Ming China

Ming Philosophy


   By the Ming dynasty, the dominant philosophy in China had become the Neo-Confucianism of Chu Hsi (1130-1200), who argued that there was an immaterial principle (li ) that inhered in all things and gave to all things form and essence. Critical study of all things would reveal this single, underlying principle—this branch of Neo-Confucianism was called "The School of Principle." By the Ming dynasty, Chu Hsi's commentaries on the Confucian classics had become the orthodox interpretations and the central texts of the civil service examinations. Since political success depended on the examinations, almost all educated Chinese were fluent in the Neo-Confucian thought of Chu Hsi.

Wang Yang-ming

   Against this orthodoxy, the other branch of Neo-Confucianism, the School of Mind found a powerful advocate in Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529). The School of Mind, which had been founded by Ch'eng Hao (1032-1085), also agreed that the material world was built from a single, immutable Principle (li ) . This principle, however, existed in totality in the human mind, which as the embodiment of Principle is unified and equivalent to the universal mind.

   Wang Yang-ming believed also that the Principle of the universe is equivalent to the human mind, and that the practice of jen , or "humanity," unifies the wise man with the universe. Wang Yang-ming, however, expanded this notion and asserted that innate knowledge can manifest the original mind that is equivalent to the universe. This innate knowledge represents the universal moral law and is the foundation of our sense of right and wrong. Becoming a full human being involves following this innate knowledge; all self-perfection requires is following one's innate sense of right or wrong without burdening it with selfishness or specious rationalizations. Wisdom, then, is the inheritance of all human beings; peasants as well as the educated have all the means necessary to become sages. Sagehood is based entirely on self-knowledge.

   The most important aspect of Wang's philosophy was his doctrine of the unity of knowledge and action. All knowledge, in order to be true knowledge, must have practical consequences. All action, in order to be action, must be based on knowledge. Only by actually carrying out what you know to be a moral action can you truly be said to understand it as a moral action.

   The philosophy of Wang Yang-ming soon divided into two schools or "wings." The first school stressed moral cultivation of the self, developing its main doctrines from Wang Yang-ming's doctrine that no knowledge is valid without practical results. The other school stressed Wang's doctrine of innate knowledge and developed a philosophy of intuitive enlightenment. This school had much in common with Ch'an ("Meditation") Buddhism which also stressed intuitive enlightenment and the value of spontaneity over conscious effort.

Religion

   The Hong Wu emperor (1368-1398) was at an earlier point in his life a Buddhist monk, and when he came to power he actively tried to revive and promote native Chinese schools of Buddhism. The Mongols had promoted the highly esoteric Tibetan lamaist Buddhism over all other forms, and Hong Wu was determined to eliminate Lamaist Buddhism from China. Hong Wu, however, took an enormous interest in Taoism as well; late in his rule, he wrote a commentary on the Tao te ching in order to guide its followers.

   Most of the Ming emperors were devoutly Buddhist and promoted and expanded Buddhism throughout China. The Chia-ching emperor (1522-1566), however, was ardently devoted to Taoism and severely discouraged Buddhism in the capital. He had one overwhelming motive: he wished to become immortal and Taoist alchemy held out the promise of immortality. The emperor became increasingly obsessed with Taoist ceremonies and fantastic omens and steadily neglected the government. In his last twenty-five years, he completely neglected the government which allowed for the corrupt autocracy of his Grand Secretary, Yen Sung. The Wan-li emperor (1572-1619), however, was a devout Buddhist, and Buddhism would remain the dominant religion until the end of the dynasty.

   Islam had been introduced into Chinese culture during the Tang dynasty, and had spread rapidly during the Mongol dynasty. The Ming dynasty tolerated Islam and even appointed several Islamic officials in its government. For the most part, however, the Islamic community was separate from the Chinese community. They lived in their own villages or lived in their own sections of the cities. While the religion grew throughout the Ming, Muslim Chinese largely avoided proselytizing. At times, tension between Muslim and traditional Chinese erupted into violence, often because of ill-treatment of or insulting behavior towards Muslims. In 1588, a riot broke out in Beijing when a colony of Muslim Chinese, who lived outside the Hsüan-wu gate, were forbidden from practicing their central trade, cow butchering. A riot broke out and it took palace officials and eunuchs to finally negotiate pacification.

   Despite the separation of the Muslim and traditional Chinese populations, Islam had some affects on traditional Chinese culture, particularly food preparation. In the sixteenth century, Islamic foods became somewhat fashionable in traditional Chinese households. Chinese art incorporated Islamic motifs and even Arabic calligraphy, especially in porcelains, and Buddhist art began to incorporate Muslims into its representations.

   Christianity had not fared as well in China as Islam. The first Christian mission to China was a Nestorian Christian mission in 635 AD; by the ninth century, however, the Nestorians had been driven out by the emperor Wu-tsung. Franciscans began a mssion during the Yüan dynasty in 1289 and built a bishopric in Beijing in 1307, but by 1370, this mission, too, had sputtered out. The Ming were very hostile towards Christianity, and when the sea-routes to China were discovered in the sixteenth century, the Jesuit, Francis Xavier, attempted to establish a mission on the Portugese settlement of Macao. He did not, however, manage to get to mainlnad China.

   It was Matteo Ricci who successfully introduced Christianity into China. A Jesuit, he managed to convince Chinese officials to allow him to settle in Chao-ch'ing in southern China. He was thoroughly educated in European science and mathematics, and he was fluent in Chinese. He determined that Christianity could only be introduced into Chinese society through the imperial court, and he set about studying the Chinese classics and Chinese philosophy. Adopting the same dress as court scholars, he soon impressed these scholars with his breadth of knowledge about Chinese thought. Through this means, he gained converts to Catholicism primarily from the educated classes. His main selling point, however, was European science and mathematics; much of the fascination with Catholicism in the Ming court and official bureaucracy was driven by the science and mathematics that Ricci carried with him. Ricci died in 1610, but by 1614, there were Jesuit missionaries in nine of the fifteen Chinese provinces. By the end of the Ming dynasty, there were over 150,000 Catholic Chinese and Jesuit missionaries were operating in thirteen of the fifteen provinces.

   While the missionaries made great progress in converting court officials, despite the fact that the Catholics were in open conflict with Buddhists and Taoists, the fall of the Ming ended Ricci's program of converting the imperial court. At one point, the Jesuits had been on the verge of converting the Ch'ung-chen emperor (1628-1644), but the death of his son scared him off the project. The final defeat of the Ming closed off the imperial palace to the Jesuit misisonaries.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97