Da Xue

Dà Xué (大學 or 大学), usually translated as The Great Learning, refers to a short text of indeterminate authorship that is primarily concerned with the regulation of the state and, concomitantly, of the self. The text is of both philosophical and sociological import, as it crystallizes many disparate themes (concerning the role and function of praxis) into a discrete and coherent whole. In the socio-political sphere, the text was named by the scholar Zhu Xi as one of the Four Books of Confucianism, a designation that eventually led to their acceptance as the official curriculum for the Imperial examination system.


Prior to this popularization, the Da Xue had previously been a single chapter in the Classic of Rites.

The Text of the Da Xue

The Da Xue, originally a chapter of the Classic of Rites (Li Ji), was relatively unrecognized as a discrete unit until the Neo-Confucian period, when Sima Kuang (1019-1086 C.E.) "wrote a commentary on it, treating it as a separate work for the first time."[1] After that point, it began to attract ever increasing scholarly attention, until its formal canonization by Zhu Xi (as discussed below).

There is little scholarly consensus on its authorship, with some arguing for Confucius,[2] Zengzi (a disciple of Confucius who lived from 505-432 B.C.E.),[3] an unnamed, syncretic redactor from the late Warring States/early Han period (ca. 200 B.C.E.),[4] or for an agnostic position (that the original writer and date of composition are relatively unknowable).[5]

Given the text's relatively short length, its potent argumentation and its significance for understanding Confucianism, much of it is reproduced below:

What the Great Learning teaches, is—to illustrate illustrious virtue; to renovate the people; and to rest in the highest excellence. (...)
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.
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.[6]

Philosophy of the Da Xue

As can be seen, the Da Xue represents a progressive and programmatic approach to life and learning, with a stress on the interrelationship between the various facets of the human experience (from the ordering of the socio-political realm to the cultivation of the person). Though not attributed to any particular figure, the text is definitively Confucian in its emphases.

The first of these themes is the idea that manifesting order in one sphere will inherently impact all related aspects of life: "Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. // Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons."[7] As summarized by Angus Graham, this moral framework suggests that "you extend to state and Empire the virtues learned inside the family."[8]

This discussion of the extensibility of virtue strongly parallels a similar theme in the Analects, where the personal enhancement of one's ethics is seen to provide an immediate benefit to all members of society. In conversation with a political leader, Confucius suggests that "if you want to be truly adept, the people will also be adept. The excellence (de) of the exemplary person is the wind, while that of the petty person is the grass. As the wind blows, the grass is sure to bend."[9] From the perspective of the Analects, virtuous (and ritual proper) conduct was so efficacious that positive values would be instilled through a process that could be described as "social osmosis":

The Master wanted to go and live amongst the nine clans of the Eastern Yi Barbarians. Someone said to him, “What would you do about their crudeness?”
The Master replied, “Were an exemplary person (junzi) to live among them, what crudeness could there be?”[10]

This osmotic character of virtue is, in both the Analects and the Da Xue,[11] specifically tied to the promulgation of virtues within the family:

Someone asked Confucius, “Why are you not employed in governing?”
The Master replied, “The Book of Documents says:
It is all in filial conduct! Just being filial to your parents and befriending your brothers is
carrying out the work of government.
In doing this I am employed in governing. Why must I be “employed in governing”?[12]

This same emphasis on the "ripple-like" extension of virtue from the family to the entire society, is strongly echoed by Mencius:

Among babes in arms there is none that does not know how to love its parents. When they grow older, there is none that does not know to respect its elder brother. Treating one's parents as parents is benevolence [Ren]. Respecting one's elders is righteousness [Yi]. There is nothing else to do but extend these to the world.[13]

An additional point of congruence with the early Confucians can also be seen in the Great Learning's stress on making "cultivation of the person the root of everything." Whether this implication is being read into the stress on learning and ritual in the Analects,[14] or directly argued for, as in Mencius[15] and Xunzi,[16] it is undeniable that praxis, especially in service of personal cultivation, was a central concern during this phase of Confucian development.

Neo-Confucian Contributions and Controversies

Despite the notable points of continuity between the Great Learning and the classical Confucian corpus, the text remained relatively obscure until the Neo-Confucian period (ca. 1100 C.E.) when it was thrust into the philosophical limelight by a succession of increasingly illustrious commentaries. In all of these, the text's emphasis on personal cultivation was profoundly resonant with the philosophical and religious needs of the Chinese literati, who were actively competing with the well-developed praxis path of the now-prevalent Buddhist tradition. Indeed, the appeal of this text to the Neo-Confucians was its "support for the focus on inner cultivation—on the task of 'making oneself good' through constant self-scrutiny—a focus which they do not find in the five classics taken by themselves."[17] As the text stresses the role of making thoughts sincere and extending knowledge, "the focus shifts ... dramatically to the moral inner life of the individual."[17] This new focus colors all aspects of Neo-Confucian thought.

