Wang Yangming


Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”:“The growth of the small gentry which had its stronghold in the provincial towns and cities, as well as the rise of the merchant class and the liberation of the artisans, are reflected in the new literature of Ming time. While the Mongols had developed the theatre, the novel may be regarded as the typical Ming creation. Its precursors were the stories of story-tellers centuries ago. They had developed many styles, one of which, for instance, consisted of prose with intercalated poetic parts (pien-wen). [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Buddhists monks had used these forms of popular literature and spread their teachings in similar forms; due to them, many Indian stories and tales found their way into the Chinese folklore. Soon, these stories of story-tellers or monks were written down, and out of them developed the Chinese classical novel. It preserved many traits of the stories: it was cut into chapters corresponding with the interruptions which the story-teller made in order to collect money; it was interspersed with poems. But most of all, it was written in everyday language, not in the language of the gentry.

“The short story which formerly served the entertainment of the educated only and which was, therefore, written in classical Chinese, now also became a literary form appreciated by the middle classes. The collection Chin-ku ch'i-kuan ("Strange Stories of New Times and Old"), compiled by Feng Meng-lung, is the best-known of these collections in vernacular Chinese.

“Little original work was done in the Ming epoch in the fields generally regarded as "literature" by educated Chinese, those of poetry and the essay. There are some admirable essays, but these are only isolated examples out of thousands. So also with poetry: the poets of the gentry, united in "clubs", chose the poets of the Song epoch as their models to emulate.

Website on the Ming Dynasty Ming Studies mingstudies.arts.ubc.ca; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Ming Tombs Wikipedia Wikipedia : UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO World Heritage Site Map ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv Chinese History: Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu

Famous Novels from the Ming Period

Three of the The Four Classic Novels of China — “ Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, “Journey to the West” and the “Water Margin” were written during the Ming Dynasty. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “To this day every Chinese knows and reads with enthusiasm “The Water Margin”, probably written about 1550 by Chen Chen, in which the ruling class was first described in its decay. Against it are held up as ideals representatives of the middle class in the guise of the gentleman brigand. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Journey to the West” is a Chinese novel published in the 16th century with roots that go back much further and attributed to Wu Cheng'en (1500-1582) . Arguably the most popular literary work in East Asia, it is based on legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who traveled to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent in the 7th century. In the story he is accompanied by his disciples Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), Zhu Bajie (Pigsy) and Sha Wujing (Monk Sha). Closely linked with this is the satirical novel "The Westward Journey" by Feng Menglung (1574-1645), in which ironical treatment is meted out to all religions and sects against a mythological background, with a freedom that would not have been possible earlier. The characters are not presented as individuals but as representatives of human types: the intellectual, the hedonist, the pious man, and the simpleton, are drawn with incomparable skill, with their merits and defects.

Another famous novel is "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"), by Luo Guanzhong (Huhai Sanren). Just as the European middle class read with avidity the romances of chivalry, so the comfortable class in China was enthusiastic over romanticized pictures of the struggle of the gentry in the third century. "The Tale of the Three Kingdoms" became the model for countless historical novels of its own and subsequent periods. Later, mainly in the sixteenth century, the sensational and erotic novel developed, most of all in Nanking. It has deeply influenced Japanese writers, but was mercilessly suppressed by the Chinese gentry which resented the frivolity of this wealthy and luxurious urban class of middle or small gentry families who associated with rich merchants, actors, artists and musicians. Censorship of printed books had started almost with the beginning of book printing as a private enterprise: to the famous historian, anti-Buddhist and conservative Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), the enemy of Wang Anshi, belongs the sad glory of having developed the first censorship rules. Since Ming time, it became a permanent feature of Chinese governments.

“The best known of the erotic novels is the Jin Ping Mei (Chin-p'ing-mei) which, for reasons of our own censors can be published only in expurgated translations. It was written probably towards the end of the sixteenth century. This novel, as all others, has been written and re-written by many authors, so that many different versions exist. It might be pointed out that many novels were printed in Hui-chou, the commercial centre of the time.

