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Wang Yangming, New Confucians, and the Mind's Highest Horizon: Reviewing some Scholarship


Dr. Tang Junyi in 1954


It is well known that Wang Yangming’s thought is important to the New Confucians of the twentieth century. More generally, research on advocates for Ruism in modern times has been a crucial channel for the introduction of the famed Ming dynasty scholar’s life and tenets to the West. A student of modern China’s history will surely know that although the Republican Period (1912–1949) opened with the May Fourth intelligentsia launching a salvo against the Confucian tradition, many astute intellectuals and politicians insisted it was still relevant. They believed that Confucianism could contribute to modernizing China, advancing twentieth-century philosophical debates, ending China’s revolutionary upheavals, and improving the moral and spiritual condition of humanity. Furthermore, some believed Wang Yangming’s ideas in particular were a treasure trove for achieving these goals, which is why he had a special status in their theoretical discussions. Thus, research on prominent twentieth-century Chinese intellectuals who indirectly drew on his ideas—especially scholarship on modern New Confucians—brings him to the reader’s attention. Here, I would like to review in brief some of what the English-language scholarship about them has to say in this regard.


In New Confucianism: A Critical Examination (2003), John Makeham introduces twentieth-century debates between modern New Confucians residing in mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. While they all agreed that New Confucianism grows out of Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism, they disagreed over the correct interpretation of that spiritual legacy. Makeham explains how the famous twentieth-century philosopher Mou Zongsan 牟宗三, through reconstructing the daotong 道統 (“interconnected thread of the Way”), defined that legacy and claimed it. Mou identified Song and Ming Confucians who had correctly transmitted the ethico-religious core of Confucianism. His key criteria was whether or not they had obtained genuine insight into de xing zhi zhi 德性之知 (“learning of the moral nature”) and the dao ti 道體 (“ultimate meaning” or “the transcendent”).[1] Two genealogical lines were particularly important to Mou, one of which ran from Lu Xiangshan to Wang Yangming. In the twentieth century, Mou believed, his teacher Xiong Shili 熊十力 had most effectively inherited and transmitted this spiritual legacy.[2] He and his students did so by reshaping Wang Yangming’s School of Mind using Buddhist and Kantian terminology. Makeham suggests that they saw their achievement as a kind of victory over mainland New Confucians. Thus, in a sense, Wang Yangming became a football in twentieth-century intellectual debates.


Another example is Confucianism for the Contemporary World: Global Order, Political Plurality, and Social Action (2017), a collection of articles that examines the Confucian revival as a cultural force for modernization. This book consists of studies of modern New Confucians who tried to prove that “Confucianism can be a vital force for a diverse and pluralistic society,” that is, for liberal democracy.[3] Introducing the volume, Tze-ki Hon notes that concomitant with economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s, Confucianism enjoyed a robust revival, becoming “a theory of modernization that supported economic development, individual growth, and social progress.”[4] Observers believed that it played a critical role in the economic success of Japan and the four mini-dragons. Furthermore, Hon states, this revival “was also considered to be a strategy for modernizing China that would preserve the country’s cultural heritage on the one hand and enable the country to catch up with advanced nations on the other.”[5] Finally, one strand of Confucianism gained widespread attention. This strand combined Lu Xiangshan’s and Wang Yangming’s theories of moral cultivation with “creative interpretation of Kantian and Hegelian philosophies.”[6] Mou Zongsan and Tang Junyi were largely responsible for this.


Only Sheng Ke’s chapter, “A Mission Impossible? Mou Zongsan’s Attempt to Rebuild Morality in the Modern Age,” explains the importance of Wang Yangming’s thought to this intellectual current. Sheng believes that Mou “is the most systematic and creative philosopher” among the New Confucians. On “a moral mission to give meaning to life,” Mou believed he could address modern predicaments by reviving elements of Song-Ming moral metaphysics.[7] Mou rejected ethical relativism, according to which morality is determined by history and social context. Rather, he believed that if particularistic elements are removed, Confucianism could offer the world a universally valid moral philosophy. In his reconstruction of Neo-Confucianism, Mou deemphasizes moral norms and codes, focusing instead on innate moral capacities. This innate moral capacity is what Wang Yangming referred to as liangzhi 良知 (“human consciousness,” his translation = the innate or intuitive knowledge of the good, the good knowing). Liangzhi is a type of inner intuition rooted in the heart-mind. It is also the metaphysical foundation of morality. For Mou, Sheng explains, “liangzhi determines that the human being ‘must’ be a moral being because the only way a person can find meaning in his life is to follow liangzhi.”[8] This is why Wang Yangming’s ideas are so important in modern times.


