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Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen
Gardner, Daniel K. Journal of the American Oriental Society. New Haven: Oct 1995. Vol. 115, Iss. 4;
pg. 598, 3 pgs


THE SUNG (960-1279) WORLD WAS one filled with ghosts, spirits, and gods of all Variety.
Temples and shrines to powerful deities dotted the Chinese landscape; ghosts and monsters made
their presence felt everywhere; freak accidents and miracles were commonplace; spirit possession
was rampant; and divination was part and parcel of daily life. Traffic with the numinous was not
limited to any one social stratum, as recent work has demonstrated; rather it was an activity that
engaged elite and non-elite alike.(1)

But where the traditional non-elite pursued and promoted trafficking with the spirit world, they did
not make records explaining and debating it; the elite did. This article is an attempt to analyze one
such set of records, taking as its main subject Chu Hsi (characters omitted) (1130-1200), perhaps
the pre-eminent thinker of the Sung dynasty, and certainly the most prominent philosopher in
China's Neo-Confucian tradition, from the Sung through the fall of imperial China. In extensive
conversations and writings, Chu explained and defended his understanding of spirit beings to
others, tending, in the course of such explanation, to situate the topic of the numinous in the
context of his elaborate and coherent world-view.

Most scholarship on Chu Hsi has been devoted to explicating his influential Neo-Confucian
metaphysics, especially his understanding of the two central concepts of li (characters omitted)
("principle") and ch'i (characters omitted) ("material force" or "psychophysical stuff"); little attention,
however, has been paid to the role played by spirit beings in this metaphysics. As a result, readers
do not easily escape the impression that Chu Hsi's world was one largely devoid of monsters,
ghosts, gods, and spirits.

This is not to say that scholars have completely ignored Chu's views on spiritual matters; but in
presenting these views they almost always emphasize one aspect at the expense of all others,
namely, that Chu took the terms that traditionally had been used for ghosts (kuei) (characters
omitted) and spirits (shen) and transformed them into abstract concepts referring to the contractive
(kuei) and expansive (shen) forces of the universe.(2) Readers, here, are left with the impression
that Chu was attempting to strip the term kuei-shen of its meaning as "ghosts and spirits" and that
this elite world and the world of popular beliefs had absolutely nothing in common.
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

The reality is more complex. Chu's understanding of spirit beings (kuei-shen) is a subtle,
multifaceted one;(3) a reading of the Chu-tzu yue-lei (characters omitted), a record of
conversations that took place between Chu and his disciples (especially chapters three and sixty-
three), and the Hui-an hsien-sheng Chu Wen-kung wen-chi (characters omitted), Chu's collected
writings, reveal a Chu Hsi who, on the one hand, transforms kuei and shen into naturalistic forces,
but at the same time acknowledges fully the existence of strange ghosts and spirits and even
spends a great deal of time considering and explicating them. This is to say that, while Chu's
influential philosophical system may in the end be "rational," analyzing the universe as it does in
terms of li and ch'i, this does not preclude it from tolerating, indeed embracing a belief in the spirit
world. I hope that at the least, then, this article will serve to correct the assumption that Neo-
Confucian thinkers such as Chu Hsi rationalize the world into an altogether ghost-free one.


Chu Hsi, on occasion, cautions students against paying too much heed to spirit beings:

The matter of spirit beings is naturally a secondary one. They have neither form nor shadow; this is
difficult to grasp, but there's no need to. Better to expend your efforts on the urgent matters of daily
life. The Sage said: "You are not even able to serve man, how can you serve the spirits? You do
not even understand life, how can you understand death?"(4) This says it all. (YL 3.1a3)(5)

Later Chinese literati, on account of such remarks, assumed Chu to be a skeptic concerning spirit
beings;(6) but nowhere, here or elsewhere, is there a hint of skepticism. Chu, like Confucius much
earlier, is not questioning the existence of spirit beings; he is simply admonishing his followers to
concern themselves with the more pressing and immediate matters of life. The irony, of course, is
that while Chu would have his students turn their attention to matters other than spirit beings, his
attention--as reflected in the voluminous remarks made over the course of more than thirty years--
remains firmly fixed on the topic throughout his life.(7)

For Chu, spirit beings are to be found everywhere in the universe, manifesting themselves in a
variety of ways: as the spontaneous activity of the cosmic ch'i; as ghosts, demons, and monsters
who threaten humankind; and as the spirits of ancestors invoked by descendants in ancestral
worship. Disparate though these phenomena may seem, all of them--for Chu--constitute spirit
beings or kuei-shen:

Rain and wind, dew and lightning, sun and moon, day and night, these are all traces of the
contractive and expansive forces; these are the just and upright kuei-shen of broad daylight. As for
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

the so-called "howlers from the rafters and butters in the chest," these then are called the unjust
and depraved


; sometimes they exist, sometimes they don't; sometimes they go, sometimes they come;
sometimes they coalesce, sometimes they disperse. In addition, there's the saying, "pray to them
and they will respond, pray to them and they will grant fulfillment"; these too are what we call kuei-
shen. These are all of one and the same principle. (YL 3.2b1)

Indeed, all of Chu Hsi's discussion of spirit beings in the Chu-tzu yue-lei and the Hui-an hsien-
sheng Chu Wenkung wen-chi are cast in terms of these three manifestations: as expansive and
contractive forces, as ghosts and spirits, and as ancestral spirits.(8)

1. Kuei-shen as Contractive and Expansive Forces

Over and over again in his works Chu asserts that kuei and shen are nothing but ch'i, the material
force or stuff of which, according to Chu, the whole universe and all things in it are constituted.(9)
Ch'i is active, always in the process of change and transformation.(10) Ch'i expanding is the shen
aspect of ch'i; ch'i contracting is the kuei aspect:

Shen expands, kuei contracts. For instance, when wind, rain, thunder, and lightning first issue
forth, this is the oparation of shen; as the wind dies, the rain passes, the thunder stops, and the
lightning ceases, this is the operation of kuei. (YL 3.1b11)

By identifying kuei and shen with the activity of the cosmic ch'i, by making them abstract and
ethereal forces, Chu renders the kuei-shen of traditional accounts explicable; kuei-shen portrayed
in texts like the Tso chuan, the Shih chi, the dynastic histories, and the Mo-tzu as ghosts or
apparitions who sometimes visit themselves as personal beings on the living are to be understood
then as manifestations of changing cosmic chi'i, that is, chi'i in various states of contraction and