Sex and Swindles in Ming-Era Literature

China has a rich history of erotic literature and painting. China's most famous examples of erotic literature — "The Prayer Mat of the Flesh" and "Jin Ping Mei" ("The Golden Lotus") — were written in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty.

Jin Ping Mei is a 2,000 page novel about the sexual exploits of a horny young merchant, Hs-men (pronounced semen), and his mistress, Golden Lotus. Because some of the descriptions are very explicit, the story has been banned since the Ming Period. In one passage, for example, Hs-men tosses a plum into Golden Lotus's vagina, moves it around until she has an orgasm, and then eats the plum. In the Mao era, the Communist government edited out sexy parts of Jin Ping Mei but unedited versions were available if you had connections.

On “The Book of Swindles”, whose earliest datable edition dates to 1617, Christopher Rea of the University of British Columbia wrote: This is an age of deception. Con men ply the roadways. Bogus alchemists pretend to turn one piece of silver into three. Devious nuns entice young women into adultery. Sorcerers use charmed talismans for mind control and murder. A pair of dubious monks extorts money from a powerful official and then spends it on whoring. A rich student tries to bribe the chief examiner, only to hand his money to an imposter. A eunuch kidnaps boys and consumes their "essence" in an attempt to regrow his penis. These are just a few of the entertaining and surprising tales to be found in this seventeenth-century work, said to be the earliest Chinese collection of swindle stories.

“The Book of Swindles, compiled by an obscure writer from southern China — Zhang Yingyu who lived during the Wanli period (1573–1620) of the Ming dynasty — presents a fascinating tableau of criminal ingenuity. The flourishing economy of the late Ming period created overnight fortunes for merchants—and gave rise to a host of smooth operators, charlatans, forgers, and imposters seeking to siphon off some of the new wealth. The Book of Swindles, which was ostensibly written as a manual for self-protection in this shifting and unstable world, also offers an expert guide to the art of deception. Each story comes with commentary by the author, Zhang Yingyu, who expounds a moral lesson while also speaking as a connoisseur of the swindle. This volume, which contains annotated translations of just over half of the eighty-odd stories in Zhang's original collection, provides a wealth of detail on social life during the late Ming and offers words of warning for a world in peril.

Drama and Opera During the Ming Dynasty

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “The Chinese drama made further progress in the Ming epoch. Many of the finest Chinese dramas were written under the Ming; they are still produced again and again to this day. The most famous dramatists of the Ming epoch are Wang Shih-chen (1526-1590) and Tang Hsien-tsu (1556-1617). Tang wrote the well-known drama Mu-tan-ting ("The Peony Pavilion"), one of the finest love-stories of Chinese literature, full of romance and remote from all reality. This is true also of the other dramas by T'ang, especially his "Four Dreams", a series of four plays. In them a man lives in dream through many years of his future life, with the result that he realizes the worthlessness of life and decides to become a monk. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“Together with the development of the drama (or, rather, the opera) in the Ming epoch went an important endeavour in the modernization of music, the attempt to create a "well-tempered scale" made in 1584 by Zhu Tsai-yu. This solved in China a problem which was not tackled till later in Europe. The first Chinese theorists of music who occupied themselves with this problem were Ching Fang (77-37 B.C.) and Ho Ch'êng-t'ien (A.D. 370-447).

Neo-Confucianism and Wang Yangming

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ “Neo-Confucianism” is a general term used to refer to the renaissance of Confucianism during the Song dynasty following a long period in which Buddhism and Daoism had dominated the philosophical world of the Chinese and also to the various philosophical schools of thought that developed as a result of that renaissance. Neo-Confucianism had its roots in the late Tang, came to maturity in the Northern and Southern Song periods, and continued to develop in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing periods. As a whole, Neo-Confucianism can best be understood as an intellectual reaction to the challenges of Buddhist and Daoist philosophy in which avowedly Confucian scholars incorporated Buddhist and Daoist concepts in order to produce a more sophisticated new Confucian metaphysics. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“As Neo-Confucianism developed, two trends of thought emerged out of the Southern Song philosopher and official Zhu Xi’s synthesis of the “learning of Principle” and the “Learning of the Mind and Heart.” Both trends agreed that all the myriad things of the universe are manifestations of a single “Principle” (li) and that this Principle is the essence of morality. By understanding the Principle that underlies the universe (just as Buddhists understood all things in the universe as manifestations of the single Buddha spirit), then, men may understand the moral principles that they must put into practice in order to achieve an ordered family, good government, and peace under heaven. The two trends of thought differed, however, on the way in which human beings are to understand Principle.

