When Confucius criticizes Zhu Xi and more stories…

When Confucius criticizes Zhu Xi and more stories…


I have had the chance to come across fascinating interpretations of the Great Learning in a book titled Daxue zhengshi 大學證釋 (Evidential Interpretation of the Great Learning). To be more accurate, the striking part of the story lies less in the philosophical originality of the interpretations than in the identity of the commentators.

In this volume, the original Daxue text is commented upon by a series of sages (liesheng qishu 列聖齊述) including Confucius, Yan Hui, Zengzi and Mencius… Zhu Xi was also a contributor to this volume and wrote a nice self-criticism piece about his problematic Song-dynasty interpretations of the text. He finally admitted that he got it completely wrong with his former discussions on the “extension of knowledge lying in the investigation of things” (zhizhi zai gewu  致知在格物), etc…  Among the other contributions, the one of Confucius was interesting but I doubt that Zhu Xi enjoyed it much because it happens that he was wrong again ! Kongzi’s line of argument was the following: basing himself on Zhu Xi’s edited introductory sentence of the Daxue (大學之道,在明明德 , 在親民,在止於至善) he criticized Zhu’s replacement of the original 在親親 , 在新民 by 在親民  (understood as: 在新民). He posited that these changes did not reflect “the entirety of Confucian doctrine” (fei rujiao jiaoyi zhi quan yi 非儒教教義之全矣) and highlighted the fact that ideas such as “ruling the country primarily requires to regulate the family” (zhi guo bi xian qi jia 治國必先齊家) or “the foundations of the country lie in the family” (guo zhi ben zai jia 國之本在家) all originated from the “affection to the kindred” (親親), that is, from characters cut off  by Zhu Xi….

I will skip my comments on these comments and concentrate on some background information that might be more interesting. Documents gathered in this volume were obtained in the course of spirit writing sessions that are said to have taken place in different parts of Mainland China approximately between 1910 and 1930 (nothing is indicated in the book, I was told this during interviews). They originate from the Way of Pervading Unity or Yiguandao, a sectarian movement  (or “redemptive society”) inheriting from an ancient syncretistic and millenarian tradition and that is nowadays sometimes sociologically described as a “new religious movement”.

Spirit writing (fuluan 扶鸞, fuji 扶乩) is a very ancient practice that is not specific to the Yiguandao — it has been popular in China for centuries and may be for instance performed in Daoist circles. It consists in communicating with the spirits of xianfo 仙佛 and in letting them convey their instructions or messages to the living. It is performed by three persons (san cai 三才), nowadays generally young women, who are especially selected and trained. One of them (called tiancai 天才) uses a wooden planchette thanks to which she writes characters in the sand. The characters are supposed to be dictated by “saints and buddhas” and the tiancai basically only channels their messages through her body. Her personality is supposed to be put aside during the session and her action (that is, the concrete activity of writing in the sand) is seemingly totally devoid of any intentionality and willpower. The second girl (dicai 地才) reads loudly what the first writes quickly in the sand whereas the third one (rencai 人才) records the character on a paper (or, sometimes now, in a computer).

“Saints and Buddhas” providing instructions and comments in the course of spirit writing sessions are many. More often than not, texts produced within this context do not have the somewhat academic flavour of detailed commentaries on the classics. But as was illustrated here these commentaries also exist and they nowadays continue to be produced. If we add that movements such as the Yiguandao claim a strong Confucian identity (even though syncretism is definitely prevailing), closely associate texts such as the Daxue with concrete self-cultivation practices and also refer to sets of (non spirit-writing) sectarian scriptures influenced by Song – Ming neo-Confucianism, we have here a fascinating case of creative popular and religious appropriation of “the mainstream Confucian tradition”.

5 replies on “When Confucius criticizes Zhu Xi and more stories…”

  1. Carl says:

    In Christian circles, you sometimes hear discussions of what the great heavenly debate must be like between Augustine and Anselm and Aquinas… But you rarely see that debate transcribed word for word (or character for character as the case may be)!

  2. Steve Angle says:

    Sebastien, thank you for sharing this with us. Fascinating! I’m not entirely sure from what you describe here: is spirit writing still part of Yiguandao activities today? Whether or not it is, do you know if Yiguandao explicitly uses the “saints and Buddhas” locution (as opposed to, for example, ancestors)? Based on my lack of sufficient knowledge of pre-20th c. popular religious practices, I don’t know whether the crossover between highly literate religious/cultural practices (commentaries) and more popular religious practices was common or not. Do you have any idea? Finally, is this critical line on Zhu Xi (and, perhaps, an emphasis on Wang Yangming?) a common feature of Yiguandao?

