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王陽明同時代的批判者 Contemporary Ming Dynasty Critics of Wang Yangming-A Brief Survey of English Scholarship

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

Wang Yangming was not without critics in his time. But whereas the East Asian scholarship on the Ming dynasty scholar-official and famed Ruist Wang Yangming’s contemporary critics is voluminous, the same cannot be said for the English-language literature. However, enough has been published to give an interested reader some understanding of the contours of the issues discussed. A very brief review is in order. (Note: The substantial literature on late-Ming critics is a subject for another day!)

By critics, I mean scholars who disputed or rejected some component of his philosophy, as opposed to political adversaries, even if the motive behind rejecting his interpretations of the Confucian tradition were by no means divorced from concerns over the influence his ideas might have on society. Some critics were friends or acquaintances who merely politely disagreed with his tenets and corresponding interpretation of classical texts (or of Zhu Xi’s commentaries on them); some were first- or second-generation followers who found themselves, over time, disagreeing with or modifying some of his teachings as they molded their own philosophies in a diverse and heated philosophical environment. Others were scholars who lived during or after his time but identified with other strands in the Confucian tradition, attacking his tenets and interpretations on that basis and bemoaning their influence on philosophical discourse, society, and culture.

As for contemporaries with whom Wang had personally interacted and corresponded, the two who have received the most attention are Luo Qinshun 羅欽順 (1465–1547) and Zhan Ruoshui 湛若水 (1466–1560). Comparative study of their philosophies appears in Carsun Chang’s The Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, Tang Junyi’s article “The Criticism of Wang Yangming’s Teachings as Raised by his Contemporaries,” Kim Youngmin’s dissertation “Redefining the Self’s Relation to the World: A Study of Mid-Ming Neo-Confucian Discourse,” and, most recently, Zhang Xuezhi’s History of Philosophy during the Ming Dynasty. As well, articles, dissertations, and books on one or the other invariably dive into their arguments, most notably Annping Chin’s dissertation, “Chan Kan-Chüan and the Continuing Neo-Confucian Discourse on Mind and Principle,” Irene Bloom’s Knowledge Painfully Acquired: The K’un-chih chi by Lo Ch’in-shun, and Kim Youngmin’s lengthy articles.

Regarding Zhan, like Wang Yangming, he was a highly accomplished Confucian scholar whose life spanned the middle of the Ming dynasty. Their friendship is a famous one in Chinese history and has been much researched in East Asia, but Zhan’s life and followers were overshadowed by those of Wang, and the volume of scholarship on him pales by comparison. He makes his entrance into the Western literature during the 1960s and 1970s, when Ming scholarship bloomed.[1] Indeed, even in China and Japan, no detailed study of Zhan or of his relationship with Wang Yangming had been published prior to these decades. In his study of Zhan’s influence on Wang Yangming, Wing-tsit Chan pointed out that Shiga Ichirō 志賀一朗and Okada Takehiko were the first to do so, although he found their work lacking.[2]

Chan demonstrates that Zhan had influenced Wang in several ways. He played a role in Wang’s decision to reject Daoist practices in favor of a clear commitment to Confucian doctrine (and becoming a sage). Although Wang advocated quiet sitting (jing zuo 静坐) in his early pedagogy, over time his attitude towards meditation cooled, and he rather stressed the unification of activity and tranquility (dong jing he yi动静合一).[3] That was an important teaching for Zhan too, and this may have influenced his friend. Also, Zhan’s emphasis on Cheng Hao’s doctrine of forming one body with heaven, earth, and the myriad things (tiandi wanwu yi ti 天地萬物一體) influenced the development of this tenet in Wang’s philosophy. Especially late in life, Wang Yangming forcefully articulated how extending the innate knowledge of the good eventuates in realizing unity with the cosmos.[4]