In short, in the first of his three categories of kuei-shen, Chu to a large degree is taming the spirits
of the tradition, by thorougly naturalizing them and making them into the forces that explain the
activity and transformation of the universe. Kuei and shen may be wondrous, in that they account
for all the manifestations we find in the world around us, but they are not by any means
inexplicable creatures; they are not incomprehensible ghosts, monsters, or deities from some
unknowable realm.
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

It would be misleading to suggest that Chu here is presenting an entirely novel view of spirit
beings. In identifying juei and shen with ch'i, he is drawing on a tradition that goes at least as far
back as the Han philosopher Wang Ch'ung (characters deleted). (A.D. 27-ca. 100), who wrote,
"Some people say that kuei and shen are other names for yin and yang. The yin-ch'i inhibits the
development of things by returning, and thus is called kuei; the yang ch'i guides and give life to
things, and thus is called shen."(11) Wang Ch'ung, in turn, was himself no doubt influenced by
passages in the "Great Commentary" of the I ching and Li chi that somewhat less explicitly
associated spirit beings with ch'i.(12)

Moreover, in bringing kuei and shen, as dynamic forces, into the realm of nature, even making
them accountable for the manifold manifestations of that nature, chu Hsi, as is so often the case,
owes a particular indebtedness to his immediate Northern Sung predecessors, Ch'eng I
(characters omitted) (1033-1107) and Chang Tsai (characters omitted) (1020-77). Ch'eng had
referred to kuei and shen as "the traces of the creative process," Chu responds: "The wind and
rain, frost and dew, the alternation of the four seasons" (YL 63.25b11), and again: "the sun and the
moon, the stars and the planets, the wind and the thunder" YL 63.26a5).

In the end, however, Chu registers some dissatisfaction with Ch'eng's definition, on the grounds
that sometimes, in the cases of invisible kuei and shen, the creative process leaves no traces (YL
63.26a8). To Chu, the word chi (characters omitted), or traces, suggests a visibility or
concreteness that need not always characterize kuei-shen. For this reason, he confesses to a
preference for Chang Tsai's formulation: "


I-ch'uan (characters omitted) called kuei-shen 'the traces of the creative process,' but this isn't as
good as


Heng-ch'ue's (characters omitted) calling them 'the spontaneous activity of the yin and yang'" (YL

Indeed, Chu Hsi's discussion of kuei-shen as expansive and contractive forces is often an
elaboration of Chang's proposition. For instance: "'kuei-shen are the spontaneous activity of the yin
and yang.' This is to say that the going and coming, the contraction and expansion, are as they
should be in principle (li), without any manipulation or deliberate arrangement. Thus, it's called
'spontaneous activity'" (YL 63.26a11). Here, for Chu, kuei and shen are subtle, dynamic forces,
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

which, as aspects of the ch'i of the universe, give direction and order to its spontaneous
movement. In fact, on occasion, he refers to kuei-shen not as ch'i itself, but as "the spirit within the
ch'i" (YL 3.2a8), and defines kuei as the numen of the yin and shen as the numen of the yang.(15)

In associating the concept kuei-shen with the cosmic ch'i and in transforming it into forces inhering
in the yin and yang, Chu Hsi clearly then is building on earlier efforts, grounded on more than a
millennium's worth of history and texts. Still his contribution to the development of this
understanding of kuei-shen remains considerable. After all, he brings together the pertinent and
meaningful passages from the tradition--a canonical text here, a Han philosopher there, now a
Sung Neo-Confucian--and elaborates, often at great length, on their meaning, and, most
importantly, fashions them into a coherent statement that at once gives significance to and gains
significance from his larger philosophical program of li and ch'i.

It might be tempting to argue that by systematically identifying kuei and shen with ch'i, or with the
numen of ch'i, and asserting that they consequently are to be found everywhere in the universe,
operating in all things at all times, Chu--following Chang Tsai before him--"naturalizes" the
traditional world of the spirits, or to put it another way, transforms traditional religious beliefs or
philosophy into natural philosophy. It might also be tempting to argue the converse, that by infusing
the whole of the natural world with kuei-shen, with the spirit and numen of yin and yang, Chu is
constructing a sort of pantheistic world in which nature is always imbued with the spiritual.
Everything is spirit, in this view.(16) Both of these propositions are problematic, however. To argue
either that Chu may be "naturalizing" the spirit world or "spiritualizing" the natural world is to
suggest an analytical opposition or distinction that surely would be lost on Chu himself; in the West
the natural and spirit worlds have rather distinct boundaries, but no such boundaries, it would
seem, obtain in traditional China. That is, in distinguishing between the natural and the spiritual or
supernatural, we are borrowing analytical categories that have limited application and
appropriateness in the Chinese cultural tradition.(17) (Admittedly, in choosing throughout this
article to use terms like "spirit" and "spirit world" for the Chinese term kuei-shen, I run the risk of
misleading the reader, of conveying the Western sense of a dichotomous natural/spirit split. I do
so, however, primarily out of a desire not to let the term kuei shen stand always in transliterated
form and an inability to find a better, less misleading way of rendering it into English.)

Finally, the reader shouid be reminded that this particular formulation of kuei-shen is but one
aspect of Chu's total understanding of the concept: kuei-shen, as the expansive and contractive
forces of the universe, exist side-by-side in his writings and conversations with kuei-shen as
ghosts, monsters, deities, ancestral spirits, and the like. Indeed, for Chu, such "spirit" creatures are
nothing but more concrete, more tangible manifestations of kuei-shen, constituted similarly of ch'i.
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

2. Kuei-shen as Ghosts, Monsters, and Spirits

Even a casual reading of Chu's works, especially the conversations with disciples, reveals Chu's
tolerance for spirit beings, or what in the West we would call the supernatural. He freely
acknowledges that ghosts, apparitions, one-footed monsters, evil spirits, demons of mountains and
streams, and miraculous transformations can appear; that spirit-possession, exorcism, and rebirth
on occasion do occur; and that spirit-writing, divination, shamanism, and cult worship can be
legitimate and efficacious.

To be sure, Chu can be dismissive of the hearsay and tales of spirit phenomena that circulate,
expressing grave suspicion over much of what the masses profess to have heard, witnessed, or
experienced; nonetheless, he retains to the end a tolerant and open mind toward spirit beings,
never disavowing a belief in their existence itself: "Someone asked, 'what's your assessment of
what common folk say about monsters and licentious spirits?' Chu replied: 'In general, eighty
percent of what common folk say is absurd, but twenty percent is true'" (YL 63.29b2). That is, the
common folk may exaggerate, but that monsters and licentious spirits do exist can hardly be
doubted: "Someone asked, The number of ghosts and spirits spotted in the world is extremely
high. I haven't looked into whether they exist or not, what do you think?' Chu replied: 'Since the
number of people in this world who have sighted them is extraordinarily high, how could we think
they don't exist? It's simply that they aren't of the standard principle'" (YL 3.5b2). Here, at least, it is
the mere prevalence of encounters with spirit beings that, for Chu, attests to their existence.

