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CHAPTER III.: OF THE GREAT LEARNING. - Confucius, The Chinese Classics: Vol. 1. The Life and Teachings of Confucius (Analects, Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean) 
The Chinese Classics: Translated into English with Preliminary Essays and Explanatory Notes by James Legge. Vol. 1. The Life and Teachings of Confucius. Second Edition (London: N. Trübner, 1869).
Part of: The Chinese Classics
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OF THE GREAT LEARNING.
HISTORY OF THE TEXT; AND THE DIFFERENT ARRANGEMENTS OF IT WHICH HAVE BEEN PROPOSED.
1.It has already been mentioned that “The Great Learning” forms one of the chapters of the Le Ke, or “Record of Rites,” the formation of the text of which will be treated of in its proper place. I will only say here that the Book, or Books, of Rites had suffered much more, after the death of Confucius, than the other ancient Classics. They were in a more dilapidated condition at the time of the revival of the ancient literature under the Han dynasty, and were then published in three collections, only one of which—the Record of Rites—retains its place among the King.
The Record of Rites consists, according to the current arrangement, of 49 chapters or Books. Lew Heang (see ch. I. sect. II. 2) took the lead in its formation, and was followed by the two famous scholars, Tae Tih, and his relative, Tae Shing. The first of these reduced upwards of 200 chapters, collected by Heang, to 89, and Shing reduced these again to 46. The three other Books were added in the second century of our era, The Great Learning being one of them, by Ma Yung, mentioned in the last chaper, section III. 2. Since his time, the Work has not received any further additions.
2. In his note appended to what he calls the chapter of “Classical Text,” Choo He says that the tablets of the “old copies” of the rest of The Great Learning were considerably out of order. By those old copies, he intends the Work of Ch‘ing Heuen, who published his commentary on the Classic, soon after it was completed by the additions of Ma Yung; and it is possible that the tablets were in confusion, and had not been arranged with sufficient care; but such a thing does not appear to have been suspected until the 12th century; nor can any authority from ancient monuments be adduced in its support.
I have related how the ancient Classics were cut on slabs of stone by imperial order, ad 175, the text being that which the various literati had determined, and which had been adopted by Ch‘ing Heuen. The same work was performed about seventy years later, under the so-called dynasty of Wei, between the years 240 and 248, and the two sets of slabs were set up together. The only difference between them was, that whereas the Classics had been cut in the first instance in three different forms, called the Seal character, the Pattern style, and the Imperfect form, there was substituted for the latter in the slabs of Wei the oldest form of the characters, similar to that which has been described in connection with the discovery of the old Lun Yu in the wall of Confucius’ house. Amid the changes of dynasties, the slabs both of Han and Wei had perished before the rise of the T‘ang dynasty, ad 624; but under one of its emperors, in the year 836, a copy of the Classics was again cut on stone, though only in one form of the character. These slabs we can trace down through the Sung dynasty when they were known as the tablets of Shen. They were in exact conformity with the text of the Classics adopted by Ch‘ing Heuen in his commentaries.
The Sung dynasty did not accomplish a similar work itself, nor has any one of the three which have followed it thought it necessary to engrave in stone in this way the ancient classics. About the middle of the 16th century, however, the literary world in China was startled by a report that the slabs of Wei which contained The Great Learning had been discovered. But this was nothing more than the result of an impudent attempt at an imposition, for which it is difficult to a foreigner to assign any adequate cause. The treatise, as printed from these slabs, has some trifling additions, and many alterations in the order of the text, but differing from the arrangements proposed by Choo He, and by other scholars. There seems to be now no difference of opinion among Chinese critics that the whole affair was a forgery. The text of The Great Learning, as it appears in the Book of Rites with the commentary of Ch‘ing Heuen, and was thrice engraved on stone, in three different dynasties, is, no doubt, that which was edited in the Han dynasty by Ma Yung.
3. I have said that it is possible that the tablets containing the text were not arranged with sufficient care by him, and, indeed, any one who studies the treatise attentively will probably come to the conclusion that the part of it forming the first six chapters of Commentary in the present Work is but a fragment. It would not be a difficult task to propose an arrangement of the text different from any which I have yet seen; but such an undertaking would not be interesting out of China. My object here is simply to mention the Chinese scholars who have rendered themselves famous or notorious in their own country, by what they have done in this way. The first was Ch‘ing Haou, a native of Lohyang in Ho-nan province, in the 11th century. His designation was Pih-shun, but since his death he has been known chiefly by the style of Ming-taou, which we may render the Wise-in-doctrine. The eulogies heaped on him by Choo He and others are extravagant, and he is placed immediately after Mencius in the list of great scholars. Doubtless he was a man of vast literary acquirements. The greatest change which he introduced into The Great Learning, was to read sin for ts‘in, at the commencement, making the second object proposed in the treatise to be the renovation of the people, instead of loving them. This alteration and his various transpositions of the text are found in Maou Se-ho’s treatise on “The attested text of The Great Learning.”
