Great Learning: Historical Context & Content

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The Great Learning is a quintessential Confucian document that has exerted a major influence upon China’s political and social world. What possible relationship could there be between this significant Confucian document and the Taoist Nei-yeh? What relevance does it have to our discussion?

On the most basic level, a central theme of both texts is the importance of self-cultivation. The Great Learning states explicitly that self-cultivation is the root of good governance of both state and family. In complementary fashion, the Nei-yeh lays the foundation for a theory of self-cultivation, i.e. why it is important and what it consists of.

Further both texts emerge from a common cultural milieu that stressed the positive impact of self-cultivation on the community. The Great Learning was probably generated during the Warring States Era of the Late Chou Dynasty, i.e. the third or fourth century before the Common Era. This is the same general time period that the Nei-yeh and the Lao-tzu came into being.

The texts have many similarities. For instance, each consists of short verses or sections that can be readily memorized by students and/or disciples. More importantly for this discussion, the Great Learning and the Nei-yeh address the same topics – even employing the same ideograms for some key word-concepts. In addition to self-cultivation, both address the importance of manifesting te, inner power, and aligning hsin, the heart-mind. Due to the similarities of focus, the two documents could even be considered complementary texts, in that each illuminates the insights found in the other.

To better understand the textual feedback, allow me to introduce the Great Learning – beginning with its cultural context and concluding with its content.

Great Learning: Historical Significance for Chinese Culture

How significant has the Great Learning been for Chinese culture? Let us see what some highly esteemed scholars have to say.

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the tremendous influence of this short work on Confucian thought, not only in China, but also in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere in the Chinese cultural sphere. Especially in Neo-Confucian thought, the interpretation of the ‘eight points’ became one of the central problems of philosophy and ethics.”1

Why is it so hard to over-estimate its significance? Let us briefly examine the history of the Great Learning to better understand its importance to the Chinese in particular, and by extension to the greater East Asian culture.

But first, a brief statement about what history means in this case. The Chinese have a traditional, frequently official, history. Early European scholarship complicated these versions due to misinterpretations arising from the Western mindset. Contemporary scholarship has rectified many of these misconceptions. The 3 versions, i.e. traditional, early European and contemporary, are vastly different on many accounts. However, each of the versions is still alive and well in many popularized Chinese histories.

Scholars are rightfully obsessed with the true version, the one supported by the facts. They attempt to answer the question: what really happened? However, the traditional, i.e. official, version of history is more important culturally. Many, if not most Chinese, believe the traditional version to be true. It is the version that motivates and bonds the citizenry. The following history, albeit rough and syncretic, indicates the significance of this 2-page work to Chinese culture.

The Great Learning is part of the Classic of Rites. This is a collection of works that is one of the Five Classics. The Five Classics were pre-imperial writings, whose earliest forms were probably generated during the Chou Dynasty, 1st millennium BCE. They were joined as a group when Confucianism was on the rise during the Western Han Dynasty, in the first centuries of the Common Era. The Five Classics became part of the state-sponsored curriculum. In this fashion, government officials were inculcated with Chinese history and culture, especially that associated with the much revered early Chou Dynasty.

According to history that was presumably generated during the Han to grant prestige and legitimacy to the collection, Confucius (551-479 BCE) wrote or at least refined the Classic of Rites. This version of the past remains in circulation. While some of the texts from the Classic of Rites probably come from earlier times, traditional history states that either Confucian’s grandson or one of his disciples wrote both the Great Learning and the Doctrine of the Mean, another significant Confucian text.

Modern scholarship places the authorship of these texts a few centuries later, perhaps circa 200 BCE. Due to the congruence of the content and focus of these texts with the Nei-yeh, it is possible that all three texts could have been generated during intellectual ferment of the Warring States Period, possibly even at or in connection with the Chia-hsia Academy. They, along with the Lao-tzu and the Chuang-tzu, certainly belong to a common intellectual tradition that shares similar word-concepts and issues. Further each of the texts stresses the importance of self-cultivation for the greater community.

During the Han Dynasty, the Classic of Rites was broken into 5 parts – Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Evolution of the Rites, the Yili, and ‘Etiquette and Rites’. According to traditional accounts, the Great Learning rose to prominence during this time. Modern scholarship confutes this notion, as there is virtually no mention of the text during the Han.

It was during the Southern Song Dynasty that the Great Learning rose to its exalted position in Confucian thought and by extension Chinese culture. At this time, the Neo-Confucian scholar/philosopher/statesman Zhu Xi (1130-1200) refocused Chinese statesmanship on the Great Learning. He even revised the order of this classic text to fit his philosophy, which stressed scholarship. Zhu Xi included the Great Learning along with Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects, and Mencius as one of the ‘Four Books’. Zhu Xi’s influence was so great on subsequent Chinese thought that only Confucius is considered to be more important.