Yet, in his writings and conversations, Chu goes beyond simple recording and assertion of the
existence of ghosts and spirits; he expends considerable time and effort attempting to explain
them. In part he is forced to do so. Students are constantly posing qestions to him about spirit
beings, perhaps because they entertain doubts about their existence and find Chu's acceptance of
them problematic; or perhaps because, while having no real doubt, they nonetheless wish to know
how Chu diagnoses the existence of these creature in terms of his larger philosophical program; or
perhaps, simply because they live in a world where spirits are presumed to be everywhere and
they wish to come to a better understanding of them and their place in the world. Whatever
motives the students might have, the result is a fortunate one for later generations, in that Chu
provides, in response, a full and detailed accounting of the nature of spirit beings.

This is not to say that his explanations are always persuasive or profound. Sometimes he simply
argues that, since the classics and the ancients spoke of certain monsters, such as the one-footed
k'uei (characters omitted) or the earth bogey (wang-liang) (characters omitted), the monsters must
exist, or that, since in antiquity there were certain sacrificial rituals to certain spirits of nature, those
spirits must exist (e.g., YL 3.4a7, 3.4a12). For Chu, that the sages of antiquity respected these
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

phenomena is evidence enough for their existence: as sages their words and deeds were true, and
no further explanation for their existence is necessary.

But, in most cases, Chu offers much fuller explanation of spirit phenomena, often justifying their
existence in terms of his key metaphysical concepts, li or principle, and ch'i or material force. In
acknowledging that ghosts and apparitions have real existence, for instance, he is compelled to go
on at some length about what gives them that existence. Human beings are born with a certain
amount of ch'i, and with its dissipation they naturally die. But there are some people who meet
sudden or untimely deaths, and whose ch'i is not yet exausted and lingers on; and there are other
people who refuse to submit to death--particularly those who die by punishment--and consequently
when they die their ch'i does not immediately and fully disperse (e.g., YL 3.4a12, 3.6b12, 3.11a6,
3.11b11, 3.12a8, 63.29b2). For Chu, it is such undispersed ch'i that appears as ghosts, monsters,
and evil beings.

This, Chu argues, is precisely what happened to Poyu (characters omitted) of the state of Cheng
(characters omitted) in the sixth century B.C. According to the Tso Commentary, Po-yu was
murdered by his enemies in the sheep-market, and years later reappeared as a ghost threatening
to avenge his death.(18) In frequent references to Po-yu in conversation with disciples, Chu
matter-of-factly acknowledges that Po-yu indeed did become a ghost, as legend has it, asserting
that he was able to do so only because his ch'i had not completely dispersed (YL 3.11b2, 3.11b11).
As for especially malevolent spirits, Chu explains them as the lingering ch'i of people who meet
especially violent deaths; they become evil spirits seeking vengeance for the violence done to
them. Chu reports one case in Chang-chou of a wife who, with the aid of her lover, killed her
husband and then secretly buried him; he thereupon became an evil spirit haunting the entire
region. Taking matters into their own hands, the people of Chang-chou petitioned the various
officials demanding the punishment of the wife and her lover. Only when the criminals were finally
brought to justice--the wife beheaded and her accomplice hanged--did the vengeful ch'i of the
husband disperse and the haunting stop (YL 3.11b2).

Indeed, with the passage of time, according to Chu Hsi, all undispersed ch'i cannot but disperse,
whereupon the ghosts, monsters, and evil spirits, whose form the ch'i had taken, necessarily
vanish. In what serves as a neat summing up of the process by which human beings transform into
and out of ghostly and monstrous shapes, Chu says:

In most cases it is a matter of people meeting an untimely death either by drowning, killing, or
sudden illness. Because their ch'i hasn't yet exhausted itself, it transforms itself into these
creatures. Furthermore, in cases of sudden death, the ch'i does not disperse entirely; this is
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

because the original endowment of ch'i is generous. But, in the end, over time, it will completely
disperse. (YL 63.29b2)

As the unexhausted and stubborn ch'i of those who meet with premature deaths finally disperses,
their existence as ghosts and evil spirits reaches a natural and inevitable end.

In Chu Hsi's understanding then, when a person dies normally his ch'i disperses; and thus, for
Chu, the Buddhist belief in routine transmigration is totally unfounded. Yet, he does allow for the
rare instance of reincarnation: "To die and have the ch'i disperse--extinguished without trace--this
is the norm; this is moral principle. But there are cases of rebirth (t'o-sheng) (characters omitted)
wherein the ch'i that had coBected, by chance, does not disperse and somehow fuses to living ch'i
and returns to life (tsai-sheng) (characters omitted). This, however, is not the norm" (YL 3.11a9).
Rebirth can happen, according to Chu; and while Chu's explanation may lack persuasiveness, he
nonetheless attempts to explain the unusual phenomenon, tying it, as he does ghosts and spirits,
to ch'i that does not disperse at death.

Ghosts, monsters, evil spirits, and reincarnation are all associated in Chu's mind with the lingering
ch'i of dead men, ch'i that simply does not disperse completely. But this is not the only explanation
Chu offers. The monsters of the mountains, the monsters of the water, and the monsters of the
earth--all discussed in the School Sayings of Confucius (K'ung-tzu chia-yue)--"are produced by
confused and perverse ch'i...." (YL 3.4a12). In other words, just as everything else in the world is
constituted of ch'i, so too are these creatures; it is merely that their endowment of ch'i is perverse,
and thus monsters are produced.

Sometimes monsters, or at least those considered monsters by others, however, are just human
beings who happen to receive an endowment of ch'i "monstrous" or strange for the average
human being:

Hou-chih asked: "There's probably no principle for a man's dying and becoming a wild animal. But
personally I have seen a son in a Yung-ch'un family who had hog bristles and skin on his ears.
What do you make of it?" Chu said: "He shouldn't be considcred a monster. I've heard that a
soldier employed in Chi-hsi had hog bristles on his chest and when asleep made hog noises. This
is simply because he had been endowed with the ch'i of a hog (YL 3.13a8)

Here, then, monsters are not really monsters; their particular ch'i simply makes them appear
monstrous to others. Monsters and apparent monsters are explained by Chu as creatures who are
very real, and who can easily be accounted for by the unfortunate and unusual allotment of their
ch'i. And such unfortunate ch'i seems to be more prevalent in times of disorder and improper
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

government, according to Chu, who asserts: "If the kingly way were cultivated, this sort of
depraved ch'i would completely dissipate" (YL 3.22b4). The underlying assumption would seem to
be that balanced and appropriate gouernment, through the principle of influence and resonance,
naturally leads to balanced and appropriate ch'i out there in the world and among the people.

