Wang Yangming Part II: A Military Strategist
Most people, if you ask them what they did at age fifteen, would probably list studying, playing sports, or trying their luck with the opposite sex. If you ask one particular Chinese man from the Ming dynasty however, the story gets better. At age fifteen, this person skipped school and headed off to the border with some servants to survey the geography and defensibility of the border. He did all this when his emperor was imprisoned by Wala Mongolian militants, and his name was Wang Yangming (courtesy name Wang Shouren).
In a previous post, I introduce Wang Yangming, along with his philosophy of idealism. However, Wang has another history as a military strategist which ought not to be ignored. In his History of the Ming Dynasty (明史), Zhang Tingyu comments on Wang’s abilities as a general: “Shouren, general of an army full of civilians and junior officials, defeated rebels who had plagued the local area for decades and was canonized as a god in public” [守仁所将皆文吏及偏裨小校, 平数十年巨寇, 远近惊为神]. Wang is best known for defeating the rebel force of Lord Ning. His campaign used a range of strategies to confuse the enemy, allowing him to gain a military advantage.
Wang’s reputation as an able and calculating strategist is similar to a figure from the Three States period, Zhuge Liang (Kongming). Kongming was ingenuous in his “borrowing” of arrows from Cao Cao’s army, a tactic which has been depicted in historical books and novels. He took advantage of the heavy fog on the river to confuse the enemy on the opposite bank. Using several small boats populated by scarecrows and beating the drums loudly, he convinced enemy forces to fire thousands of arrows at the scarecrows, which his own army began to use.
Wang Yangming was also responsible for a groundbreaking administrative law, popularized by the Qing dynasty which ensued. In order to strengthen local support and fight against the rebels, he passed a law called “Ten Homes, One Record” (十家牌法). The law stated that each local population record was required to provide information on ten households: on every family member and their origins, as well as their occupations. All of these records were examined routinely. If one family concealed any rebels, the other nine families would be checked and imprisoned as well. Further, if any newcomer was not declared to the government, they would be labelled a “black person” (someone with no record).
It is more difficult for a civil official to be a good leader in battle, than for a general who is accustomed to war. Yet somehow, Wang Yangming managed it. As it says in History of the Ming Dynasty, “in the whole history of Ming, no civil official was also a capable military strategist except for Wang Shouren” [终明之世，文臣用兵制胜，未有如守仁者也]. Still, we should not forget Wang’s role as a philosopher of idealism. Wang’s own writing neatly encapsulates these opposing identities: “it is always easy to conquer the enemy in the mountains, but rather hard to conquer the enemy in your mind” [破山中贼易，破心中贼难].
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