Due to Zhu Xi’s prestige, the imperial government instituted state sponsored exams to determine who was to be employed in the government as officials. Government service was and is the key to upward mobility for the Chinese. To pass these exams, students were required to be totally versed in the ‘Four Books’. This condition held true for the next 600 years.

“The so-called Four Books … became the primer of Chinese education, the first major course of study before a student began his study of the Five Classics; they were read aloud and committed to memory by the students. And for a period of six centuries (C.E. 1313-1905) these four texts served as the basis for the civil service examinations by which Chinese scholars were selected for posts in the government bureaucracy.”2

The Great Learning is a short text that provides a template for effective governance. The middle section focuses upon eight processes. These ‘8 points’ became a prime topic of discussion for centuries of scholars.

Zhu Xi revised the order of these ‘8 points’ to emphasize scholarship. During the Ming Dynasty, Wang Yangming (1472-1529) challenged this revision. This Neo-Confucian statesman and scholar, who is second in importance only to Zhu Xi, stressed action rather than study. To this end, he returned the Great Learning to its original state.

In this brief history, it is evident that the Great Learning has played a major defining role in Chinese thought and culture. To provide intellectual context, let us now briefly examine both the logical structure and content of the Great Learning.

Great Learning: Logical structure & Content

What is the Great Learning? Considering that its ‘tremendous influence on East Asian culture can’t be overestimated’, one might imagine that it is a book, a treatise or at least an essay. Or, one might think that it is a collection of rhymed verses, as we are comparing it to the Nei-yeh and the Lao-tze. In fact, the Great Learning is a mere 1-page document with just over 30 lines and a little over 100 characters in length. As this brief text provides a fundamental cultural template for the Chinese, it can probably claim title as the shortest text of politico-social significance in the entire history of humankind.

Why has this short piece attracted human attention for almost a millennium, including the present focus? Anyone who comes upon the document for the first time is struck by both the brevity and the interlocking logical structure that places a wide range of topics in relationship to each other. On the most general level, it connects community, governing, family, and self-cultivation in a neat little package. On more specific levels, it states how to best accumulate and manifest personal power. 

The Great Learning can also be translated as the Learning of Greatness. This reading stresses the ongoing nature of becoming a great leader. Rather than understanding, the text stresses processes that must be engaged in order to effectively govern both family and state.

The brevity and conciseness of the text is amazing. The Great Learning can be broken into seven sections, each of which provides a succinct and definitive micro or macro statement about the whole. The unique topic of each section is placed in logical relationship to the rest.

The first four characters of the first line identify the document’s focus: ‘Regarding the method of the learning of greatness.’ This phrase also supplies the adopted title of the work. The next three lines delineate the 3 general components of the Learning of Greatness. Subsequent sections, i.e. 2nd, 4th and 5th, provide the underlying logical structure behind each of these components. The remaining sections, i.e. 3rd, 6th and 7th, present the over-riding themes of the entire brief document, presumably to prevent any confusion and to nail down the key concepts.

The Great Learning, like the Nei-yeh and the Tao Te Ching, employs a form of linear logic to communicate some key points. It typically consists of a sequence of connected if-then statements in particular verses or sections. These logical statements connect processes, not objects.

While most of the Lao-Tzu’s verses stand alone without relationship to the rest, the Nei-yeh’s 26 verses are developmental, as we’ve exhibited. Further, the connections are spatial rather than linear, in that there are multiple centers, not just one. In contrast to the other texts, the 1-page Great Learning has a tightly defined, yet interlocking, linear structure.

None of the texts connect the dots between verses. The reader or student is expected to fill in the gaps. Many commentaries have been written to make these connections. In a subsequent chapter, we will examine Cengzi’s celebrated commentary on the Great Learning.

Due to its brevity, the following discussion will include the entire text. The Nei-yeh and the Great Learning share significant word-concepts. To facilitate comparison between the two texts, we will include the Chinese word in the translation.


The 1st section delineates 3 general processes that are essential features of becoming great. The remaining sections clarify and refine each of these 3 processes. The Way (Tao) of the Learning of Greatness includes 1) manifesting inner power (te), 2) loving humanity, and 3) stopping in perfection.

1. The way (Tao) of great learning
Consists in manifesting one's bright virtue (te),
Consists in loving the people,
Consists in stopping in perfect goodness.


The 2nd section employs an internal logical ‘if-then’ sequence to explain the advantage of ‘stopping in perfection’ – the third process of the Tao of Greatness. ‘Knowing where to stop’ leads to ‘stability’, which leads to ‘tranquility’ (ching), which leads to being ‘at ease’, which enhances our ability to ‘deliberate’/analyze (presumably critical thinking skills), which enables us to ‘attain our aims’.