However, the increasing importance of the Great Learning also led to some controversial developments. Most importantly, when Zhu Xi was preparing his commentary on the text, he also "rearranged the ancient text of the Classic to have the sections on the investigation of things appear before those on the sincerity of will."[18] This transposition allowed him to base his entire praxis orientation upon the process of exploring "things" (often classic texts) as a means of delving into ultimate principles (li). However, this editorial alteration was not universally accepted, especially by the idealist school of Wang Yangming, who argued that "sincerity of the will, without which no true knowledge is possible, must come before the investigation of things. Therefore he rejected both Chu Hsi's rearrangement of the text and his doctrine of the investigation of things, and based his whole philosophy on the Great Learning, with sincerity of the will as its first principle."[19] This debate, which raged for hundreds of years between the followers of the Cheng-Zhu School and the Lu-Wang School, was never adequately resolved, to the extent that modern Confucians often find it necessary to simply side with one of the two positions.

Historical Significance

As mentioned above, the Da Xue, despite its continuity with many elements of classical Confucian philosophy, remained a relatively unimportant chapter of the Classic of Rites (Li Ji) until the Neo-Confucian period. When it attracted the patronage of Zhu Xi, however, its scholarly fortunes reversed in a startlingly abrupt manner. Specifically, Master Zhu, in analyzing the entire Confucian corpus, argued that this text (along with three others: the Analects, the Mencius, and the Doctrine of the Mean) represented the sum-total of Confucian thought and that studying them intensively was the key to success in other studies. Zhu's introduction to the book is highly indicative of his general perspective on its role and influence:

The Great Learning is a Book transmitted by the Confucian school, and forms the gate by which first learners enter into virtue. That we can now perceive the order in which the ancients purposed their learning is solely owing to the preservation of this work, the Analects and Mencius coming after it. Learners must commence their course with this, and then it may be hoped that they will be kept from error.[20]

For this reason, he produced and canonized an updated version of these Four Books with commentaries, which in 1310 C.E. became the standard textbook for the Imperial examination system.[21] This official endorsement meant that hundreds of thousands of aspiring scholars and bureaucrats, from 1313 C.E. to early twentieth century, became intimately familiar with this text.


  1. Chan, 85 ff. 5.
  2. Legge discusses the classical contention that the Classics (of which the Li Ji was one) were originally redacted by Confucius, and also the new orthodoxy, propounded by Zhu Xi, that the "core text" of the Great Learning was personally composed by the sage himself. 22, 25.
  3. Yao, 64.
  4. Schwartz, 404-405.
  5. Graham, 132.
  6. The Great Learning, James Legge's translation, 356-359. Available in the public domain and accessible online at: Wengu: Chinese Classics and Translations. (Chinese characters have been removed for brevity.) Retrieved April 20, 2008.
  7. Da Xue, quoted above.
  8. Graham, 132-133.
  9. Analects 12.19, translated by Ames and Rosemont.
  10. Analects 9.14, translated by Ames and Rosemont.
  11. "Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed" (quoted above).
  12. Analects 2.21, translated by Ames and Rosemont.
  13. Mencius 7A:15. See also 7B:31.
  14. See Analects 6.27: "The Master said, 'Exemplary persons learn broadly of culture, discipline this learning through observing ritual propriety, and moreover, in so doing, can remain on course without straying from it." See also: Analects, 10.1-10.27 and passim.
  15. Mencius 6A:6 : "Humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are not drilled into us from outside. We originally have them with us. Only we do not think [to find them]. Therefore it is said, 'Seek it and you will find it, neglect it and you will lose it.' (translated by Chan, 54). See also Mencius 6A:7-6A:20.
  16. See the chapters on "Discussion of Rites" and "Man's Nature is Evil" for a concerted depiction of the perceived role of purposeful training in moral development.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Schwartz, 405.
  18. Chan, 84.
  19. Chan, 84-85. See also: Yao, 108.
  20. Legge, 355. See also Yao, 64.
  21. Berthrong, 110.


  • Ames, Roger T., and Henry Rosemont, Jr. (trans.). The Analects of Confucius. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
  • Berthrong, John H. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. ISBN 0813328047
  • Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
  • Legge, James (trans.). Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean. New York: Dover, 1971. Originally published in 1893.
  • Graham, A.C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. LaSalle, IL: Open Court Press, 1993. ISBN 0812690877
  • Schwartz, Benjamin. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MS and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985.
  • van Norden, Bryan W. (trans.). "Mencius." Included in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2001. 111-155. ISBN 1889119091
  • Watson, Burton. Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967.
  • Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-64430-5


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