Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Story of Zhu Xi's Retirement

The Master Zhu Xi (1130-1200) was one of the greatest sages of Chinese history; second among the Confucians only to Confucius himself. He is considered the founder of Neo-Confucianism, and was the only Confucian who was not a personal student of Confucius himself to have been granted the status of a Confucian Immortal.

He is of particular significance to the Yi Fa Society because he was the teacher who perfected the expression of the Yi Fa as a concept. Some details of his life and his discovery of the Yi Fa are detailed in The Magician's I Ching.  He wrote two texts on the I Ching and was one of many true Sages who tried to restore the genuine role of the I Ching in Confucian society; as had happened many times before, in Zhu Xi's time the mainstream establishment of Confucian literati did not believe in actually using the I Ching for divination, but he strongly advocated that to truly understand the I Ching it had to be worked!

We can assume that Zhu Xi made frequent use of the I Ching. However, there is only occasion in history that a record remains of his use of it. This event is recorded at the time of the greatest crisis in Zhu's life and the future of his school.

Near the end of his career and life, Zhu Xi was a provincial governor, and was part of the movement that attempted to clean up the rampant corruption and incompetence of the late (southern) Song Dynasty Imperial court.  Naturally, those who benefited from this corruption sought to accuse him and his followers of conspiracy against the Emperor.  He nevertheless pushed forward, quoting the I Ching in defending his actions, pointing out that if good men do not join together to mobilize change, bad men will triumph ("Base men use their power, if the Superior Individuals don't use theirs"). This was treading dangerous ground, as in the earlier period of the Song Dynasty (when they were based in the north) sages had attempted to reform the State to save it from its decline, and they were ignored and accused of treason. The failure to reform had led to the eventual collapse of the Song and the court was forced to flee to the south in the face of barbarian invasions.

By 1195, the corrupt officials opposing Zhu Xi's faction had begun a series of purges, accusing those involved not just of treason, but of "wei xue", meaning "false (or empty) learning".  They were accused, in essence, of teaching untrue and harmful ideas that were dangerous to the state.  Zhu Xi's mystical practices in his school also led to these corrupt officials accusing him and 58 of his students of practicing 'sorcery'.

Zhu Xi's students were very frightened for him, that he might soon be imprisoned or executed.  They begged him to retire from public service to save his own life, but he would not listen to them, being determined to fight on, and not to abandon his students and allies to these false accusations.  He planned instead to write a manifesto condemning the corrupt officials and their abuses in the most extreme terms.

One of Zhu Xi's students, Cai Yuanding (who would eventually die in exile after being persecuted by the "false learning" purge), was one of the most dedicated practitioners of the I Ching in Zhu Xi's school.  He tried one last attempt to get Zhu Xi to back down; he suggested that Zhu Xi consult the I Ching to be certain of his path.

Zhu Xi agreed to this, and cast the I Ching. The result was Hexagram #33: Retreat. Its changing lines were L.1 ("he delays his retreat and is routed. Cornered - disaster! It is useless to seek any goal") and L.4 ("Even though he cares for his subordinates he must retreat!").   These lines create the resulting hexagram #37 "The Household", with the description "the family, and home".
Realizing that the I Ching made it clear that his cause was lost, and that there was nothing to gain in persisting now, he destroyed his manifesto, and retired for the last time.  He took on the title of "The old man who retreated".  He was nevertheless stripped of all offices and died under sentence of execution.

In spite of this, it was thanks to his retiring at that moment that after his death, his students were able to gradually change the balance of power and win over the Imperial Court to the wisdom of Zhu Xi.  The same Emperor who had condemned Zhu Xi and forbidden his teachings would, only eight years after Zhu's death, giving him the title of "Venerable man of Culture" and in essence conceding to the Virtue of Zhu's teaching.  His guidelines for education and civil service would become the standard for Chinese culture for hundreds of years to come, throughout all the rest of the Imperial period.

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