Wang Yang-Ming

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Wang Yang-ming (王陽明, Japanese Ō Yōmei, 1472–1529) was a Ming Dynasty Chinese idealist Neo-Confucian scholar–official. After Zhu Xi, he is commonly considered the most important Neo-Confucian thinker, with an interpretation of Confucianism that denied the rationalist dualism found in the orthodox philosophy of Zhu Xi. He was the leading figure in the Neo-Confucian School of Mind, which championed an interpretation of Mencius (a Classical Confucian) that unified knowledge and action. Due to the depth of his scholarship and his scintillating style, he was known as Yang-ming Xiansheng (Brilliant Master Yang) in literary circles.

Yangmingshan, a national scenic attraction in Taiwan, is named after him.


Wang Yang-ming was born Wang Shouren (守仁) in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province. His father was a member of the lesser nobility and served as a minister in the Imperial bureaucracy. Wang was a precocious child and was known to impress visitors to his parent's home with his spontaneous composition and recitation of poetry. At the age of 12, when advised by his tutor to study the classics in order to obtain an official government position, he replied that he would rather dedicate his studies to a higher goal—becoming a sage. To this end, the teen-aged Wang and a friend embarked upon what would be one of the most formative experiences of his life. Specifically, they each decide to seek sagehood through the application of Zhu Xi's famous dictum of "investigating things" (ge wu), which stipulates that everything in the world is unified by a metaphysical principle (li) that can be discerned through concerted mental effort. Wang and his friend decided to commit to this path and to "investigate" the bamboo in a local grove until they achieved insight into the ultimate principle of the Universe (the Dao of Heaven). After three exhausting days, Wang's friend gave up and returned home despondent. Wang persevered for an additional four days, and, when he finally called off his search, he developed a serious illness from his ordeal (likely a result of exposure and sleep deprivation). Though the young Wang was still highly reverent of Master Zhu's teachings, this experience caused him to begin doubting the efficacy of ge wu as a means of attaining sagehood.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) this spiritual setback, Wang proceeded along the bureaucratic path, receiving his imperial certification in 1499 and taking up a bureaucratic post soon after. He served successfully as an executive assistant in many branches of the imperial government, including the Ministry of Law and the Ministry of War—continually proving his value through his commitment to social action and Confucian values. In 1505, in addition to his govenment duties, Wang also began to accept students, "advising them to aspire to sagehood" (Chang, 4). However, the following year saw a complete reversal of his fortunes, when his adherence to the ideal of engaged scholarship caused him to intervene in a case against a powerful and corrupt court eunuch named Liu Chin. Unfortunately, Wang's intercession was ineffectual and the eunuch used his considerable influence to have Wang Yang-ming arrested, publicly flogged, and banished to the border of the country (modern Guizhou).

In 1508, after several years in exile, Wang awoke with a shout in the middle of the night, startled to wakefulness by an astonishing revelation. "It suddenly occured to him that he had been going about the investigation of things completely wrongly... For the first time, Yang-ming came to the realization that 'My own nature is, of course, sufficient for me to attain sagehood. And I have been mistaken in searching for the li in external things and affairs'" (Berthrong, 124). More specifically, this revelation grounded the li (and, resultantly, the ultimate cause and nature of reality) inside the human heart-and-mind (xin). This single, revolutionary concept was the seed that eventually flowered into his entire religio-philosophical system.

With the death of the eunuch that had orchestrated his exile, Wang Yang-ming returned to full-fledged government service in late 1510. Over the next 12 years, he was an instrumental member of the Imperial bureaucracy, eventually becoming the governor of multiple districts, where he "established schools, rehabilitated rebels, and reconstructed the economy" (Chan, 654). Wang also defended his districts in a military capacity, successfully quelling a rebellion and earning himself a reputation as a master general and strategist. For these accomplishments, he was named the Earl of Xinjian. During this period, he also taught numerous students, and wrote and published numerous texts, including a commentary on the Great Learning and an edited volume of Zhu Xi's sayings. However, Wang's fortunes changed again in 1521, when courtly intrigues caused him to be discredited and ostracized, leading to a six year period of "virtual retirement" (Chan, 654). Additionally, his father passed away in 1522, so he returned home for the Confucian-mandated, three-year period of ritual mourning.

