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  • Zhou Dunyi's Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate Explained (Taijitu shuo):A Construction of the Confucian Metaphysics
  • Robin R. Wang


As Derk Bodde correctly has stated, "The theory of yin and yang, the five elements, and their correlates, has for more than two thousand years been the basis for Chinese medicine, alchemy, astronomy, and naturalistic speculation generally."1 However the yinyang theory provides not only a conceptual basis for Chinese natural science but also a theoretical foundation, within Neo-Confucian moral philosophy, for its teachings on self-cultivation. One of the key points at which the link between Chinese natural philosophy and ethics can be observed is in the work of Zhou Dunyi (Chou Tun-i, 1017–73 CE). Zhou Dunyi, the forerunner of Neo-Confucianism and founder of Daoxue in the Song dynasty, published a diagram of the Supreme Ultimate (taijitu) and wrote a concise 256-word philosophical account of it (taijitu shuo). Zhou's groundbreaking effort sets the parameters in which the yinyang theory was to be assimilated metaphysically and systematically into Confucian thought and practice. By presenting Zhou Dunyi's diagram and the full translation of his taijitu shuo, this essay will call attention to Zhou's thought and seek to understand it on its own merits. The justification for a fresh look at Zhou Dunyi's original endeavor will become apparent in the conclusion to this paper, which will argue that Zhou Dunyi's distinctive approach to the yinyang theory may have a valuable bearing on contemporary discussions on the subject of the [End Page 307] historical development of Chinese philosophy, particularly on the progression of the yinyang theory.

Obviously, Zhou Dunyi was not the first Confucian to bring the yinyang cosmology into Confucian philosophy. A millennium earlier, the Han thinker, Dong Zhongshu (Tung Chung-shu, 179–104 BCE), commonly regarded as the founder of Imperial Confucianism, explored the relationship between the yinyang theory and Confucian morality. Compared with Zhou Dunyi, Dong Zhongshu's perspective is static and a departure from the original meanings of yinyang.2 Dong Zhongshu turned the yinyang cosmology into a conceptual validation of imperial Confucianism's commitment to a hierarchical vision of nature and human relationships. It favored a pattern of subordination within human relationships rather than a correlative understanding of social harmony.3 Dong Zhongshu succeeded in canonizing a particular interpretation of Confucian moral philosophy, one that was criticized, beginning with the May 4th Movement, for its authoritarianism, and its tendency to support the domination of women. By contrast, Zhou Dunyi's metaphysics and ontology created a possibility to reopen these questions, in ways that demonstrate the promise of progress beyond the authoritarian phase initiated with Han Confucianism, and transmitted and expanded in various ways by Neo-Confucians for centuries to come.

As a survey of the relevant historical texts indicates, it is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of Zhou Dunyi's contribution. Zhou is often regarded as one of the five Song masters4 who first formulated the Neo-Confucian "vista and determined its direction." Zhou Dunyi is appraised as "the pioneer" who "laid the pattern of metaphysics and ethics for later Neo Confucianism."5 Wing-tsit Chan claims that Zhou Dunyi's originality consists in assimilating "the Taoist element of non-being to Confucian thought," now carefully removed from "the fantasy and mysticism of Taoism."6 If Neo-Confucianism is generally to be distinguished from earlier forms of Confucian thought by its adaptation of Daoist and Buddhist views, then Zhou Dunyi should be deemed as the first to demonstrate how fruitful this could be. Through Zhou Dunyi's efforts Confucian thought finally acquired an appropriately positive metaphysical [End Page 308] foundation, one that bases Confucian moral teaching on an ontology that inspired successive generations of Neo-Confucians' in their philosophical reflections.

The precise nature of Zhou Dunyi's influence upon later thinkers regarded as essential to Neo-Confucianism is itself controversial. Though appointed by an old friend, Cheng Xiang, to tutor his two sons, Cheng Hao (1032–85 CE) and Cheng Yi (1033–1107 CE) for less than a year, neither of them accepted Zhou's specific teaching on the Taijitu.7 While Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi...


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