Zhu Xi’s Breakthrough

Zhu Xi proposed that each of us must cultivate “reverential attention” so that together we might create more harmonious communities.

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Stephen C. Angle

There was plenty of room when I stepped onto the train. I put in my earbuds and got to work on my laptop as the train trundled off. Sometime later, I happened to look up and was surprised to see how crowded the car had become. An older man scanned for a place and then shuffled on, followed by a nervous-looking teenager on her own. With indignation, I noted the way that veteran commuters around me were hoarding seats and avoiding eye contact . . . until I realized that my briefcase occupied the aisle seat next to me. I was just as culpable! Hurriedly, I jammed my bag between my feet and tried to look welcoming, but the moment had passed.

As moral failings go, inconveniencing others on the train may not seem like much. Even those who consciously look away or feign sleep are unlikely to be numbered among the worst sinners. According to one of the world’s most influential philosophers, though, the failure to cultivate the right skills of attention actually goes a long way toward explaining why the world and our communities so consistently fall short of being the happy and harmonious environments we would like them to be. The philosopher is the Chinese Neo-Confucian thinker Zhu Xi. Here, I will focus on insights he expressed in a famous letter written in 1169 CE, which include remarkably astute observations about human psychology and behavior and suggestions about how we might orient ourselves differently to cultivate our best selves, thereby helping the world achieve its full potential.

Zhu Xi was born into turbulent times. In 1127, northern China was conquered. Zhu’s father was among many who protested the humiliating peace treaty that China was forced to accept, and he was demoted to a rural position far from the capital, where Zhu was born in 1130. Zhu took up his father’s politics as he matured, committing himself to the hawkish group that wanted to take back the north. Partly out of disenchantment with the regime’s failure to follow such policies, Zhu never played a significant role in the national bureaucracy, despite having excelled in his education and passing the highest-level civil service exam at age nineteen.

Instead, Zhu devoted himself to the intellectual and spiritual questions that preoccupied many in his day: What is humanity’s place in the cosmos, and why? How can someone become the best kind of person, which in the Confucian tradition was the “sage”? The kinds of answers that Zhu gave to these questions helped to form what we now call “Neo-Confucianism,” the broad revival of Confucian thinking and practice that took place in China and elsewhere in East Asia from the eleventh through the eighteenth centuries.

I have called Zhu Xi a philosopher, which seems an apt designation for anyone seeking reasoned answers to the kinds of questions he asked, but Zhu was not interested in scholarship for its own sake. I would say that Zhu saw “philosophy as a way of life,” just as many other philosophers around the world have.1 Zhu wanted to know what he should do in order to live better and, ultimately, to help transform his society. He read widely in the Chinese classics and histories, in Buddhist and Daoist teachings, and in the diverse writings of other philosophers of his day, and he corresponded and even debated in person with many leading thinkers. For all of them, the issues at stake were of the utmost practical and theoretical significance.

The goal toward which Zhu worked was to become a sage. A sage is a real, flesh-and-blood person who, thanks to dedicated self-cultivation, is able to respond perfectly to virtually every situation he or she encounters.2 What does it mean to respond “perfectly”? It means to do just the right thing, in the right manner, and with the appropriate attitude, and to do so effortlessly, without hesitation. For example, perhaps when you last visited your parents, you stood as dinner was ending, gently encouraging them to stay seated and relax while you cleared the table, put the coffee on, and did the dishes. Your manner conveyed what you really felt: your love and gratitude, your pleasure at being able to help out. The closer one comes to being a sage, Confucians believe, the more regularly one experiences the world in this way—even when faced with more complicated or less familiar situations than a family dinner.

There are many different ways to understand what is going on when someone acts in a sagely manner, and just as many explanations of what is going wrong when someone does not. To make sense of what I am calling “Zhu Xi’s breakthrough,” I first need to explain the basic picture of human psychology with which he and his fellow Neo-Confucians worked. As they saw it, humans have the capacity to feel various emotional responses, all of which can be appropriate if felt in the right way and to the right degree. There are no intrinsically bad emotions. Neo-Confucians also believed that human nature has an implicit structure to it: a deep-seated orientation toward a balanced, never-ending embrace of life. Their reasons for believing we humans have such a “nature” are complex, and too nuanced to unpack here, but they lead Neo-Confucians to another dimension of their conceptual world: our specific endowment of “vital stuff.”3

“Vital stuff” is a fascinating, inclusive category that makes up all the things in the cosmos and refers to both their material states and their tendencies. Is someone tall? That is explained by her vital stuff. Growing is a matter of vital stuff changing. Does she tend to feel awkward in social situations? Or perhaps she is irascible, feeling angry at the slightest provocation? All these are the result of the particular configurations of her vital stuff. Today, we understand human temperament and health to involve complicated interactions between our material and mental selves—and the relation between matter and energy, according to physicists, has also been shown to be extraordinarily intricate—so it does not seem like too much of a stretch to use a category like “vital stuff.”

