Wang Yangming

Man is the mind of the universe: at bottom Heaven and Earth and all things are my body. Is there any suffering or bitterness of the masses that is not disease and pain in my own body? Those who are not aware of disease and pain in their body are people without the sense of right and wrong. The sense of right and wrong is knowledge possessed by men without deliberation and ability possessed by them without their having acquired it by learning. It is what we call innate knowledge (liang-chih)...1

Wang Yang-ming (or Wang Shou-jen), the most influential Confucian thinker in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in China, was a critical inheritor of the two main tendencies of Neo-Confucianism: that is, the philosophies of Ch'eng I-ch'uan (1033-1107) and Chu Hsi (1130-1200) on the one hand and those of Ch'eng Ming-tao (1032-85) and Lu Shiang-shan (113892) on the other. Thus he was thought to be a kind of synthesizer who had perfected the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism. Wang was, in his youth, much influenced by Zen Buddhism and Taoism, though he rejected them later on the ground that they represent a sort of quietism which escapes from social relationships. Like a Zen master, he was suddenly enlightened at the age of 37, after long years of concentration in thinking in very harsh situations. Once when he was young Wang had concentrated his thoughts on the things outside of his mind, because his forerunner Chu Hsi interpreted the important thesis of 'Great Learning' as meaning that 'the investigation of things' will lead to 'the extension of the knowledge', thus rectifying the will. So, Wang concentrated his thought by watching the bamboos in his garden for seven days and became sick. Later he changed his course to concentrate on the inside of the mind. And he attained the idea of 'good knowledge' that combines knowledge with action. If one makes a division between one's mind and things outside, and separates the former from the latter, and if one is concerned only with things outside of one's mind, then that concern will not be combined very easily with one's mind, that is, with one's will to act. He was a keen learner, and on his own wedding day he was so involved in discussion with a Taoist that he forgot to attend the ceremony. He was the ablest general in his age and won a high reputation as general, having put down many rebellions. Even for him it was not a very easy task to defeat the selfish desire in his mind that beclouded the good knowledge as the Heavenly Principle. He said, 'it is easy to defeat the rebels in the mountains, but it is difficult to defeat the rebels in the mind'. In 1527 he was asked to subjugate a rebellion while he was suffering from a serious disease. After he defeated the rebellion and came back to his home he died, aged 57; on his deathbed he must have felt that he had defeated his innate enemy, his human desire. His last words were: 'My mind is full of light; I have nothing to say any more'.

The most basic requirement of the moral philosophy of Wang Yang-ming is unity of knowledge and action. For all moral purposes the only thing which needed to be done was to bring forth 'the good knowledge' ('intuitive knowledge', or 'good conscience') of the mind. If one knows that he ought to do something and does not do it, this knowledge, for Wang, means that he does not in fact know. This reminds us of the contemporary theory of what R.M.Hare calls 'prescriptivism' in contrast with 'descriptivism'.2 The decisive moral question in environmental ethics is not only what is the matter with the environment, but what are we to do. This is one of the reasons why Wang Yang-ming's moral philosophy is most promising when applied to environmental ethics. 'Knowing is the beginning of action, and doing is the completion of knowledge. When one knows how to attain the desired end, though one speaks only of knowing, the doing is already included; likewise, though he may speak only of action, the knowing is also implied.'3

Originating from some versions of Confucianism is the popular expression 'Heaven knows'. Heaven was said to watch our good acts as well as our evil acts, even if no one on earth knows. So, if someone has escaped punishment in doing some evil acts, heaven will punish him some day, because heaven was believed to be something that is completely impartial. ('Heaven's vengeance is slow but sure.') People, therefore, are recommended to 'self-care in solitude'. And also when one falls into a difficult situation, not due to their own failure, one could find consolation in such beliefs as: 'Heaven gives one severe trials, before heaven gives him a mission' or 'Sincerity can move heaven'. Wang said once that his philosophy of 'good knowledge' was born from 'a hundred deaths, a thousand difficulties'. Such ways of thinking have certainly helped people under the influence of Confucian culture in enforcing their impartialist morality.

Every one knows the Confucian golden rule of 'Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you' (The Analects, 12:2, 5:11). This is the spirit of 'jen' ('benevolence' or 'love', usually translated as 'humanity', but jen reaches far beyond humanity to all things). 'Jen' is sometimes juxtaposed with five other virtues (filial piety, loyalty, orderly love among spouses, among brothers, trust between friends). But it is often thought not only as representative, but as fundamental, in the sense that it forms the basis by which other virtues are justified. If this interpretation is possible, what Confucius wanted to point out was a logical thesis about morality which is, in a sense, shared by recent Western moral philosophers like Hare, Peter Singer and others, who argue that 'universalizability' (but not 'universality' in the sense of 'generality') is the fundamental requirement of a moral judgement. If we interpret 'jen' as something like the utilitarians' 'impartial benevolence', then what is the difference between the two positions?

The difference is this: the utilitarian motto in the old version of the theory is 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. The utilitarians expanded our moral concern beyond our species to include the wellbeing of animals (Bentham and Singer), and further expanded our moral concern to future generations. Confronting environmental crisis on a global scale, people have realized that if the environment is endangered, there is no longer any happiness for any being. So an expanded utilitarianism will need to be supported by some kind of eco-holistic view. If we, as moral agents, go one step further, expanding moral subjects further than sentient beings, and include in our moral consideration the natural environment that is relative to human activities, then we will come very close to the position of Wang Yang-ming.

