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On the Ming dynasty Confucian Wang Yangming's 王陽明 Military Thought and Campaigns: Some Reflections

Updated: Jan 16, 2022




Wang Yangming is no stranger to controversy. He was both an influential Confucian thinker and a scholar-official who served the Ming court in several official capacities, including ones with military-related duties. Thus, he had ample opportunity to put his ideas into practice. Because two of his central doctrines require real-world practical application—the unity of knowledge and action (zhixing heyi 知行合一) and realizing good knowing (zhi liangzhi 致良知: extending the innate knowledge of the good or extending our good conscience or realizing our intuitive knowledge of right and wrong)—the ideological implications of them, as evidenced by his personal and political conduct, become topical. Therefore, much ink has been spilled examining his political career, including his military campaigns and the policies he implemented as an official.


Some authors have written specifically about Wang Yangming’s military thought and strategy. They tease this out from memorials he submitted concerning security along the northern border, memorials pertaining to his military campaigns, and his “Commentary on the Seven Military Classics” (Wu jing qi shu ping 武經七書評). Sumner B. Twiss and Jonathan K. L. Chan do so in “Wang Yang-ming’s Ethics of War,” a chapter included in an edited volume—Chinese Just War Ethics: Origins, Development, and Dissent—that examines Chinese attitudes towards war throughout history. Contributors were specifically interested in the ethical dimensions of warfare—that is, how war was justified in China’s different intellectual traditions. Thus, for example, they examine the classical Confucian position (of Mengzi and Xunzi) on the responsible use of military force.


In this chapter, Twiss and Chan propose that Wang Yangming provides a uniquely significant case study for the reasons cited above: he both elaborated a Confucian philosophy and led military campaigns, and he was deeply learned in both the Confucian and military classics. Furthermore, unlike his Warring States period predecessors, he served a centralized state that was facing internal challenges to its authority, especially in borderlands.


Twiss and Chan try to answer three questions: What were Wang Yangming’s criteria for engaging in a just war (Lat.: ius ad bellum)? What rules (or laws) should guide the way warfare is conducted (Lat.: ius in bello)? And what are the principles that apply to terminating war and transitioning to peace (Lat.: ius post bellum)? Regarding the first, his memorials indicate that several criteria must be met. The intention must be right. War might be necessary to restore peace and security to the people and to alleviate suffering. The cause must be just. Banditry, for instance, might reach such a level of intensity as to require military intervention to stop it and punish the perpetrators. Also, engaging in warfare should be a last resort. Nonviolent alternatives must be exhausted, such as giving bandits the opportunity to lay down their arms and reform themselves. This is the duty of the just official, who should, as a Confucian, show a benevolent concern for the people. Lastly, the right authority must be invoked to justify war. An official should act on the authority of the emperor and the imperial government. (pp. 158-159)


Regarding the conduct of warfare, the authors found that Wang did not strictly distinguish between strategy and morality. He paid close attention to the training of military leadership and the organization of troops because he wanted not only to be victorious but also to minimize casualties. It is true that in matters of leadership, preparation, and strategy, he was deeply influenced by Sunzi’s Art of War. It is well known, for instance, that he made ample use of deception when waging war. This has caused some controversy. But for Wang, as he rationalized it, stratagem was a means to moral ends shaped by Confucian values. Deception may be necessary to minimize the use of force. Furthermore, individuals who have put themselves outside the moral community through their criminal activity do not deserve above-board treatment. The most important goal for Wang as a commander was to instill troop discipline so that people would not be indiscriminately killed and property recklessly destroyed. Thus, while waging war, he repeatedly gave bandits the opportunity to surrender. He also tried to separate out those capable of reforming themselves. (pp. 162-163)


Finally, post-war measures were of utmost important to Wang Yangming. He spent a considerable amount of time developing them. They fell into two categories: economic recovery and social reform. Both policy categories aimed at restoring peace, security, and prosperity to the common people. After providing initial relief measures, Wang implemented long-term policies to improve education and government administration. Most importantly, he greatly encouraged local self-government. This required empowering local leaders and implementing community compacts, policies that reflect the direction of his moral philosophy. Since people are naturally good, they are capable of responsibly handling their own affairs. (p. 171) But for this to happen, they need officials to provide the right conditions. In conclusion, authors Chan and Twiss state that in all three stages of war, right intent (just motivation) was central to Wang Yangming’s thinking.


Wang Yangming's "Commentary on the Seven Military Classics"


A recent dissertation visits the influence of Wang Yangming’s military thought and activities on the sixteenth century. In “The Soldier as a Sage: Qi Jiguang (1528-1588) and the neo-Confucianization of the Military in Sixteenth-Century China,” Barend Noordam explains the historical setting for the life and writings of this famous Ming general. He explains that Qi was unusual in that although he was born into a hereditary military household, he was highly literate, interacted with civil officials, and wrote manuals integrating Confucian ethics and military training. Noordam tries to explain how such a man and his work could appear at this time. He points to a scholarly literature arguing that the late Ming dynasty sees a rehabilitation of the military, which is why it could weather several crises.


