Ming Thought

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Ming Thought



Social Roles. Ming-era (1368-1644) intellectuals had to deal with the problems of living a Confucian lifestyle in a world that remained obstinately un-Confucian. In spite of official state support for Confucianism, the Ming government and society were far from the Confucian ideal. In


Wang Yangming, the most famous philosopher of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), believed that it was possible for everyone to become a sage.

The highest good is the ultimate principle of manifesting character and loving people. The nature endowed in us by Heaven is pure and perfect. The fact that it is intelligent, clear, and not obscured is evidence of the emanation and revelation of the highest good. . . . how can anyone who does not watch over himself carefully when alone, and who has no refinement and singleness of mind, attain to such a state of perfection? Later generations fail to realize that the highest good is inherent in their own minds, but each in accordance with his own ideas gropes for it outside the mind, believing that every event and every object has its own definite principle. For this reason the law of right and wrong is obscured; the mind becomes concerned with fragmentary and isolated details, the desires of man become rampant and the principle of Heaven is at an end.

Source: William Theodore de Bary and others, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 573-574.

addition, Ming intellectuals had to redefine the role of educated scholar-officials in society, because the development of trade created new wealth, a new source of power, and in effect, a new value system. Simultaneously, the increase of literacy weakened the monopoly on classical ideas and culture, as well as the position of classically educated persons. Finally, in a post-classical era, the only way a scholar could play a personal role was by specialization, which indicated a departure from the traditional goal of broader knowledge. To identify their personal and social roles, intellectuals were forced to question their own nature—it became a quest for intelligence and learning.

Wang Yangming. Believing that principle alone existed, Wang Yangming identified human nature with the “mind heart.” Everyone had an inner goodness and an inborn ability to know good. Self-perfection enlarged this capacity to the greatest extent. Everyone could reach perfection because every person had the ability of a sage. Individuals might differ in their abilities in quantity, but their qualities were similar, just as the gold in a small coin was not inferior to that in a large one. External sources of doctrinal influence, including classical learning and lectures of sages, had only a minor, subordinate function. The truth was in the mind. It remained whole, because the mind and principle were universal.

New Schools. Some of Wang Yangming’s supporters and students led courageous, but quite conservative, lives of public service, self-perfection, and teaching; other scholars, however, developed more-extreme ideas. Thus, he claimed that the mind was beyond the distinctions of good and bad, an idea with strong Buddhist sentiments and consistent with Daoist ideas. The trend to merge Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism appealed to Ming thinkers. Wang Yangming’s teaching created the basis for the growth of philosophical schools in the sixteenth century, though they exhibited many differences. These schools comprised several dozens, sometimes hundreds, of students who followed one of many masters. The manner of educational conversation and the multiplicity of centers of study—complete with libraries—were features of intellectual life during the sixteenth century. Some people saw in this growth of schools a disturbing sign of division; the universal harmony of minds was endangered by intense deviation, which especially troubled the most respected traditions.

School of Taichou. One school was noted for its stress on impulsiveness and its denunciation of social restraints. Its basic theory was that no attempt was needed to gain innate knowledge, which was displayed in every man. Known as the school of Taichou, it was established by a self-educated former salt worker, Wang Gen, and Wang Ji, who liberally used Buddhist and Daoist terms and mastered Daoist skills of controlling one’s breathing.

Radicals. In their personal conduct, in addition to their teachings, the most radical supporters of Wang Yangming extended the restrictions of Confucianism beyond the limits accepted by the Ming court. He Xinyin,

a bold protector of free conversation in the academies, was so dedicated to all humankind that he revolted against the family as a restraining, self-centered, exclusive institution. His nontraditional ideas and troublesome personal behavior ultimately helped land him in jail, where he was beaten to death.

Syncretism. A significant movement in the late Ming period was toward syncretism in both religious thought and scholarly writing. For example, Jiao Hong exceeded earlier thinkers who had regarded Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism as independent and balancing. He, however, regarded the three teachings as a single entity, so that each could assist the others.


Alison Harley Black, Man and Nature in the Philosophical Thought of Wang Fu-chih (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989).

Julia Ching, To Acquire Wisdom: The Way of Wang Yang-ming (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976).

Kung-Chuan Hsiao, A History of Chinese Political Thought, translated by F. W. Mote (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Feng Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, second edition, translated by Derk Bodde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952-1953).