2. When you know where to stop, you have stability.
When you have stability, you can be tranquil (ching).
When you are tranquil, you can be at ease.
When you are at ease, you can deliberate.
When you can deliberate, you can attain your aims.


The brief 3rd section simply states that things have roots and branches. An individual who understands which is the root and which is the branch is close to the Tao.

3. Things have their roots and branches;
Affairs have their end and beginning.
When you know what comes first and what comes last,
Then you are near the Way (Tao).

This section is a macro statement that acts to tie the entire document together. For instance, the 2nd section indicates that ‘stopping in perfection’, one of the three essential processes, is the root of ‘achieving our aims’. The other positive features are branches of the ‘stopping’ root. Critical thinking skills is one of the branches that come from this root.

Note that correctly identifying order, e.g. where things begin and end, brings one closer to the Tao. This could simply be an indication that the Tao is journey that must be maintained, rather than a state that is achieved. Even Confucius said that he had never met anyone who was on the Way all the time, including himself.


The 4th and 5th sections delineate the celebrated 8 points. Each section consists of a logical sequence of if-then statements that identify root and branches. The two sections have parallel structures, albeit reversed. Section 4 explains how to ‘manifest one’s bright virtue (te)’ – the first process of LearningGreatness from Section 1. Section 4 goes from the branches to the root. Section 5 has the identical components, but reverses the order from root to branches.

4. The ancients who wanted to manifest their bright virtue (te) to all in the world
first governed well their own states.
Wanting to govern well their states, they first harmonized their own clans.
Wanting to harmonize their own clan, they first cultivated themselves.
Wanting to cultivate themselves, they first corrected their minds (hsin).
Wanting to correct their minds (hsin), they first made their wills (yi) sincere.
Wanting to make their wills (yi) sincere, they first extended their knowledge.
Extension of knowledge consists of the investigation of things.


5. When things are investigated, knowledge is extended.
When knowledge is extended, the will (yi) becomes sincere.
When the will (yi) is sincere, the mind (hsin) is correct (cheng).
When the mind (hsin) is correct, the self is cultivated.
When the self is cultivated, the clan is harmonized.
When the clan is harmonized, the country is well governed.
When the country is well governed, there will be peace throughout the land.

These are the famous ‘8 points’ that have engaged Confucian scholars for centuries. Following is their logical sequence. 8) Bringing ‘peace throughout the land’ depends upon 7) ‘governing the country well’, which depends upon 6) ‘harmonizing the family’, which depends upon 5) ‘cultivating the self’, which depends upon 4) ‘aligning the heart-mind (hsin)’, which depends upon 3) ‘making the will (yi) sincere’, which depends upon 2) ‘extending knowledge’, which depends upon 1) ‘investigating things’ (alternately ‘setting things in order’).

These 2 sections answer some questions associated with the first two processes of the Great Learning. What does it mean to ‘manifest our bright virtue (te)’ and ‘love humanity’?

In order to manifest te, our ‘bright inner power’, we must begin with the processes of self-cultivation. How startling for those of us in the West, that a text addressed to the scholarly Confucian class would stress self-cultivation, seemingly the province of Taoist mystics. Could this common focus be an indication that the two traditions are complementary, rather than oppositional?

Self-cultivation enables us to first harmonize our family, and then govern the state with the aim of bringing about peace. The Great Learning is evidently aimed at the ruling class, i.e. those who govern kingdoms. However, it suggests that their intent should be to generate peace, not amass wealth and accumulate territory. By ‘manifesting te’ to harmonize state and family, one exhibits ‘love for humanity’. In this context, ‘loving humanity’ seems to be associated with public service.

What does self-cultivation consist of? According to the Great Learning, it consists of 4 ordered processes. In other words, the processes should be performed in the proper sequence. Shown below is Zhu Xi’s modified order, i.e. the sequence that became the East Asian standard.

‘Investigation of things’ = Study of Ancient Chinese Wisdom – Culture

According to Zhu Xi’s interpretation, ‘investigating things’ is the root process of self-cultivation. It is easy to misinterpret the original meaning of this phrase. ‘Investigating things’ didn’t mean the free-flowing exploration of ideas that is associated with our contemporary academic community; nor did it mean the exploration of our personal psyche that is associated with psychoanalysis.

In the Great Learning’s cultural context, Zhu Xi is instead stressing the importance of Confucian scholarship. The implicit meaning of ‘investigating things’ was studying the Chinese Classics, more specifically, the 4 Books, which includes the Great Learning. Zhu Xi’s influential interpretation of the Great Learning stressed scholarship that venerated the wisdom and culture of China’s past – not an exploration of the unknown. Becoming acculturated in this fashion enabled an individual to resonate with and guide social patterns for the greater good.

