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Fusion of thought & practice makes perfect

By WANG XIN | China Daily| Updated: May 25, 2021 L M S

When plunged into the depths of despair, people vary in their reactions. Some are overwhelmed by the tremendous pressure and collapse, while others struggle out of their difficulties and embark on a new chapter in their lives.

Wang Shouren (1472-1529), more commonly known as Wang Yangming, a preeminent philosopher, thinker, politician and militarist during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), was one of the latter. After hitting rock bottom in his life, Wang reached the pinnacle of his academic career. The turnaround has a close bond with Guiyang, capital of Southwest China's Guizhou province.

Considered to be among the greatest neo-Confucian thinkers, Wang became a legend in his own lifetime.

Historical documents show he was born into a family of wealth and influence in Yuyao, Zhejiang province. His father served as a high-ranking official, having come top in the national imperial exam.

Lifelong ambition

At the age of 11, Wang asked his teacher what would be of paramount importance in life. Having pondered it for a while, his teacher gave him his reply, "to study and pass the national imperial exam".

The teacher's response reflected mainstream opinion at that time.

Yet Wang disagreed with that view. In his eyes, "to study and learn to be a sage" was of the utmost importance, coming before anything else.

To this end, the young man immersed himself in books, including classical essays and military theories.

At that time, the thoughts of Zhu Xi, a neo-Confucian philosopher of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), dominated the academic circle.

Zhu believed there is a supreme principle of universal value governing human society, which he called li.

He encouraged people to investigate things and matters so as to expand their knowledge. The accumulation of understanding of basic rules would help to reach the universal principle li, according to Zhu.

Following Zhu's advice, Wang spent seven days watching a small bamboo forest in a courtyard, thinking it over and attempting to get to the rules behind the plants, only to find himself falling sick without discovering anything relating to the rules.

After that, he cast doubt on the orthodox views of Zhu.

Longchang Enlightenment

After he entered the service of the court in Beijing, Wang's abilities were recognized by his supervisors. Yet in the 1500s, he was banished from Beijing to Longchang, which is located in today's Xiuwen county of Guiyang, to work as the head of an official inn serving horse couriers and visiting officials, because he had spoken up for his colleagues and infuriated Liu Jin, the eunuch in power.

Longchang was "a political, cultural and economic wasteland" at the time, said He Dan, a researcher at the International Documentation and Research Center for Yangming Culture (Guiyang).

Covered with forests inhabited by wild animals, Longchang was home to ethnic groups including Miao, Yi and Bouyei peoples.

Initially after his arrival, Wang found it hard to communicate with the local people due to the language barrier and he endured very primitive living conditions, far removed from the comforts of the court.

Wang and his servants built a thatched cottage to live in. Later, Wang moved into a small limestone cave, which he dubbed as Wanyiwo, or Den for Fun Book of Changes. The name indicated that was where he read and researched the Book of Changes, one of the traditional Chinese classics.

From a court official to a low man on the totem pole, from the country's bustling capital to a totally underdeveloped region, Wang's change of fortunes would have driven many other men to despair.

Inside the deep, dark cave, there is a narrow space with a stone slab embedded into the rock walls, which was where Wang slept, according to a local tourist guide. Modern scholars have said that this was a "natural stone coffin" Wang found for himself, where he buried himself in thoughts and developed a key concept of his doctrines-xin ji li, or mind is principle.

As he gained his insight at Longchang, his discovery was named the Longchang Enlightenment.

Different approaches

Different from Zhu's views, Wang said people don't have to seek the principle li from the external world, because it lies in everyone's mind and is part of their inner strength.

"The nature of our minds can suffice to find a way to become a sage," Wang said. "Turning to things and matters seeking li is wrong," he said.

Wang and Zhu adopted different approaches to li, said Li Xiaolong, head of the Guizhou Longchang Wang Yangming Research Institute and chairman of Xiuwen county's federation of literary and art circles.

Zhu called for seeking rules and laws from outside, so his way was to do addition, adding rules in order to come extremely closer to li, while Wang preferred to pursue a path from within, Li said.

"When people are packed with excessive desire and personal interests, the li embedded in mind will be clouded, so they need to reduce their selfish desire to allow li to come out. In this sense, his approach puts emphasis on reduction," Li said.

Dai Jianwei, executive deputy head of Guiyang's publicity department, said: "Wang's doctrines make it possible for everyone to be a sage, as the inner path is accessible to all of us."

He compared that with the Reformation that occurred during the almost same period in the West, noting both provided ordinary people with a path to self-reliance.

Friendly exchanges

Contemporary researchers believe that the hospitality the local ethnic groups offered Wang contributed to his Longchang Enlightenment.

They often looked in on him. Wang said he could feel their hospitality and kindness amid their loud talks, according to one of his essays.

Meanwhile, Wang visited the local ethnic villages and helped them to resolve their troubles and difficulties, thus winning their hearts and helping to maintain the regional governance and peace.

After he relocated to a larger, brighter karst cave, known as Yangming Cave, he started giving lectures to the local people and his ideas began to gain acceptance.

With the aid of local residents, he finally had a proper house built.

When he lectured at a local academy, he put forward another key concept in his philosophical system-zhi xing he yi, or the unity of knowledge and action, sweeping aside the prevailing trend of empty talk among the literati at the time.

While previous opinions had valued the coordination of knowledge and practice, they actually set them apart from each other. Yet Wang considered them to be one.

"According to Wang's doctrines, if someone knows that elderly parents should be cared for with filial respect and affection, yet he or she refuses to do so, then he or she hasn't really gained the knowledge," Li explained.

When Wang was promoted to be a county head in today's Jiangxi province in 1510, he had already established his name.

New heights

When Wang put forward the last term in his three-pillar philosophical system-zhi liang zhi-or the extension of the good conscience, his doctrines reached a new height. It is the kernel of Wang's thought and represents the most salient features of his interpretation of Confucianism, researchers said.

Wang spent his life practicing the beliefs himself, either in governance, military operations or education.

Leading an army, he crushed rebellions during the Ming Dynasty. After the military operations, he focused his attention on getting to the root of the reason for insurgency and implemented follow-up administrative measures to ensure a secure life for those residents involved in the rebellions.

Wang was among the few ancient officials in civil service who were granted the titles of nobility for their military exploits.

Also, he lectured around the country, campaigning for his doctrines and attracting throngs of followers.

In the century after he left Guizhou, more than 40 academies were built in the province, in memory of him and his thought, said He from the International Documentation and Research Center for Yangming Culture (Guiyang).

She said the connection with Wang helps to improve Guiyang's profile and weight. "The Longchang Enlightenment in Guiyang has left a cultural treasure for Guizhou, China and the world."