My dissertation explores the doctrinal and textual history of the "Learning of the Way" tradition in its formative stage and Zhu Xi's theoretical reformation of the tradition, thus identifying a sharp turn in its history. This project's thematic foundation is Zhu's theoretical groundwork for norms and values, the central concern of his response to the reigning tendency of the tradition. Through this approach, my work also offers a single consistent framework for analysis of Zhu's philosophical paradigms and social and cultural practices.
This study explores the textual and doctrinal aspects of the early Learning of the Way tradition, which had stood as a gap in the field of Chinese intellectual history. This tradition at its formative stage is characterized by deficiencies in the textual, social, or political foundations required to develop it into a systematic movement. First- and second-generation advocates of the tradition, however, had homogeneous doctrinal underpinnings; to be precise, they shared a deeply ingrained belief in the all-encompassing capacities of human nature and the mind. In this belief, they promoted introspective contemplation exclusively, and hence devalued the normative aspect of sociocultural practices.
Zhu Xi employed anti-Buddhist rhetoric to identify this trend entrenched in the Learning of the Way tradition as "antinomianism," calling attention to its striking parallels with its counterpart in Buddhism. In leveling this accusation against almost all its members, Zhu was challenging this tradition that had built its own identity on criticism of Buddhist doctrine and practice in order to highlight its subtle doctrinal distinctiveness. Philosophically, in reaction against this antinomian trend, Zhu constructed a sophisticated theoretical structure to strike a new balance.
This study explains Zhu's theoretical reconciliation of a belief in innate subjective moral capacities—the keystone of the Learning of the Way tradition—and the practical necessity for objective rules of conduct, a principal factor for the normative unity of a society. It focuses specifically on (1) his reconceptualization of key concepts in the tradition, such as the mind, human nature, and principle; (2) his reformulation of the so-called sixteen-character teaching, which he elevated as the core of the sage's learning in antiquity; and, most importantly, (3) his theoretical account for the "investigation of things"—the hallmark of his philosophical and pedagogical system—as an intellectual and ethical enterprise of seeking standard norms. Through this endeavor, Zhu also furnished a fresh perspective to comprehend the intrinsic values of the normative and ethical behaviors in the everyday lives of ordinary literati.
In a larger context, Zhu's rhetorical and philosophical argument served to authenticate his restructuring of the Learning of the Way tradition under the name "Confucianism," which, especially through its normative aspect, eventually influenced the formation of the modern view of "Confucian culture."