‘Investigating things’ was also the root of self-cultivation. After being infused with Chinese culture and wisdom, one could extend one’s knowledge in order to attain integrity of will (yi), then mental alignment. These processes are the basis of self-cultivation that harmonizes the clan and state to bring peace and stability throughout the land.


Section 6 identifies the ‘root’ of the Great Learning – ‘self-cultivation’. Cultivating the self is the ‘most essential thing’ for both ‘kings and the common people’, i.e. everyone.

6. From the king down to the common people,
All must regard the cultivation of the self as the most essential thing.

GL: Self (shen) definition

As with ‘investigating things’, our contemporary mindset might inadvertently distort the meaning of ‘cultivating the self’ in the context of the Great Learning. In order to better understand the nuances, let us examine shen, the word-ideogram that the Great Learning employs for ‘self’.

Shen has the following definition: 1) body; 2) life; 3) oneself, personally; 4) the main part of a structure, body. In other words, this self is not just our mental processes, but the self that includes both body and mind. Shen is more associated with the self that is encountered in the world than it is with the psychological or emotional self.

In the Great Learning’s context, self (shen) is our face to the world – how we present ourselves to the greater society in terms of manners, dress, and knowledge. ‘Cultivating this self’ could be likened to attending a good college to become a cultured human – someone that is fit to be a member of the governing class. In China, this schooling, of course, included becoming versed in ancient Chinese wisdom, ritual and culture by studying the 4 Books, which include the Great Learning, the 6 Classics, and more.


The final 7th section clarifies and stresses the importance of ‘knowing the root’. The entire document could be said to identify essential ‘roots and branches’ of the Great Learning.

7. It is impossible to have a situation wherein the essentials are in disorder,
And the externals are well-managed.
You simply cannot take the essential things as superficial,
And the superficial things as essential.
This is called, “Knowing the root.”
This is called “The extension of knowledge.”

Section 7 states simply that it impossible to have external affairs in order if the essentials are imbalanced. From Section 6, we know that ‘cultivating the self’ is an essential process for everyone (both kings and commoners). In other words, we must first ‘cultivate our self’, if we are to effectively ‘govern our world’.

What does it mean for essentials to be disordered? The second statement provides an answer: The ‘essential’ is mistaken for the ‘superficial’ and vice versa. For instance, a misguided doctor treats the symptoms rather than the cause. In the Great Learning’s context, the ‘branches’ are mistaken for the ‘root’ and vice-versa.

The section and entire document ends by stating ‘knowing the root’ is ‘extending knowledge’.

We can apply this final clue to better understand Zhu Xi’s order for the four essential processes of self-cultivation. From the crucial 4th and 5th sections, we know that ‘investigating things’ precedes ‘extending knowledge’. Through investigation, we uncover the root. By understanding the root, we are able accurately differentiate between essential and superficial. Once we know the real root, we can effectively transmit our understanding, i.e. ‘extend our knowledge’ to naturally harmonize our surroundings. Conversely, if we only understand the branches, our transmission might be corrupted, or at least misguided, perhaps leading to conflict and tension rather than harmony.

After determining the ‘true’ root by ‘investigating things’, we can apply this knowledge to ‘make the will sincere’. By ‘making the will sincere’ through an understanding of the root, we can then effectively ‘align the mind’. This could be a way of understanding Zhu Xi’s sequence of the four processes that are the basis of self-cultivation.

While these processes are foundational, self-cultivation plays the central role in the Learning of Greatness. Section 6 states that ‘cultivating the self’ is an essential root for all humans. The entire document stresses and highlights the importance of self-cultivation for achieving the 3 aims of the Great Learning: ‘manifesting our bright virtue’, ‘loving humanity’, and ‘stopping in perfection’. By ‘cultivating our self’ we are able to ‘manifest our bright virtue (te)’ by governing well in order to bring ‘peace to the world’, thereby illustrating by our actions that we ‘love humanity’.

Although the verse doesn’t specify this connection, self-cultivation could also enhance our ability to ‘stop in perfection’. The ability to stop is a root of our critical thinking skills – our ability to analyze/deliberate. With this deeper ability to penetrate to the root of things, we are better able to ‘achieve our goals’, presumably ‘manifesting our virtue (te), ‘loving humanity’ and perhaps even self-actualization. While addressed to the ruling class, these principles apply to all humans.


1 Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Theodore de Bary, Wing-set Chan, and Burton Watson, Colombia University Press, 1960, p.114

2 Sources of Chinese Tradition, 1960, p.113


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