When his mourning was complete (in 1524), "Wang Yang-ming gathered more than one hundred disciples on the heavenly fountain bridge and engaged in philosophical debate. Excursions were made to nearby mountains and streams in order to achieve harmony with Great Nature" (Chang, 9). A year later, Wang returned to government service, helping suppress a bandit uprising in Guangxi. Following his eventual military victory, he returned home and died in the winter of 1529.

As was the case with Zhu Xi, the vicissitudes of Wang's public fate did not end with his death. Indeed, in the years following his passing, he was publicly reviled, was "accused of spreading false doctrines" and had "his hereditary privileges ... revoked" (Chan, 654). However, with the passage of time, public opinion changed and he was fully reinstated, being posthumously ennobled as the Marquis of Xinjian and earning the title Wen Cheng ("completion of culture") in 1567. This newly-rediscovered reverence hit its apex in 1584, when the Imperial house decreed that "he be offered sacrifice in the Confucian temple," which was "the highest honor for a scholar" (Chan, 654).


Philosophical Background

Before the emergence of Wang Yang-ming's challenging interpretation of Confucian philosophy, Chinese thought had become somewhat stagnant. The grand synthesis promoted by Zhu Xi three hundred years previous, while systematizing and deepening the existing philosophical discourse of the time, had begun to stultify any efforts to expand upon it or to question it. Two issues made this problem especially acute: first, Master Zhu's teaching had been proclaimed the official orthodox school by the Imperial government in 1330; and, second, his praxical doctrine of "investigating things," when misapplied, actually discouraged independent or systematic thought by encouraging punctilious scholasticism (or empirical study). More specifically, since the Zhu Xi's teachings had become orthodoxy, they became the entirety of the teaching curriculum for Chinese education. Instead of simply studying the Four Books and the Five Classics, as had previously been the case, these texts were understood and appreciated through the critical editions and commentaries prepared by Zhu Xi. As such, even the classical materials that had once provided the hermeneutical grist for the Confucian mill became dramatically impoverished, losing much of their potential interpretability. This problem was compounded by the the doctrine of ge wu (investigating things) because "in insisting that every blade of grass and every tree possesses principle and should be investigated, the theory diverted people from the basic principles of things and the fundamentals of life. Moreover, by saying that the mind should go to things to investigate the principles inherent in them, the theory considered things as external and separated the mind and principle" (Chan, 655). In this way, students of Zhu Xi's method often became enmired in the minutiae of textual or empirical research, losing the "this-worldly" focus that typically characterizes a Confucian scholar. It was this philosophical environment that directly influenced Wang Yang-ming's radical re-interpretation of Neo-Confucian philosophy.

Metaphysics and Cosmology

Wang Yang-ming's most important contribution to Chinese philosophy was his radical metaphysical idealism, a concept that occurred to him in a sudden burst of intuition (as discussed above). More specifically, he argued for the unity of the mind (xin) and principle (li), the latter of which, in Neo-Confucian thought, was seen as the the ultimate metaphysical nature of reality:

The original mind is vacuous [devoid of selfish desires], intelligent, and not beclouded. All principles are contained therein and all events proceed from it. There is no principle outside the mind; there is no event outside the mind.... The mind is the nature of man and things, and nature is principle. I am afraid the use of the word 'and' makes inevitable the interpretation of mind and principle as two different things. It is up to the student to use his good judgment (Wang, I:32-33, 33).