The high official Zhang Juzheng played a key role in this process. He patronized both hereditary military officials and military-minded civil officials who were involved in rebuilding and expanding armies. Cooperative relations that developed between the civil and military both facilitated and were facilitated by cultural and ideological changes that had made the two realms more acceptable to eachother. Literati showed an increasing interest in martial values, and scholar-officials were more actively involved in solving military crises and leading military campaigns.


Noordam believes that the genesis of this network of interacting civil and military officials, as well as the corresponding cultural change, must be traced back to the mid-Ming dynasty. From the late-fifteenth century through the 1550s, China was plagued, in the south, by piracy, banditry, and native rebellions, as well as by Mongol incursions along the northern border. According to him, over the course of the fifteenth century, the system of hereditary military families and garrisons deteriorated. Civil bureaucrats were forced to step in and find new solutions for handling military crises, by recruiting soldiers from new sectors of society, playing leadership roles on the front lines, and providing theoretical resources from the Confucian tradition to explain their strategies and buttress the martial ethos.


The premier example of just such a civil official was Wang Yangming, whose policies and Neo-Confucian theories contributed to bridging the divide between the civil and the military. His military solutions and theoretical orientation influenced important members of the sixteenth-century civil-bureaucratic elite, especially those involved in military affairs. Furthermore, Qi Jiguang engaged with Wang’s learning of the mind and integrated some of his ideas into his military writings. Noordam believes that owing to the influence of Wang Yangming’s ideas, Qi and his contemporary civil and military elites were able to bridge the socio-cultural divide and, as well, Qi contributed to a Neo-Confucianization of the military profession.


Other scholars have looked more carefully at the theoretical significance of specific military campaigns but are quite divided in their judgments. Xu Fuguan, Julia Ching, and Cai Renhou, for instance, generally found that Wang Yangming’s actions reflected his profound empathy and concern for the welfare of the people. According to this line of interpretation, he had, in accordance with a traditional ideal, successfully united sageliness within and kingliness without, that is, virtue with governing. As an official, he did his utmost to govern humanely, only applying the military instrument as a last resort, very much in accord with the principles analyzed by Chan and Twiss. That meant adhering to the great principle that one must always do in one’s life what one’s mind and heart says is right and good.


On the other hand, some scholars, such as those writing in a Marxist framework, have viewed Wang Yangming’s philosophy primarily as an ideology that legitimated and served a system of power relations, such as a feudal social order or autocratic political order. Thus, far from providing governing elites with a more enlightened or liberating understanding of those they governed, his doctrines merely served to reinforce forms of oppression embedded in the sociopolitical order. At a theoretical level, the voice of the innate knowledge of the good (liangzhi 良知) was to a significant degree shaped by a particular ethics—the assumptions about the nature of the political and social held by an elite of which he was a part, and the monarchical and meritocratic political-institutional order he served. Hence, Wang naturalized a particular set of norms as an expression of human nature shared by all. He proposed that society be structured according to an order of virtue that belonged to a time and place. And he assumed that good institutions of an ideally functioning monarchy (sagely rule) and meritocracy (by men of virtue) were the normal venue for assisting subjects in the ultimately soteriological goal of recovering their natural moral goodness. He could not help bringing to his assignments a horizon of powerful assumptions that shaped how he saw the social disorder before him and how he chose to rectify it.


The most controversial campaigns, and the ones that have received the most attention, are those Wang led to quell armed uprisings by native Zhuang chieftains in Tianzhou, Guangxi, as well as by the Yao people of that same province’s Rattan Gorge. In his excellent study “The Last Campaigns of Wang Yangming,” for instance, Leo K. Shin closely examines Wang Yangming’s use of military force against these so-called “Yao bandits” of Bazhai 八寨 and Datengxia 大虅峽. After achieving a peaceful resolution of the Tianzhou conflict, Wang turned his attention to the Yao. These non-Chinese peoples had troubled the Ming state for decades, and Wang concluded that military operations to exterminate them were imperative. The offensive lasted three months and around three thousand Yao were killed (or “exterminated,” to use Wang’s language). Wang regarded this campaign as a total triumph that uprooted a long-festering problem.


But given Wang Yangming’s peaceful settlement of an earlier conflict in Guangxi, Shin asks why he chose to use force against these peoples. (p. 103) On the one hand, he finds, Wang’s strategies were a rational response to the political and social situation in Guangxi. On the other, they were also the outcome of his philosophical views regarding the nature of non-Chinese. These views were shaped by a conventional and deep-rooted Ming political and civilizing discourse on the nature of non-Chinese indigenous peoples, the “man yi 蠻夷” of the south, as well as by Wang’s specific philosophical ideas. Wang generally took a softer, more liberal approach, confidant that non-Chinese could be integrated into the Ming realm. However, at times he determined that rebellious peoples were beyond the pale.


