping 天下平).

This chain of conditions had to be fulfilled in each detail, otherwise the whole concept would not bear fruit. The core condition was self-cultivation, which had to be carried out by everyone, from the ruler down to the common man. If everybody practiced self-cultivation, social harmony could be achieved on all levels, and the state would prosper and be at peace.

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 hand the text of the Daxue shows how important the concept of harmony was to the traditional society in general, and what prominence the government's benevolence had in imperial China: "The accumulation of wealth is the way to scatter the people; and letting it be scattered among them is the way to collect the people." This is a monetary theory which shows the Confucian's concern for social welfare. The Daxue was thus created with a practical mind and not only as a theoretical essay.

Quotation 1. Examples from the Daxue
大學之道,在明明德,在親民,在止於至善。知止而后有定,定而后能靜,靜而后能安,安而后能慮,慮而后能得。物有本末,事有終始,知所先後,則近道矣。 What the Great Learning teaches, is to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence. The point where to rest being known, the object of pursuit is then determined; and, that being determined, a calm unperturbedness may be attained to. To that calmness there will succeed a tranquil repose. In that repose there may be careful deliberation, and that deliberation will be followed by the attainment of the desired end. Things have their root and their branches. Affairs have their end and their beginning. To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught in the Great Learning.
古之欲明明德於天下者,先治其國;欲治其國者,先齊其家;欲齊其家者,先脩其身;欲脩其身者,先正其心;欲正其心者,先誠其意;欲誠其意者,先致其知,致知在格物。物格而后知至,知至而后意誠,意誠而后心正,心正而后身脩,身脩而后家齊,家齊而后國治,國治而后天下平。自天子以至於庶人,壹是皆以脩身為本。其本亂而末治者否矣,其所厚者薄,而其所薄者厚,未之有也!此謂知本,此謂知之至也。[...] The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things. Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy. From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides. It cannot be, when the root is neglected, that what should spring from it will be well ordered. It never has been the case that what was of great importance has been slightly cared for, and, at the same time, that what was of slight importance has been greatly cared for. [...]
所謂脩身在正其心者,身有所忿懥,則不得其正;有所恐懼,則不得其正;有所好樂,則不得其正;有所憂患,則不得其正。心不在焉,視而不見,聽而不聞,食而不知其味。此謂脩身在正其心。 What is meant by, "The cultivation of the person depends on rectifying the mind may be thus illustrated:-If a man be under the influence of passion he will be incorrect in his conduct. He will be the same, if he is under the influence of terror, or under the influence of fond regard, or under that of sorrow and distress. When the mind is not present, we look and do not see; we hear and do not understand; we eat and do not know the taste of what we eat. This is what is meant by saying that the cultivation of the person depends on the rectifying of the mind.
所謂齊其家在脩其身者,人之其所親愛而辟焉,之其所賤惡而辟焉,之其所畏敬而辟焉,之其所哀矜而辟焉,之其所敖惰而辟焉。故好而知其惡,惡而知其美者,天下鮮矣!故諺有之曰:「人莫知其子之惡,莫知其苗之碩。」此謂身不脩不可以齊其家。 What is meant by "The regulation of one's family depends on the cultivation of his person is this:-men are partial where they feel affection and love; partial where they despise and dislike; partial where they stand in awe and reverence; partial where they feel sorrow and compassion; partial where they are arrogant and rude. Thus it is that there are few men in the world who love and at the same time know the bad qualities of the object of their love, or who hate and yet know the excellences of the object of their hatred. Hence it is said, in the common adage,"A man does not know the wickedness of his son; he does not know the richness of his growing corn." This is what is meant by saying that if the person be not cultivated, a man cannot regulate his family.
Legge 1893.
Chen Jinsheng 陳金生 (1987). "Daxue 大學", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, 116-117.
Jiaoyu da cidian bianzuan weiyuanhui 《教育大辭典》編纂委員會, ed. (1991). Jiaoyu da cidian 教育大辭典, Vol. 8, Zhongguo gudai jiaoyu shi 中國古代教育史 (Shanghai: Shanghai jiaoyu shi), Vol. 1, 21.
Jin Zhongming 金忠明 (1996). "Daxue 大學", in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed. Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Jiaoyu 教育卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 81.
Liu Xuezhi 劉學智 (1988). "Daxue 大學", in Zhao Jihui 趙吉惠, Guo Hou'an 郭厚安, ed. Zhongguo ruxue cidian 中國儒學辭典 (Shengyan: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 553.
Liu Zhanhua 劉占華 (1993). "Daxue 大學", in Shi Quanchang 石泉長, ed. Zhonghua baike yaolan 中華百科要覽 (Shenyang: Liaoning renmin chubanshe), 518.
Zhu Feng 朱鋒 (1992). "Daxue 大學", in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed. Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Zhexue 哲學卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 116.

Gardner, Daniel K. (2006). The Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett).
Johnston, Ian, Wang Ping, trans. (2012). Daxue and Zhongyong: Bilingual Edition (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press).
Legge, James (1893). The Chinese Classics, Vol. 1, Confucian Analects, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean (Oxford: Clarendon).

Further reading:
An, Yanming (2003). "Daxue (Ta Hsüeh): The Great Learning", in: Antonio S. Cua, ed. Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy (New York/London: Routledge), 232-233.
Gentz, Joachim (2007). "Die Architektur des Zhu Xi-Kommentars: Eine Textstudie zum ersten Teil des Daxue", Oriens Extremus, 46: 231-245.
Lai, Whalen (2001). "Great Learning", in Oliver Leaman, ed. Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy (London/New York: Routledge), 225.
Man, Eva Kit Wah (2009). "A Historical Review and Reflection on the Confucian 'Great Learning' and its Contemporary Implications for Higher Education", in: Ricardo K.S. Mak, ed. Transmitting the Ideal of Enlightenment: Chinese Universities since the Late Nineteenth Century (Lanham, MD/Plymouth, England: University Press of America), 135-148.
Plaks, Andrew (2003). "Daxue (The Great Learning)", in: Yao Xinzhong, ed. RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedia of Confucianism (London/New York: RoutledgeCurzon), 182-184.
Plaks, Andrew H. (2014). "The Daxue (Great Learning) and the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean)", Vincent Shen, ed. Dao Companion to Classical Confucian Philosophy (Dordrecht/New York: Springer), 139-152.
Rusk, Bruce (2006). "Not Written in Stone: Ming Readers of the Great Learning and the Impact of Forgery", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 66/1: 189-231.
Shun, Kwong-Loi (2012). "Wang Yang-Ming on Self-Cultivation in the Daxue", in Cheng Chung-ying, Justin Tiwald, eds. Confucian Philosophy: Innovations and Transformations (Chichester, West Sussex/Malden, MA: Wiley), 96-113.