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Wang Yangming, born in 1472, was a scholar-official whose belief in challenging imperial decisions that did not uphold Confucian tradition was itself challenged, forcing him into exile. Disciples flocked to study with him and follow his conviction that all the knowledge needed for sageliness can be found in the self—by recognizing the power of the subjective mind and the value of practical personal knowledge based on experience, instead of on stores of bookish knowledge.
Wang Yangming 王阳明 was born to a prominent scholar-official family in 1472. His father had a remarkable career, set firmly within the orthodox Neo-Confucian traditions established by Zhu Xi 朱熹 in the twelfth century. Wang Yangming himself, however, had a rather different experience of educational development and government service, and described his life as one of “a hundred deaths and a thousand sufferings” (Tu 1976, 4). This personal depiction is strikingly different from the serene outline of the six stages of progress in the master’s life found in the Confucian Analects 论语 and often discussed in relation to the biography of Confucius (Hall and Ames 1987, Analects 2.4).
Wang Yangming’s education followed patterns common to the education of young boys of the period, with studies of the core curriculum, The Four Books 四书 and The Five Classics 五经, and participation in the civil service examinations (kējǔ kǎoshì 科举考试) at local, provincial, and metropolitan levels. At the age of twenty he successfully passed the provincial level examinations and earned a jǔrén 举人 degree. It took him three tries, however, to pass the metropolitan examinations, and he finally achieved the jìnshì 进士 degree at the age of twenty-eight.
Before starting his examination studies, and throughout the years until his first official appointment in 1499, Wang Yangming pursued education in many different areas, not limiting himself to knowledge needed for the examinations. He was a great lover of literature and from an early age wrote poetry that was much admired. He was also a calligrapher who developed a distinctive style that was later recognized as highly original. He had a longstanding interest in military affairs, greatly admiring Ma Yuan 马援, a general of the Eastern Han 东汉 period (25–220 ce) as a scholar-general who combined the art of learning with that of war. He thus undertook rigorous studies in archery, horsemanship, and military strategy. In addition he took a great deal of interest in both Buddhism and Daoism. One story recounts that he spent the night of his wedding (he was sixteen when he married) meditating with a Daoist priest, and he had to be fetched from the temple the following morning (Tu 1976).
Embracing Confucian Philosophy
Wang Yangming’s official career began with a minor appointment in 1499, and within one year he had written a policy document to the emperor relating to the frontier; it was widely circulated and admired. After only three years in government service, he chose to give up his official career and go into retreat in order to follow studies in both Buddhism and Daoism. During this period of time he made an important life decision—to adopt Confucian philosophy as his main life’s direction, while putting Daoism and Buddhism into a secondary place. A story associated with this decision tells how he stopped one day to talk with a Chan (Zen, chánzōng 禅宗) Buddhist monk, who had been sitting in quietude for three years. He asked him about his family, and the monk replied, “My mother is still alive.” “Are you ever homesick for her?” asked Wang Yangming. The monk replied, “It is impossible to eliminate these thoughts.”
On the basis of this experience, Wang Yangming came to the conclusion that “the intimate feeling for one’s mother is so intrinsically rooted in human nature that to suppress it is more than difficult, it is both undesirable and unnatural.” He embraced a Confucian ethic of life, which meant devotion to family and its demands, as well as responsibility for government and society. His thinking and writing continued to be enriched, however, by his studies of Buddhism and Daoism. Scholars have noted how his poetry reflects a “Chan-like subtlety and sharpness” while one of his major texts, the Instructions for Practical Living 传习录, contains forty or more Buddhist expressions and stories. Tu Wei-ming (1976, 70) comments on this vital decision and turning point in his life in the following way: “In Confucian symbolism individual freedom is not attained by cutting of one’s given bonds. Instead, one finds one’s selfhood in the network of these bonds.”
After a couple of years in retreat, Wang Yangming returned to government service in 1504, and was given a prestigious posting as a relatively young scholar-official to travel to Shandong Province and supervise the civil service examinations there at the provincial level. This was his first appointment as an examiner, and seventy-five candidates were admitted to the juren degree. He also took the opportunity to carry out a pilgrimage, writing on the sacred Mount Tai 泰山 a number of poems about Confucius. In addition he wrote some model essays for the examinations on issues of statecraft and official–emperor relations. In these essays, he emphasized the responsibility of scholar-officials to remonstrate with the emperor if there be any misconduct against the Confucian way, and never to submit to imperial orders without careful consideration. (Tu 1976) This was a principle on which he was to be severely tested in his own career, just two years later.
