Yamin XU

Wang Fuzhi (1619–1692) was one of the most important scholars of the Ming–Qing period whose pragmatic philosophies of statecraft challenged long-standing traditions, and his writings influence cultural ideas of Chinese nationalism even today.

Wang Fuzhi was one of the most important Chinese thinkers and scholars of the Ming–Qing period (1368–1912), and his philosophies influence cultural ideas of Chinese nationalism even today. He wrote more than one hundred books during his lifetime and fought against the Manchu invaders during their campaign establishing the Qing dynasty (1644–1912).

A native of Hengyang in Hunan, Wang Fuzhi passed the provincial examinations in 1642, but his political career was quickly ended by nationwide peasant rebellions and the Manchu invasion. Devoting the rest of his life to reading and writing, Wang completely withdrew from politics in 1650 after his anti-Manchu military activities failed. Wang’s scholarly interests included Confucian classics, philosophy, history, textual criticism, literature, military strategies, medicine, astronomy, calendar, numerology, astrology, and Western science introduced by the Jesuits. Most of Wang’s writings were unknown to the wider audience of readers before they were edited and printed beginning in the late 1830s. His most cited philosophic works include Outer Commentary to the Book of Change, Commentary on Zhang Zai’s Correction of Youthful Ignorance, and Record of Thoughts and Questions: Inner and Outer Sections. Wang’s main ideas on history and politics can be found in his On Reading Comprehensive Mirror and On the History of the Song Dynasty.

Wang was obsessed with rectifying the flaws he saw in Song–Ming neo-Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist teachings and with reforming political and economic institutions, drawing lessons from history, and preserving and carrying forward Chinese culture while the alien Manchus ruled China.

Wang firmly rejected Daoism and Buddhism: He disapproved that these teachings advocated a denial of the real world in order to achieve absolute emptiness and quiescence of the mind. He criticized the Song neo-Confucian studies of li 理 for paying too much attention to abstract principles while overlooking human society and the material world from which these principles were derived. Wang also attacked the neo-Confucian studies of xin 心 (mind) for equating the concepts of the human mind (neng 能) with the outside world (suo 所), and knowledge (zhi 知) with practice and action (xing 行).

To rectify these empty and impractical teachings, Wang returned to Zhang Zai (1020–1077) and further advanced his materialistic philosophy. Wang stated that no materials can be added to or reduced from the universe and that no materials can be created from nothing; all materials follow their own dao (way), to be transformed from their original form, qi (material force), to what they are now. Wang discarded the idea that human nature is completely innate and never changes. To Wang, although human nature bears some innate qualities, which are the ultimate source of moral goodness, it reflects the mind’s (xin) experiences in real human life.

A Critique of Neo-Confucianism

Writing during the seventeenth century, Wang Fuzhi criticized the thinking of neo-Confucianist Zhu Xi for giving priority to principle and the Way over material-force and actual phenomena.

The world consists of nothing but actual physical phenomena or concrete things. The Way is the Way (or Ways) of actual phenomena, but one cannot describe the actual phenomena as phenomena of the Way. “When the Way is nonexistent, so is the actual phenomena” is something that anyone is capable of saying. But if the phenomena exists, why worry about its Way not existing? The sage knows what the gentleman does not, and yet ordinary men and women can do what the sage cannot. It may be that people are not clear about the Way of some particular phenomenon, and so the thing is not perfected, but the fact that it is not perfected does not mean that it does not exist. “When the actual phenomenon is nonexistent, so is its Way” is something that few people are capable of saying, but it is really and truly so.

Source: de Bary, W. T., & Lufrano, R.. (2001). Sources of Chinese tradition, vol. 2. (2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press, 30.

Wang laid down a philosophical foundation for Qing pragmatic statecraft. Whereas his philosophical focus was on the material world, his political focus was on specific political and socioeconomic problems. In Wang’s view, human society faces different problems in different times, and people of different historical periods should try hard to find specific solutions for their own problems. While denouncing those Song philosophers who put abstract principles above substance, Wang strongly rejected those who put general rules, particularly the ones set up by ancient statesmen, above specific institutions created for solving contemporary problems. In this regard, Wang pointed out that a specific problem that caused the Ming (1368–1644) to fall was the imbalance between the monarch and scholar-officials headed by a prime minister. Wang also vigorously defended Chinese culture against barbarism of non-Chinese nomads, causing his writings to become a cultural source of modern Chinese nationalism. The most prominent modern Chinese intellectuals and statesmen, such as Zeng Guofan, Tan Sitong, Liang Qichao, and Mao Zedong, who intensely searched for solutions for problems faced by China, were all inspired by Wang and his works.

Further Reading

Black, A. H. (1989). Man and nature in the philosophical thought of Wang Fu-chih. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Zhong Erju & Zhang Dainian. (1997). Wang Fuzhi. Changchun, China: Jilin wenshi chubanshe.

Zhang Qihui. (2001). Quangshi daru: Wang Fuzhi [The great Confucianist Wang Fuzhi]. Shijiazhuang, China: Hebei renmin chubanshe.

Zhou Bing. (2006). Tian ren zhiji de lixue xinquanshi: Wang Fuzhi “Du sishu daquan shuo” sixiang yanjiu [A new interpretation of Neo-Confucianism standing between heaven and human: A study of Wang Fuzhi’s thought reflected in his “Reflections on ‘The four complete books’”]. Chengdu, China: Bashu shushe.

Source: Xu, Yamin (2009). WANG Fuzhi. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2399–2400. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

WANG Fuzhi (Wáng Fūzhī 王夫之)|Wáng Fūzhī 王夫之 (WANG Fuzhi)

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