In this way, Original Mind becomes identified with the Dao as the ultimate ground of the cosmos and as the fundamental nature of reality. Further, "if there were no mind or intuitive knowledge, the universe would not operate," because the unfolding of the universe is based upon the interaction between primordial matter (qi) and principles (li), and these principles are understood to reside in the Universal Mind (which is instantiated in each individual) (Chang, 13). More specifically, when the Dao is reinterpreted in such a way, the orderly and meaningful nature of the cosmos is seen to emerge naturally from the rational operation of this Original Mind. In other words, the world is intelligible because its ultimate principle is a rational intelligence:

Intelligibility fills the universe. Man, imprisoned in his physical body, is sometimes separated from intelligibility. Nonetheless, his intuitive knowledge is the controlling power of the cosmos and of the gods. If there were in the universe no human intellect, who would study the mysteries of the heavens? If there were on earth no human intellect, who would study the profundities of terra firma? If the gods had no knowledge of mankind, how could they reveal themselves in fortune and misfortune? Heaven, earth, and deities would be non-existent if they were separated from the human intellect. On the other hand, if man's intellect were divorced from heaven, earth, and the deities, how could it exercise its functions? (Wang Yang-ming, quoted in Chang, 14-15).

Wang's theories, though original, were highly influenced by the writings of Zhen Dexiu (1178-1235), a pupil of Zhu Xi's who expanded upon his master's understanding of mind (xin) and principles (li). Zhen's formulation argues that:

We have two minds, the first being the normal human mind-heart that is directly related to our specific endowment of matter-energy [qi]. The second aspect of our mind-heart is more precarious and is identified as the mind-heart of the Way itself, the aspect of the mind-heart that provides us access, when properly cultivated, to the normative principles of the cosmos (Berthrong, 116).

In this way, Zhen postulated a connection between the Dao and the human mind, which in Wang's system developed into an actual one-to-one identification.

One must note that this system avoids falling into solipsism or relativistic existentialism because Chinese thought, unlike its Western and Persian counterparts, is not characterized by dualism. Instead, it is seen as a process of continuous flux, where pattern and matter/energy come together dynamically and indivisibly (for example, compare the idea of polarity demonstrated by the yin-yang to the classical Western opposition of matter and spirit). The world (as posited by Wang) exists in the mind, but this mental world is shared between people (as intuitively evidenced by our shared responses to it). Lacking the inherent distrust of our senses and minds that Western philosophy inherited from the Greeks, Wang's philosophy did not prompt Cartesian or Kantian skepticism, because the patterned nature of the world itself is seen as evidence of the Original Mind at work. Additionally, the philosophical descent into solipsism was also averted by the Chinese emphasis on (inter)relationships (over the radical individualism of the West), which makes the thought of entirely discrete and unrelated persons abhorrent.

Ethics and Praxis

As seen in the biography above, Wang Yang-ming was a tireless advocate of Confucianism, bringing its tenets to bear in his roles as minister, general, scholar, and teacher. He managed to bridge the gap between an idealistic cosmology and a rigorous praxis-orientation through two primary doctrines: his theory of the unity between thought and action, and his emphasis on extending virtue.

In the first case, Wang argued that, in a rationalized cosmos, knowledge and action are not discrete operations. In all human lives, apprehending the world involves a series of implicit and explicit decisions and discrimination. To put it another way, the world that we interact with is a world whose constituents we have already evaluated and categorized. As an example, Wang argued that "smelling a bad odor appertains to knowledge, while hating a bad odor appertains to action. However, as soon as one smells a bad odor, he has already hated it. A person with his nose stuffed up does not smell the bad odor even if he sees the malodorous object before him, so he does not hate it. This amounts to not knowing bad odor" (Wang, I:5, p. 10). As can be seen, Wang comprehends the sensory world (and the knowledge accrued from it) as being predicated upon human cognition and intellection. However, he extends this model to encompass social action as well: "Suppose we say that so-and-so knows filial piety and so-and-so knows brotherly respect. They must have actually practiced filial piety and brotherly respect before they can be said to know them. It will not do to say that they know filial piety and brotherly respect simply because they show them in words". In this way, Wang considers ethical knowledge to be synonymous with ethical action, to the extent that one cannot exist without the other. Finally, he concludes that "knowledge is the direction for action and action the effort of knowledge, and that knowledge is the beginning of action and action the completion of knowledge" (Wang, I:5, p. 11). Through this philosophical masterstroke, Wang Yang-ming was able to describe an idealistic cosmos but to simultaneously stress the necessity of worldly action.

The second avenue Wang used to ground his cosmology in ethical praxis was his theory of extending the good. Building upon the Mencian notion of innate human goodness, Wang argued that this innate knowledge can be purified through praxis, eventually revealing the identity between one's mind and the Original Mind (the Dao of Heaven).

