A Ku Indeed!

Zhu Xi and Mental Attention

Posted in Analects, China, Chinese Philosophy by Chris on July 28, 2008

One of Chu Hsi’s aphorisms in Learning to Be a Sage stuck out to me, and I’m not sure if it is the translation that seems peculiar, or if there’s an idea there that I’m not picking up on. Click below for the passage: hopefully there are a few Chu Hsi’ers out there who can help.

At 6.60, Chu Hsi says:

In practicing inner mental attentiveness, you have to look back. To be righteous, you have to look forward.

In reading the text, Chu Hsi points out that inner mental attentiveness (IMA) and righteousness are linked in a way that might suggest that the former is the “making orderly” of what is inside, whereas the latter is the making orderly of what is exterior. I suppose that Chu Hsi means that the latter is Yi, which leaves me wondering what exactly IMA corresponds to in the Confucian lexicon.

Now, in the rest of the text, Chu Hsi is forceful that what we need to be able to “get hold of” is principle; we need to be able to concentrate on it, and we need to be able to see it in the books we read. So I am supposing here that he thinks that IMA corresponds to Li, which are typically understood to be rituals but can also be understood as principles.

If this is right (I’m not sure that it is), I’m left now returning to 6.60 and Chu Hsi’s mention of “looking forward” and “looking back.” To “look forward” and link it to Yi makes some sense to me in a way. If Yi is the “making orderly” of what is external, then it is the “making orderly” of the way in which one engages with one’s plans and projects as one pushes forward. One makes sure that one’s decision to take on this or that aim is in accord with Yi. Seen in this way, Yi seems to correspond to the future.

But what about “looking back” and its association with Li? I wonder: is what Chu Hsi saying here that we need to be able to, with IMA or resolve or reverence, be capable or holding fast to what is past? After all, the Li are the respository of the Yi of past generations (to conjure up an Amesean phrase). Is what Hsi is saying here that one must learn to connect the past and the future in one’s life? That one’s present actions must, in a way, find a “home” in a narrative that continues out of the past and pushes forward into the future?

Yeah, that’s a lot to squeeze out of one cryptic aphorism, but what the hell. Any thoughts?


6 Responses

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  1. Alexus McLeod said, on July 28, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    Interesting stuff.

    Actually, I hadn’t thought of the connection between Zhu Xi’s thought and Confucius’ 禮 (li) before. I haven’t looked at much of the Chinese text of the Yulei before this week, but now that I think of it, I don’t remember seeing any references to this li. The li Gardner is translating as ‘principle’ is this one (理), which I don’t think occurs at all in the Analects (if it does, it’s not as a technical term). Zhu Xi’s li 理 is broader, I think, than Confucius’ li 禮, though there do seem to be some interesting similarities, which your comments point out.

    As far as “inner mental attentiveness” (I’m not the biggest fan of this translation either”), this term, jing 敬, is in the Analects–15.33 (which I’ve spent a lot of time on) contains it, for example, as do other passages. In the Analects, it’s not a technical term, and is something like “reverence”. 15.33 talks about people (the min) not having it if the ruler (intended, but not explicit) doesn’t do things correctly. Come to think of it, this is one of the passages I was going to cite as support of the situationist reading of Confucius in connection with 2.3. Anyway, as Steve said today, “reverence” is the standard translation of jing, but the term is definitely doing more work in Zhu Xi than it does in the Pre-Qin Confucians. It’s a weird thing–I can’t think of any exact corresponding term in the early Confucians. The closest thing to it I can think of is Mencius’ notion of nourishing the qi–but he doesn’t offer any particular mechanism, like jing, by which this takes place. Maybe Zhu is trying to give a metaphysical support for the Mencian picture here. I’m not sure about this last point, though–I’m pretty much a novice when it comes to Zhu Xi–I’ve studied him a little bit, but mainly his commentaries on the Analects.