“The thinking surrounding the “Learning of the Mind and Heart” is most often identified with the Ming general and statesman Wang Yangming (1472-1529). Wang argued that inasmuch as every living thing is a manifestation of Principle, then one need not look outside oneself in order to understand Principle (and therefore morality): one should consult one’s own heart (or mind), wherein Principle surely lay. Since Principle is the basis of human nature, then it follows that anyone who understands his or her true nature understands the Principle of the universe.

Wang Yangming’s Philosophy

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: “All main schools of Chinese philosophy were still based on Confucius. Wang Yangming's philosophy also followed Confucius, but he liberated himself from the Neo-Confucian tendency as represented by Zhu Xi, which started in the Song epoch and continued to rule in China in his time and after him; he introduced into Confucian philosophy the conception of "intuition". He regarded intuition as the decisive philosophic experience; only through intuition could man come to true knowledge. This idea shows an element of meditative Buddhism along lines which the philosopher Lu Xiang-shan (1139-1192) had first developed, while classical Neo-Confucianism was more an integration of monastic Buddhism into Confucianism. Lu had felt himself close to Wang Anshi (1021-1086), and this whole school. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

During the Mongol period, a Taoist group, the Zengyi Dao (Correct Unity Sect) had developed. Originally, this group was a continuation of Zhang Daoling’s sect of Taoism. Through the Cheng-i adherents, the Southern school had gained political influence on the despotic Mongol rulers. The despotic Yongle emperor had favoured the monk Tao-yen (c. 1338-1418) who had also Taoist training and proposed a philosophy which also stressed intuition. He was, incidentally, in charge of the compilation of the largest encyclopaedia ever written, the Yongle ta-tien commissioned by the Yongle emperor.

“Wang Yangming followed the Wang Anshi tradition. The introduction of the conception of intuition, a highly subjective conception, into the system of a practical state philosophy like Confucianism could not but lead in the practice of the statesman to Machiavellism. The statesman who followed the teaching of Wang Yangming had the opportunity of justifying whatever he did by his intuition.

“Wang Yangming failed to gain acceptance for his philosophy. His disciples also failed to establish his doctrine in China, because it served the interests of an individual despot against those of the gentry as a class, and the middle class, which might have formed a counterweight against them, was not yet politically ripe for the seizure of the opportunity here offered to it. In Japan, however, Wang's doctrine gained many followers, because it admirably served the dictatorial state system which had developed in that country. Incidentally, Chiang Kai-shek in those years in which he showed Fascist tendencies, also got interested in Wang Yangming.

Wang Yangming’s Ideas

The following passage from Instructions for Practical Living by Wang’s disciple Xu Ai relates Wang’s teaching regarding knowledge and action: “I [Xu Ai] did not understand the Teacher’s doctrine of the unity of knowing and acting and, debated over it back and forth with Huang Zongxian and Gu Weixian without coming to any conclusion. Therefore I took the matter to the Teacher. The Teacher said, “Give an example and let me see.” I said, “For example, there are people who know that parents should be served with filiality and elder brothers treated with respect, but they cannot put these things into practice. [Source: “Unity of Knowing and Acting” by Wang Yangming, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“This shows that knowing and acting are clearly two different things.” The Teacher said, “The knowing and acting you refer to are already separated by selfish desires and are no longer knowing and acting in their original substance. There have never been people who know but do not act. Those who are supposed to know but do not act simply do not yet know. When sages and worthies taught people about knowing and acting, it was precisely because they wanted them to restore this original substance, and not just to have them behave like that and be satisfied.”

