Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Leadership, Authority, and Religious Roles

Have there been any important Confucian reformers?

Wang Yang Ming (1472-1529 C.E.) was an outspoken government official of the Ming dynasty. He was perhaps the most influential teacher of the Neo-Confucian “School of Mind,” also known as the Idealists (xin xue). Wang believed that the teaching of his predecessors in the Neo-Confucian movement had lost all credibility when Yuan dynasty bureaucrats made it the official curriculum for civil service examinations. Reduced to a fixed set of questions and answers, Neo-Confucian ideas no longer required people to think independently. Wang’s major work, Investigation into the “Great Learning”, commented on the ancient Confucian text, underscoring the need for active engagement with ideas. He condemned slavish adherence to rigid canons of ritual propriety. Wang argued for an understanding of li as a living universal principle rather than a list of prescribed procedures and policies. He borrowed from Daoist and Buddhist teachings, as earlier Neo-Confucians had done, attempting to reinvigorate the tradition as a way of interpreting the whole of life. And Wang reintroduced a metaphysical element by speaking of a “true self” and a “heavenly principle.” Above all, he insisted, one must not lose sight of the underlying challenge of human development and the struggle for moral improvement. Institutionalize what is meant to be a living tradition, Wang warned, and you create a giant fossil.


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