The human being is understood to possess "innate knowledge of the good [which] need not be sought outside. If what emanates from innate knowledge is not obstructed by selfish ideas, the result will be like the saying 'If a man gives full development to his feeling of commiserations, his humanity (ren) will be more than he can ever put into practice'. However, the ordinary man is not free from the obstruction of selfish ideas. He therefore requires the effort of the extension of knowledge and the investigation of things in order to overcome selfish ideas and restore principle. Then the mind's faculty of innate knowledge will no longer be obstructed but will be able to penetrate and operate everywhere. One's knowledge will then be extended. With knowledge extended, one's will becomes sincere" (Wang, I:8, 15).

Sincerity of the will ultimately results in moral perfection, as one ceases to desire things that detriment oneself and others. To this end, he argues that "to be able to follow what one's heart desires without transgressing moral principles merely means that one's mind has reached full maturity" (Wang, I:53, 43). In other words, moral action will inherently occur when one "extends the good." In true Confucian fashion, Wang does not allow these notions to detract from the importance of studying the Classics, though he does caution that empty textual scholarship is futile, as "whenever one does not understand a thing or cannot put it into practice, one must return to oneself and in his own mind try to realize it personally" (Wang, I:31, 32). Instead, these texts must be seen as guides in the quest to "extend the good," as "what the Four Books and the Five Classics talk about does not go beyond [the] substance of the mind".

Finally, Wang disputed Zhu Xi's redaction of the Great Learning, arguing that "making sincere the will" was more important than "investigating things" (ge wu). As such, in addition to the ethic praxis advocated above, Wang suggested that his students spend time in quiet sitting (靜坐 jìngzùo), in order to eliminate the selfish desires that cloud the mind’s understanding of goodness. Though there are similarities between this practice and that of Chan (Zen) meditation in Buddhism, Wang Yang-ming's quiet sitting never lost its focus on this-worldly ethics and social activism.

Wang Yangming's Impact

Wang Yangming's philosophical school caused a tremendous stir in the world of Neo-Confucian thought. Eventually earning public acceptance years after their founder's death, his successors ruled the intellectual scene for nearly a century (though never displacing the work of Zhu Xi as official orthodoxy). Unfortunately, his idea of naturally "extending the good" became corrupted on the way, allowing all manner of demagogues to perform dangerous and immoral acts under the banner of their own infallible "Original Minds." This led to a general discrediting of his school within China, where it was largely ignored for centuries. In the modern period, his ideas have been resurrected by prominent New Confucians (namely Xiong Shili and Mou Zongsan), who use Wang Yangming's ideas as means of rapprochement between Confucian orthodoxy and Western philosophy.

Further, Wang Yangming's revolutionary ideas have had an impact outside of China, where they have inspired prominent Japanese thinkers like Motoori Norinaga, who has argued that because of the Shinto deities, Japanese people alone had the intuitive ability to distinguish good and evil without complex rationalization. Wang's school of thought (Ōyōmei-gaku in Japanese) also greatly influenced the development of the samurai ethic in feudal Japan.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Berthrong, John H. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. ISBN 0813328047.
  • Chan, Wing-tsit. "What Wang Yang-Ming Thought of Chu Hsi" in Chu Hsi: New Studies. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989. ISBN 0824812018.
  • Chan, Wing-tsit. "Dynamic Idealism in Wang Yang-ming" in A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. 654-691. Princeton, NJ: Prineceton University Press, 1963.
  • Chang, Carsun. Wang Yang-Ming: The Idealist Philosopher of 16th Century China. New York: St. John's University Press, 1962.
  • Cua, Antonio S. The Unity of Knowledge and Action: A Study in Wang Yang-ming's Moral Psychology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1982. ISBN 0824807863.
  • de Bary, Wm. Theodore. "Wang Yang-ming: Sagehood and Self" in Learning for One's Self: Essays on the Individual in Neo-Confucian Thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991. ISBN 0231074263.
  • Wang Yang-ming. Instructions for Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings. Translated and with notes by Wing-tsit Chan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.


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