Carsun Chang, Tang Junyi, Annping Chin, Kim Youngmin, and Zhang Xuezhi address the debate between Wang and Zhan and bring out where they differed or, at least, where they believed they differed, if they really did to the degree that was assumed.[5] Was Zhan’s teaching of sui chu tiren tianli 隨處體認天理 (“to experience the Heavenly principle in any occasion of life” [Tang Junyi]; “the ubiquitous realization of Heavenly principle” [Zhang Xuezhi]; or “personally realizing the principle of Heaven wherever one may be” [Annping Chin]) different from Wang Yangming’s teaching of zhi liangzhi (realizing/extending the innate knowledge of the good)? Both were in search of an undivided, immediate, ever-present objective moral knowing that transcends separateness—subjective and objective, interior and exterior, mind and world, knowledge and action—as well as the correct practice for attaining and sustaining these goals, as the essence of achieving sagehood. One faulted the other for reinforcing boundaries along one of these lines or another, or for misunderstanding his position.

Their debate over the meaning of ge wu 格物 has received the most attention. Zhan saw a bias towards the internal in Wang’s position. Wang had glossed ge as “to rectify” and wu as “intention” (which include the object/thing/matters toward which intention is directed). Hence, ge wu means rectifying one’s intentions or motivating thoughts, and it implicitly encompasses the world given in intention. For Zhan, Wang was yet separating out an internal mental process from the whole and hence philosophizing by reference to a divided moral agent. Zhan also asks, if ge wu is the same as rectifying one’s intentions/thought, then why did the Great Learning add this additional step in the sequence zheng xin cheng yi zhi zhi ge wu 正心誠意致知格物 (commonly translated as rectifying mind, making intentions sincere, extending knowledge, investigating things)? Wang, on the other hand, believed that Zhan’s central tenet was in danger of stepping outside undivided mind in the search for true moral knowing. Personal realization of the principle of Heaven wherever one may be might very well spill over into conceptualizing moral principles. There was a certain academic quality to Zhan’s learning that Wang found suspicious. Indeed, Zhan more highly valued the role of learned study of the classics in the pursuit of moral knowledge.

That said, one gets the sense from reading these studies of their arguments that Zhan and Wang were not so far apart from one another. Zhan claimed that insofar as the all-encompassing or cosmos-embodying mind attains centrality and correctness when experiencing (aroused and responding), Heaven’s pattern (Heaven’s reason, the principle of Heaven) will be revealed and become visible and hence known. This is witnessing Heaven’s reason wherever one may be, ubiquitously, without interruption. Tang Junyi once wrote, “I have to say that to experience the Heavenly principle in any occasion of life, as taught by Zhan, may not be contradictory to Wang’s teaching. According to Wang, liangzhi has a natural light as a conscient consciousness. As man exists as an occasion of life, and things are encountered in the occasion, his liangzhi can know by its natural light the Heavenly principle for his responsive action.”[6] Thus, for Wang, “the most important thing in man’s moral life is to realize the moral principle which is known in his present concrete occasions of life.”[7] In this regard, he shares common ground with his friend Zhan.

Regarding Luo Qinshun, because he rejected the Ming School of Mind, his criticism was more thoroughgoing than Zhan’s. Irene Bloom, who translated an edition of Luo’s Knowledge Painfully Acquired (Kun zhi ji 困知記) notes that although he was “a man of intense seriousness and incisive intelligence” and “the most prominent adherent of the Cheng-Zhu school,”[8] many factors, such as the exceptional popularity of Wang Yangming, “have tended to obscure the fact that the Kun chih chi also circulated widely and exerted considerable influence during the Ming period.”[9]

