Wang Yangming

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WANG YANGMING (14721529), literary name, Wang Shouren; the most influenctial Confucian thinker in Ming-dynasty China and one of the most important scholar-officials in Chinese history. Wang's intellectual impact on East Asian culture and his transformation of the spiritual orientation of the Confucian tradition in China made him one of the greatest philosophers of the relation between knowledge and action in any age or culture.

Born to a prominent gentry family in the Yangtze River delta, Wang was subject as a youth to great social pressure to excel in Confucian learning. Hagiographical accounts relate that in his early teens Wang startled his teacher when, in response to the teacher's admonition that the most important thing in life was to study hard in order to pass the examinations with distinction, Wang said: "To learn to become a sage is of the utmost importance." Wang's competitiveness with his father, who had himself won highest honors in the triennial metropolitan (jinshi) examinations, and his rebelliousness against the conventions of the time led him to the pursuit of a spiritual path characterized by Daoist and Chan practices. His failure to pass the metropolitan examinations three times before he succeeded and his dissatisfaction with the vulgarity of other officials after he eventually obtained an official post further enhanced his determination to search for an alternative form of life.

Wang is noted for his lifelong quest to understand the mind and nature. His biography records that on his wedding day he became so absorbed in conversing with a Daoist priest about prolonging life through nourishing the vital force in one's body that he did not return home until the next day. At an early age he began a traditional education grounded in the Confucian classics, but he also studied military affairs, literary style, Buddhist philosophy, and Daoist technique of longevity. In 1492, intent on putting Zhu Xi's (11301200) doctrine of the investigation of things (gewu ) into practice, he devoted himself to the study of the principle (li ) inherent in things by meditating in front of a bamboo grove for seven days. His abortive attempt to understand Zhu Xi's assertion that personal knowledge can be acquired through an understanding of external phenomena compelled him to probe the internal resources of his own mind-and-heart (xin ).

Wang started his official career at the age of twenty-eight. His primary goal in life, however, was to become an exemplary teacher so that he could share his intellectual insight and spiritual quest with friends and students. In fact, it took him some time to come to terms with his role as a scholar-official. While cultivating the Daoist arts of overlasting life in a cave near his home, he contemplated forsaking the world altogether. It was only after he had fully convinced himself that his longings for his father and the grandmother who had raised him were irreducible human feelings, necessary for the survival and well-being of the human community, that he decided to return to society permanently in order to transform it from within.

One of the most important events in this initial stage of his official career was his friendship with Zhan Ruoshui, the disciple of the eminent Confucian master Chen Bosha (Chen Xianzhang, 14281500). Wang sealed a covenant with Zhan to promote true Confucian learning, the kind of learning that stresses an experiential understanding of the body and mind. Such learning they clearly differentiated from the study of the classics for the sake of passing the examinations.

Wang advocated his first doctrine, "the unity of knowing and acting," shortly after his decision to return to society. According to his famous dicta, "knowledge is the beginning of action; action is the completion of knowledge" and "knowledge in its genuine reality and earnest practicality is action; action in its brilliant self-awareness and refined discrimination is knowledge," have become defining characteristics of Wang's philosophy of mind, what Wing-tsit Chan refers to as his dynamic idealism.

However, far from being a speculative thinker who made no attempt to put his ideas into practice, Wang described his doctrine as the result of a hundred deaths and a thousand hardships. Indeed, he once almost lost his life when he protested against a powerful eunuch. For this, the emperor had him flogged forty times at court and banished to a small postal station in a remote mountainous area in present-day Guizhou. However, it was there that he experienced enlightenment and developed a unique approach to Confucian learning that emphasized the learning of the body and mind.

A salient feature of Wang's thought is his inquiry into the internal landscape of the mind as the center of moral creativity. This emphasis is predicated on a vision that encompasses both the ontological reality of Heaven and the social reality of human relationships. In his philosophy, which is religious as well as ethical, self-cultivation is a holistic process of learning to be fully human. Wang argued that self-cultivation begins with a critical understanding of one's selfhood, but he remained fully within the Confucian tradition in placing the self at the center of relationships. Thus, for Wang the quest for self-knowledge necessarily involves active participation in the human community.