In “Identification of Mind and Principle” Wang discusses the Mind/Principle relationship: “What Zhu Xi meant by the investigation of things is “to investigate the principle in things to the utmost as we come into contact with them.” To investigate the principle in things to the utmost as we come into contact with them means to search in each individual thing for its so-called definite principle. It means further that the principle in each individual thing is to be sought with the mind, thus separating the mind and principle into two. To seek for principle in each individual thing is like looking for the principle of filiality in parents. [Source: “The Identification of Mind and Principle” by Wang Yangming, from “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

“If the principle of filiality is to be sought in parents, then is it actually in my own mind or is it in my parents? If it is actually in the person of my parents, is it true that as soon as parents pass away the mind will then lack the principle of filiality? When I see a child about to fall into a well [and have a feeling of commiseration], there must be the principle of commiseration. Is this principle of commiseration actually in the person of the child or is it in the innate knowledge of my mind? Perhaps one cannot follow the child into the well [to rescue it]. Perhaps one can rescue it by seizing it with the hand. All this involves principle. Is it really in the person of the child or does it emanate from the innate knowledge in my mind? What is true here is true of all things and events. From this we know the mistake of separating the mind and principle into two.”

Hai Rui: Ming Dynasty Official behind the Cultural Revolution

Hai Rui (1514 to 1587) was a famous official in the Ming dynasty. His name has come down in history as a model of honesty and integrity in office and he reemerged as an important historical character during the Cultural Revolution. Hai Rui, whose great-grandfather married an Arab and subsequently adopted Islam, was born in Qiongshan, Hainan, where he was raised by his mother (also a Muslim, from a Hui, family). Unsuccessful in the official examinations, his official career started in 1553, when he was aged 39, with a humble position as clerk of education in Fujian province. [Source: Cultural China \=/]

Hai Rui

At the beginning of his career, Hai Rui was appointed the post of Fujian Nanping Jiaoyu, then was promoted as the magistrate of Chun'an county in Zhejiang and Xingguo county in Jiangxi, he pursued the policy of measuring land carefully and equalizing the tax, and reversed many unjust cases, cracked down corrupt officials, and enjoyed the ardent support of the people. In the 45th year of Jiajing emperor, he was promoted as president of Yunnan department of the Board of Revenue. He criticized that Shizong emperor for practicing witchcraft, living in luxury and neglecting his duties. For this he was thrown into prison. After Shizong died, he was released. In the 3rd year of Longqing emperor (1569), he was promoted as vice Qiandu Yushi. As before, he punished corrupt officials, cracked down on despots, dredged and built river channels, constructed irrigation works and forced corrupt officials to work in the fields to people, and thus became known as "Hai the Clear Sky". After that, he was purged and stayed at home idle for 16 years. In the 13th year of Wanli emperor (1585), he was appointed to an important position again, the vice president of the Board of Civil Office in Nanjing, and again worked diligently to strictly punish corrupt officials and clampdown on the practice of accepting bribes. Hai Rui died in office two years later. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Hai Rui built his reputation on uncompromising adherence to an upright morality, scrupulous honesty, poverty, and fairness. This won him widespread popular support but made him many enemies in the bureaucracy. When he impeached the Jiajing Emperor himself in 1565 and was initially sentenced to death but escaped that fate perhaps because of his reputation and popularity. Throughout his life, Hai Rui was known as an honest and incorruptible official, upright and above flattery, and was deeply respected and venerated by the people. It was said, when hearing the grievous news of his death, the local ordinary people were filled with deep sorrow and felt like they lost a family member. When his bier was transported back to his hometown by the waterway in Nanjing, the banks of the Yangtze River were filled with people to see him off. Many ordinary people places his portrait in their homes. Dramas and literary works inspired by him include The Big Red Gown of Lord Hai and The Small Red Gown of Lord Hai, and Hai Rui Submitted a Memorial to the Emperor.