Given the philosophical significance of this “collection of reading notes and reflections on philosophy and history,” which was first published in two juan (volumes) in 1528, Wang and Luo’s shared experiences as contemporaries make their intellectual disagreements all the more indicative of the threads of mid-Ming intellectual history. Luo was born just seven years before Wang, although he long outlived him. He acquired the highest examination degree in 1493; Wang did so in 1499. Their political careers extended over three emperors’ reigns (the Hongzhi, Zhengde, and Jiajing emperors), although, unlike Luo’s, most of Wang’s career transpired outside the capitals. Both spoke to how their philosophies were born of hardship and suffering.[10] A spirit of independent criticism, undeterred by “established authority,” stands out in their writings, and both were held in high regard for their personal integrity. Lastly, they corresponded—Luo received a copy of the first volume of the Chuan xi lu in 1519 and, in 1520, of Wang’s “Old Text of the Great Learning” and “Zhu Xi’s Final Conclusions Late in Life.” Lengthy philosophical letters sent to Wang by Luo in 1520 and 1528 were translated by Bloom and included in her book. Wang’s letter to Luo, composed in 1520, famously appears in the second volume of the Chuan xi lu.[11] Bloom calls this “a remarkable debate of the 1520s that was to have echoes and reverberations for many years thereafter.”[12]

Luo’s principal criticism of the School of Mind, exemplified for him by Lu Xiangshan and Wang Yangming, was that it had permitted a “subtle infiltration” of Confucian intellectual life by “deceptive and dangerous” Buddhist errors. The serious consequence of this was a misunderstanding of principle (li 理) and its collapse into identity with mind. By identifying mind with principle, the School of Mind fails to distinguish itself from Chan Buddhism. “The ‘clarifying the mind and perceiving the nature’ of the Buddhists and the ‘fully developing the mind and knowing the nature’ of Confucians seem similar but are in reality different,” Luo writes.[13] His explanation as to why this is so goes to the heart of his criticism of Lu and Wang. Through their contemplative practices, Buddhists separate from form and attain emptiness. Following, they integrate form and emptiness as a higher level of realization, in what they call enlightenment. However, in fact, they are only perceiving the subtle functioning of the mind, as pure intelligence (or spirit) and consciousness (xu ling zhijue 虛靈知覺).[14] What they have failed to perceive, on the other hand, is nature, which is “vital principle,” “the most perfect,” “the mind of Dao.”

As such, having dangerously constricted inquiry and being one-sidedly preoccupied with subjective awareness, they have failed to direct their inquiries to a higher plane, to the objective reality of the principles of Heaven and earth and the myriad things. Principle is the spontaneous order, the unregulated regularity patterning qi. It is also the origin of our humanity, our moral sense, whereas consciousness itself is not intrinsically moral. Luo further proposes that principle is both one, a unity, while also diverse in its particularizations. In illuminating principle—the embedded pattern of “principle is one; its particularizations are diverse”—one must neither fall into emptiness nor remain confined to the tangible realm of particular objects.[15] Therefore, a correct understanding of ge wu 格物 is necessary. Wang Yangming had incorrectly interpreted it as rectifying or correcting the mind, misunderstanding the Great Learning and making the first step in zheng xin cheng yi zhi zhi ge wu superfluous. Luo rather interprets ge as “penetration” and ge wu as “penetration with no separation (tongche wujian 通徹無間).”[16] Hence, while it is true that, as Bloom has pointed out, Luo embraced the Song School of Principle’s spirit of learned scholarly inquiry in his “commitment to intellectual understanding of the objective world,”[17] the objective world to which he refers—the objective reality of principle—most certainly is, as Kim Youngmin has suggested, not empirical inquiry into the natural world.[18] Rather, his ultimate goal was a unity of self and world, “luminous clarity of insight into the mystery of the unity of all being,”[19] wherein “things are myself and I am things, altogether unified without any differentiation.”[20] In this regard, Luo appears to be pointing to the same contemplative goal as Wang Yangming was by realizing the one body of humanity through extension of the innate knowledge of the good, even if differently conceptualized (by maintaining a distinction between mind and principle and by giving a unique interpretation to the meaning of an embedded pattern wherein oneness is maintained amid diverse particularizations).