Miraculous transformations likewise can be explained, Chu believes. Tradition tells of a Ch'ang
Hung (characters omitted), who in the sixth century B.C. was killed by people suspicious and
envious of the favoritism King Ling of the Chou showed him for his loyal service; three years after
his death, his blood turned into green jade. Instead of simply dismissing this traditional account as
fantasy, Chu suggests to his students that because Ch'ang died prematurely, his ch'i had not been
fully exhausted, and then tells them: "Hung died on acount of his loyalty and his ch'i thus
congealed in this manner" (YL 3.12b10). That is, because his ch'i was hard and determined (and,
no doubt, virtuous as well) and had not entirely dissipated with death, it was not unnatural that it
should become jade. Once again, ch'i becomes the factor that enables Chu to take a phenomenon
of the spirit world, one that to most people would likely be mysterious, unknowable, or implausible,
accept it as plausible, make sense of it, and explain it to others.

The popular practices of divination, shamanism, and cult worship are not without some basis or
efficacy, from Chu's point of view. And what makes all of these practices theoretically plausible for
him is the principle of resonance. If, according to Chu, the universe and all things in it are
constituted of ch'i, then, when we extend our ch'i appropriately, or, perhaps more precisely, when
we extend the ch'i of our mind as we should, we may well make contact with the ch'i of the spirit
world. Our divining, calling, or sacrificing then receives a response. Resonance, or stimulus and
response, is predicated on the interconnectedness of all ch'i.

This concept of a cosmological resonance mediated by an all-pervading ch'i is hardly new with
Chu Hsi, we should note; beginning in the second century B.C., thinkers like Tung Chung-shu
(characters omitted) (176-104 B.C.) had explained the classical belief in a resonant interaction
between human beings and the cosmos by the theory of a mediatory ch'i.(19) Chu grounds himself
in this well-established concept of cosmological resonance and, drawing out its implications,
applies it to the realm of religious practice. He tells his students:

Heaven and earth and our bodies are collectively just one thing. The so-called spirit beings are
simply our ch'i. When our mind reflects and becomes active, its ch'i extends outward, so that
naturally there is stimulus and response. (YL 98.6a8)

Similarly he says elsewhere:

Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

In heaven and earth there's nothing that is not ch'i. The ch'i of man and that of heaven and earth
are everywhere interconnected. Man himself doesn't realize this. As soon as the mind of man
becomes active, it's bound to affect the ch'i of the universe; the mind and the ch'i in their
contractions and expansions, their comings and goings--mutually influence each other. Take
divination, for example. Every time you divine, you're simply speaking to whatever it is that's on
your mind; with such activation there's certain to be a response. (YL 3.2a4)

The response to divination, as well as other religious practices, is essentially mechanistic, based
on the premise that everything is ch'i and that ch'i everywhere is interconnected.(20)

Along these same lines, Chu suggests that shamanism can be efficacious, because shamans can
control menacing ghosts through the willful extension of their ch'i; that is, they can extend their ch'i
outward to contact and rein in the ch'i of the offending ghosts. But Chu here simultaneously allows
for the possibility that the ghosts may be too crafty for the shamans. As he puts it: "When the
minds of the descendants are extremely crafty, they stimulate crafty ch'i, and the ghosts produced
thereby are also cunning" (YL 3.13a6). It becomes a fight then between the shaman and the
descendants over who, through the emanation of their ch'i, is going to control the ch'i of the

Neither does Chu deny the possibility of spirit possession, saying that there are many stories of
descendants being possessed by ancestral spirits and shamans experiencing possession by
various spirits. He concludes: "In all cases, it would seem, there is a resonance between similar
ch'i, and thus the spirit attaches itself to these people" (YL 90.20b6).

During the Sung, shrines and temples to deities of all sorts became ever more popular among the
people.(21) Chu himself observes: "It's custom these days to revere ghosts. For instance, in Hsin-
an and elsewhere, morning and evening it's like being in a den of ghosts. Once I returned to my
native-village where the so-called Five Transmitters Temple is located. It's extremely powerful and
mysterious, and everybody holds it dear, believing that fortune and misfortune manifest
themselves right there on the spot." Not only do locals offer prayer there, but literati passing
through the area make a point of visiting it; still worse, from Chu's point of view, his very own
kinsmen, even educated ones, frequent the place. In fact, one of them encourages Chu himself to
pay a visit. He resists, chastising the kinsman and poking fun at the spirit of the Five Transmitters
(YL 3.21a2).

And yet, in spite of such clear antipathy toward cults like the Five Transmitters, Chu Hsi concedes
that group prayer at temples and shrines can be efficacious. After all, he argues, the ancients
themselves had built altars in order to sacrifice to the spirits, and when the minds of the sacrificers
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

concentrated on the spirits, the spirits "would respond with their ch'i" (YL 87.33b11). Present-day
shrines similarly can be efficacious, according to Chu, for "when the minds of the multitude
converge, a genial ch'i is produced of itself, and thus in principle there's an efficacy" (YL 87.34a6).
Asked by a disciple: "People today gather in the hundreds and go to a temple to offer sacrifices;
surely there must be some effect. What do you think?" Chu responds: "With the convergence of
the minds of the multitude, there's a power" (YL 87.33b11). The power seems to be the power of
the concentrated ch'i of the minds of the faithful to attract the ch'i of the spirit to which they are
making sacrifice. The resonance of ch'i permits a response by the spirit--even if it be the spirit of a
snake--to the sacrificial pleas of the devout.

Indeed, it is tempting to suggest here that Chu's antipathy toward licentious (yin) (characters
omitted) cults is fuelled by his very belief in their potential efficaciousness. This is reflected in his
attitude toward the Five Transmitters Temple, as well as in his lament that concludes the passage
just cited about this temple: "In serving as a local official, one must do away with cults to licentious
deities. But if they be temples with plaques from the emperor, one can't easily do away with them"
(YL 3.21a2). That is, such cults are not wrong and offensive primarily because they are
superstitious, do not work, and thus mislead the people; they are wrong and offensive because
they can work and the spirits they successfully invoke are ones that through their powerful
influence over cult members pose a severe danger to traditional morality and order. We do not
know precisely why Chu is hostile to the Five Transmitters Temple and to pleas from kinsmen to
visit it, but we do know that the spirit of the Five Transmitters is popularly thought to perform
miracles, and to respond to prayers for good fortune; we can easily imagine that Chu--with his
strong Confucian convictions--is troubled by a spirit and a cult that trade in miracles and
encourage people to pray for selfish material gain.(22) In other words, it is not the concept of cult
itself that disturbs Chu; rather, it is the particular morality symbolized by the central spirit of the cult
and practiced by its believers that determines for Chu whether a cult is to be tolerated, supported,
or branded "licentious."