Other articles in the book are also devoted to examining Tang Junyi and Mou Zongsan’s ethics and political thought. Some authors discuss whether Confucian ethics is more suited to liberal democratic societies or authoritarian regimes. In fact, the issue of Confucianism and democracy is much discussed in the scholarly literature these days. It is well known that although Tang and Mou believed that Neo-Confucian moral philosophy was a critical resource for modern times, they also found Neo-Confucian political philosophy to be highly problematic and unsuited to the needs of the political in our modern age. However, Confucianism for the Contemporary World does not specifically address these issues.


Other scholars have addressed them, especially Lee Ming-huei and Stephen Angle. These two authors seriously doubt that Neo-Confucianism has a political message that is relevant to the modern world. To demonstrate this, they draw on a body of both Chinese- and English-language scholarship that criticizes this tradition from a liberal perspective. In the twentieth century, Joseph Levenson,[9] Thomas Metzger,[10] and William Theodore de Bary[11] have all written about what they see as the limitations of the Song-Ming School of Principle when it comes to political philosophy. In his pathbreaking Sagehood: The Contemporary Significance of Neo-Confucian Philosophy (2010), Angle summarizes some of these arguments about “the trouble with sagehood.”[12] In general, overly confident in human nature and its potential for moral perfection, Neo-Confucians maintained that a political system could be constructed around sage-rulers under the guidance of a wise, meritocratic elite. Consequently, their thinking was inherently elitist, and this elitism was antithetical to democracy. Hence, Neo-Confucians perpetuated the Confucian idea that rule by men is superior to rule by law. As a corollary, Neo-Confucians were simply too optimistic and lacked awareness of the extent and implications of human depravity. The darkness of human nature is one reason why liberal traditions regard law and institutions as essential for keeping imperfect humans in check.


As for his own opinion about Neo-Confucian political ideas, Angle states that “the approaches of Zhu and Wang fall significantly short.”[13] Like Mou Zongsan, he believes that although sagehood (morality) and politics were intricately interwoven in traditional China, they must be distinguished in modern times. If Confucians want to realize their aims, they must adopt a different understanding of law and political authority.[14] Much of Angle’s work is in fact devoted to explaining how this might happen. Similarly, in Confucianism: Its Roots and Global Significance (2017), Lee Ming-huei states that while Confucianism is still relevant to daily life and can serve as a resource “for the education, formation, and cultivation of self and society,” it is less relevant to governing a country. Lee is suspicious of any attempts to restore Confucianism to the status of a national ideology, believing that would be impractical and dislocated in time. Thus, the concept of “inner sagehood and outer kingliness” must be reconfigured and adapted to modern times.[15]


Nevertheless, in the chapter “Wang Yangming’s Philosophy and Modern Theories of Democracy: A Reconstructive Interpretation,” Lee does make the case that elements of Wang Yangming’s thought are compatible with the requirements of modern democracy. According to him, the principal problem is the relation between the practical moral subject and the political subject of democracy. In general, scholars of a liberal persuasion generally do not want to make moral knowledge the foundation of democracy. “From a liberal perspective,” Lee explains, “once we acknowledge that motives (or ends) possess distinctions between true and false, and between important and unimportant, this will inevitably lead to the recognition that value choices have objective standards. Such objective standards can provide a country or society with the opportunity to use the pursuit of true ends as a pretext for interfering with people’s actions, giving rise to the collective suppression of the individual.”[16] For this reason, from a liberal perspective, the role of the state should be very limited, primarily to secure negative liberties, that is, to secure the individual’s freedom from interference by others.