  3. Kai Marchal says:

    Hi Sebastien,

    thanks for sharing your observations with us! These days, I’ve been reading in Huang Kewu’s fascinating biographical study of Yan Fu (Wei Shi zhi an: Yan Fu yu jindai Zhongguo de wenhua zhuanxing, Taipei: Lianjing, 2010); in chapter 5, Dr. Huang describes the activities of Spiritistic societies (Lingxue hui靈學會) in Shanghai around 1920 and analyzes the highly ambivalent attitude of intellectuals like Yan Fu towards scientific/Enlightenment/Western reason. And it is fascinating to see how this kind of attitude is still rather widespread among intellectuals today… For example what exactly do these “spirit writing sessions” tell us about the state of modernity in the Chinese world in 1920?

    • Sébastien Billioud says:

      Hi Steve and Kai

      Thanks for your comments.


      The comments on the Daxue mentioned in my post were obtained during the Republican era but generally speaking spirit-writing is still part of Yiguandao’s activities today. However, since the Yiguandao is an extremely decentralized organization there are significant differences between branches and sub-branches. And yes, they often refer to 仙佛.
      Beyond the case of the Yiguandao, I think that there were lots of overlaps between scholar-literati circles and religious popular practices at the end of the Empire. It was for instance common for scholar-literati to attend spirit writing sessions. After the dismantlement of the Empire, the rise of all the « redemptive societies » in Republican China (in which spirit writing was also a common practice) was largely fuelled by scholar-literati eager to join organizations in which they could continue to perpetuate their Confucian ethos. These problems are discussed in Vincent Goossaert and David Palmer‘s excellent book The Religious Question in Modern China (Chicago, 2011).
      I am not an expert in Yiguandao scriptures but I do not have the impression that there is anything general against Zhu Xi or in favour of Wang Yangming. Rather, critiques tend to focus on specific points rather than on school disputations. Here, the problem was specific. Considering the importance of qijia 齊家 for the YGD, one can understand how the omission of “affection to the kindred” could be considered a problem. On other points (e.g nature of the heart/mind) I sometimes have the impression that the YGD would get more inspiration from Zhu Xi.
      Since the issue is focusing here on the interactions between mainstream “highly literate” Confucianism and minjian practices and appropriations does anyone know whether Wang Gen and his following had some links with sectarian circles?


      You raise a very interesting question. Recently David Ownby (University of Montreal) gave a fascinating talk in Paris. He spoke about Li Yujie 李玉阶 (1900-1994), a Kuomintang official and member of the modern elite who nevertheless ended up creating his own cult (Tiandijiao 天帝教). He showed that his commitment to the values of Chinese tradition (in a way which has little to do with the philosophical commitment of someone like Mou Zongsan…) did not compromise his enthusiasm for modernity. Somehow in a similar vein I also attended last year a striking presentation by Paul Katz (Academia Sinica) on the itinerary of Wang Yiting (王一亭 1867-1938), a businessman who got involved for some time in politics and in the Chinese revolution. Wang also had a very religious life and plenty of interactions not only with lay Buddhist circles but also with all sorts of redemptive societies. Katz underscored that the idea of extremely secularized modern elites needs to be nuanced. Cases like the one of Wang showed that the disenchantment picture was not necessarily so relevant for China. This might possibly echo Yan Fu’s ambivalence.Would you tell us a bit more about the latter ?

  4. Bill Haines says:

    I’d like to add my thanks to the chorus.

    What an interesting philosophical practice! As compared to more straightforward exegetical argument about a thinker’s works, the spirit-writing approach seems to give more direct effect to the truth that after long and intense exposure to someone’s writings one gains an intuitive sense of what more she would say.

    I wonder what sort of training was thought appropriate for writing from the spirits of philosophers.

    I tried to think about this practice in connection with my proposed project on conversation in the Chinese tradition (about thinking of conversation as an attempt to think together v. just trying to pass something from one person to another). I wonder whether there is an idea that the spirits ever talk to one another in the spirit world; or whether there is any display of them talking to one another by way of spirit writing, or any sign in the text that they contemplate that their words might be seen by other spirits?

    I confess that my first thought was that the practice looks like a caricature of a criticism of traditional Chinese philosophical practice: pretending that one speaks with the voice and authority of some recognized authority, in a way that aims to shut off any possibility of criticism or discussion. We can even dispose of our opponents by pretending to speak in the voice of their authorities, and acknowledging fundamental error.

    Perhaps when one reads the actual texts one gets a very different picture. For example, the product could be a kind of philosophical romp, a fun way to explore ideas in fiction, a way for a writer to free herself from the constraint of textual authority in general.

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