Wang Yangming

Dafato Team | Nov 5, 2023

Table of Content


Wang Yangming (Yuyao in Zhejiang, Oct. 31, 1472 - Guangxi region, Jan. 9, 1529), born under the name Wang Shouren, was a prominent administrator during the Chinese Ming Dynasty and an influential neo-Confucian philosopher. Whereas earlier Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi (1130-1200) emphasized that knowledge of truth and moral sense could only be acquired through study, Wang Yangming assumed that these things could be intuitively sensed and understood by anyone. People needed to use this intuitive knowledge to live an active life and increase their knowledge through this experience, not through study and book wisdom. Wang Yangming embodied this view of life like no other.

Wang Yangming descended from a family of literates, the literate class that gained important positions within the bureaucracy of the empire through successes in the examination system. His father, Wang Hua (1453-1522), took the highest national examination in 1481 as the best of that year. These examinations were held once every three years in the capital. Successful candidates received the honorary title "presented scholar" (jinshi) and were immediately appointed to high positions in the civil service. Wang Hua moved to the capital Beijing and eventually rose to become deputy minister of the Ministry of Rites (libu).

Even at a young age, Wang Yangming demonstrated his literary talent, but in addition he also mastered military skills, unusual for an aspiring literate administrator. At the age of 20, Wang Yangming passed the provincial examination (juren), but his first two attempts at the jinshi degree failed. Finally, he was successful on his third attempt in 1499. During his years of study, Wang immersed himself in Buddhist and Daoist texts and meditation, in addition to the obligatory Confucian classics. His career initially developed with difficulty. Like many other literati, he opposed the reign of the eunuch Liu Jin during the early reigns of the young Emperor Zhengde (r. 1505-1521). In 1506, Wang Yangming was arrested, sentenced to forty floggings and exiled to the southern province of Guizhou. It was during this period that he developed his philosophical ideas.

After the fall of Liu Jin in 1510, Wang Yangming was honored and appointed governor of a military district in southern Jiangxi. Within a few years, he climbed to the position of "Great Coordinator" of southern China. This region suffered from regular uprisings by non-Chinese minorities. Wang distinguished himself as military governor in quelling these revolts. Politically, Wang implemented a consistent policy of sinification.

In the summer of 1519, the prince of Ning, Zhu Chenhao, started a rebellion against Emperor Zhengde. Wang Yangming was the nearest army commander and served to fight the rebels. He chose an offensive strategy and managed to defeat and capture the prince of Ning within just six weeks at his home base of Nanchang. Wang delivered the rebellious prince to the emperor in Nanjing. Zhu Chenhao was sentenced to "death by a thousand cuts" (lingchi), but committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out.

In 1522, Wang Yangming's father died. The latter resigned his positions to observe the customary mourning period of three years. He retired to Zhejiang where he worked out and propagated his philosophical ideas as a teacher. Wang's original ideas earned him a considerable following.

However, the imperial court again called upon his political and military experience with minority issues when a crisis broke out in the southern province of Guangxi in 1527. Wang initially refused, but was nevertheless forced to resume his old post. For a year he waged a successful campaign against insurgents in Guangxi and the surrounding area, but illness (probably tuberculosis) forced him to resign his post. On his way home, he died at the age of 56 in January 1529.

Wang Yangming's successful professional career conformed to conventional notions of how a literate administrator trained in Confucian classics should conduct himself. In developing his philosophical ideas, however, he struck out on other paths.

In his personal search for the source of truth, the teachings of leading neo-Confucian thinkers such as Zhu Xi and Cheng Yi (1033-1107) did not satisfy him. These argued that insight into truth should be obtained through study of the outside world, through rational argumentation and verification. In 1508, during the difficult period of his exile in Guizhou, Wang suddenly came to understand that truth should not be sought outside the individual, but that every person possesses intuitive knowledge of ethical truth (liang zhi).

In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of idealistic philosophers such as Lu Xiangshan (1139-1192). This idealist movement within Neo-Confucianism is called xinxue, in contrast to the rationalist lixue movement. The idealists were close to Buddhism and Taoism in their outlook on life.

Wang linked this insight to his view that a person should act according to what this intuitive knowledge indicated to him. Years of study or the approval of higher-ups was not a necessary condition for action. Acting, moreover, led in turn to increasing one's own knowledge. Action should not follow the acquisition of knowledge, but the two components should interact to reinforce each other.

Wang's ideas fell into fertile soil in the last century of the Ming Dynasty. A significant portion of the Chinese population benefited from growing prosperity and achieved a higher level of education. Legitimized by Wang's ideas, this population was able to pursue new intellectual and artistic avenues.

Outside of China, Wang had great influence in Korea and Japan. In Japan, his ideas were propagated by Toju Nakae (1608-1648) and Kumazawa Banzan (1619-1691). His philosophy of life particularly resonated within the samurai class.


  1. Wang Yangming
  2. Wang Yangming
  3. ^ "Wang Yangming (Wang Shou-Jen) | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy".
  4. ^ Chan, Wing-tsit. Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Greenwood Publishing Group, March 1, 2002. xii. Retrieved on April 1, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4008-0964-6.
  5. ^ a b c Chan 1963: 654.
  6. ^ a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 372.
  7. ^ Gillin 60
  8. Feng Youlan, Zhao Fusan: A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. 1. Auflage. Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, Beijing 2015, ISBN 978-7-5135-6128-0, S. 530.
  9. a b Needham, Volume 5, Part 7, 372.
  10. 1 2 China Biographical Database (англ.)

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