However, Lee points out, in the American community, several scholars have written communitarian critiques of liberalism, such as Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. They argue for the importance of positive liberty and insist that there is no necessary logical connection between positive liberty and authoritarianism. They argue that the state must also play some role in securing positive liberties. Having positive liberties means that the individual has the conditions necessary to take control of his/her life and to realize fundamental purposes. Lee argues that this conception of the pursuit of liberty is closer to Wang Yangming’s philosophy. Wang’s conception of liangzhi (“original knowing”) and yiti wanwu (“unity of all things and the self”) can provide a foundation for positive liberty because it connects people together, striking a balance between the independent subject of negative liberties, one who seems to have no relation to the community, and the communal self.[17]


Having taken a detour into scholarship that touches on Wang Yangming’s relevance to debates over modern politics, we can now turn to publications that go into more depth regarding his philosophical influence on New Confucianism. One groundbreaking English-language work was written by Umberto Bresciani, a retired professor of Italian who lived and taught for many years in Taiwan. His Reinventing Confucianism: The New Confucian Movement (2001) introduces the so-called three generations of New Confucians, scholars who wished “to build a bridge with western thought from a Confucian platform.”[18] Those include, in the first generation, Liang Shuming, Ma Yifu, Xiong Shili, Zhang Jumai (Carsun Chang), Feng Youlan, He Lin, and Qian Mu; in the second, Thomé Fang (Fang Dongmei), Tang Junyi, Xu Fuguan, and Mou Zongsan; and in the third, Yu Yingshi, Zheng Zhongying, and Tu Weiming. Bresciani also provides a chapter on “The New Confucian Movement in Mainland China” where he briefly introduces several prominent academics. Based on his research, Bresciani confidently asserted that, “Far from being, as Western people have often thought in the past, a mere hodge-podge of rules and etiquette and cheap moral sayings, Confucianism is a complex philosophical world with very deep insights into almost all branches of traditional philosophy.”[19]


Bresciani stresses the importance of Wang Yangming’s thought to this strand of China’s twentieth-century intellectual history. “Contemporary New Confucians are for the most part spiritual descendants of the Neo-Confucian Wang Yangming,” he writes. Most “have in common a penchant for the Wang Yangming tradition of thought, and consequently emphasize the importance of the moral mind.”[20] In the first generation, Xiong Shili was especially important because some modern New Confucians regard him as the founder of their movement. He is venerated as “the illustrator in our age of the true doctrine of Confucius-Wang Yangming, the doctrine of the moral self.”[21] Many of the core elements of his metaphysical system were influenced by the school of Wang Yangming. Concerning his method for obtaining knowledge, Xiong “upheld the meta-rational (intuition) as the only one suitable for the knowledge of the ultimate truth, i.e., of the substance, as opposed to reasoning, which is suitable only for rational knowledge.”[22] He believed that while Western learning contributed a superior knowledge of rationality as it applied to scientific knowledge, Chinese learning offers superior insight into the transcendent and human nature.


In fact, Bresciani’s book repeatedly indicates that although modern New Confucians of the “mind-heart orientation” had distinct philosophies, they almost all believed that Wang Yangming’s special contribution was to direct people to the highest truths. For example, Liang Shuming endowed direct intuition (zhijue 直覺) with a special capacity to see the silent inner core of reality. This was a type of insight most clearly articulated by the Neo-Confucian school of Wang Yangming.[23] Western culture, he argued, worships rational activity, founding science and capitalism on it. However, this level of learning will be surpassed by a higher way of learning nourished in the cultures of the East, one based on intuition and a kind of existential mystical experience.[24] Liang’s spiritualistic philosophy holds that the highest expression of life is the human mind-heart, which is the substance of the universe.


Other examples of this influence abound. He Lin’s “new philosophy of mind,” according to Bresciani, “was the product of a match between the thought of Hegel and the doctrine of the school of Wang Yangming.”[25] His ontology of mind, epistemological theory of intuition, and ethical thought were all heavily influenced by Lu Xiangshan’s and Wang Yangming’s learning of mind (“Lu-Wang School of Mind”). For He Lin, this school’s emphasis on the self-consciousness and intuition of the individual was better suited to a new age, one calling for individual freedom and the nation’s awakening. As for Carsun Chang, “a philosophical figure who gave an important contribution to the birth and development of the New Confucian movement,” Bresciani explains, “the main sources of his thought are Wang Yangming and Kant.”[26] This scholar and politician had modeled himself on great Confucians like Wang Yangming, Zhu Xi, and Wen Tianxiang, “men who were equally dedicated to personal moral cultivation, the scholarly search for truth, and active involvement in social and political issues.”[27] As for other New Confucians who extol Wang Yangming and the School of Mind, they share the idea that the discovery of the moral self is the first axiom of New Confucian metaphysics. Through the experience of conscience—of the sense of right and wrong—and taking moral action, the individual becomes aware of his existence as a moral self. This moral awareness is the gateway to transcendent metaphysical realities, such as original substance of mind or the oneness of all things.[28]