  2. Chris said, on July 29, 2008 at 4:19 am


    What’s the best translation for the li character that Zhu Xi is using, do you think? The use of “principle” in Gardner might work for what I’m throwing out above, but maybe not. The way I was thinking of it was that “principle” might stand for the underlying structure of the Li (as ritual). So in a sense it would be the “spirit of the Li” or “what the Li are meant to express” or something of that sort. For example, if you were to make a change to Li, the change might be tested to see if it were acceptable based on whether it accorded with “principle” or not. But I’m not sure how he means it exactly. Sometimes it seems to stand for “structure” or “essence” or “reason” but I’m not sure if, even if that’s right, it can be applied to the Li (rituals) themselves.

    I think jing works fine for the point I’m trying to bring out, which is that the proper attitude towards one’s own past is reverence, but it all rides on what the object is — so what “li” is standing for in Zhu Xi. If it is (or can be in part) the essence of ritual, then it works. If not, then not!

    I’m still curious, though, what “looks back” means in the actual Chinese text. Could be that I’m thinking in this way simply due to Gardner’s translation there in that passage. One of the hazards of not being able to read the original.

  3. Manyul Im said, on July 29, 2008 at 7:20 am

    Hey Chris,

    Li 理 is pretty difficult to translate. There’s a piece that just came out, though hard to get your hands on, by Brook Ziporyn, “Form, Principle, Pattern, or Coherence? Li in Chinese Philosophy” in a journal called *Philosophy Compass* (3:3 – March 2008). I’ve asked him for a copy of it if he has one and will pass it on to you if he obliges.

    Meanwhile, you should know that li 理 figures in Hua Yen Buddhism. There’s a very brief, maybe useful, synopsis of its role here: http://www.buddhistdoor.com/OldWeb/bdoor/archive/nutshell/teach67.htm. (If you lop off the ‘teach67.htm’ you can access the whole bowl of nuts.)

    Maybe that helps; maybe that makes things much more complicated. Those two aren’t mutually exclusive…

  4. Alexus McLeod said, on July 29, 2008 at 7:46 am

    I checked the Chinese version on the Wesleyan Etext site–the translation “looks back” pretty good–the text is 敬 要 回 頭 看.

  5. Chris said, on July 29, 2008 at 8:05 am


    Thanks for checking. Now the question is: why “look back”? The contrast is apparently with Yi and “looking ahead.” As I noted above, it would make sense to suggest that Yi corresponds to one’s plans and projects as one “pushes forward” given that one must realize what is appropriate as one acts. So this leads me to believe that Zhu Xi means that principle lies “behind” in an analogous manner, namely in the past (perhaps as the spirit of the Li as social body of rituals).


    That would be great! If he passes it along, I’d love a copy of it. Thanks for the link, too — I’ll check out what he has to say there.

  6. Agui said, on August 4, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    FWIW, Ziporyn is working on a book on the history of li 理 (actually it’s done from what I hear). He also has an article on Buddhist conceptions of li (“Li (Principle, Coherence) in Chinese Buddhism”. Journal of Chinese Philosophy. Vol. 30, No. 3&4, (September/December 2003), pp. 501-524.–electronically accessible). Another ‘standard piece’ is Peterson’s “Another Look at Li”, where he argues for “coherence” rather than “principle” as a translation (also available electronically through JSTOR).

    It’s been a little while since I’ve thought about this, but my understanding is that jing 敬 for Zhu Xi was the virtue/skill/disposition that allowed one to access the weifa 未發 from the yifa 已發 (the states described in the opening portion of the Doctrine of the Mean as something like “[feelings] having yet to issue forth” and “[feelings] already issued forth”). I’m not sure there’s anything to correspond to it on the Confucian lexicon but in Zhu Xi’s system it would be that which bridges zhong 中 and he 和 or dong 動 and jing 靜.

    That said I have no idea how it relates to the passage quoted above. I’ll look at in the Yulei, and maybe post some thoughts later.

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