Yangmingism, known in Mandarin as Xīnxué (心學) and in Japanese as Yōmeigaku (陽明学), is one of the major philosophical schools of Neo-Confucianism, based on the ideas of the idealist Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Shouren (whose pseudonym was Yangming Zi and thus is often referred as Wang Yangming). Throughout the whole Yuan dynasty, as well as in the beginning of the Ming dynasty, the magistral philosophy in China was the Rationalistic School, another Neo-Confucianism school emphasizing the importance of observational science built by Cheng Yi and Zhu Xi.[1] Wang Yangming, on the other hand, developed his philosophy as the main intellectual opposition to the Cheng-Zhu School. Yangmingism is considered to be part of the School of Mind established by Lu Jiuyuan, upon whom Yangming drew inspirations. Yangming argued that one can learn the supreme principle (理, pinyin: Li) from their minds, objecting to Cheng and Zhu's belief that one can only seek the supreme principle in the objective world. Furthermore, Yangmingism posits a oneness of action and knowledge in relation to one's concepts of morality. This idea, "regard the inner knowledge and the exterior action as one", or "知行合一" in Chinese, is the main tenet in Yangmingism.[2]

Portrayal of Wang Yangming

Yangming's philosophy was inherited and spread by his disciples. Eventually, Yangmingism took the dominating place of Cheng-Zhu School and started to have followers outside China. Yangmingism became an influence on the incipient anti-foreigner movement in 19th century Japan.[3] In the 20th century, Japanese author and nationalist Yukio Mishima examined Yangmingism as an integral part of the ideologies behind the Meiji Restoration as well as further samurai resistance, in particular the Shinpūren rebellion.[4]


Former residence of Wang Yangming

In 1472, Yangming was born in a rich household in Yuyao, Zhejiang. Yangming's father ranked first place in the imperial examination in 1481, thus he had been expecting his children to inherit his knowledge and start their career by participating in the imperial examination.[5]

When Yangming was 12 years old, Yangming's father sent him to a private school to prepare for the exam. At the age of eighteen, Yangming had a talk with Lou Liang, who was one of the representative figures of Cheng-Zhu School at that time. Lou's teachings had significantly enhanced Yangming's interest in Cheng-Zhu School. After their conversations, Yangming managed to read through all of Zhu’s work, reflecting on Cheng-Zhu School’s principle that “to acquire knowledge one must study things (格物致知).” To practice this principle, Yangming spent seven days doing nothing except staring at, or so to say, studying the bamboos planted in the garden.[5]

Lu Jiuyuan

Not surprisingly, not only did he not learn anything from the bamboos, but Yangming also fell seriously ill after sitting in the garden for seven days. Therefore, Yangming had given up on most of the Cheng-Zhu literature, as well as the idea of taking the imperial examination.[5] Instead, he began to read texts written by other Chinese philosophers, and eventually narrowed his focus on Taoism and Lu Jiuyuan, whose work had been a major opponent to the Cheng-Zhu's Rationalistic School.[6]

Though Yangming had lost his faith in the imperial examination, he still signed up for the exam for the sake of his father. He passed the exam and was later assigned to work in the construction department in the central government. In 1506, Yangming was caught in political conflicts, and soon was demoted to Guizhou, the most deserted place in China at that time.[5] Yangming soon recovered from the setback. While working on improving the living situations of people in Guizhou, Yangming developed his own philosophical principles, which were then called Yangminism, based on The Great Learning and Lu's work.[6]

Major philosophy principlesEdit

"The Supreme Principle is Buried in One's Mind"[7]Edit

Yangming inherits Lu Jiuyuan's idea that everything one needs can be found in one's heart, opposing to Cheng-Zhu's idea that one must learn from the external things. Yangming argues that there are countless matters existing in the world, we can never get to study all of, or even most of them. However, when we are interacting with the world, we are using our consciousness to look, smell, and hear what is all around us. Thus, we can find the existence of the whole world in our minds. If we think deeper, we can even see the extensions of the world there. The recognition of extensions here doesn't mean that one can see the whole picture of Eiffel Tower even he has never been to Paris. What Yangming has been trying to prove is that, as we have a completed set of perceptions of the world in our minds, we have as well gotten a hold of the ultimate philosophy, the truth of the world, the supreme principles which have been guiding and teaching us through the ages.

Achieve the ultimate consciousnessEdit

Yangming's handwriting

In his book, 傳習錄, or Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings in English, Yangming writes that "there is nothing exists outside our minds, there is no supreme principle exists outside our hearts."[7] However, the problem here is that we let all kinds of selfish desires cover up the supreme principle, so we can't practice the principle well in our daily lives. Yangming uses an example in his book to demonstrate his idea: if we see a child fall into water well, we can't help but feel bad for the child. The feeling of bad here is an embodiment of the inherent supreme principle in our minds. But, if the child happens to be the son of one's biggest enemy, he may not feel bad for the child after all.[7] This is the situation in which the supreme principle is covered by selfish desires. If one can remove all selfish desires from one's heart, then he would achieve the ultimate consciousness, which is the final purpose pursed by many Chinese philosophers throughout centuries.

One thing worth noticing here is that, the ultimate consciousness is also in accordance with Cheng-Zhu's "to acquire knowledge one must study things (格物致知)" in a way. This means that one must conduct appropriate behaviors under certain circumstances. For instance, everyone knows they should care about their families' wellbeing. But if one only asks whether his families are feeling good or bad and does nothing when he receives the answer "feeling bad", this cannot count as the ultimate consciousness. Only does one actually do things to take care of his families can be considered as knowing the ultimate consciousness.[7]

The unity of inner knowledge and actionEdit

The unity of inner knowledge and action, or "知行合一", is probably the most important and well-known concept in Yangmingism. Yangming explains this concept as "Nobody can separate the knowledge and the action apart. If one knows, one will act. If one knows but don't act, then he has never actually known it. If you can obtain both, when you know something, you are already doing it; when you are doing something, then you already know it."

