The Great Learning or Daxue was one of the "Four Books" in Confucianism. The Great Learning had come from a chapter in the Book of Rites which formed one of the Five Classics. It consists of a short main text attributed to the teachings of Confucius and then ten commentary chapters accredited to one of Confucius' disciples, Zengzi. The ideals of the book were supposedly Confucius's, but the text was written after his death.
The "Four Books" were selected by the neo-Confucian Zhu Xi during the Song dynasty as a foundational introduction to Confucianism. Examinations for the state civil service in China came to follow his lead.
Confucius, who incorporated ideas from earlier philosophers, compiled or edited the Classic of Rites and the Spring and Autumn Annals, two of the Five Classics. Confucius' student Zengzi wrote the introduction and exposition of the Great Learning. Zengzi lived from 505 to 436 BCE. Confucius taught 3000 pupils, 72 of whom mastered the six arts. It is still unclear how much his students wrote and edited.
The Great Learning developed from many authors adapting to the needs and beliefs of the community at the time. The Cheng brothers, Yi (1033–1107) and Hao (1032–1085) both utilized the Great Learning's philosophies. Their ideas met with strong official opposition, but were reconstituted by Zhu Xi. Cheng's idea of yi was that it was identical with nature, which he believed was essentially good. Cheng's yi emphasized the necessity of acquiring knowledge.
During the Southern Song Dynasty, Zhu Xi rearranged the Great Learning and included it in the Four Books, along with the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects of Confucius and the Mencius. Zhu Xi separated the Great Learning, which was originally a chapter in the Classic of Rites. Zhu Xi organized the book as Jing followed by ten expositions. Zhu Xi was a student of Li Tong. Zhu Xi developed the Chengs' Confucian ideas and drew from Chan Buddhism and Daoism. He adapted some ideas from these competing religions into his form of Confucianism.
Li Ao, a scholar, poet, and official, used and brought attention to the Great Learning. After the Song and Yuan Dynasties, The Great Learning became a required textbook in schools and a required reading for imperial examinations. During the Warring States Xunzi and Mengzi were influenced by the Great Learning. The Great Learning was used by Japan, Korea and later in the west.
Such critics such as Lu Xiangshan and Wang Yangming later disliked the Great Learning because of the stress on scholarship rather than action. Wang Yangming rejected Zhu Xi's changes and returned the text to the original, from the Classic of Rites. During the Han dynasty the Great Learning rose to prominence, and the Classic of Rites had to be re-organized by Dai De and Dai Shang. The Dais divided the book into five sections. This included the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Evolution of Rites, the Yili, and the "Etiquette and Rites".
Han Yu and Li Ao both used The Great Learning. Li Ao incorporated a lot of Buddhist and Taoist ideas into his work. Zi Si – Confucius's grandson – is said to have taught Mencius and written the Doctrine of the Mean. He may also have written the beginning of the Great Learning. Ma Yung edited the Great Learning in the Han dynasty, giving his views of the general meaning.
The text 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.
One of the first steps to understanding The Great Learning is to understand how to "investigate things". This did not consist of scientific inquiry and experimentation, but introspection, building on what is already "known" of "principle". True introspection was supposed to allow the mind to become all knowing with regards to morality, relationships, civic duty and nature.
The Great Learning as we know it today is the result of multiple revisions and commentaries by a number of Confucian and Neo-Confucian scholars. The Great Learning, along with the Doctrine of the Mean had their beginnings as chapters within the Book of Rites. Both were removed from the Book of Rites and designated as separate, and equally significant, works by Zhu Xi. In the winter of 1190 CE Zhu Xi published the Four Masters, a collection of the Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, the Mencius and the Analects. These four texts soon became the initial basis of study in the Chinese imperial examination system. Zhu Xi was prompted to refine the Great Learning and incorporate it into the curriculum as he felt that the previously utilized Classics were lengthy and too difficult to comprehend by the common individual to be used as an educational foundation for Confucian thought. Utilizing the much shorter and more comprehensible Four Books would allow Zhu to reach a much greater audience. To aid in comprehension of the Great Learning, he spent much of his life studying the book and published a series of commentaries explaining the principal teachings of the text. The Daxue itself gets its name from "ta-jen chih hsueh," referring to the education of adults. Unlike many scholars before him, Zhu Xi presents the Great Learning as the way of self cultivation and governance that is to be studied by all people, not only those in, or seeking, political office.
Although the Imperial Examination System is no longer used as a means of determining one's place in the social hierarchy, education and the teachings of the Great Learning remain an integral part of modern educational and political culture in China. In fact, a number of scholars believe that all education in mainland China is based on Confucianism to some degree although many individuals, students and teachers alike, are unaware of the Confucian influence on their education. The Great Learning was written and later published as its own book, to serve as an introduction and foundational guide for the further study of Confucian texts. The Great Learning provides a step-by-step illustration of how all aspects of society, ranging from the refinement of the self to the order within one's household or state is ultimately dependent upon the expansion of one's knowledge.:2
The Great Learning played a major role in Chinese politics as it comprised one of the texts incorporated into the Imperial service examination system. Students would be tested on their knowledge of the Five Classics and Four Books as a qualification for an occupation in political office. If a student possessed adequate knowledge of the texts, they would be awarded a prestigious place in government. These exams allow anyone of sufficient knowledge and skill to obtain a place in office, as exams were based solely on one's ability. One's social or financial status did not play a role in the exam system. The text of The Great Learning provides an educational basis for those aspiring to obtain a leadership role. In addition to self-cultivation and the expansion of one's knowledge, the Great Learning goes into significant step-by-step detail with respect to the qualities of a proper ruler. The text then goes on to describe the projected quality and stability of the state if its ruler follows the guidelines described therein. One such passage states that a person should "cultivate himself, then regulate the family, then govern the state, and finally lead the world into peace" There are two common interpretations of this passage. One common interpretation of this passage is that before one can hope to successfully lead the people, he/she must first cultivate himself (herself) by bringing order to. One may also interpret this passage to be stating that once one has reached a sufficient level of cultivation, he/she should seek a position in office with which to lead the people of the state in accordance with the values and practices outlined in the Great Learning and other such Confucian and Neo-Confucian texts.:3
A term used in the text, "qin-min" (親民) which James Legge, following Zhu Xi, amended to "xin-min" (新民) and translated "renovating the people" instead of "loving the people", became the name of the People First Party (Republic of China), one of the minor parties in Taiwan.
The Great Learning is significant because it expresses many themes of Chinese philosophy and political thinking, and has therefore been extremely influential both in classical and modern Chinese thought. The Great Learning represented a key aspect of the Chinese curriculum for nearly 1500 years and can be found in virtually all aspects of Chinese culture. The Great Learning within the Chinese curriculum acted as a "springboard" for further learning, "self cultivation and investigation of things." Through self-cultivation one can bring order and harmony to one's mind, personal life, family, state and the world as a whole. By defining the path of learning (Dao) in governmental and social terms, the Great Learning links the spiritual realm with daily life, thus creating a vision of the Way (Dao) that is radically different from that of non-action as presented by Daoism. The Great Learning, on the other hand, requires action on the part of the individual towards the ultimate goal of self-cultivation through the "expansion of knowledge and the investigation of things." The Great Learning presents Confucianism as being this-worldly rather than other-worldly. As opposed to basing its authority on an external deity, the Great Learning bases its authority on the practices of ancient kings.