In this regard, it is interesting to note that Chu, as a local official in Nan-k'ang (characters omitted)
(in present-day Chianghsi) between 1179 and 1181 and in T'an-chou (characters omitted) (in
present-day Hunan) in 1194, is himself quite capable of having shrines and monuments
commemorating worthy men--especially model Confucians--constructed.(23) Further, during his
stint in Nan-k'ang he sponsors the building of a pavilion to Chu-ko Liang (characters omitted) (181-
234)--the political and military genius of the Three Kingdoms period who had become by the Sung
a symbol of loyalty and virtue--where officials and people alike could gather and offer prayer in
times of drought and distress. He also requests official recognition for a temple dedicated to the
Eastern Chin (317-420) general, T'ao K'an (characters omitted), arguing in his request first, that
prayers there in times of flood and drought had never gone unanswered and second, that
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

recognition should be granted on account of T'ao's loyalty.(24) Such support of shrines and
temples supgests that Chu Hsi may consider them potentially efficacious; his harsh criticism and
condemnation of certain others, like the Five Transmitters Temple, may well suggest the same.
The question of efficacy aside, it is apparent that for Chu only those shrines, cults, and temples
that reinforce and promote Confucian values and morality deserve support.

The extent to which Chu Hsi considers and addresses ghostly and spirit matters should by now be
evident. To be sure, ghosts, spirits, monsters, and spirit responses to man's ritualistic pleas may be
strange or extraordinary phenomena, but they nonetheless have a reality, a grounding in the ch'i of
the universe; as such, they are not entirely inexplicable, unknowable, or mysterious. As ch'i they
are part of the natural order, subject to its patterns and laws. And as ch'i they also naturally have a
li or principle underlying thei existence, a li that makes them what they are. Chu over and over tells
his students that the li for such phenomena may not be the normal li, but they do indeed have their
li. For example:

The monsters of the mountains are called kuei and wang-liang; the monsters of the water are
called Iung (characters omitted) and wang-hsiang (characters omitted); and the monsters of the
earth are called fen-yang (characters omitted). All these are produced by confused and perverse
ch'i and are surely not without li--you mustn't stubbornly think they are without li. It's like the
winter's being cold and the summer's being warm; this is the standard li. But there are times when
suddenly in the summer it turns cold and in the winter it turns warm--how can we say there isn't a li
for this? Still, because it isn't an ordinary li we consider it strange. (YL 3.4a12)

For Chu, all things, events, affairs in the universe have li, and spirit phenomena are no exception.
It is simply that they do not possess the ordinary or standard li; sometimes Chu, following Ch'eng I,
refers to the li spirit and ghostly phenomena as "a special kind of li" (e.g., YL 3.11a9, 3.11b2,
3.11b11), or even as a "depraved li (YL 3.22b4). But, in any case, the point is clear: Chu is
asserting that these phenomena, like all other phenomena in the universe, are fully explicable in
terms of ch'i and li. That is, for Chu spirit beings and the spirit world unquestionably exist; and as
part of the natural cosmic order, they can be understood and explained.

3. Kuei-shen as Ancestral Spirits

Recent scholarship has made clear that Chu Hsi was intensely interested in the ritualistic practices
associated with ancestral sacrifice. His Chu-tzu chia-li (characters omitted) is a detailed, highly
prescriptive manual for the performance of the standard family rituals, and includes a long section
on sacrifices to the ancestral spirits.(25) A reading of this text suggests a deep concern with the
forms the rites should take; but a reading of the Chu-tzu yue-lei and the Hui-an hsien-sheng Chu
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

Wen-kung wen-chi shows that Chu Hsi is equally concerned with the underlying principles of
ancestral sacrifice--with questions of how and why ancestral sacrifice works. In his consideration of
kuei-shen, Chu probes into the nature of ancestral spirits, into the relationship between these
spirits and their descendants, and espeeially into the question why sacrifice from descendant to
ancestor could be efficacious.

In asserting that when a person dies he becomes a spirit of sorts, Chu draws generously on the
canonical tradition. Texts such as the Li chi, I ching, Tso chuan, and Huai-nan-tzu suggest that man
is born with a hun (characters omitted) or heavenly soul and a p'o (characters omitted) or earthy
soul; these hun and p'o souls are constituted of ch'i, with the heavenly soul identified with ch'i's
expansive aspect (shen) and the earthly soul identified with its contractive aspect (kuei). At death,
the ch'i of man disperses and the heavenly soul ascends to heaven as shen; the earthly soul
returns to earth as kuei (e.g., YL 3.4a12, 3.12a8, 3.2a1).(26) For Chu then, with death and the
ascension of the heavenly soul, a person's shen might hover "out there" as an ancestral spirit, to
be "contacted" by descendants in the rites of sacrifice.

Because the canonical tradition itself speaks freely about ancestral spirits and fully endorses their
existence--and because too the living cultural tradition embraces them and engages actively in
sacrifices to them--the legitimacy and reality of ancestral spirits seem never to be seriously
questioned by Chu. Throughout his conversations and writings be seems to take their existence for
granted and assumes that others do as well. Indeed, his discussion of the nature of ancestral
spirits and ancestral sacrifice is primarily an elaboration of traditional accounts--an elaboration,
however, that relies heaviy on his key metaphysical concepts of li and ch'i. The ancestral spirit, as
the shen of the dead person, would seem itself to be a sort of dispersed ch'i that ascends with the
person's death.(27) As dispersed ch'i it has a substantiality to it, however vague (we do not know
how consolidated this dispersed ch'i is or how it survives and reconfigures itself as an ancestral
spirit in the first place; nor do we have any idea how long it survives before it too is exhausted--
these are matters that Chu does not explicitly address). It is precisely this existence as ch'i that
makes sacrifice to the ancestral spirit possible and efficacious, in Chu's understanding.

