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Zengzi (曾子; also called Zeng Shen, 曾參; or Ziyu, 子輿) (505 B.C.E. – 436 B.C.E.) was a philosopher and student of Confucius. Zengzi is credited with authorship of a large portion of the Great Learning, including its foreword. Zengzi's disciples are believed to have been among the most important compilers of the Analects of Confucius and other Confucian classics. Zengzi was also an early Chinese proponent of a round earth theory, as opposed to a flat earth model.

Basing its authority on the practices of ancient kings, The Great Learning links individual action, in the form of self-cultivation, with higher goals such as ultimate world peace. The Great Learning is significant because it expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking, and has therefore been influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought. Some of the terms within the text form an important part of both classical and modern Chinese political discourse. From the middle of the fourteenth century, until 1991, the Four Books, one of which was The Great Learning, replaced the Five Classics (written in the archaic Chinese) as the subject of the Chinese state civil service examinations. Numerous tales about the life of Zengzi are used to illustrate Confucian values and teachings.

Great Learning

The Great Learning (Traditional Chinese: 大學; Simplified Chinese: 大学; pinyin: Dà Xué) is the first of the Four books which were selected by Zhu Xi during the Song Dynasty as a foundational introduction to Confucianism. It was originally one chapter in Classic of Rites.

The book consists of a short main text, attributed to Confucius, and nine commentaries by Zengzi, who says in the foreword that this book is the gateway of learning.

Some of the terms within the text form an important part of both classical and modern Chinese political discourse. For example, the concept of world peace has been the stated goal of Chinese statecraft from the time of the Zhou dynasty to the modern era of the Communist Party of China. Another term used in the text, qin-min, which Legge translates as “renovating the people,” is the name of the People First Party, one of the minor parties in Taiwan.

The Great Learning is significant because it expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking, and has therefore been extremely influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought. It links individual action in the form of self-cultivation with higher goals such as ultimate world peace. By defining the path of learning (tao) in terms of government and society, the Great Learning, demonstrates a connection between the spiritual and the material and creates a practical vision. Instead of basing its authority on an external deity, The Great Learning bases its authority on the practices of ancient kings.

The text also raises a number of controversies that have underlain Chinese philosophy and political thinking. One major issue of Chinese philosophy has been how to define exactly the “investigation of things;” what things are to be investigated, and how?

The Five Classics and Four Books of Confucianism

The Five Classics (Traditional Chinese: 五經; pinyin: Wǔjīng: "wu" means "five"; the word "jing," a classical or sacred text) is a corpus of five ancient Chinese books used by Confucianism as the basis of education. According to tradition, they were compiled or edited by Confucius himself. Four of them are collections of ancient texts; only the fifth one can be considered of Confucius' authorship. They are Classic of Songs, a collection of old ceremonial or popular songs; Classic of Documents, official proclamations and other documents from the seventeenth to the ninth century B.C.E.; Book of Changes (I Ching); Notes on Ceremony (Liji ), which contains Confucius' notes on the state and family rites (li) of the State of Zhou; and Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu) of the Kingdom of Lu, for which Confucius worked as archivist. A sixth Classic, which did not survived the Great Burning of Books ordered by the Emperor Qin Shihuangdi in 213 B.C.E., was Classic of Music (Yuejing).

Moral, philosophical, and political allegorical interpretation of these books formed the basis of the Confucian education and Imperial examinations for state officials until the Middle Ages. The Four Books of Confucianism (Traditional Chinese: 四書; pinyin: Sì Shū:"si," "four;" "shu," "book”) (not to be confused with the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature), are early Chinese classic texts that Zhu Xi (1130 – 1200) selected, in the Song dynasty, as an introduction to Confucianism: the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects of Confucius, and the Mencius. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the Four Books were made the core of the official curriculum for the civil service examinations.

Analects of Confucius (Lunyu) contains the sayings of Confucius noted down by his pupils. The Great Learning (Daxue), contains a chapter from Liji, Confucius' vision of spiritual cultivation, with additional notes by Zengzi. Harmony of the Middle (Zhongyong, frequently translated as The Golden Mean, or Doctrine of the Mean) is also a chapter from Liji, with additional notes by Zengzi, dealing with the nature of the ancient Way (Dao) and that of a human being. Mencius (Mengzi) is a book by Mencius, the second great Confucian philosopher of the fourth century B.C.E.

From the middle of the fourteenth century, until 1991, these four books replaced the Five Classics (written in the archaic Chinese) as the subject of the state civil service examinations.

Stories About Zengzi

Winning the Battle

One day, Zengzi met Zixia , another student of Confucius, in the street and carefully looking him over, asked, "In the past you had many illnesses and were always thin and weak. You seem to have gained weight and look energetic too." Zixia replied, "I have recently won a battle, so I feel very happy and have gained weight as a result."

Not understanding him Zengshi asked, "What do you mean?"

Zixiao replied, "One day I was reading about Yao (2353 - 2234 B.C.E.) , Yu (twenty-first century B.C.E.) and Tang (fifteenth century B.C.E.). After reading their viewpoints on morality, friendship and loyalty, I found I appreciated their views and wanted to be a good person. However, when I walked down the street and saw so many tantalizing things, and observed other people living in luxury, my desire for material things was stimulated and I wanted to make more money. These two opposing thoughts constantly fought inside my mind and I could not find any peace. I was not able to eat or rest well, lost weight and incurred many illnesses.

"Who won the battle?" Zengshi inquired.

Zixiao quickly answered, "Yao, Yu and Tang's views on morality, friendship and loyalty won. As you can now see, I have gained weight."[1]

Why Zengzi Killed the Pig

This is a well-known ancient story about teaching children. Zengzi was a student of Confucius. One day, as Zengzi's wife was leaving to go shopping, her youngest son kept crying because he wanted to go with her. So she comforted him saying, "Just wait at home. After I come back, I will kill a pig and cook the pork for you." At that time, pork was eaten only during the New Year and as a luxury on special occasions, such as a visit from a prestigious person. When the wife came back, she found Zengzi preparing to slaughter a pig. She hurriedly stopped him, saying, "I only said that to comfort him!"

Zengzi told her, "You cannot lie to a child. Since they are young and have no social experience, they follow what their parents tell them. If you lied to him today, you would actually be teaching him to lie to others like that. If a mother lies to her child, the child won't listen to her. Is this a good way to teach children?" Then, Zengzi killed the pig and cooked the pork. The story tells us that parents should not lie to children at any time, because, as children's most direct examples, the parents’ behavior will significantly influence their children. A child will follow what the parents do. Zengzi fully understood that children can be well educated only after their parents behave well.

According to Su Shi Jia Yu (an ancient book on how to educate children), "Confucius's children did not know about swearing at others, and Zengzi's children did not know about anger. This could only come about because the parents were good at teaching them." Zengzi’s method of teaching his children has been admired throughout history.[2]


  1. Jinyang, Ancient Cultivation Story, clearwisdom.net. Retrieved February 14, 2008.
  2. Stories from Ancient China, ClearHarmony Net. Retrieved February 14, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-64430-5


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