Li (principle)

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  • Chinese/Japanese: 理 (lǐ / ri)

Li, also known as the Great Ultimate, or simply, "principle," is a concept explicated by the founder of Song Dynasty Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi. Not to be confused with the (礼) described by Confucius as encompassing decorum, courtesy, and proper protocol, Zhu Xi's li is the fundamental underlying principle, or pattern, according to which (氣, energy/matter) coalesces itself into all the myriad forms within Heaven and Earth.

In Zhu Xi's conception, li is not itself material, tangible, or apparent, but rather it becomes apparent through the interplay of yin and yang, and through the manifestation of the five elements and their arrangement into people, creatures, objects, and the like. Importantly, unlike in many other belief systems, li is not conscious or sentient; it lacks will and thought, and does not decide or choose, but simply is; qi swirls and moves and changes into different forms, aligning itself to form these forms according to the principle or patterns that are li.


  • "The Synthesis of Sung Neo-Confucianism in Chu Hsi", in William Theodore de Bary et al, eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, Columbia University Press (1960), 534-557.