In his “The Criticisms of Wang Yangming’s Teachings as Raised by his Contemporaries,” an article submitted to the 1973 East-West Philosopher’s Conference, Tang Junyi surveys his Ming critics. Those include Lu Nan 呂柟 (1479–1542), Huang Wan 黃綰 (1480–1554), Zhan Ruoshui, Luo Qinshun, Nie Bao, Wang Ji, Wang Dong 王棟, and Wang Shihuai 王時槐 (1521–1605). Most notably, Tang organizes critique based first on its degree of internality, that is, the extent to which it brings out some “intrinsic inconsistency or insufficiency,” and second on the degree to which it is explicit. Thus, he tries to establish criteria for judging the seriousness of a critique. Lu Nan and Huang Wan’s critiques were external “because they did not address themselves to the problems within Wang’s teachings.” Zhan and Luo’s, on the other hand, while internal and more serious, were still external to a degree, as they argued from a standpoint rooted in other strands within the Confucian tradition and lacked an “adequate understanding of Wang’s position.”[21] In fact, the most serious critiques emerged from within Wang’s school itself, from his first- or second-generation followers, and these critiques were more or less explicit.

One individual not covered by Tang is Huang Zuo 黄佐 (1490–1566), another contemporary critic of Wang Yangming. As Chu Hung-lam explains, he was a “versatile scholar and prolific writer” who carried on a “spirited debate with Wang Yangming over the conception and theory of the unity of knowledge and action.”[22] Using Huang Zuo’s “Ordinary Conversations (Yong yan 庸言),” Chu reconstructs his encounters with Wang in 1523 and 1528 and translates Huang’s recollections about them. Convinced Wang’s theory was incorrect, Huang put his inkbrush to use for the purpose of explaining their debate over the relative priority of knowledge or action. For Huang, knowledge initiates action, and once the action is complete, new knowledge can be acquired and utilized for the benefit of future action. His position, of course, differed from Wang Yangming’s theory that knowledge and action form a unity, and although the debate failed to change anyone’s mind, they did come to share a mutual respect. Chu explains that “Wang Yangming had met a respectable opponent in the intelligent and well-versed classicist Huang Zuo.”[23]

In sum, these studies, while few in number, amply show that Wang Yangming’s philosophy was indeed the subject of much criticism in and just after his time, as well as that through thorough familiarity with the intellectual context, we gain a much finer understanding of the Ming Ruist master’s own intellectual trajectory. Given all the ink that has been spilled on the revered Ming Confucian, not to mention the recent politicization of his School of Mind in the PRC, this is a topic that merits more research (outside East Asian languages). Long ago, for instance, the first volume of the Sources of Chinese Tradition devoted a section to Chen Jian’s 陳建 (1497–1567) Thorough Critique of Obscurations to Learning (Xue bu tong bian 學蔀通辨), a “thoroughgoing defense of Cheng-Zhu orthodoxy” and refutation of Lu Xiangshan and Wang Yangming—but it still awaits in-depth study. For Chen, Lu and Wang were covert Buddhists who had collapsed or blurred the distinction between the human mind (the empty, spiritual consciousness, or consciousness in general) and the Mind of the Way (the source of principle). Consciousness is not inherently moral, he claimed, which is why there is a distinction to be made between nourishing an empty and quiescent spirituality through contemplative techniques and nourishing moral principle through study and analysis.[24] Also, as another example, looking west and east, academics such as George L. Israel, in his “Wang Yangming in Chuzhou and Nanjing,” and Liu Yong 劉勇, in his “Cong men ren dao pipanzhe [From followers to critic],” have written of how one of Wang’s once serious students, Wang Dao 王道 (1487–1547), became estranged from his master and forged his own philosophical path, writing critically of Wang’s theory of knowledge and classical hermeneutics.[25] Wang Dao, however, is just one of the more prominent examples of disciples who went in a different direction. Indeed, herein lies a topic for a major book one day, should someone choose to take up the challenge.

