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Great Ming Dynasty Philosopher: Hakka Wang Yangming
Pinyin WANG YANGMING, original name (Wade-Giles romanization) WANG
SHOU-JEN, literary name PE-AN, canonized as WEN-CH'ENG, Japanese OYO-MEI
(b. 1472, Yu-yao, Chekiang Province, China--d. 1529, Nan-en, Kiangsi),
Chinese scholar-official whose Idealistic interpretation of
Neo-Confucianism influenced philosophical thinking in East Asia for
centuries. Though his government career was rather unstable, his
suppression of rebellions brought a century of peace to his region. His
philosophical doctrines, emphasizing understanding of the world from within
the mind, were in direct conflict with the rationalism espoused by Chu Hsi,
a highly esteemed Neo-Confucianist of the 12th century, and Wang's "false
teaching" was for a time proscribed.
Early life and adventures.
Wang was the son of a high government official. At 15 he visited a frontier
pass and practiced archery. When he married, he was so absorbed in
discussing "nourishing life" (yang-sheng), the search for immortality, with
a Taoist priest that he stayed at the Taoist temple throughout the wedding
night. In 1492 he obtained the civil service degree "a recommended person."
Visiting his father in Peking, he sat quietly in front of some bamboos
trying to discern their principles as he thought was taught by Chu Hsi, the
outstanding Neo-Confucian philosopher, only to fall ill after seven days.
Having failed in the metropolitan civil service examinations in 1493 and
1495, he shifted his interest to military arts and Taoist techniques for
longevity. In 1499, however, Wang passed the "advanced scholar" (chin-shih)
examination and was appointed a Ministry of Works official. He recommended
to the Emperor eight measures for frontier defense, strategy, and
administration, which earned him early recognition. In 1500 he was
appointed a Ministry of Justice secretary and in 1501 was ordered to check
prisoners' records near Nanking. He corrected injustices in many cases.
His health declined, and he returned home to recuperate in the Yang-ming
ravine, where he probably practiced Taoist techniques. In 1504 he returned
to Peking, supervised provincial examinations in Shantung, and then became
a secretary in the Ministry of War. Beginning in 1505, scholars became his
students. He lectured on making up one's mind to become a Confucian sage
and attacked the practice of reciting Classics and writing flowery
compositions. Conservative scholars accused him of courting popularity.
Chan Jo-shui, a respected scholar-official, however, praised and befriended
A critical event occurred in 1506, when Wang defended a supervising censor
who had been imprisoned for attacking a powerful, corrupt eunuch. For his
actions Wang was beaten with 40 strokes, imprisoned for several months, and
banished to remote Kweichow as head of a dispatch station, where he lived
among aborigines and often fell sick. The hardship and solitude led him to
realize, suddenly one night at the age of 36, that to investigate the
principles of things is not to seek for them in actual objects, as the
rationalistic Chu Hsi had taught, but in one's own mind. Thus he brought
Idealist (Hsin Hs|eh) Neo-Confucianism--as first taught by a 12th-century
philosopher, Lu Hsiang-shan--to its highest expression.
Political and military career.
A year later he pronounced another epoch-making theory: that knowledge and
action are one. One knows filial piety, he argued, only when one acts upon
it, and correct action requires correct knowledge. As a magistrate in
Kiangsi in 1510, he carried out many reforms, including a novel "joint
registration system" whereby 10 families shared responsibility for
security. An Imperial audience followed and then appointments as Ministry
of Justice secretary, Ministry of Personnel director (1511), Imperial Studs
vice minister (1512), State Ceremonials minister (1514), and assistant
censor in chief and governor of southern Kiangsi and adjacent areas (1516).
Bandits and rebels had controlled Kiangsi for decades. In four military
campaigns in 1517-18, Wang eliminated them. He carried out reconstruction,
tax reform, joint registration, establishment of schools, and the
"community compact" to improve community morals and solidarity.
On his way to suppress a rebellion in Fukien in 1519, he learned that Chu
Ch'en-hao, prince of Ning, had rebelled. He turned to surround the Prince's
base, Nan-ch'ang. Four days later he joined battle with the Prince and
captured him. Because Wang had been in contact with the Prince, jealous
officials at the capital accused him of plotting rebellion and attacking
the Prince only because Imperial armies were approaching. One of his
pupils, whom he had sent to the Prince for negotiation, was imprisoned. The
crisis was soon over, however, and Wang was made governor of Kiangsi.
In 1521 the new emperor appointed him war minister and awarded him the
title of earl of Hsin-chien. His father died in 1522, and he remained home
to mourn his loss. For more than five years he stayed home and discussed
doctrines with his followers, who came from various parts of China and
numbered in the hundreds. These conversations and those earlier constitute
his main work, Ch'uan-hsi lu ( Instructions for Practical Living). In 1521
he had enunciated his doctrine of complete realization of the innate
knowledge of the good.
In June 1527 Wang was called to suppress a rebellion in Kwangsi. He
succeeded in six months. His coughing, which had bothered him for years,
then grew acute, and he became very ill. He died on his way back in Nan-an,
Kiangsi, in 1529. Because a powerful minister hated him, his earldom and
other hereditary privileges were revoked, disinheriting his two sons. Some
who protested were dismissed or banished; his teachings were severely
proscribed. Thirty-eight years later (1567), a new emperor honoured him
with the title of marquis of Hsin-chien and the posthumous title of
Wen-ch'eng (Completion of Culture). Beginning in 1584 he was offered
sacrifice in the Confucian temple, the highest honour.
Wang's philosophy spread all over China for 150 years and greatly
influenced Japanese thought during that time. He is regarded as one of the
greatest Chinese thinkers in the last 2,000 years.