Wang Yangming

Wang Yangming was a Ming Chinese idealist Neo-Confucian philosopher, official, educationist, calligraphist and general. After Zhu Xi, he is commonly regarded as the most important Neo-Confucian thinker, with interpretations of Confucianism that denied the rationalist dualism of the orthodox philosophy of Zhu Xi. He was known as Yangming Xiansheng or Yangming Zi (both mean “Brilliant Master Yangming”) in literary circles.
Born Wang Shouren in Yuyao, Zhejiang Province, his courtesy name was Bo’an. His father was an earl and a minister of civil personnel. He earned the “recommended person” degree in 1492 and the “presented scholar” degree in 1499. He served as an executive assistant in various government departments until being banished for offending a eunuch in 1506. However, his professional career was later ensured when he became the Governor of Jiangxi.Wang became a successful general and was known for the strict discipline he imposed on his troops, repressing several rebellions.
In 1519 AD, while being governor of Jiangxi province, he repressed the uprising of Prince Zhu Chen-hao, and made one of the earliest references in using the fo-lang-ji in battle, a breech loading culverin cannon imported from the newly-arrived Portuguese venturers to China. While governor of Jiangxi he also built schools, rehabilitated the rebels, and reconstructed what was lost by the enemy during the revolt. Though he was made an earl, he was ostracized for opposing Zhu Xi. Thirty-eight years after his death, he was given the titles Marquis and Completion of Culture. In 1584 he was offered sacrifice in the Confucian Temple, the highest honour for a scholar.
Wang was the leading figure in the Neo-Confucian School of Mind, founded by Lu Jiuyuan of Southern Song. This school championed an interpretation of Mencius (a Classical Confucian who became the focus of later interpretation) that unified knowledge and action. Their rival school, the School of Principle (Li) treated gaining knowledge as a kind of preparation or cultivation that, when completed, could guide action.

Innate Knowing
Out of Cheng-Zhu’s Neo-Confucianism that was mainstream at the time, Wang Yangming developed the idea of innate knowing, arguing that every person knows from birth the difference between good and evil. Such knowledge is intuitive and not rational. These revolutionizing ideas of Wang Yangming would later inspire prominent Japanese thinkers like Motoori Norinaga, who argued that because of the Shinto deities, Japanese people alone had the intuitive ability to distinguish good and evil without complex rationalization. His school of thought (Ōyōmei-gaku in Japanese, Ō stands for the surname “Wang”, yōmei stands for “Yangming”, gaku means “school of learning”) also greatly influenced the Japanese samurai ethic.

Knowledge as Action
Wang’s rejection of the investigation of knowledge comes from the fact that at the time the traditional view of Chinese thought was that once one gained knowledge, he had a duty to put that knowledge into action. This presupposed two possibilities:1. That one can have knowledge without/prior to corresponding action. 2. That one can know what is the proper action, but still fail to act. Wang rejected both of these which allowed him to develop his philosophy of action. Wang believed that only through simultaneous action could one gain knowledge and denied all other ways of gaining it. To him, there was no way to use knowledge after gaining it because he believed that knowledge and action were unified as one. Any knowledge that had been gained then put into action was considered delusion or false.

Mind and the World
He held that objects do not exist entirely apart from the mind because the mind shapes them. He believed that it is not the world that shapes the mind, but the mind that gives reason to the world. Therefore, the mind alone is the source of all reason. He understood this to be an inner light, an innate moral goodness and understanding of what is good. This is similar to the thinking of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who argued that knowledge is virtue. In order to eliminate selfish desires that cloud the mind’s understanding of goodness, one can practice his type of meditation often called “tranquil repose” or “sitting still”. This is similar to the practice of Chan (Zen) meditation in Buddhism.
Wang Yangming is regarded one of the four greatest masters of Confucianism in history along with Confucius, Mencius and Zhu Xi. Wang Yangming found Yaojiang School or Yangming School of Mind, which became one of the dominant confucianism schools in the mid, late Ming period and Qing period China. The typical figures came from this school after Wang were Wang Ji, Qian Dehong, Wang Gen, Huang Zongxi, Li Zhuowu and Liu Zongzhou. Wang Gen formed Taizhou School, which went to leftism of Wang Yangming’s thought.
During late Ming period, Wang Yangming’s thought was derived a lot in China and became a kind of popular learning. The Japanese Admiral of the Russo-Japanese War, Togo Heihachiro, was influenced by Wang, and made a stamp which read, “One’s whole life followed the example of Yangming”. In Japan, many scholars and politicians came from Wang Yangming’s school (Ōyōmei-gaku) in history, including Kumazawa Banzan, Saigō Takamori, Takasugi Shinsaku and Toju Nakae. Toju Nakae is regarded as the founder of Japanese Ōyōmei-gaku. Chiang Kai-shek named a national attraction in Taiwan, Yangmingshan, after Wang. And a road in Nanchang is also named Yangming Road after Wang by Chiang-influenced local officials.

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