Hai Rui's fame lived on in modern times. An article entitled "Hai Rui Dismissed from Office", written by Communist Party official Wu Han in 1959 and later made into a Peking Opera play, was interpreted by Gang of Four member Yao Wenyuan as an allegorical work with the honest moral official Hai Rui representing disgraced official Peng Dehuai, who was purged by Mao for his outspoken criticism of the Great Leap Forward, and corrupt emperor representing Mao Zedong. The November 10, 1965 article in a prominent Shanghai newspaper, "A Criticism of the Historical Drama 'Hai Rui Dismissed From Office'", written by Yao, is widely seen as the spark that ignited the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, the grave of Hai Rui was destroyed but it has since been rebuilt. \=/

The origins of the Cultural Revolution are complex and even today not completely understood. In 1966, the Communist Party Congress softened the revolutionary party line and Mao saw this as a threat on his leadership. He was also upset by the popular Beijing play “Dismissal of Hai Rui From Office," which was viewed as veiled attack on his leadership. Yao Wenyuan condemned “Dismissal of Hai Rui From Office” as a coded attack on Mao by his rivals. Yao wrote the article under orders from Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, and was rewarded with a position in the Politburo.

Ming Tombs

The Ming Tombs (45 kilometers northwest of Beijing) are not far from the Great Wall of China. The 13 tombs are reached by following the four-mile Sacred Way which begins at a white marble gate and ends in a beautiful secluded ravine surrounded by trees. Many people find the tombs themselves to be disappointing but enjoy the walk and the lovely countryside.

The Sacred Way passes through Great Red Gate, a group of three great archways, each 120 feet high and 35 feet wide. Further along is the 30-foot-high Stele Pavilion, decorated with carvings of dragons and tortoises, and the famous Avenue of the Animals, featuring 12 pairs of stone animals, facing each other and kneeling and standing on either side of the Sacred Way. The animals include elephants, horses, camels, lions and two mythical creatures — a qilin (a dragon-like beast with deer antlers and a cow's tail) and a xiechi (a horned cat). The human figures look like generals. Continuing further visitors pass several rows of mandarin statues, a Dragon and Phoenix Gate and a seven-arch bridge to finally arrive at the tombs.

The tomb of Emperor Shen Zong (A.D. 1573-1620) is the only one that is open. It is surrounded by several buildings, courtyards, terraces and two museums. Inside the tomb are three rooms. The first one doesn't have much. The second one contains altars, funerary lamps and a throne. The bodies of the Emperor and his two empresses were kept in the third room along with various treasures. The Emperor's crown, his robe and the Empress's phoenix tiaras are kept in one of the museums. The tomb of Emperor Cheng Zu (A.D. 1403-1424) is unexcavated and surrounded by lovely terraces, courtyard, garden, pavilions and gates.

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Ming tomb

Ming Mummy

In March 2011, the Daily Mail reported: “The corpse of the high-ranking woman believed to be from the Ming Dynasty was stumbled across by a team who were looking to expand a street in the city of Taizhou, in the Jiangsu Province. Discovered two metres below the road surface and preserved in a brown liquid, the woman's features - from her head to her shoes - have retained their original condition, and have hardly deteriorated. [Source: Oliver Pickup, Daily Mail, March 8 2011 ////]

“When the discovery was made by the road workers in February 2011 Chinese archaeologists, from the nearby Museum of Taizhou, were called into excavate the area, the state agency Xinhua News reported. They were surprised by the remarkably good condition of the woman's skin, hair, eyelashes and face. It was as though she had only recently died. ////

“The woman is thought to be 700 years old. She is wearing Ming Dynasty dress and has a ring on her right hand. The skin is well preserved. The eyebrows are still intact. Her body, which measures 1.5 metres high, was found at the construction site immersed in a brown liquid inside the coffin. Also in the coffin were bones, ceramics, ancient writings and other relics. A map of the Ming Dynasty and two other wooden coffins were also discovered This is the latest discovery after a lull of three years in the area. Between 1979 and 2008 five mummies were found, all in very good condition. ////

“Those findings raised the interest in learning the techniques to better understand the Ming dynasty's expertise in mummifying as well as their funeral rituals and customs. Director of the Museum of Taizhou, Wang Weiyin, told Xinhua that the mummy's clothes are made mostly of silk, with a little cotton. He said usually silk and cotton are very hard to preserve and excavations found that this mummifying technology was used only at very high-profile funerals.” ////

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei ; \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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