Hardly less illustrious than Ch‘ing Haou was his younger brother Ch‘ing E, known by the style of Ching-shuh, and since his death by that of E-ch‘uen. He followed Haou in the adoption of the reading “to renovate,” instead of “to love.” But he transposed the text differently, more akin to the arrangement afterwards made by Choo He, suggesting also that there were some superfluous sentences in the old text which might conveniently be erased. The Work, as proposed to be read by him, will be found in the volume of Maou just referred to.
We come to the name of Choo He who entered into the labours of the brothers Ch‘ing, the younger of whom he styles his Master, in his introductory note to The Great Learning. His arrangement of the text is that now current in all the editions of the Four Books, and it had nearly displaced the ancient text altogether. The sanction of Imperial approval was given to it during the Yuen and Ming dynasties. In the editions of the five King published by them, only the names of the Doctrine of the Mean and The Great Learning were preserved. No text of these Books was given, and Se-ho tells us, that in the reign of Kea-tsing, the most flourishing period of the Ming dynasty (ad 1522—1566), when a Wang Wăn-shing published a copy of The Great Learning, taken from the T‘ang edition of the Thirteen King, all the officers and scholars looked at one another in astonishment, and were inclined to suppose that the Work was a forgery. Besides adopting the reading of sin for ts‘in from the Ch‘ing, and modifying their arrangements of the text, Choo He made other innovations. He first divided the whole into one chapter of Classical text, which he assigned to Confucius, and ten chapters of Commentary, which he assigned to the disciple Tsăng. Previous to him, the whole had been published, indeed, without any specification of chapters and paragraphs. He undertook, moreover, to supply one whole chapter, which he supposed, after his master Ch‘ing, to be missing.
Since the time of Choo He, many scholars have exercised their wit on The Great Learning. The Work of Maou Se-ho contains four arrangements of the text, proposed respectively by the scholars Wang Loo-chae, Ke P‘ang-san, Kaon King-yih, and Kŏ Hoo-chen. The curious student may examine them there.
Under the present dynasty, the tendency has been to depreciate the labours of Choo He. The integrity of the text of Ch‘ing Heuen is zealously maintained, and the simpler method of interpretation employed by him is advocated in preference to the more refined and ingenious schemes of the Sung scholars. I have referred several times in the notes to a Work published a few years ago, under the title of “The Old Text of the sacred King, with Commentary and Discussions, by Lo Chung-fan of Nan-hae.” I knew the man seventeen years ago. He was a fine scholar, and had taken the second degree, or that of Keu-jin. He applied to me in 1843 for Christian baptism, and offended by my hesitancy went and enrolled himself among the disciples of another Missionary. He soon, however, withdrew into seclusion, and spent the last years of his life in literary studies. His family have published the work on The Great Learning, and one or two others. He most vehemently impugns nearly every judgment of Choo He: but in his own exhibitions of the meaning he blends many ideas of the Supreme Being and of the condition of human nature, which he had learned from the Christian Scriptures.
OF THE AUTHORSHIP, AND DISTINCTION OF THE TEXT INTO CLASSICAL TEXT AND COMMENTARY.
1.The authorship of The Great Learning is a very doubtful point, and one on which it does not appear possible to come to a decided conclusion. Choo He, as I have stated in the last section, determined that so much of it was king, or Classic, being the very words of Confucius, and that all the rest was chuen, or Commentary, being the views of Tsăng Sin upon the sage’s words, recorded by his disciples. Thus, he does not expressly attribute the composition of the Treatise to Tsăng, as he is generally supposed to do. What he says, however, as it is destitute of external support, is contrary also to the internal evidence. The 4th chapter of Commentary commences with “The Master said.” Surely, if there were anything more, directly from Confucius, there would be an intimation of it in the same way. Or, if we may allow that short sayings of Confucius might be interwoven with the Work, as in the 15th paragraph of the 10th chapter, without mention of “The Master,” it is too much to ask us to receive the long chapter at the beginning as being from him. With regard to the Work having come from the disciples of Tsăng Sin, recording their master’s views, the paragraph in chapter 6th, commencing with “The disciple Tsăng said,” seems to be conclusive against that hypothesis. So much we may be sure is Tsăng’s, and no more. Both of Choo He’s judgments must be set aside. We cannot admit either the distinction of the contents into Classical text and Commentary, or that the Work was the production of Tsăng’s disciples.