While he believed native peoples could be changed or “civilized” (hua 化or xianghua向化) over time, he also recognized that this could only happen under certain circumstances. All people are endowed with the same human nature and innate moral knowledge, but absent the correct environmental conditions and proper nurturing, that nature and moral knowing will become obscured. While some people reach the point where they can no longer be changed, others can be transformed over time through the implementation of enlightened policies. Thus, Wang implemented a two-prong policy, first using force to exterminate the worst elements and then taking long-term measures to civilize the Yao. (p. 115)


As Shin has suggested, Wang Yangming’s military campaigns in Guangxi will no doubt continue to generate debate and more research. These would seem to be perfect test cases for studying the real-world implications of such tenets as the unity of knowledge and action, the innate knowledge of the good, and the humaneness of the one body of humanity. Furthermore, the politicization of research on Wang Yangming in modern times energizes such purely academic pursuits. Beginning during the 2010s, with the blessing of Xi Jinping, this once “butcher” of peasants and ethnic minorities of the Maoist years was identified by the government of the PRC as holding the key to understanding China’s traditional culture. This resulted in much state funding for academic research, conferences, and the renovation of historical sites. But this has not come without criticism, and the reception of Wang Yangming in modern times in Guangxi remains a sensitive issue. The Chinese-American political activist and dissident Yu Jie 余傑 even claims that “to a high degree, the reason General Secretary Xi Jinping praises Wang Yangming owes to his meritorious achievements in suppressing border ‘man yi.’”[i] In other words, Wang Yangming was not merely a loyal servant to an expanding Ming state. There was also a certain dimension to his conduct and thought that aligns with imperial China’s colonizing logic and civilizing mission.


However, such politicized interpretations and uses of the Ming Confucian will also remain subject to factual evidence, more of which has surfaced in the last decade on account of the efforts of Chinese scholars. Even prior, in “Guizhou no Wang Yangming 貴州の王陽明 (Guizhou’s Wang Yangming),” for instance, Japanese sinologist Namba Yukio 難波征男 explores his experiences with and characterizations of the locals he encountered in this province while living near the Longchang postal station. Namba not only failed to find any bigotry on his part but also shows that Wang had claimed that the natives displayed their human nature more genuinely, the same nature that was shared by Han Chinese but was distorted by the embellishments of an artificial culture. (p. 235) Furthermore, his article “Wang Yangming to minzoku mondai 王陽明と民族問題 (Wang Yangming and the problem of ethnic groups)” provides a detailed account of the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Tianzhou. Namba found that Wang Yangming’s policy decisions regarding a political settlement for the once rebellious native chieftains were in part reached through his willingness to recognize their unique cultural characteristics. (p. 91)


More recently, on the other hand, Tang Kwok-leung has asserted that the actions Wang Yangming took in Guangxi had little to do with his political thought or philosophy. In “Tianzhou shi fei wo benxin: Wang Shouren de Guangxi zhi yi 田州事非我本心—王守仁的廣西之役 (The Tianzhou outcome is not what I really wanted—Wang Shouren’s assignment in Guangxi),” Tang demonstrates that Wang’s decisions were compromises formed in response to external political factors largely beyond his control. He also explains how events unfolded on the ground, within the context of actions taken by other actors and the constraints of Ming institutional norms and rules. The fact of the matter is that contrary to what some have claimed and putting the Confucian rhetoric aside, Wang Yangming would have preferred to subdue the Tianzhou chieftains by military force. (p. 268)


Such thoughtful interpretations of the evidence as those reviewed here have greatly enriched our understanding of the practical significance of the renowned Ming Confucian's tenets, as well as of our understanding of the nature of the facts on the ground. But there is more to be done, as more detailed reconstruction of the actions Wang Yangming took as a Ming dynasty official continue to be written. The fruits of that research will be the subject of a future post.


*For more about Wang Yangming in the Western-language literature, see my book Studying Wang Yangming: History of a Sinological Field.


*If you have any thoughts about the post, or ideas for improving it, please don't hesitate to contact me at larry.israel@mga.edu

[i] Yu Jie 余傑, “Xi Jinping weihe chongbai Wang Yangming 習近平爲何崇拜王陽明 (Why does Xi Jinping revere Wang Yangming),” Zhongguo renquan shuangzhou kan 226 (Jan. 2018), accessed October 18, 2021, https://www.hrichina.org/chs/zhong-guo-ren-quan-shuang-zhou-kan/yu-jie-xi-jin-ping-wei-he-chong-bai-wang-yang-ming-tu.

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