Thanks for reading. If you have any suggestions for improving this brief literature survey, don’t hesitate to email me at For a more complete story of the history of research on Wang Yangming in the "West," see Studying Wang Yangming: History of a Sinological Field.

[1] For an overview, see Israel, “Zhan Ruoshui,” 37–38. [2] Wing-tsit Chan, “Chan Jo-shui’s Influence,” 11. [3] Wing-tsit Chan, “Chan Jo-shui’s Influence,” 15–16. [4] Wing-tsit Chan, “Chan Jo-shui’s Influence,” 30–31. [5] See Kim Youngmin, “Political Unity”; Zhan Xuezhi, History of Chinese Philosophy, 81–111; Ann-ping Chin Woo, “Chan Kan-ch’uan,” 55–80. [6] Tang Chün-i, “Criticisms of Wang Yang-ming’s Teachings,” 170. [7] Tang Chün-i, “Criticisms of Wang Yang-ming’s Teachings,” 171–172. [8] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 1. [9] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 11. [10] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 5. [11] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 175–188. [12] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 12. [13] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 51. [14] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 52. [15] Kim Youngmin, “Luo Qinshun,” 390. [16] Kim Youngmin, “Luo Qinshun,” 437; Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 58. [17] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 14. [18] Kim Youngmin, “Luo Qinshun,” 377. [19] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 56. [20] Irene Bloom, trans. and ed., Knowledge Painfully Acquired, 58. [21] Tang Chün-i, “Criticisms of Wang Yang-ming’s Teachings,” 178. [22] Chu Hung-lam, “Huang Zuo’s Meeting,” 54. [23] Chu Hung-lam, “Huang Zuo’s Meeting,” 69. [24] De Bary and Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition, vol. 1, 884–887. [25] See Israel, “Wang Yangming in Chuzhou,” 14–20; Liu Yong, “Cong menren dao pipanzhe,” 77–114. Chan, Wing-tsit. “Chan Jo-shui’s Influence on Wang Yang-ming.” Philosophy East and West 23, no. 1–2 (1973): 9–30. Bloom, Irene. Knowledge Painfully Acquired: The K’un chih chi of Lo Ch’in-shun. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987. Israel, George L. “Wang Yangming in Chuzhou and Nanjing, 1513-1516: “I have only two words to say: ‘Be Truthful!’” In The Ming World, edited by Kenneth M. Swope, 322-342. Routledge, 2020.

Israel, George L. "Zhan Ruoshui at his Dake Academy on Mount Xiqiao: Scholarship, Pedagogy, and Philosophy." Journal of World Philosophies 4, no. 1 (2019): 36-54. Kim, Youngmin. “Luo Qinshun (1465-1547) and his Intellectual Context.” T’oung Pao 89, no. 4/5 (2003): 367-441. Kim, Youngmin. “Political Unity in Neo-Confucianism: The Debate between Wang Yangming and Zhan Ruoshui.” Philosophy East and West 62, no. 2 (Apr. 2012): 246-263. Kim, Youngmin. “Rethinking the Self’s Relation to the World in the Mid-Ming: Four Responses to Cheng-Zhu Learning.” Ming Studies 44, no. 1 (Jan. 2000): 13-47. Liu Yong 劉勇. “Cong men ren dao pipanzhe: Ming ru Wang dao yu Yangmingxue zhi shuli 從門人到批判者:明儒王道與陽明學之疏離 (From follower to critic: Ming Confucian Wang Dao’s alienation from the Yangming school).” Taida Wenshizhe Xuebao 90 (2018): 77–114. Tang Chün-i. “The Criticism of Wang Yang-ming’s Teachings as Raised by His Contemporaries.” Philosophy East and West 23, no.1–2 (Jan.-Apr. 1973): 163–86. Zhang Xuezhi. History of Chinese Philosophy in the Ming Dynasty. Springer, 2021.

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