Following Hsieh Liang-tso (characters omitted) (1050-1103), a Northern Sung disciple of the
Ch'eng brothers, Chu asserts that the natural biological relationship between ancestor and
descendant guarantees that their ch'i will be the same; this similarity, in turn, guarantees some
"affinity" between the ancestor's spirit and the descendant (e.g., YL 3.13b2).(28) By projecting his
ch'i appropriately, the descendant might hope to make contact with the ancestral spirit. In
conversation with students, Chu, echoing Hsieh, states the principle succinctly: "My ch'i is the ch'i
of my ancestors--it's just one and the same ch'i. Thus, as soon as there's influence there's bound
to be a response" (YL 3.14b1).(29) What he is describing here is a practice of ancestral sacrifice
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

governed by the laws of cosmological resonance. There is an almost mechanistic nature to the
ancestor-descendant relationship as suggested in this comment by Chu: "Since each thing
complies with its own kind, when attracted the ancestor simply comes" (YL 3.17b5).

Ancestral sacrifice is not efficacious principally because the ancestor, as a spirit, has perception or
consciousness, which responds when summoned by a legitimate desccndant.(30) Rather it works
because ancestor and descendant are from the same pool of ch'i, or to use Chu's wards, "the
same blood and pulse runs through them all," and the ch'i of one naturally resonates with the ch'i
of the other. In short, ancestral sacrifice and its efficacy are to be explained--just as are divination,
shamanism, and cult worship--against the background of an accepted theory of cosmological
resonance; Tung Chung-shu more than a millennium earlier had provided the framework and
vocabulary with which to understand the nature of the relationship between living and deceased

It is important to stress here that for Chu ancestral sacrifice is not just a cathartic exercise,
intended to help bereaved family members deal with their sense of loss. There is, in his
understanding, actual "contact" and "response" between the generations. A sort of communication
based on sympathetic ch'i occurs. Once asked by a skeptical disciple if in the rites of sacrifice
there actually is a response or if the sacrificer is merely demonstrating his sincerity to the
ancestors, Chu replies: "If we say that nothing comes to accept the sacrificial offerings, why
sacrifice? What thing is it that's majestic above and causes people to worship and reverence it?
Yet if we were to say that there truly is a cloud-chariot with attendant that comes, that would be
absurd" (YL 3.18b4). While this passage is somewhat vague and hard to interpret, Chu seems to
be suggesting that, while ancestral spirits positively have existence, in sacrificing to them we
cannot expect them to coalesce in any tangible form, and surely not the form of human beings. In
the end, for Chu, sacrifice to the ancestral spirits is clearly more than the formal exercise required
by tradition, and it is more than a cathartic act intended to lighten the sacrificer's burden of grief.
Ancestral sacrifice, to Chu's mind, invites a genuine response.

The right person, of course, has to perform the sacrificial rites; for only a proper descendant, one
whose ch'i is like the ch'i of the ancestor, can hope to call forth the ancestral spirit. Here, Chu's
position is entirely consistent with traditional belief. The Tso Commentary, after all, admonishes:
"The spirits of the dead do not enjoy the sacrifices of those who are not their kindred, and people
do not sacrifice to those not of their ancestry."(31) And Confucius says in the Analects: "To offer
sacrifice to the spirit of an ancestor not one's own is obsequious."(32) But, bringing together
statements about spirits found in the Confucian texts, the theory of cosmological resonance
introduced in the Han, and the teachings of his Neo-Confucian predecessors, Chu Hsi grounds the
tsaditional understanding of ancestral sacrifice in a metaphysics of ch'i; in doing so he goes
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

beyond the canonical treatment: the metaphysics of ch'i enables him to explain why it is that
people must be related for sacrifice to work,(33) and, furthermore, to argue that through resonance
real contact can be made between sacrificer and sacrificee.

But this ch'i-based treatment of ancestral sacrifice is not without its problems. Indeed, in making
his argument about the nature of ancestors and ancestral sacrifice Chu is presenting views that
are not consonant with other crucial ideas he presents elsewhere.(34) Most glaringly, ancestral
sacrifice is premised on the notion that the ch'i of the ancestor out there is resonant with the ch'i of
the descendant here. Yet, throughout his works, in developing his metaphysical system, Chu
insists that when a person dies, his ch'i is entirely exhausted. It simply cannot persist, nor can it
coalesce again: "With death it completely disperses and disappears" (YL 39.4b6; cf. YL 1.7a7).
The obvious question, then, is how does the dead person's exhausted ch'i persist, to resonate and
respond to the ch'i of the sacrificer? When pressed on this, Chu offers an explanation that is not
very convincing or precise: "Now when a person dies, though in the end he returns to a state of
dispersal, still he doesn't disperse completely at once. Thus in religious sacrifice there's the
principle of influence and response" (YL 3.4a12). In other words, the ch'i sometimes lingers out
there for an unspecified period of time as shen, making contact with it hypothetically possible.
What Chu is suggesting here is that one cannot really know whether a particular spirit has finally
dispersed or not. This becomes especially troublesome as regards older ancestors, whose spirits,
according to this view, one would by and large expect no longer to persist. But Chu advises that
since ch'i dissipates at different rates for different people, even a very distant ancestor may exist
as spirit; thus sacrificial contact with him remains a theoretical possibility: "In the case of a distant
ancestor we can't know whether his ch'i exists or not, yet because those offering sacrifices to him
are his descendants they are of the same ch'i; therefore there's a principle of mutual influence and
penetration" (YL 3.4a12). Thus by arguing rather vaguely that while ch'i dissipates at death it does
not necessarily do so immediatly and completely, Chu is hoping to reconcile, however awkwardly,
his ch'i-based theory of ancestral sacrifice with his ontological views.

Elsewhere Chu offers another, much fuller attempt to explain how ancestral contact is possible.
Conceding in this explanation that ch'i does indeed disperse with a person's passing, he goes on
to assert that it can reconstitute itself in response to ancestral sacrifice. Being of the same
biological constitution, descendants can, by summoning the ancestral spirit, cause the ancestral
ch'i to recoalesce:

Someone inquired: "With a man's death I don't know whether the heavenly and earthly souls
disperse or not." Chu said: "They do indeed disperse." Someone further inquired: "How about the
descendants' wherewithal to influence them through sacrifice?" Chu said: "In the end the
descendants are of the same ch'i as the ancestors, so even though the ancestors' ch'i may have
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

dispersed, their blood-line (lit. roots) nonetheless exists right here. By fully exercising sincerity and
reverence we're able to summon their ch'i so that it coalesces right here. It's the same as water
and waves: the later water is not the earlier water, the later waves are not the earlier waves; and
yet all of it is just the same water and waves. The relationship between the ch'i of the descendants
and the ch'i of the ancestors is just like this. The ancestors' ch'i may promptly disperse of itself, yet
their blood-line nonetheless exists right here. And since their blood-line exists right here, the fact is
we're able to induce their ch'i into coalescing right here. This matter is difficult to talk about so I
simply ask that you think about it for yourselves (YL 3.15a7)