The basic Neo-Confucian picture of human functioning, then, looks like this: We have a nature that, independent of any actual interactions, is oriented toward life; we have emotions, which are our responses (emerging out of our nature) to stimuli in the world; and we have vital stuff that influences how our emotions manifest in the world. As Zhu Xi wrote: “Nature is similar to water. If it flows through a clear channel, it remains clear; if it flows through a filthy channel, it becomes turbid [and unbalanced].”4

There were two common ways that Zhu’s contemporaries thought it was possible to approach sagehood, but Zhu came to believe that an alternative method of self-improvement was superior. The first approach I call “extending tranquility.” Its basic idea is that since a person’s “nature” is already perfect and balanced, the way to make yourself better is by more fully discovering and becoming one with this tranquil goodness at the core of your very being. Many philosophers who advocated extending tranquility believed that, by quietly sitting in meditation, you can peel away the layers of vital stuff obscuring your nature and come to experience nature directly. One challenge for these thinkers is to explain how someone is supposed to retain this tranquil equilibrium when no longer meditating, although Zhu Xi’s own critique was rather different.

The other popular approach to cultivation seems simple: to control yourself by suppressing bad emotions as they arise. Remember that any emotional response can be good or bad, depending on the situation in which someone experiences the emotion, the degree to which someone experiences it, and so on. This approach calls for constant self-monitoring and effort to squash problematic feelings as they arise. Whether or not you have ever tried meditation or other forms of careful introspection, we all have experience with trying to tamp down a runaway emotion. Let’s say it’s a perfectly appropriate response (say, a feeling of angry indignation at an injustice visited upon a co-worker by your mutual boss) that spills over into other aspects of your life (your anger lingers on, leading you to respond harshly to a spouse’s small foible). As soon as we notice the spillover, most of us can begin to deflate the misplaced emotion, before too much damage has been done, we hope. The problem, of course, is that often damage has already taken place. Even just a grimace or a chuckle at the wrong time can be seriously problematic in a relationship.

Zhu Xi struggled to see how either of these approaches could genuinely lead a person to sagehood. He studied the ideas of his teachers and of his other contemporaries, and in his thirties he gathered together the scattered writings of two of the most innovative philosophers of the prior century, the brothers Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi. In 1168, he finished compiling what would become an authoritative edition of their works, and this intensive effort sparked him to see the challenge of moral improvement in a new light. As he put it in a famous letter from the very next year, if we are limited to either extending tranquility or controlling oneself, we face a dilemma, because: “the state before the emotions are aroused cannot be sought and the state after they are aroused cannot be thoroughly arranged.”5

That is, Zhu denies the possibility of extending tranquility, because it faces a conceptual problem, basing itself on the possibility of experiencing the unexperienceable. Any sense of calmness that one experiences during meditation is still experienced, it is still an emotion responding to some sort of stimulus. It is impossible to do an end run around the very meaning of “nature,” to access it without experiencing it. As for controlling oneself, we have already seen the problem. Even initially appropriate emotions will too often leak out or spill over; no after-the-fact effort to control them can be thoroughly successful.

In the same letter, Zhu proposes his solution, building on ideas from the younger Cheng brother: we must each cultivate “reverential attention” in our daily lives. His idea is that by properly altering the vital stuff that shapes how we perceive and react to the world, we can eventually ensure that the emotions we experience tally with their life-affirming source—that is, our nature.

Zhu believes that a fundamentally positive commitment to life can be found in everyone. We can see this in the ways that we care for one another, even including strangers—so long as we notice them. The mutual dependence and mutual concern that are easiest to see within the intimate relationships of a family in fact pervade the cosmos, Zhu says. This should spark our reverence. Zhu’s cosmos has no creator or deity other than itself, and each of us is a part of the cosmos, each of us a co-creator of each new day. Just look, he says, and you will see. Or rather, once you start to attend to the ways in which we together create the living cosmos, you will feel (as well as see) the interconnections.

Reverential attention, then, means to attend to all that we encounter in daily life and to do so from a stance of reverence for interconnected life. We all know people who pay careful attention to their surroundings, but they do so in order to seek out flaws, to nitpick, to undermine. Reverential attention is to attend to, and to reinforce, care for life, care for others, and care for the self. (This is not a self-abnegating doctrine.)