2. Who then was the author? An ancient tradition attributes it to K‘ung Keih, the grandson of Confucius. In a notice published at the time of their preparation, about the stone slabs of Wei, the following statement by Kea Kwei, a noted scholar of the 1st century, is quoted:—“When K‘ung Keih was living, and in straits, in Sung, being afraid lest the lessons of the former sages should become obscure, and the principles of the ancient emperors and kings fall to the ground, he therefore made The Great Learning as the warp of them, and The Doctrine of the Mean as the woof.” This would seem, therefore, to have been the opinion of that early time, and I may say the only difficulty in admitting it is that no mention is made of it by Ch‘ing Heuen. There certainly is that agreement between the two treatises, which makes their common authorship not at all unlikely.
3. Though we cannot positively assign the authorship of The Great Learning, there can be no hesitation in receiving it as a genuine monument of the Confucian school. There are not many words in it from the sage himself, but it is a faithful reflection of his teachings, written by some of his followers, not far removed from him by lapse of time. It must synchronize pretty nearly with the Analects, and may be safely referred to the fourth century before our era.
ITS SCOPE AND VALUE.
1.The worth of The Great Learning has been celebrated in most extravagant terms by many Chinese writers, and there have been foreigners who have not yielded to them in their estimation of it. Pauthier, in the “Argument Philosophique,” prefixed to his translation of the Work, says:—“It is evident that the aim of the Chinese philosopher is to exhibit the duties of political government as those of the perfecting of self, and of the practice of virtue by all men. He felt that he had a higher mission than that with which the greater part of ancient and modern philosophers have contented themselves; and his immense love for the happiness of humanity, which dominated over all his other sentiments, has made of his philosophy a system of social perfectionating, which, we venture to say, has never been equalled.”1
Very different is the judgment passed upon the treatise by a writer in the Chinese Repository:—“The Ta Heŏ is a short politico-moral discourse. Ta Heŏ, or ‘Superior Learning,’ is at the same time both the name and the subject of the discourse; it is the summum bonum of the Chinese. In opening this Book, compiled by a disciple of Confucius, and containing his doctrines, we might expect to find a Work like Cicero’s De Officiis; but we find a very different production, consisting of a few commonplace rules for the maintenance of a good government.”2
My readers will perhaps think, after reading the present section, that the truth lies between these two representations.
2. I believe that the Book should be styled T‘ae Heŏ, and not Ta Heŏ, and that it was so named as setting forth the higher and more extensive principles of moral science, which come into use and manifestation in the conduct of government. When Choo He endeavours to make the title mean—“The principles of Learning, which were taught in the higher schools of antiquity,” and tells us how at the age of 15 all the sons of the emperor, with the legitimate sons of the nobles and high officers, down to the more promising scions of the common people, all entered these seminaries, and were taught the difficult lessons here inculcated, we pity the ancient youth of China. Such “strong meat” is not adapted for the nourishment of youthful minds. But the evidence adduced for the existence of such educational institutions in ancient times is unsatisfactory, and from the older interpretation of the title we advance more easily to contemplate the object and method of the Work.
3. The object is stated definitely enough in the opening paragraph:—“What The Great Learning teaches, is—to illustrate illustrious virtue; to love the people; and to rest in the highest excellence.” The political aim of the writer is here at once evident. He has before him on one side the people, the masses of the empire, and over against them are those whose work and duty, delegated by Heaven, is to govern them, culminating, as a class, in “the son of Heaven,” “the one man,” the emperor. From the 4th and 5th paragraphs, we see that if the lessons of the treatise be learned and carried into practice, the result will be that “illustrious virtue will be illustrated throughout the empire,” which will be brought, through all its length and breadth, to a condition of happy tranquillity. This object is certainly both grand and good; and if a reasonable and likely method to secure it were proposed in the Work, language would hardly supply terms adequate to express its value.
4. But the above account of the object of The Great Learning leads us to the conclusion that the student of it should be an emperor. What interest can an ordinary man have in it? It is high up in the clouds, far beyond his reach. This is a serious objection to it, and quite unfits it for a place in schools, such as Choo He contends it once had. Intelligent Chinese, whose minds were somewhat quickened by Christianity, have spoken to me of this defect, and complained of the difficulty they felt in making the book a practical directory for their conduct. “It is so vague and vast,” was the observation of one man. The writer, however, has made some provision for the general application of his instructions. He tells us, that from the emperor down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person to be the root, that is, the first thing to be attended to. As in his method, moreover, he reaches from the cultivation of the person to the tranquillization of the Empire, through the intermediate steps of the regulation of the family, and the government of the State, there is room for setting forth principles that parents and rulers generally may find adapted for their guidance.
