Wang Fuzhi

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WANG FUZHI (zi, Erhnung; hao, Chuanshan; 16191692), a Neo-Confucian philosopher. Now recognized along with Huang Zongxi and Gu Yanwu as one of the major thinkers to emerge in seventeenth-century China, Wang was almost unknown in his own lifetime outside of a small circle of followers in his native Hunan. He devoted his life to the task of revitalizing and restoring the cultural heritage and political autonomy of a Confucian China whose decline and fall, culminating in the overthrow of the Ming dynasty and the Manchu conquest, left him a virtual refugee in his own country. He was only thirty-one when in 1650 his patriotic foray into the political arena of the court of the Ming pretender Yungli ended in temporary imprisonment as a result of factional strife. Thereafter he had to content himself with propounding his ideas in a prodigious number of works, none of which was published during his lifetime owing largely to the fiercely anti-Manchu sentiments and politically subversive theories expressed in them. Nevertheless, as he himself declared, "With my country ruined and my home destroyed, I set forth my opinions for posterity In the future there will arise those who will carry on the task." In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, such historical and political writings as his Du Tongjian lun (On reading the Comprehensive Mirror ), Song lun (On the history of the Song dynasty), Huangshu (Yellow book), and E-meng (Strange dream)all published for the first time in 1865fired the imagination of patriotic reformers and revolutionaries who regarded Wang as a prophet of modern Chinese nationalism. Tan Sitong, Zhang Binglin, and Mao Zedong all acknowledged him as a source of inspiration.

The same patriotic fervor that has attracted modern Chinese originally impelled Wang to undertake a radical reappraisal of the whole history of Chinese civilization. What had gone wrong? What were the remedies?these were the two questions that inspired and informed all Wang's studies, which spanned the whole range of traditional Chinese scholarship. In typical Confucian fashion, however, his central concern was ideological: what had gone wrong with the transmission of the Confucian tradition, and what constituted the true development of orthodox Confucianism? This concern was shared by many scholars at the close of the Ming dynasty, particularly by those associated with the Donglin Academy who, reacting against Buddhist influences and contemporary tendencies in the school of Wang Yangming, tried to give Confucianism a new direction. Wang Fuzhi admired their efforts to encourage scholar-officials to abandon the selfish pursuit of personal fulfillment and absolute truth and commit themselves to a social and political program in which moral philosophy was applied to contemporary realities. Indeed, as a young man he was certainly influenced by them. But whereas these scholars tended to arrive at various compromises between the Cheng-Zhu tradition and the more moderate forms of the Wang Yangming tradition, Wang Fuzhi went further. He came to the conclusion that the moral decline of China could be traced to Sung times, when the Cheng-Zhu school had first turned away from the "true doctrines" of Zhang Zai (10201077).

Although there had been some revival of interest in Chang's thought among Wang's contemporaries, Wang went so far as to declare himself a latter-day disciple of the Song philosopher, according him precedence over Zhuxi (11301200), whose systematization of the Confucian tradition in a grand synthesis (incorporating certain of Chang's ideas in the process) had created the Cheng-Zhu school of Neo-Confucianism, the dominant orthodoxy until the twentieth century. Wang, however, proceeded to elaborate his own extremely coherent philosophical system on the basis of his Sung mentor's cosmology. He adopted Chang's concept (itself a refinement of such early Daoist naturalist views as found in the first-century-ce Lunheng of Wang Chong) of a universe that consisted of one vast mass of ether (qi ) in a perpetual state of flux, agglomerating to form objects and dispersing to return to the "void" of apparent nonbeing as its yin and yang aspects interacted. Wang explicitly rejected the Cheng-Zhu school's doctrine on principle (li ) and ether, which entailed a dualistic approach both in its basic metaphysics and in its treatment of human nature. For Wang there was no duality: principle lay within the ether, and all ether was principle. His monistic conception of the universe led him to attack both Zhuxi's attribution of evil to the physical nature and his consequent rejection of human desires.

Wang held that nothing was inherently evil: evil arose simply as excessive or incongruous activity in natural encounters within the movement of the organic whole. Man's vital role as an integral part of this dynamic universe was to ensure its harmonious functioning through cultivating himself and ordering human society. To fulfill this role required an understanding of the universal processes; these could be observed at work in the course of history and in codified form in the ancient divinatory classic the Yi jing (Book of Changes). Zhang Zai too had set great store by this text, but his treatment of the archetypal patterns and symbols of the Changes had been mystical, the expression of his ideas poeticalas in his influential Ximing (Western Inscription)and he had paid little attention to history. Wang's approach was altogether more analytical, rational, and pragmaticeven utilitarian. Wang's emphasis on variable factors of time and place and prevailing conditions in determining what was appropriate, and hence, in a morally ordered universe, right, led him to make a critical evaluation of political institutions throughout Chinese history and to formulate his own proposals for reform based on radical changes in the system of land-tenure and taxation. In contemporary China Wang has been admired, patriotism apart, as a major contributor to the native tradition of philosophical materialism and as a historian critical of the old society.


The most comprehensive edition of Wang's works is the Chuanshan i-shu, published by the Tai pingyang bookstore (Shanghai, 1933); a facsimile edition was published in Taipei in 1965. A full bibliography of secondary sources in Chinese, Japanese, and Western languages can be found in my "Wang Fuzhi and his Political Thought" (Ph.D. diss., Oxford, 1968). Liu Zhijisheng's appendix to Wang Chuanshan yanjiu can kao liao (Changsha, 1982) includes a comprehensive list of recent studies on Wang both in and outside China. For additional studies, see Tang Junyi's Zhongguo zhexue yuanlun: yuan jian pain (Hong Kong, 1975) and my essay "Wang Fuzhi and the Neo-Confucian Tradition," in The Unfolding of Neo-Confucianism, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary (New York, 1975).

Ian McMorran (1987)