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Great Learning

The Great Learning (大學, D Xu) is the first of the Four books which were selected by Zhu Xi in the Song Dynasty as a foundational introduction to Confucianism. It was originally one chapter in Li Ji (the Classic of Rites).

The book consists of a short main text, attributed to Confucius and nine commentaries chapters by Zhengzi, one of Confucius' disciples. It's importance is illustrated by Zhengzi's foreward that this 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 Zhou dynasty to the Kuomintang to the Communist Party of China. Another term used in the text qing-ming which Legge translates as renovating the people is the name of the People First Party, one of the major parties in the Republic of China on Taiwan.

The main text reads

The Way (dao) of the great learning involves manifesting virtue, renovating the people, and abiding by the highest good. (...)

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own States.
Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families.
Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons.
Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts.
Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts.
Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge.
Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete.
Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere.
Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified.
Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated.
Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated.
Their families being regulated, their States were rightly governed.
Their States being rightly governed, the entire world was at peace.

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides. (...)

The Great Learning is significant because it expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking has therefore been extremely influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought.

Government, self cultivation and investigation of things are linked. It links together invididual action in the form of self-cultivation with higher goals such as ultimate world peace as well as linking together the spiritual and the material. In edition, by defining the path of learning (dao) in governmental and social terms, the Great Learning both links the spiritual with the practical, and creates a vision of dao that is radically different than that presented by daoism. In particular, the Great Learning sets Confucianism as being this-worldly rather than other-worldly. Finally, the Great Learning also creates a conservative politics discourse. Instead of basing its authority on an external deity, the Great Learning bases its authority on the practices of ancient kings.

The text also sets up a number of controversies that have underlain Chinese philosophy and political thinking. For example, one major controversy has been to define exactly the investigation of things. What things are to be investigated and how has been one of the crucial issues of Chinese philosophy.