5. The method which is laid down for the attainment of the great object proposed consists of seven steps:—the investigation of things; the completion of knowledge; the sincerity of the thoughts; the rectifying of the heart; the cultivation of the person; the regulation of the family; and the government of the State. These form the steps of a climax, the end of which is the empire tranquillized. Pauthier calls the paragraphs where they occur instances of the sorites, or abridged syllogism. But they belong to rhetoric, and not to logic.
6. In offering some observations on these steps, and the writer’s treatment of them, it will be well to separate them into those preceding the cultivation of the person, and those following it; and to deal with the latter first.—Let us suppose that the cultivation of the person is all attained, every discordant mental element having been subdued and removed. It is assumed that the regulation of the family will necessarily flow from this. Two short paragraphs are all that are given to the illustration of the point, and they are vague generalities on the subject of men being led astray by their feelings and affections.
The family being regulated, there will result from it the government of the State. First, the virtues taught in the family have their correspondences in the wider sphere. Filial piety will appear as loyalty. Fraternal submission will be seen in respect and obedience to elders and superiors. Kindness is capable of universal application. Second, “From the loving example of one family, a whole State becomes loving, and from its courtesies the whole State becomes courteous.” Seven paragraphs suffice to illustrate these statements, and short as they are, the writer goes back to the topic of self-cultivation, returning from the family to the individual.
The State being governed, the whole empire will become peaceful and happy. There is even less of connection, however, in the treatment of this theme, between the premise and the conclusion, than in the two previous chapters. Nothing is said about the relation between the whole empire, and its component States, or any one of them. It is said at once, “What is meant by ‘The making the whole empire peaceful and happy depends on the government of the State,’ is this:—when the sovereign behaves to his aged, as the aged should be behaved to, the people become filial; when the sovereign behaves to his elders, as elders should be behaved to, the people learn brotherly submission; when the sovereign treats compassionately the young and helpless, the people do the same.” This is nothing but a repetition of the preceding chapter, instead of that chapter’s being made a step from which to go on to the splendid consummation of the good government of the whole empire.
The words which I have quoted are followed by a very striking enunciation of the golden rule in its negative form, and under the name of the measuring square, and all the lessons of the chapter are connected more or less closely with that. The application of this principle by a ruler, whose heart is in the first place in loving sympathy with the people, will guide him in all the exactions which he lays upon them, and in the selection of ministers, in such a way that he will secure the affections of his subjects, and his throne will be established, for “by gaining the people, the kingdom is gained; and, by losing the people, the kingdom is lost.” There are in this part of the treatise many valuable sentiments, and counsels for all in authority over others. The objection to it is, that, as the last step of the climax, it does not rise upon all the others with the accumulated force of their conclusions, but introduces us to new principles of action and a new line of argument. Cut off the commencement of the first paragraph which connects it with the preceding chapters, and it would form a brief but admirable treatise by itself on the art of government.
This brief review of the writer’s treatment of the concluding steps of his method will satisfy the reader that the execution is not equal to the design; and, moreover, underneath all the reasoning, and more especially apparent in the 8th and 9th chapters of Commentary (according to the ordinary arrangement of the work), there lies the assumption that example is all but omnipotent. We find this principle pervading all the Confucian philosophy. And doubtless it is a truth, most important in education and government, that the influence of example is very great. I believe, and will insist upon it hereafter in these prolegomena, that we have come to overlook this element in our conduct of administration. It will be well if the study of the Chinese Classics should call attention to it. Yet in them the subject is pushed to an extreme, and represented in an extravagant manner. Proceeding from the view of human nature that it is entirely good, and led astray only by influences from without, the sage of China and his followers attribute to personal example and to instruction a power which we do not find that they actually possess.
7. The steps which precede the cultivation of the person are more briefly dealt with than those which we have just considered. “The cultivation of the person results from the rectifying the heart or mind.” True, but in The Great Learning very inadequately set forth.
