Philosophers: Wang Fu-zi
(Wang Fu-chih, Wang Ch'uan-shan)
(1619-1693 CE)

[Life & work] | [On-line introductions]

Wang fu-zi was born in 1619 in Hengyang (Hunan province) in Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) China. His father was a scholar, and Wang was brought up reading the classics from an early age. When he was twenty-four, having just passed his civil-service exam, China was invaded by the Manchus, who went on to establish the Qing (Ch'ing) Dynasty (1644-1911). Wang was loyal to the Ming emperors, and spent his life first fighting the Manchus and then hiding from them (at the foot of the mountain Ch'uan-shan, hence his alternative name). During his lifetime he wrote over 100 books, of which many have been lost.

Wang was a Confucian philosopher, and considered that the neo-Confucianism then dominant was a distortion of genuine Confucian teaching; this led him both to produce many commentaries on the Confucian classics, five on the Yi Jing (I Ching - Book of Changes) alone, and to develop his own distinctive philosophical system. He was also influenced by the works of Zhang-zai and the main figure in early Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi. His work covered a wide range of areas, including metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, poetry, and politics.

Wang's metaphysical position is difficult to categorise precisely, though it's probably best seen as a sort of materialism; he held that only qi (or ch'i: energy, or material force) exists, and that the fundamental Confucian category of li (principle, form, or idea) is merely the principle of the qi, and so doesn't exist in its own right. As qi has always existed, so has the universe. This also leads to a naturalist view of ethics, according to which virtues and values are assigned by human beings, nature itself being value-free.

What is meant by the Way [Dao] is the management of concrete things. [...] Lao-zi was blind to this and said that the Way existed in emptiness [...] Buddha was blind to this and said that the Way existed in silence [...] One may keep on uttering such extravagant words endlessly, but no-one can ever escape from concrete things. Ch'uan-shan i-shu

Human nature is a function in part of the material nature of the person at birth, in part of the changes she undergoes through life, changes arising from her relationship as a moral being with other material objects. This relationship is largely a matter of desires, which Wang argued (against the Buddhists, for example) are not evil, but unavoidable and even beneficial; evil arises out of lack of moderation, not out of the material nature of the world. Indeed, our moral sense is rooted in our human nature, in our feelings.

With regard to epistemology, Wang emphasised the need for both knowledge gained from the senses through study and knowledge gained through reason; both are gained as a gradual process (there's no sudden enlightenment), for knowing and acting are bound together, action being the foundation of knowledge.

Wang's political and historical writings are perhaps most responsible for his popularity in modern China (though his materialism also helped). He argued for an increase in taxation as a means to reduce the power of the landlords, and to encourage land-owning peasants. Government is for the benefit of the governed, not of the governors. History continually renews itself; human civilisation gradually progresses (though against the background of cycles of prosperity and chaos), as a result of the virtues of the emperor and the people. Neither the cycles nor the improvement is a matter of fate, but of the working through of the natural laws of individuals and society. There was no golden age which we must try to emulate (or even imitate).

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.
+ Wang Fu-chih
Introduction by LIU JeeLoo (SUNY Geneseo).

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