Indeed, Chu appears to believe that ancestral spirits have no independent existence: it is only
when properly sacrificed and prayed to that they coalesce; the moment prayer and sacrifice come
to an end, the spirits "again suddenly disperse" (YL 3.18a4). He pointedly states: "It's only if the
ch'i of the descendant is present that the spirit of the ancestor is present. When there are no
sacrificial offerings, how can you get it to coalesce?" (YL 3.17b8).(35) In this view, if we understand
it correctly, the spirits do survive in some dispersed, inchoate form, capable, through the
resonance of ancestral sacrifice performed by blood descendants, of consolidating as the
responsive ch'i of ancestral spirits, only to return again to a dispersed, inchoate state once the
sacrificial rites are concluded. This explanation may be somewhat more persuasive than the first,
yet it still appears to be at odds with Chu Hsi's ontological position, which holds that "there is no
ch'i that disperses and then coalesces again" (YL 1.7a7). Thus, in the end, it would seem that the
various efforts by Chu to explain religious sacrifice and response "rationally," based on the concept
of ch'i, are not entirely consistent with his own philosophical conviction that at death a person's ch'i

Whether it be that the ancestral ch'i lingers or recoalesces, Chu maintains that never does the
spirit take on a physical form, but instead remains extrasensory, neither heard or seen. "We can't
speak of them as things," Chu says, "and they certainly aren't the sorts of clay-modeled spirits we
find nowadays. They are simply ch'i' (YL 3.17a10, cf. 3.18b4). Chu's students seem perplexed by
the extrasensory quality of such spirits, and in questioning Chu on the topic frequently express a
skepticism about their reality altogether. For example, one asks: "Isn't it that they exist somewhere
between emptiness and reality?" To such queries Chu responds sharply and unequivocally: "They
are entirely real, they are not the least bit empty."(36) And yet, Chu Hsi fully appreciates that not
everybody will readily come to know ancestral spirits; only those open to the experience might ever
"see" or "hear" them.

In the final analysis, the existence of ancestral spirits depends very much on the state of the
descendant's mind; if he truly believes in them, if he is utterly sincere and reverential(37) in his
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

propitiation of them, his mind's ch'i might connect with the ancestral ch'i, and the spirits "will seem
to be above and below and on the left and the right."(38) He tells his students:

If in the rituals of religious sacrifice, the descendants fully exercise sincerity and reverence, they
can make contact with the heavenly and earthly souls of the ancestors. Naturally this is difficult to
talk about. Looking for them once they've dispersed it seems as though they absolutely don't exist,
but if you're able to exercise sincerity and reverence to the utmost there will be influence and
response. (YL 3.13b2)(39)

Efficacious sacrifice, in which successful contact with the spirit is made, is not, in Chu's
understanding, feasible unless the saclificer cultivates sincerity and reverence to the utmost.
Indeed, as we have suggested earlier, he is even able to take the position that once the praying
and sacrificing come to an end and the sincerity and reverence of the descendant's mind relax, the
ancestral spirit "again suddenly disperses." In this view the ancestral spirit gains its existence from
the sacrificer's state of mind: "The existence or non-existence of the spirit depends entirely on
whether the mind is fully sincere or not" (YL 25.16b12). Thus the communication Chu imagines
between the descendant and the spirit would seem to be largely a psychic one.

Fan Tsu-yue (characters omitted) (1041-98), in the Northern Sung, had already made a case for
the importance of state of mind in the sacfificial ceremonies, saying that "with sincerity the spirit will
exist, and without sincerity there'll be no spirit."(40) Fan's formulation here is in the manner of the
Book of History, which centuries earlier had said: "The spirits do not ways accept the sacrifices
which are offered to them; they accept only the sacrifices of the sincere."(41) But Fan goes beyond
the Book of History, making the very existence of the spirit--not simply the spirit's acceptance of
the offering--dependent on the sincerity of the sacrificer. Chu clearly is fond of Fan's dictum,
repeating it often in conversations with students (e.g., YL 25.17a11, 25.17b6, 25.17b10). In turn,
students occasionally query him about it: "Someone asked about the principle of sacrificing: Is it an
issue that 'with sincerity the spirit will exist, and without sincerity there'll be no spirit'?" Chu's
response in this instance serves as a rather good summation of his views of ancestral sacrifice:
"The principle of spirit beings is the principle of our mind" (YL 3.17b3). The centrality of the psychic
component in contacting ancestral spirits could hardly be clearer.

Thus while the biological connection between descendant and ancestor is a necessary condition
for efficacious ancestral sacrifice, it does not guarantee that communication with the spirit will
occur; rather, it is the state of mind of the biologically related descendant that finally determines the
efficacy of the sacrifice. When the ch'i of the descendant's mind is made since and reverent, and is
projected through the sacrificial rites in the direction of the ancestral ch'i, resonant communication
can occur.
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

For all of the weight Chu Hsi places on the materialist argument, namely, that it is the similarity of
ch'i that allows for a resonance across generations, Chu seems to be suggesting that the reality of
ancestral spirits and the efficacy of sacrifice in the end are matters of the individual's religious
beliefs: only if the sacrificer remains fully open to contact with spirits--who after all have no
tangibility and cannot be seen or heard--and remains sincere and faithful in his propitiation of
them, might he hope somehow to experience their existence.


The conversaons and writings of Chu Hsi, one of the most influential thinkers of the Sung and the
principal architect of what would become the Neo-Confucian philosophical orthodoxy as well as the
state orthodoxy in China, evidence a rather thoroughgoing belief in the existence of ghosts and
spirits of all sorts. But these records do not merely express belief in the existence of spirit beings;
they struggle at length to explain various spirit phenomena, to come to some understanding of
their fundamental nature.

In attempting to make sense of them, Chu Hsi describes spirit creatures as manifestations
constituted of li and ch'i; for him, they are like all other things in the universe, explicable in terms of
an inherent li and their particular allotment of ch'i. The effect is to make these creatures part of our
understandable world, indeed "natural" to it. Though, to be sure, they may still be somewhat
strange or unusual, no longer are they part of the "world of the mysterious, of the unknowable, of
the ununderstandable."(42)

Chu Hsi is thus taking the spirit world of the Chinese--what in the West might be called the
"otherworldly" or "supernatural"--and integrating it fully into the natural order; in short, he is
"naturalizing" the numinous. But in bringing the world of spirit beings down to earth, in arguing that
kuei and shen are in all things, accountable for all the myriad manifestations of nature, he is at the
same time infusing the earthly realm with the numinous; that is; he is as much "spiritualizing"
nature as he is "naturalizing" the numinous. The conventional boundaries between the natural and
spirit realms that prevail in the West have little relevance in Chu Hsi's philosophical vision, where
the two realms are intermingled and indistinguishable.