“The rectifying of the mind is realized when the thoughts are made sincere.” And the thoughts are sincere when no self-deception is allowed, and we move without effort to what is right and wrong, “as we love what is beautiful, and as we hate a bad smell.” How are we to attain to this state? Here the Chinese moralist fails us. According to Choo He’s arrangement of the Treatise, there is only one sentence from which we can frame a reply to the above question. “Therefore,” it is said, “the superior man must be watchful over himself when he is alone.” Following Choo’s 6th chapter of Commentary, and forming, we may say, part of it, we have in the old arrangement of The Great Learning all the passages which he has distributed so as to form the previous five chapters. But even from the examination of them, we do not obtain the information which we desire on this momentous inquiry.
8. Indeed, the more I study the Work, the more satisfied I become, that from the conclusion of what is now called the chapter of Classical text to the sixth chapter of Commentary, we have only a few fragments, which it is of no use trying to arrange, so as fairly to exhibit the plan of the author. According to his method, the chapter on the connection between making the thoughts sincere and so rectifying the mental nature, should be preceded by one on the completion of knowledge as the means of making the thoughts sincere, and that again by one on the completion of knowledge by the investigation of things, or whatever else the phrase kih wuh may mean. I am less concerned for the loss and injury which this part of the Work has suffered, because the subject of the connection between intelligence and virtue is very fully exhibited in The Doctrine of the Mean, and will come under my notice in the review of that Treatise. The manner in which Choo He has endeavoured to supply the blank about the perfecting of knowledge by the investigation of things is too extravagant. “The Learning for Adults,” he says, “at the outset of its lessons, instructs the learner, in regard to all things in the world, to proceed from what knowledge he has of their principles, and pursue his investigation of them, till he reaches the extreme point. After exerting himself for a long time, he will suddenly find himself possessed of a wide and far-reaching penetration. Then, the qualities of all things, whether external or internal, the subtle or the coarse, will be apprehended, and the mind, in its entire substance and its relation to things, will be perfectly intelligent. This is called the investigation of things. This is called the perfection of knowledge.” And knowledge must be thus perfected before we can achieve the sincerity of our thoughts and the rectifying of our hearts! Verily this would be learning not for adults only, but even Methuselahs would not be able to compass it. Yet for centuries this has been accepted as the orthodox exposition of the Classic. Lo Chung-fan does not express himself too strongly when he says that such language is altogether incoherent. The author would only be “imposing on himself and others.”
9. The orthodox doctrine of China concerning the connection between intelligence and virtue is most seriously erroneous, but I will not lay to the charge of the author of The Great Learning the wild representations of the commentator of the twelfth century, nor need I make here any remarks on what the doctrine really is. After the exhibition which I have given, my readers will probably conclude that the Work before us is far from developing, as Pauthier asserts, “a system of social perfectionating which has never been equalled.”
10. The Treatise has undoubtedly great merits, but they are not to be sought in the severity of its logical processes, or the large-minded prosecution of any course of thought. We shall find them in the announcement of certain seminal principles, which, if recognized in government and the regulation of conduct, would conduce greatly to the happiness and virtue of mankind. I will conclude these observations by specifying four such principles.
First, The writer conceives nobly of the object of government, that it is to make its subjects happy and good. This may not be a sufficient account of that object, but it is much to have it so clearly laid down to “all kings and governors,” that they are to love the people, ruling not for their own gratification, but for the good of those over whom they are exalted by Heaven. Very important also is the statement that rulers have no divine right but what springs from the discharge of their duty. “The decree does not always rest on them. Goodness obtains it, and the want of goodness loses it.”
Second, The insisting on personal excellence in all who have authority in the family, the State, and the empire, is a great moral and social principle. The influence of such personal excellence may be overstated, but by the requirement of its cultivation the writer deserved well of his country.
Third, Still more important than the requirement of such excellence is the principle that it must be rooted in the state of the heart, and be the natural outgrowth of internal sincerity. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” This is the teaching alike of Solomon and the author of The Great Learning.
Fourth, I mention last the striking exhibition which we have of the golden rule, though only in its negative form. “What a man dislikes in his superiors, let him not display in the treatment of his inferiors; what he dislikes in inferiors, let him not display in his service of his superiors; what he dislikes in those who are before him, let him not therewith precede those who are behind him; what he dislikes in those who are behind him, let him not therewith follow those who are before him; what he dislikes to receive on the right, let him not bestow on the left; what he dislikes to receive on the left, let him not bestow on the right:—this is what is called the principle with which, as with a measuring square, to regulate one’s conduct.”
The Work which contains those principles cannot be thought meanly of. They are “commonplace,” as the writer in the Chinese repository calls them, but they are at the same time eternal verities.
[1 ] Le Ta Hëo, ou La Grande Etude. Paris, 1837.
[2 ] Chinese Repository, vol. iii. p. 98.