More recently, in-depth studies of individual New Confucians have been published in English, as well as one book that introduces the entire second generation. Tang Junyi and Mou Zongsan have received the most attention, and it is clear from reading about them that Wang Yangming’s ideas played an important role in their philosophical projects. In Rebirth of the Moral Self: The Second Generation of Modern Confucians and their Modernization Discourses (2015), Slovenian Professor of Sinology Jana S. Rosker touches on the influence of Wang Yangming’s philosophy on Tang Junyi. Modern Confucians like Tang firmly believed that traditional Confucianism could be renewed and adapted to meet the needs of the modern era, serving “as the foundation for an ethically meaningful modern life” and providing a spiritual antidote to the sense of alienation and isolation that many individuals experience.[29] Neo-Confucianism provided the main inspiration for attaining this goal. The question revolves around how human beings find meaning and value in life. Tang asserted that human beings ultimately do so through attaining intuitive knowledge of Heaven, a higher, transcendent reality. This intuitive knowledge is what Wang Yangming spoke of as innate knowledge. Similar to Wang, Tang distinguished between the empirical self—a self limited by space and time—and the moral and spiritual self, which is essentially free, innately good, and capable of transcending the empirical self. The latter is the true self, as well as the original heart-mind, “the universal metaphysical reality possessed by every human being.”[30] Through acting on the guidance provided by intuition, human beings can bring forward this spiritual reality and merge with the creative power of Heaven. That is how meaning is bestowed upon life. (Rosker is referring to the ninth and highest of Tang’s nine horizons of the mind-heart. This is the horizon of the flow or manifestation of Heaven’s virtue [tiande liuxing jing 天德流行境]. Wang Yangming’s teaching was ultimately directed towards this horizon. )[31]


In Tang Junyi: Confucian Philosophy and the Challenge of Modernity (2017), Swiss sinologist Thomas Fröhlich also explains the importance of Wang Yangming’s ideas to Tang Junyi. Believing that Tang was “one of modern China’s most prolific thinkers,” Fröhlich sought to make his work accessible to those interested in contemporary philosophy and intellectual history.[32] Tang was aware that, in the early decades of the twentieth century, some presented Confucianism as a panacea for many social and political ills, while others considered it a vestige of imperial times with no relevance to modern times. However, Tang believed that a critical reinterpretation of Confucian thought, combined with careful assessment of the successes and failures of modern societies, would show Confucianism’s enduring relevance.[33] In particular, he believed that the Neo-Confucian theory of mind and nature, and especially Wang Yangming’s philosophy, could contribute to solving problems inherent to modern subjectivity and the quest for individual self-fulfillment. For Tang, Neo-Confucianism reached its climax in the work of Wang Yangming.[34]


According to Fröhlich, Tang’s study of mind and human nature was based on three assumptions. First, the foundation of life is a cosmic process referred to as Heaven. Like his Confucian and Neo-Confucian predecessors, “Tang placed the human being at the center of a cosmic order which he referred to as ‘Heaven’ (tian 天).”[35] Second, human beings are able to elevate themselves to the point where they can partake of the way of Heaven. Similar to Wang Yangming, Tang singled out a passage from Mencius (7A:1) that states, “For a man to give full realization to his heart (jin qi xin) is for him to understand his own nature (zhi qi xing), and a man who knows his own nature will know Heaven (zhi tian).” Tang took this to mean that a human being has the potential to fully actualize himself or herself. This actualization is an awakening allowing the human mind access to “the ultimate source of the universe and human life.”[36] At this moment, the individual will apprehend Heaven, the spiritual source of all reality. This leads to Tang’s third assumption, that through insight into the absolute reality, the individual achieves a unity with Heaven. All of these assumptions were influenced by a line of Confucian thinking running from Mengzi through Wang Yangming. Most importantly, the capacity through which mind attains knowledge of Heaven is an inner, moral intuition of the type discussed by Wang Yangming—that is, liangzhi.[37]


