This is an ultra-short article that attempts to cover the Great Learning, its associated books and its relation to James Legge in less than 250 words.
The Great Learning is an immensely significant part of Chinese tradition, to the extent that its name is synonymous with higher education in China. It consists of a chapter from an earlier Confucian text, The Classic of Rites, and a detailed commentary providing further insight into the cultivation of the self and successful statesmanship. Sources of Chinese Tradition describes the text as one of the most seminal works in Chinese philosophy and thought.
The form in use today is one of the Four Books compiled by the Song scholar Zhu Xi, the others being the Doctrine of the Mean, the Analects and the Mencius. Despite initially being unorthodox amongst scholars at the time, these texts developed into the core of Neo-Confucianism and formed the basis of the long-lasting Imperial examinations, a meritocratic system that was recognised and emulated in Korea and Vietnam, as well as being used to some extent in Japan.
This focus on education and cultivation as a route to success has been maintained to the present day in China – in Understanding Chinese Culture and Learning, Wang Ting describes how the Great Learning has contributed to the intensity and methods of modern Chinese schools.
James Legge, a prolific sinologist, produced the first English translation of the Great Learning in the late 19 Century. As a missionary, Legge believed it was important to understand Chinese culture – the translation of the Great Learning demonstrates Legge’s view of its key position in Chinese tradition.