Article abstract: As a high official, holding many governmental offices from magistrate to governor, Wang suppressed rebellions and created a reign of peace in China that lasted a century. As a Neo-Confucian philosopher, he exercised tremendous influence in both China and Japan for 150 years.
Wang Yangming was born on November 30, 1472, in Youyao, Zhejiang Province, the son of a minister of civil personnel in Nanjing. He was renamed Wang Yangming by his students, but his private name was Shou-jen and his courtesy name was Po-an. According to legend, he could not speak until he was given a name at the age of five. He soon began reading his grandfather’s books and reciting their contents. When he was eleven years old, he went to live with his father at Peking. At the age of twelve, Wang announced to a fortune-teller that the greatest occupation was that of a sage, not that of a government official. His mother, Madame Zheng, died when he was thirteen. At fifteen, he visited the Zhuyong Mountain passes, where he first became interested both in archery and in the frontier.
Wang was married at the age of seventeen, but he was so absorbed in a conversation he was having with a Daoist priest on his wedding night that he forgot to go home until he was sent for the next morning. As he and his wife were passing through Guangxin the next year, he had another important discussion, this time with a prominent scholar named Lou Liang. Lou was so impressed with Wang that he predicted that Wang could become a sage if he studied diligently. Wang, however, devoted his nineteenth year to the study of archery and military tactics.
During the next ten years, Wang was torn between pursuing a career in the military, in politics, in literature, and in philosophy. After receiving his civil service degree, he delved deeply into the works of Zhu Xi. While visiting his father in Beijing, he spent seven days sitting quietly in front of some bamboos in an attempt to discern the principles of Zhu Xi embodied within them. The stress was too much for Wang, however, and he became very ill. Thoroughly disillusioned with philosophy, he spent his time writing flowery compositions instead of studying for his civil service examinations. Consequently, he failed his examinations in 1493 and again 1496, and he shifted his interest back to military crafts and to the Daoist philosophy.
Wang finally settled on one career choice after passing his civil service examinations in 1499, at the age of twenty-seven. He was appointed to the Ministry of Public Works, where he impressed his superiors with a method for defending China against invasion. Though his proposal was rejected, Wang was made minister of justice in Yunan in the following year. In 1501, Wang reversed the convictions of many prisoners after checking the prison records near Nanjing. Ill health forced Wang to retreat to the Yangming ravine to recuperate. He built a house in the ravine and began calling himself “Philosopher of Yangming.” Wang soon became very skeptical of some of the teachings of Daoism and Buddhism and of his literary pursuits.
Having fully recovered from his illness, Wang returned to Peking in 1504, where he was appointed director of the provincial examinations in Shandong. That same year, he became a secretary in the Ministry of War. In 1505, members of his large student following convinced him that he was better suited as a philosopher, and he began lecturing on the importance of becoming a sage. His attacks of the practice of reciting classics and writing flowery compositions alienated him from the more conservative scholars, who accused him of trying to build a reputation for himself. Only one scholar, the honored academician Zhan Ruoshui, appreciated his merits. Not only did he befriend Wang but also he helped him spread the true doctrine of Confucius.
A year later, Wang’s career as a lecturer was dramatically interrupted. In 1506, he came to the defense of a group of supervising censors who had been imprisoned by a corrupt eunuch, Liu Jin. Wang wrote a memorial that so angered Liu Jin that he ordered Wang to be beaten, imprisoned, and banished to Long chang, a place inhabited primarily by barbarian tribes. Wang was demoted to head of a dispatch station. He began his journey in 1507 and arrived at Long chang a year later. During his trip, he barely escaped an assassination attempt by Liu’s agents.
The three years that he spent living among the aborigines were the turning point of his life. Having to scavenge for food and water for...
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