In 1505, Wang Yangming served as a junior secretary in the Division of Military Appointment 兵部主事, and it was in this year that he began to accept disciples of his own, at the age of thirty-three. This commitment to teaching, in addition to his bureaucratic responsibilities, Tu suggests, was an effort to create a more meaningful world within the petty concerns that occupied him in his daily tasks. In 1506, Wang Yangming faced a severe test, when his memorial to the emperor on behalf of two senior officials who had been unjustly imprisoned resulted in his own imprisonment. A public flogging and banishment to the remote southwestern province of Guizhou followed, where he was given a minor official position in charge of a small dispatch station (yìchéng 驿丞).
Tu describes the temptations facing him in these harsh circumstances: to withdraw into a life of retreat as a Buddhist monk, or to abandon his responsibilities to family and state in other ways. In the end he accepted the exile and worked in remote isolation for several years, finally being given the position of head of the Lung Kang Academy 龙冈书院. During the years between 1506 and 1510, he pursued studies of Confucianism, focusing on the inner life of the mind-and-heart (xīn 心), rather than the external studies of principle (lǐ 理), called the “extension of things,” in Zhu Xi’s system. Disciples flocked to study with him in this remote location, taking up his new learning of the mind-and-heart (xīnxué 心学), with its conviction that all the knowledge needed for sageliness could be found in the self.
Wang Yangming’s study program involved four stages: first, forming a resolution to adopt the Confucian way (lìzhì 立志); second, engaging in diligent study such that the whole personality is transformed (qínxué 勤学); third, reviewing one’s mistakes and correcting them (gǎiguò 改过); and finally, reproving one another within the community so that each one improves (zéshàn 责善). The questions asked in this final aspect of learning come directly from The Analects of Confucius: “Whether in dealing with others I have not been honest, whether in intercourse with friends I have not been faithful, and whether I have not studied and practiced the precepts that have been handed down to me” (Ching 1976, 32; Analects, 1.4).
In 1510, Wang Yangming completed his period of exile, and was made a magistrate in Jiangxi, then transferred to serve in various posts in Nanjing and Beijing (Ching 1976). In 1517 he was given responsibility as governor of the border regions of three provinces in the southeast, Jiangxi, Guangdong, and Fujian, with a specific focus on pacifying bandits in the region. With the death of his father in 1522, he spent three years in mourning, as required by Confucian rituals, and subsequently lived in virtual retirement until 1527, when, at the age of fifty-five he was called upon to undertake another military campaign against rebels in Guangxi, the southwestern province neighboring Guizhou, where he had passed his years in exile. By 1528, he managed to pacify two counties and put in place village schools and other measures to support the people. He died on 9 January 1529, while on his return journey back home for a period of sick leave. His last words were as follows: “My heart is full of brightness; what more can I say” (Ching 1976, 34).
Wang Yangming is often regarded as the greatest of the Neo-Confucian scholars, an educator with a large number of disciples, a writer of the famous Instructions for Practical Living (as well as of hundreds of poems, reports, and essays), and a teacher who opened up a new stream of creativity in Confucian thought. Deeply influenced by Buddhism and Daoism, much of his thinking and writing was lively and unconventional. He gave particular importance to the power of the subjective mind, and the value of practical personal knowledge, arising from reflection on experience, as against the stores of bookish knowledge, which had been painstakingly accumulated through the “extension of things,” the other important thread of the Confucian knowledge tradition.
The life of Wang Yangming exemplifies a pattern in which life is seen to unfold rather than be constituted by a series of personal choices. One important aspect is that a Confucian philosophy by no means commits one to a life of conformity and stereotype, but to a life of creative thought, writing, and teaching combined with social responsibility, which may come at a very high cost. Another is that family and community are integral to the Confucian intellectual, and although there may be times of retreat into quiet isolation, a fulfilled life is one lived in relationship to others. The integration of knowledge from deep within oneself and action that arises from and transforms that knowledge was the keystone of Wang Yangming’s life, and the secret he passed on to his disciples and followers over the subsequent centuries.
It is thus no surprise that Wang Yangming’s School of the Heart (xīnxué 心学) was an important force in progressive pedagogy in China, Japan, and Korea during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and clear traces of its ongoing influence can still be found in the lives and thought of influential educators in China at the present time.
Ching, Julia. (1976). To acquire wisdom—The way of Wang Yang-ming. New York and London: Columbia University Press.
Confucius. (1998). The Analects of Confucius. (Roger Ames & Henry Rosemount Jr., Trans. and Introduction.). New York: Ballantine Books.
Hall, David, & Ames, Roger. (1987). Thinking through Confucius. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hayhoe, Ruth. (2006). Portraits of influential Chinese educators. Hong Kong: Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong and Springer.
Tu Wei-ming. (1976). Neo-Confucian thought in action: Wang Yang-ming’s youth (1472–1509). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Source: Hayhoe, Ruth. (2012). Wang Yangming. In Zha Qiang (Ed.), Education in China: Educational history, models, and initiatives. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.