Wang Yangming was a Ming Chinese idealist Neo-Confucian philosopher, official, educationist, calligraphist and general. He is commonly regarded as the most important Neo-Confucian thinker with interpretations of Confucianism that denied the rationalist dualism of the orthodox philosophy of Zhu Xi.
Wang Yangming was born to a highly intellectual family in Zhejiang province. Nine years after his birth, his father Wang Hua achieved first place in the nation’s highest civil service examination. Wang Hua was also known for having found a bag of gold when he was a child and returned it to its drunken owner. Wang Yangming lived in Beijing with his father and showed a precocious interest in military affairs.
Wang Yangming obtained the Presented Scholar degree in 1499 and started his government career. He served as an executive assistant in various government departments until being banished for offending a eunuch in 1505. His professional career was later ensured when he became the Governor of Jiangxi.
Wang became a successful general and was known for the strict discipline he imposed on his troops. In 1517 and 1518, he was dispatch in response to petitions to suppress peasant revolts in Jiangxi, Fujian and Guangdong.
In 1517, he pacified a peasant insurgency in southern Jiangxi. Two years later, an ambitious Ming royal prince attempted to usurp the throne, but his revolt was put down by Wang Yangming in little more than a month.
In 1527-28, shortly before his death, Yangming suppressed ethnic uprisings in Guangxi by a combination of magnanimous pardons and surprise raids. For these military exploits, he was given the rank of earl.
Wang Yangming borrowed heavily from the Zen school of Buddhism and proposed a form of meditation for cleansing the human mind of selfish desires, which led his opponents to accuse him of being a crypto-Buddhist. His philosophy spread beyond national boundaries, particularly into pre-modern Japan.
Yangming died on 9 January 1529, in a government boat in Jiangxi midway to his home. In 1584 he was offered sacrifice in the Confucian Temple, the highest honour for a scholar.
Wang’s legacy in Neo-Confucian tradition and Confucian philosophy as a whole is his claim that the fundamental root of social problems lies in the fact that one fails to gain a genuine understanding of one’s self and its relation to the world, and thus fails to live up to what one could be.
Wang Yangming developed the idea of innate knowing, arguing that every person knows from birth the difference between good and evil. As the principal proponent of the School of Mind, he believed that it is not the world that shapes the mind, but the mind that gives reason to and influences the world. Physical objects do not exist apart from the human mind.