"Nowadays, many people treat knowledge and actions as two distinct things. They think the need to know first, only then can they do something in this area. This lead them to do nothing, as well as to know nothing."

In other words, 知行合一 could be interpret as the consistency of one's Supreme Principle and his objective actions. In the example of a child falling into water well, the action is not trying to save the child, but "feeling bad for the child". And the knowledge, the part of the Supreme Principle used here is the sympathy for others. For those who doesn't feel bad for the child, they haven't learn the knowledge of sympathy yet, thus they cannot apply the knowledge in their actions.

Wang Yangming

Similar ideas can be found in the western literature. In Demian, Hermann Hesse writes that "only the thoughts that we live out have any value."[8] MIT's motto "Mens et Manus,"[9] or "Mind and Hand," also reflect the importance of combining the inner knowledge and actions as one.

The Four-Sentence TeachingEdit

In 1528, one year before his death, Yangming summaries his philosophies into a doctrine called "the Four-Sentence Teaching (四句教)". The original Chinese text is "無善無惡心之體,有善有惡意之動;知善知惡是良知,為善去惡是格物."[10] which can be translated as "People's inward minds don't have the concept of good or bad. If one says he has good or bad in his mind, it is his intentions that moves. Knowing good and bad, as well as doing good and not doing bad, is know the good. Keep the good but remove the bad is rectifying."

Education philosophiesEdit

Yangming regards education as the most efficient way to inspire people to find the Supreme Principle in their minds; it means that not only do education institutions need to teach students academic knowledge, but they also need to teach students moral and ethical principles.[11] He again emphasized the necessity of uniting knowledge and actions as one in the process of education.[7] Yangming believed that in order to achieve something, one must set up a specific goal first.[11]


Zhang Juzheng, one of the greatest Chinese politicians.

Left philosophical genreEdit

Zhezhong SchoolEdit

Notable figures in this genre include Nie Bao, Zou Shouyi, Xu Jie, and Zhang Juzheng. Zhezhong School emphasizes on inner virtues. Scholars in this school regard virtues and knowledge are the foundation of one's life, arguing that one should solely focus on learning instead of actively seeking fames or reputations. They emphasize the importance of education.[6]

Right philosophical genreEdit

Taizhou SchoolEdit

Notable figures include He Xinyin, Yan Shannong, and Wang Gen. Taizhou School became widespread because it focuses on the general public. Scholars in Taizhou School believe that even the most ordinary person has the possibility of accomplishing extraordinary achievements. Everyone is a potential saint, as the universal truth is buried their own mind.[6] Taizhou School is rebellious against both the traditional and the Neo-Confucianism.


Chinese historian and philosopher, Wang Fuzhi, criticized that Yangming is more of a Buddhism follower than a Neo-Confucianism philosopher. Yangming's excessive concentration on minds had made his teaching contain a negative attitude coming from his early education in Buddhism. Wang didn't agree with Yangming that there is no good or bad exist in both the world and people's minds. He also argued that 知行合一, the unity of inner knowledge and actions had made people can no longer separate theories and actual matter apart.

In JapanEdit

陽明學, or ようめいがく, is the branch of Yangmingism in Japan. Yangmingism was spread to Japan in the later periods of the Ming Dynasty by a traveling Japanese monk. From 1568 to 1603, Yangmingism was at its preliminary stage in Japan. Later, when the Ming Dynasty ended, some of the Ming scholars fled to Japan and helped to develop Yangmingism there.[12] In 1789, Yangmingism became the dominant philosophy among bakufu governments in Japan. Yangmingism had also played an essential role to Japan's Meiji Restoration.[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ A source book in Chinese philosophy. Chan, Wing-Tsit. (New Impression ed.). New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1969. ISBN 978-1-4008-2003-0. OCLC 859961526.CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ "王守仁:始创"知行合一"". 2013-06-25. Archived from the original on 2013-06-25. Retrieved 2020-01-31.
  3. ^ Ravina, Mark, 1961- (2004). The last samurai : the life and battles of Saigō Takamori. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-08970-2. OCLC 51898842.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ 곽형덕 (2007). "Ma Hae-song and his involvement with Bungei-shunju and Modern-nihon". Journal of Korean Modern Literature. null (33): 5–34. doi:10.35419/kmlit.2007..33.001. ISSN 1229-9030.
  5. ^ a b c d Guan Xiu, Zhang Tingzhong. History of Ming.
  6. ^ a b c d 明儒學案.
  7. ^ a b c d e Wang, Shouren. 傳習錄.
  8. ^ Hesse, Hermann. (2019). Demian. Dreamscape Media. ISBN 978-1-9749-3912-1. OCLC 1080083089.
  9. ^ "Mind and hand". MIT Admissions. Retrieved 2020-02-14.
  10. ^ "王陽明「四句教」之:知善知惡是良知。" (in Chinese). Retrieved 2020-02-14.
  11. ^ a b "吳光:王陽明教育思想內涵深刻 五點啟示值得思考【圖】--貴州頻道--人民網". gz.people.com.cn. Retrieved 2020-02-14.
  12. ^ "《日本阳明学的实践精神》:迥异于中国的日本阳明学 – 国学网" (in Chinese). Retrieved 2020-02-14.
  13. ^ "阳明学的现代启示录——焦点专题". www.ebusinessreview.cn. Retrieved 2020-02-14.