Zhu Xi, whose family originated in Wuyuan County, Huizhou (in modern Jiangxi province), was born in Fujian, where his father worked as the subprefectural sheriff. After his father was forced from office due to his opposition to the government appeasement policy towards the Jurchen in 1140, Zhu Xi received instruction from his father at home. Many anecdotes attest that he was a highly precocious child. It was recorded that at age five he ventured to ask what lay beyond Heaven, and by eight he understood the significance of the Classic of Filiality (Xiaojing). As a youth, he was inspired by Mencius’ proposition that all people could become a sage. Upon his father's death in 1143, he studied with his father's friends Hu Xian, Liu Zihui, and Liu Mianzhi. In 1148, at the age of 19, Zhu Xi passed the Imperial Examination and became a presented scholar. Zhu Xi's first official dispatch position was as Subprefectural Registrar of Tong'an (同安縣主簿), which he served from 1153 - 1156. From 1153 he began to study under Li Tong, who followed the Neo-Confucian tradition of Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi, and formally became his student in 1160.
In 1179, after not serving in an official capacity since 1156, Zhu Xi was appointed Prefect of Nankang Military District (南康軍), where he revived White Deer Grotto Academy. and got demoted three years later for attacking the incompetency and corruption of some influential officials. There were several instances of receiving an appointment and subsequently being demoted. Upon dismissal from his last appointment, he was accused of numerous crimes and a petition was made for his execution. Much of this opposition was headed by Han Tuozhou, the Prime Minister, who was a political rival of Zhu's. Even though his teachings had been severely attacked by establishment figures, almost a thousand brave people attended his funeral. After the death of Han Tuozhou, Zhu's successor Zhen Dexiu, together with Wei Liaoweng, made Zhu's branch of Neo-Confucianism the dominant philosophy at the Song Court.
In 1208, eight years after his death, Emperor Ningzong of Song rehabilitated Zhu Xi and honored him with the posthumous name of Wen Gong (文公), meaning “Venerable gentleman of culture”. Around 1228, Emperor Lizong of Song honored him with the posthumous noble title Duke of (State) Hui (徽國公). In 1241, a memorial tablet to Zhu Xi was placed in the Confucian Temple at Qufu, thereby elevating him to
Confucian sainthood. Today, Zhu Xi is venerated as one of the "Twelve Philosophers" (十二哲) of Confucianism. Modern Sinologists and Chinese often refer to him as Zhu Wen Kung (朱文公) in lieu of his name.