By making spirit beings explicable, knowable, and natural, Chu Hsi is, to be sure, "rationalizing"
traditional beliefs in the spirit world. Yet, in contrast to. other secondary scholarship on Chu,(43)
this essay argues that while he may indeed be "rationalizing" such beliefs, he by no means rejects
the spirit world of the Sung. Rationalization here does not mean repudiation of spirits and ghosts,
but rather their explanation as fundamentally intelligible. To put it somewhat crudely, Chu Hsi, like
most traditional Chinese, believes in ghosts, monsters, and all variety of spirit phenomena; what
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

distinguishes him is his sustained effort to make sense of them, to account for their appearances,
and to incorporate them into a coherent world view.

In effect, Chu Hsi contends throughout his teachings that the world around us makes sense, that
there is a coherence and intelligibility to it in its entirety. Ghosts and spirits (kuei-shen) too are to
be understood and explained rationally. That is, in Chu's view, spirit beings and human beings are
equally rooted in the universe and bound by its pattern and laws; gods, ghosts, and spirits, as well
as humans, are subject to the order of the cosmos. Thus, in the end, everything that exists has a
rightful and legitimate place in the universe, even the strange and unusual: consequently there is a
li for them, even if "a special kind of li" or "not the normal li." And since all things, by possessing li,
do participate in the coherent pattern of the cosmos, a purely supernatural or otherworldly realm, it
would seem, could not exist for Chu; for nothing exists that is wholly irreconcilable with or
inexplicable in the cosmic order, nothing exists entirely outside or beyond the world and the laws
that govern it.

In closing, one essential question remains: what compels Chu Hsi to consider the subject of spirit
beings at such great length in the first place? The answer must perforce be somewhat speculative
and based mostly on inference, as Chu himself, quite naturally, never poses the question.

The subject of the spirit world was a venerable one in the tradition. The Confucian canon, which
Chu of course regards with great reverence, itself treated the topic; the Li chi, the Tso chuan, the I
ching, the Chungyung, and other canonical works all made mention of spirit phenomena. The
standard dynastic histories, beginning with the Shih chi, abound with accounts of ghosts and
spirits. And philosophic texts of all variety, from Mo-tzu to Lun-heng to Pao-p'u-tzu, related
incidents of ghostly appearances as well as discussing the nature of spirit beings. Moreover,
thinkers of the Northern Sung, men Chu greatly admires, took up consideration of the topic,
thereby giving it even greater legitimacy and currency. In one sense then, Chu Hsi is simply
reffecting on a topic that the Chinese tradition, especially the Neo-Confucian variety of that
tradition, by then had taken as a given.

In a related sense, Chu Hsi is attempting in his development of a theory of the numinous what he
attempts so commonly elsewhere in his body of teachings, namely, to synthesize earlier
treatments of the subject. That is, in trying to make sense of the tradition, Chu makes every effort
to reconcile the various views expressed over the centuries on the topic of spirit beings. Arguably,
in the process, he offers very little of his own in the way of interpreting these beings; yet in
reflecting on and drawing from the canon, the philosophic writings, Wang Ch'ung, Tung Chung-
shu, Chang Tsai, Fan Tsu-yue, Hsieh Liang-tso, and so on, Chu Hsi constructs a rather
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

comprehensive and systematic account of spirit beings, one that is integral to and consistent with
the larger world-view that is emerging also from his reflection on the tradition.

But to say that Chu is compelled by the tradition to address the subject of spirit phenomena is not
a sufficient explanation. Ghosts, spirits, gods, and cults were everywhere in the Sung, in the cities
and in the countryside; they were part of Chinese life. In taking up the issue of the spirit world, Chu
Hsi is not simply enpaging in a remote scholastic exercise, in an arcane textual explication of the
Confucian canon. He is observing and taking account of the world immediately around him. As we
have seen, even members of his own clan frequent the Five Transmitters Temple in his ancestral
home in Wu-yuean (characters omitted) county, Hui-chou (characters omitted), praying to the spirit
there for good fortune; they urge him to do the same, arguing that "this is common practice." Chu--
influential philosopher and statesman though he may be--is not cut off from the world of spirits.
Moreover, his students--judging from their persistent questioning in the Chu-tzu yue-lei--are deeply
interested in spirit beings and their place in the Sung world, and consequently make the issue a
pressing and immediate one for him too. In short, Chu Hsi lives in a world inhabited by a multitude
of spirits and ghosts and is himself surrounded by kinsmen and disciples who to varying degrees
are invested in these spirits and ghosts.

The continued popularity of Buddhism and Taoism and beliefs associated with these two schools
no doubt also helps to explain Chu's fascination, one might say preoccupation, with the spirit
wor;d. Teachings about karma, samsara, transmigration and reincarnation, heaven and hell, and
immortality are all misleading, even dangerous, from Chu's point of view; people have come to
think that death may be avoidable, or when unavoidable, followed routinely by new life. The result
is grievous: ancestors are ignored, ancestral rites are abandoned, and filial piety to parents and
respect toward the ederly are undermined; indeed, Chinese culture itself is at great risk.(44) Chu's
treatment of spirit beings is a direct attack on such popular misconceptions as immortality and
rebirth. After all, his argument goes, in the normal course of events, when a person dies, his ch'i is
entirely exhausted, incapable of revivifying or reconstituting itself; reincarnation, life in a heaven or
hell, and immortality simply are not routine in the nature of things--at least as Chu understands the
nature of things. To be sure, in the case of an unnatural death, the ch'i can linger about and
transmogrify into a ghost or spirit; such transmogrification, is, however, certainly not the normal
course of affairs and, in any event, the transmogrified ch'i has limited existence, for the ch'i cannot
but with time dissipate once and for all. And, in the case of ancestral spirits, the ch'i can
recoalesce, but as soon as the sacrifice comes to an end, the spirits' ch'i normally redisperses. In
short, by arguing that people die and, as a matter of course, become ancestors and, in exceptional
circumstances, ghosts or spirits, Chu Hsi is assailing the popular notions, purveyed by Buddhists
and Taoists, that people can become immortal or, in meeting death, at least expect an afterlife or
rebirth; the treatment of spirit beings in Chu's writings and conversations thus must be viewed, in
Ghosts and spirits in the Sung neo-Confucian world: Chu Hsi on Kuei-Shen

part, as an effort by Chu to combat the widespread inffuence of Buddhist and Taoist teachings in
Sung society and to reaffirm traditional Chinese ideas of life and death.