Zhu Xi’s prolific writings lay out many ways in which we can do this. For example, he writes about the ways in which one should carry oneself, dress, behave in public and at home: all of these things influence what we can notice, and how we can be attentive, and over time they can also shape our vital stuff. He writes: “‘Sit as though you were impersonating an ancestor, stand as though you were performing a sacrifice.’ The head should be upright, the eyes looking straight ahead, the feet steady, the hands respectful, the mouth quiet and composed, the bearing solemn—these are all aspects of reverential attention.”6

He also writes about how we should study: the ancient classics are great sources of inspiration, but only if we read deeply rather than shallowly, always looking for ways in which the experiences described in the texts relate to our own world and own life, today. Zhu says: “In reading, we must first become intimately familiar with the text so that its words seem to come from our own mouths. We should then continue to reflect on it so that its ideas seem to come from our own minds. . . . Still, once our intimate reading of it and careful reflection on it have led to clear understanding of it, we must continue to question. . . . If we cease questioning, in the end there’ll be no additional progress.”7 Again, Zhu believes that this kind of studying can gradually alter our vital stuff, which is to say that as we learn to see ourselves in other situations, or to imagine others in our own shoes, our tendencies and temperament change. Modern therapists would agree.

Zhu Xi’s breakthrough is seeing that we have considerable control over how we experience the world, which can greatly affect how we react to it. In his letter, he suggests that other techniques (like self-control) are also important for us non-sages. When we do err, it is better to force ourselves back on track than to give in to selfishness. Still, there is no principled reason why a regimen of reverential attention cannot ultimately succeed, and thus there is no limit to the number of people who can approach sagehood.

Perhaps reverential attention sounds to some of you like naive optimism. In one sense, this is true: Zhu believes that our reverent sense of awe for the interconnected life thrumming throughout the cosmos should be powerful enough to keep us oriented toward it, even in the face of great trials. But this does not mean we can be naively unaware of suffering. Awareness of and concern for suffering is a central part of the care for one and all that reverential attention enables.

However, when we notice a problem from a standpoint of reverential attention, our orientation toward interconnected life helps to direct our emotional and behavioral reactions in fruitful directions, rather than leaving us despondent. Concern is not enough: we need wisdom and experience, and often patience, to respond in constructive ways. Zhu Xi and his fellow Neo-Confucians write with great insight about the ways in which these and other virtues support one another, all eventually contributing to the achievement of sagehood. A family meal, a train ride, or any of a thousand other daily experiences can serve as opportunities to cultivate ourselves and to help the world better realize its potential.

A little more than a century after his death, Zhu Xi’s interpretation of the ancient classics was adopted by the state as definitive, for purposes of the civil service examination system. This meant that from 1315 until 1905, Zhu’s works were read and even memorized by all educated Chinese, which surely makes him one of the most influential philosophers in human history. I have only touched on one corner of his sprawling philosophical system here, though it is one on which he himself placed special emphasis.8

Though Zhu was writing 850 years ago, reverential attention is an idea that we can understand—perhaps I should say, that we need to understand—in our present world. My experience is that technology cuts us off from one another at least as much as it connects us, so we need guidance on how to go about our daily lives in ways that will make us and our shared world better. I believe that Zhu Xi is right: reverential attention can help. Try it and see.


  1. See Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Blackwell, 1995).
  2. Zhu never faced the question of whether women could be sages. Most Confucians in his day were thoroughly patriarchal and thought women’s opportunities for moral development were different and lesser than those for men, though a few exceptions disagreed—and provide inspiration for modern Confucians to embrace feminism. See the discussion of Li Zhi in Pauline Lee, “Li Zhi and John Stuart Mill: A Confucian Feminist Critique of Liberal Feminism,” in The Sage and the Second Sex: Confucianism, Ethics, and Gender, ed. Chenyang Li (Open Court, 2000); and the discussion of Luo Rufang in Stephen C. Angle and Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (Polity, 2017), 170–79.
  3. This is also translated as “vital energy” and “vital force.” I like to use the term “vital stuff” because it simultaneously captures the materiality and life-affirming dynamism of the Confucian understanding of the cosmos.
  4. Translation from Learning to Be a Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu, ed. Daniel K. Gardner (University of California Press, 1990), 98.
  5. Translation from A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy, ed. Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton University Press, 1963), 601, modified.
  6. Translation from Stephen C. Angle, Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2009), 151. The internal quotation is from the Book of Rites.
  7. Translation from Learning to Be a Sage, 135.
  8. For a more wide-ranging account of Zhu Xi’s philosophy, see Angle and Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism.

Stephen C. Angle is Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies and Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan University. He is currently at work on a book called “Confucianism as a Way of Life” and blogs on Chinese and comparative philosophy at warpweftandway.com.

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