The Confucian idea of the human is not anthropocentric. Rather, humanity in its full realization here signifies an anthropocosmic reality often symbolized by the notion of the unity of people and Heaven. This realization requires that we as humans respond to the ultimate source of creativity, namely, the way of Heaven (tiandao ). Thus, Wang's second important doctrine is "the preservation of the heavenly principle and the elimination of human desires." Human desires are egoistic demands and private, selfish ideas. The true self, which is not only the deepest source of moral creativity but also the heavenly principle (tianli ) inherent in our nature, is an open system. It extends horizontally to the human community as a whole and, simultaneously, it reaches upward to Heaven. Therefore, the unity of people and Heaven is not merely an idea but an experienced ethico-religious reality.

Wang's attempt to integrate heavenly principle (ontological reality) and human relationships (social reality) in the moral creativity of the self (subjectivity) is well articulated in his third and most mature doctrine, often translated as "the extension of the innate knowledge of the good" (zhi liangzhi ; Chan, 1969, p. 656). Actually, the doctrine can well be stated as the full realization of our primordial awareness, an awareness that we are capable of self-perfection. This doctrine may be regarded as a creative interpretation of the classical Mencian thesis of the goodness of human nature. Following Mengzi's notion that the moral feelings of the mind-and-heart are humanity at its best, Wang insisted that the uniqueness of being human lies in our ability to perfect ourselves through self-effort. The reason that some of us have become sages (the most genuinely realized humans) is because inherent in our heavenly endowed nature is our great body (dati ), which never ceases to guide us toward the highest excellence of humanity. Wang underscores this dimension of Mengzi's teaching by adding the verb zhi (to extend, to fully realize) to the original Mencian term liangzhi (innate goodness or primordial awareness), thus transforming it into an active, dynamic, and creative principle of self-cultivation.

Wang formulated his interpretation of the Confucian way by wrestling with Zhu Xi's balanced approach to Confucian learning. Briefly stated, Zhu Xi held that moral development could only be attained through the simultaneous activities of dwelling in the spirit of reverence (jing ) and investigating the principle inherent in all things. Wang, however, maintained that establishing the will to be good must be the focus of moral self-cultivation: neither the pursuit of empirical knowledge in and of itself nor the psychology of being serious and respectful will automatically bring about a good moral life.

In maintaining that the primary purpose of moral education is to establish in ourselves that which makes all humans great Wang aligned himself with Zhu Xi's intellectual rival, Lu Xiangshan (Lu Jiuyuan, 11391193). This concept that the quest for moral creativity begins with self-awareness was criticized by fellow Confucians as being Buddhistic, but Wang himself never doubted the authenticity of his Confucian message. He conscientiously defended the content and method of his teaching by reference to the very books chosen by Zhu Xi to represent the core of the Confucian tradition. Since the thirteenth century, the Four Booksthe Lunyu (Analects), the Mengzi (Mencius), the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), and the Daxue (Great Learning)had served as virtual scripture for the educated elite in East Asia. Wang's challenge to Zhu Xi's interpretive authority was only partially successful, but the mark that he left on the overall design of Confucian education in indelible. His celebrated Daxue wen (Inquiry on the Great Learning ), which recapitulates the major themes in his philosophy, has become one of the most frequently cited treatises on Confucian humanism.

Inquiry on the Great Learning was written in 1527, roughly a year before Wang's death. It addresses the Confucian's ultimate concern, forming one body with Heaven and earth and the myriad things, with great sensitivity:

That the great man can regard Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things as one body is not because he deliberately wants to be so, but because it is natural to the humane nature of his mind that he do so. Forming one body with Heaven, Earth, and the myriad things is not only true of the great man. Even the mind of the small man is no different. Only he himself makes it small. (Chan, 1969, p. 659)

Wang uses a descending scale of human sensitivity to depict the ordinary human responses to a variety of situations that easily evoke sympathetic feelings in us: encountering a child about to fall into a well, hearing pitiful cries and encountering frightened birds and animals, seeing plants broken and destroyed, seeing tiles and stones shattered and crushed. The feelings of alarm, commiseration, pity, and regret aroused in us vary in their emotional intensity, but indicate that fellow human beings, animals, plants, and stones all form one body in our primordial awareness.

