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15 July 2015

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Wang Fuzhi



Wang Fuzhi, (courtesy name Ernong, pseudonym Chuanshan), was a Chinese philosopher of the late Ming, early Qing dynasties.



Born to a scholarly family in Hengyang in Hunan province in 1619, Wang Fuzhi began his education in the Chinese classic texts when very young. He passed his civil-service examination at the age of twenty-four, but his projected career was diverted by the invasion of China by the Manchus, the founders of the Qing dynasty.

Staying loyal to the Ming emperors, Wang first fought against the invaders, and then spent the rest of his life in hiding from them. His refuge was at the foot of the mountain Chuan-shan, from where he took his alternative name). He died in 1693, although it is not known for certain where or how.


Philosophical work

Wang Fuzhi is said to have written over a hundred books, but many of them have been lost; the remainder are collected as the Chuanshan Yishu chuanji (Collection of Wang Chuanshan's Remaining Works).

Wang was a follower of Confucius, but he believed that the Neo-Confucian philosophy which dominated China at the time had distorted Confucius's teachings. He therefore wrote his own commentaries on the Confucian classics (including five on the Yi Jing or Book of Changes), and gradually developed his own philosophical system. He wrote on many topics, including metaphysics, epistemology, moral philosophy, poetry, and politics.

Apart from Confucius, his influences included Zhang Zai and the major early Neo-Confucian Zhu Xi.



Wang's metaphysical approach is not easily pigeon-holed, but it is not too misleading to think of it as a version of materialism. Only qi (energy or material force) exists; li (principle, form, or idea), which was a central concept in traditional Confucian thought, does not exist independently, being simply the principle of the qi. Qi, thus the whole universe, has always existed


Wang's metaphysical ideas led him to a naturalist moral philosophy (which helped bring him popularity in modern China). There are no values in nature; virtues and values are assigned to objects and actions by human beings. In particular, human desires are not inherently evil (as the Buddhists argued); they are not only unavoidable, being an essential part of our nature, but can be beneficial - the moral nature of human beings is grounded in our feelings for others. It is only lack of moderation that leads to problems.

Human desires comprise the main driving force of our relationships – as material beings in the material world in which we live, and human nature develops out of our initial material nature together with the changes that we undergo as a result of our interactions with the world.



Wang laid great stress on the need for both experience and reason: we must study the world using our senses, and reason carefully about it. Thus, knowledge and action are intertwined, and acting is the ground of knowing. The gaining of knowledge is a slow and laborious process;  there is no room in Wang's epistemology for flashes of enlightenment.


Politics & history

Aside from his materialist stance, Wang' popularity in modern China came largely as a result of his political and historical thought. Government, he argued, should benefit the people, not those in power. History is a continuous cycle of renewal, involving the gradual but continuous progress of human society. There are, of course, periods of chaos and want as well as of stability and prosperity, depending on the degree of virtue of the emperor and of the people as a whole, but the underlying direction is upwards. This is not the result of fate, of a mystical pattern of events built into the structure of the world; it is rather the result of the natural laws that govern human beings and society. Thus he rejects the notion of a golden age in the past which should be emulated.