Wang Yang-ming

Wang Yang-ming
/wahng" yahng"ming"/, Wade-Giles, Pinyin. (Wang Shou-jen, Wang Shouren)
1472-1529, Chinese scholar and philosopher.

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▪ Chinese philosopher
Introduction
Pinyin  Wang Yangming , original name (Wade–Giles romanization)  Wang Shou-jen , literary name  Pe-an , canonized as  Wen-ch'eng , Japanese  Ōyō-mei 
born 1472, Yu-yao, Chekiang Province, China

died 1529, Nan-en, Kiangsi
      Chinese (Chinese philosophy) 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 him.

      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 Hsüeh) 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.

Posthumous reputation
      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.

Wing-tsit Chan
Additional Reading
Wing-tsit Chan, “Wang Yang-Ming: A Biography,” Philosophy East and West (in prep.), a comprehensive account of Wang's life, particularly his achievements as a government official and as a philosopher, based on standard Chinese and Japanese sources; Wang Yang-ming, Instructions for Practical Living, and Other Neo-Confucian Writing (1963), a translation of Wang's conversations and letters, in which his philosophy is set forth, and seven official documents of his, illustrating his social and political views with introductions and comments on these works.

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Universalium. 2010.

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