Nothing Beyond Mind (心外无物) and Knowledge as Action (知行合一): Wang Yangming (王阳明), the Greatest Chinese Idealist Philosopher and Strategist (I)
Any mention of idealism in philosophy will probably bring to mind names like Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer. However, in China’s Ming dynasty, there was a very important Chinese Idealist philosopher who is much less well-known in the West, yet was the founder of idealism in ancient China and was canonized as a legend in history. He is Wang Yangming (王阳明, 1472-1529).
A story in the book “明朝那些事儿” (Stories of the Ming Dynasty) is a good illustration of Wang Yangming’s achievements and his profound influence. Tōgō Heihachirō (東鄉平八郎) was one of Japan’s greatest naval heroes and referred to by Western journalists as “the Nelson of the East” after Horatio Nelson; he defeated the fleets of Russia in 1905 when the Japanese force was at a disadvantage during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). Upon his return to Japan, a banquet was held in honor of the victory and his capability. At the banquet, as the Stories of the Ming Dynasty says, “he said not a word through all the congratulations and praise; instead, he then showed the pass on his waist, inscribed with only one sentence: Bow my head to Yangming with sincere admiration throughout my life.” [面对着与会众人的一片夸赞之声，东乡平八郎默不作声，只是拿出了自己的腰牌，示与众人，上面只有七个大字: 一生伏首拜阳明.] (当年明月, 2009, Vol. 3)
Let me begin Wang’s legend by outlining one of his roles, that of a philosopher. In his philosophy, Wang was opposed to the theories of Cheng Yi (程颐) and Zhu Xi (朱熹) who advocated using reason alone to understand the world. Instead, Wang held that one must look for the reason or the logic of the world in his or her own mind, because all reasons and rules rely on the human mind. Based on the notion that the world and all the things in the world are unified, Wang argued that theory and practice cannot be separated and any knowledge without practice cannot be called true knowledge. That is the famous phrases “心即是理” (mind is reason) and “知行合一” (knowledge as action), which made a great impact on the history of Chinese philosophy, including individuals such as Sun Yat-sen (孙中山), Kang Youwei (康有为) and so on.
As for another concept in Wang’s theory, “心外无物”, which means that nothing exists outside human mind, there is an interesting and well-known metaphor by Wang Yangming: “你未看此花时，此花与汝心同归于寂；你来看此花时，则此花颜色一时明白起来，便知此花不在你的心外. ” (Before noticing a flower, it remains in darkness in your mind; when you turn to look at the flower, its colors brightens and it comes into your mind.) For him, knowledge and perception of objects are construed in mind.
How did Wang get interested in philosophy and finally become a big name in this field? Intelligence, and great ambition. At a young age, quite intelligent, Wang sometimes behaved in an unusual or even “abnormal” way in others’ eyes; for example, he spent months glaring at a bamboo in order to know the reason of this object and to reflect on the approach to learning an object. Wang showed no interest in classic books or being a governor in the future like other pupils; his only ambition was to be a saint. To be a saint. Sounds ridiculous, but he managed it. Wang devoted his whole life to philosophy and education, even when he was embroiled in tough battles as a military strategist, when he was framed and sent to jail, and when he was relegated to a remote and uncivilized region as a posthouse official.
The depth and complexity of Wang Yangming’s philosophy “心学” (Theory of Mind) are such that it is only after complete immersion that the significance of its questions, and the imaginative power of its answers, can be understood. Though it is by no means a light read, readers will undoubtedly be as impressed by Wang’s concepts, and his remarkable life, as I was while reading his story and his theory on the 11-hour flight from Shanghai to London last September.
王守仁, 《王阳明全集》, 上海：上海古籍出版社, 2011.
当年明月, 《明朝那些事儿》, 北京：中国友谊出版公司, 2006.