This seemingly romantic assertion of the unity of all things is actually predicated on an ontological vision rooted in classical Confucian humanism. What Wang advocated was a representation of the Mencian thesis that if we fully realize the sprouts (duan ) of humanity in our minds and hearts, we can experientially understand our human nature; if we understand our nature, then we know Heaven. Knowing Heaven, in the perspective of Wang's Inquiry on the Great Learning, is to regard Heaven, earth, and the myriad things as one body, the world as one family, and the country as one person.

Yet this explicit emphasis on commonality and communality was not abstract universalism. On the contrary, a major contribution of Wang's philosophy is its subtle appreciation of concrete personal experience in moral self-cultivation. Wang's insistence that only through polishing and disciplining in actual affairs of life can one learn the art of being human suggests a strong existential quality in his teaching. Wang himself, as a witness to his own teaching, acquired much practical knowledge: he concerned himself with local administration, legal cases, and military tactics. In fact, he was the only civilian official to be awarded a military lordship because of his unusual meritorious achievements in suppressing a rebellion that could have fundamentally changed the history of the Ming dynasty.

The Yangming school, known as the Yomeigaku in Japan, has profoundly influenced modern East Asia. The spirit of the samurai, which emphasises firm purpose, self-mastery, and loyalty, and the dynamic leadership of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 were partly Wang Yangming's gifts to Japan. In China, reformers such as Liang Qichao (18731929) and Tan Sitong (18651898), revolutionaries such as Sun Yat-sen (18661925), and philosophers such as Xiong Shili (18851968) and Liang Souming (b. 1893) have all been inspired by Wang's legacy, the Chuanxi lu (Instructions for Practical Living), which consists of his dialogues with students, scholarly letters to friends, and several short essays.

See Also

Confucianism; Li; Lu Xiangshan; Mengzi; Zhu Xi.


Wang Yangming's collected works can be found in his Yangming quanshu, Sibu Beiyao edition. Useful interpretive studies include the following:

Araki Kengo, et al., comps. Yomeigaku taikei. 12 vols. Tokyo, 19711973.

Chan, Wing-tsit, trans. Instructions for Practicial Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings by Wang Yang-ming. New York, 1963.

Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, 1969. See pages 654691.

Ching, Julia. To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming. New York, 1976.

Okada Takehiko. Oyomei to minmatsu no jugaku. Tokyo, 1970.

Shimada Kenji. Shushigaku to Yomeigaku. Tokyo, 1967.

Tu Wei-ming, Neo-Confucian Thought in Action: Wang Yang-ming's Youth. Berkeley, 1976.

New Sources

Cua, A.S. "Between Commitment and Realization: Wang Yangming's Vision of the Universe as a Moral Community." Philosophy East and West 43:4 (1993): 611647.

Geaney, Jane. "Chinese Cosmology and Recent Studies in Confucian Ethics: A Review Essay." Journal of Religious Ethics 28:3 (2000): 451470.

Hauf, Kandice. "'Goodness Unbound': Wang Yangming and the Redrawing of the Boundary of Confucianism." In Imagining Boundaries: Changing Confucian Doctrines, Texts, and Hermeneutics, edited by Kai-wing Chow, On-cho Ng, and John B. Henderson, pp. 121146. Albany, 1999.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mencius and Wang Yangming. Atlanta, 1990.

Kim, Youngmin. "Redefining the Self's Relation to the World: A Study of mid-Ming neo-Confucian Discourse (China)." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2002.

Liu, Shu-Hsien. "On the Final Views of Wang Yangming." Journal of Chinese Philosophy 25:3 (1998): 345360.

Tu Wei-Ming (1987)

Revised Bibliography