Recently, Mou Zongsan’s philosophy has also been the subject of much scholarship, more so than Tang Junyi’s, and authors who have published about him consistently highlight the central role of Wang Yangming’s philosophy in the development of his philosophical system. The two most outstanding recent monographs are Sebastian Billioud’s Thinking through Confucian Modernity: A Study of Mou Zongsan’s Moral Metaphysics and N. Serina Chan’s The Thought of Mou Zongsan. Both were published in Brill’s Modern Chinese Philosophy series in 2011. These studies explain in detail how Mou Zongsan constructed his philosophy synthetically in dialogue with Kant, Hegel, Mahayana Buddhism, and Neo-Confucianism. Mou believed that Kant’s philosophy was the pinnacle of Western thought. Yet it was flawed in that Kant denied humanity access to the noumenon, the thing-in-itself. Hence, Western philosophy was lacking in reflection on the possibility that human beings can within their own subjectivity access the ultimate source of the universe, Heaven, and transcendent moral principles.


Yet, as Mou saw it, individual moral autonomy can only be realized by accessing just such higher realities: the infinite dimensions of existence and the universe’s unceasing creativity. Song-Ming Neo-Confucianism effectively showed how this was possible by pointing to the heart-mind that is both at the root of human subjectivity and the gate to Heaven. Wang Yangming asserted that mind-heart is principle. By this, he meant that the moral mind has the capacity to realize objective necessity in daily life. The human being achieves this by acting upon his innate moral consciousness in deeds, especially empathetic compassion. Through acting on liangzhi, the moral subject is able to communicate with a higher onto-cosmological order, the ultimate reality of the universe. This is a paradigm of immanent transcendence, according to which, by acting on one’s moral intuition, the individual can bring forward a moral or spiritual self (their sagehood), one bestowed by and enabling the person to unite with Heaven. Through this intuition, human beings are able to actualize the metaphysical dimensions of the universe and realize sagehood. This is a principle of ontological actualization. Mou’s moral metaphysics, including his central concept developed late in life—intellectual intuition—were deeply influenced by Wang Yangming’s articulation of these profound philosophical insights.


This is just a small window on some of what recent scholarship has had to say about modern New Confucians and why they found Wang Yangming to be relevant in modern times. It is a rich literature written by scholars devoted to bringing East Asian and Chinese philosophy to the attention of an English-reading audience, a literature that, while not always easy to understand, is well worthy of our time.


*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

[1] Makeham, “The New Daotong,” 61–62. [2] Makeham, “Introduction,” 5. [3] Tze-ki Hon, “Introduction: Confucianism for the Contemporary World,” xix. [4] Tze-ki Hon, “Introduction: Confucianism for the Contemporary World,” xi. [5] Tze-ki Hon, “Introduction: Confucianism for the Contemporary World,” xii. [6] Tze-ki Hon, “Introduction: Confucianism for the Contemporary World,” xi. [7] Sheng Ke, “A Mission Impossible?” 118. [8] Sheng Ke, “A Mission Impossible?” 123. [9] Levenson, Confucian China and Its Modern Fate. [10] Metzger, Escape from Predicament. [11] De Bary, The Trouble with Confucianism. [12] Angle, Sagehood, 180. [13] Angle, Sagehood, ix. [14] Angle, Sagehood, ix. [15] Lee, Confucianism, 3. [16] Lee, Confucianism, 89. [17] Lee, Confucianism, 90. [18] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 16. [19] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 37. [20] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 458. [21] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 137. [22] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 17. [23] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 79. [24] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 75. [25] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 18. [26] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 168. [27] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 176. [28] Bresciani, Reinventing Confucianism, 473. [29] Rosker, Rebirth of the Moral Self, 29. [30] Rosker, Rebirth of the Moral Self, 155. [31] For more on this, See Ng, “T’ang Chun-I,” 318-319. [32] Fröhlich, Tang Junyi, vii. [33] Fröhlich, Tang Junyi, 6. [34] Fröhlich, Tang Junyi, 47. [35] Fröhlich, “‘Philosophy’ Reconsidered,” 395. [36] Fröhlich, Tang Junyi, 8. [37] Fröhlich, Tang Junyi, 126–127.

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