So far we have seen that the two logical requirements of moral judgements (i.e. prescriptivity and universalizability) which are made explicit by Western moral philosophers are already implicit in Wang Yang-ming's philosophy. However, this may seem rough and biased in the eyes of people who are experts in Chinese philosophy. If we further add an eco-holistic view to these two logical requirements, what will happen is as follows.

Wang Yang-ming had critically inherited another thesis of Ch'eng Ming-tao: 'jen is the love of all things in the universe as one body'. This thesis was related to, inherited from, the Buddhist thesis that 'Heaven and Earth have the same roots as myself and all things are one body with me' and the Taoist thesis of Chuang Tzu that 'Heaven and Earth live alongside me and all things are one body with me'. One must understand, Wang said, that 'jen' is the unity of all things. According to Wang, each and every one of us possesses the original mind, which is one with the universe. 'The man of jen regards Heaven and Earth and all things as one body. If a single thing is deprived of its place, it means that my jen is not yet demonstrated to the fullest extent' (89). Thus, jen is not only the basis of human virtue, but is the original principle according to which heaven and earth make everything live. Jen is 'the principle of unceasing production and reproduction. Although it is prevalent and extensive and there is no place where it does not exist, nevertheless there is an order in its operation and growth. That is why it is unceasing in production and reproduction' (93). 'Our nature is the substance of the mind and Heaven is the source of our nature. To exert one's mind to the utmost is the same as fully developing one's nature. Only those who are absolutely sincere can fully develop their nature and know the transformation and nourishing process of Heaven and Earth' (6).

It is in this way, that is, according to the jen, which is innate original knowledge and the principle of the universe at the same time, that a ruler is expected to rule society and the whole country. This is called 'jen-politics' or moral politics. If one somehow unifies oneself with the society that is one body, and if one knows that people are suffering, then this will become enough incentive for one to save people from suffering, because knowledge and action are united.

This element of the social philosophy of Wang Yang-ming, because it is holistic, can be extended to a view of nature. What is most important for environmental ethics is that jen is not only a matter of human concerns.

When one hears the cry of birds and animals, one will have compassion, because the jen is one with the birds and animals. If one says that animals have senses, then one will have compassion when one sees the grasses and trees faded and broken, because the jen is one with the grasses and animals. If you say that grasses and trees are animated beings, then one will regret when one sees tile-stones collapse; this is because the jen is one with tile-stones.

And yet the Grand Master [Confucius] was extremely busy and anxious, as though he were searching for a lost son on the highway, and never sat down long enough to warm his mat. Was he only trying to get people to know him and believe him? It was rather because his jen, which regarded Heaven and Earth and all things as one body, was so compassionate, keen, and sincere that he could not stop doing so even if he wanted to.. .Alas! Aside from those who truly form one body with Heaven and Earth and the myriad things, who can understand the Grand Master's intention?

If the community is a closed one, people tend to see it as the whole and would be able to sacrifice themselves for it. If people could lift their eyes a bit higher and expand their concern to include nature as a whole, they could be prepared to devote their labours to enriching the natural environment. When people were settled and earthbound they knew their survival depended on a sound natural environment. Thus social ethics in the East was severely restricted and shaped by the limits the natural environment imposed upon the society. Yang-ming's eco-holistic tendency was for many years one of the strongest ideological backgrounds of premodern Japan, where the natural environment was marvellously enriched and sustainable. Kumazawa Banzan (1619-91), a samurai scholar who belonged to the Yang-ming school, is well known for his ecological policies and achievements.

Yang-ming's social ethics and the vitality of his thoughts inspired samurai revolutionaries when Japan opened its door to the West and caused the Meiji Restoration (1868). They fought for what they thought was the whole, that is, for the country to keep independence, not for the interests of their own class, and after the revolution was achieved they eliminated their own class. On the other hand, the opinion leaders' ideological model in the period of Japanese modernization, after the long period of being a closed country, was mainly influenced by British utilitarianism. What both the Yang-ming school and utilitarianism could somehow share was their social ethics. Yet the very gap lies in their views on nature. While utilitarian concern focuses on the interests of sentient beings, Yang-ming's concern was with all beings interrelated under heaven. But such eco-holistic views were abolished and instead the Western dualistic tendency was, under the pressure from Western powers, imported and the dominion of nature had prevailed. But an industrial and economic giant means also an environment-degrading monster. The cost of the modernization has not yet been generally noticed. Only a few philosophers have started to take another look at the traditional Confucian views on nature, among them a prominent environmental philosopher, J.Baird Callicott, who classified Confucianism as a form of deep ecology.


1 Quoted on p. 179. Page references in the text are to Instructions for Practical Living.

2 See R.M.Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.

3 W.Liu, A Short History of Confucian Philosophy, p. 171.

See also in this book

Callicott, Chuang Tzu, Singer

Yang-ming's main writings

Chan, W. (trans.), Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings by Wang Yang-ming, New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Ching, J. (trans.), The Philosophical Letters of Wang Yang-ming, Charleston, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1972.

Chan, W. (ed. and trans.), A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Further reading

Callicott, J.B., Earth's Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Chang, C., Wang Yang-ming: Idealist Philosopher of Sixteenth-Century China, New York: St John's University Press, 1962.

Liu, W., A Short History of Confucian Philosophy, New York: Delta, 1964.

Tu, W., Confucian Thought: Selfhood as Creative Transformation, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1985.


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