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Wang Yangming — Great Philosopher of Neo Confucianism, Founder of School of Mind, and General of Invincible

Wang Shouren (1472 — 1529), art name Wang Yangming, courtesy name Bo’an, was a remarkable philosopher of Neo Confucianism of the Ming Dynasty

His ideology, the School of Mind, was an important subfield of Neo-Confucianism, which mainly discussed the relationships between inner knowledge and action, and natural justice and human desires.

Meanwhile, Wang Yangming was also an invincible general that defeated large-scale rebellions, a great educator that influenced large numbers of students, a remarkable litterateur that left many masterpieces, as well as an accomplished calligrapher.

Wang Yangming's Letter to His Nephew Zheng Bangrui

Wang Yangming's Letter to His Nephew Zheng Bangrui — Princeton University Library

Deviant Genius Wang Yangming and His Great Goals

Wang Yangming's father was a champion of the Imperial Examination and a decent official of the Ming Dynasty.

Hence, he was provided with and educated very well. When he was 12, he was already able to express complex thoughts through a type of dialectical opinion. 

After having visited the northern borders with his father, Wang Yangming started to be interested in Kung Fu and military skills. Meanwhile, he planned to lead an army to defeat nomadic regimes when he was 15, but his father didn’t allow him to write to the emperor and ask for a troop.

Later, he changed his goal to being a sage when he was 17, but there was still no one who supported him in that dream. 

He then tried to be a sage on his own, by reading former Chinese philosophy books and consulting Taoist priests and monks. 

During that period, philosopher Zhu Xi’s Theory of Li was the main ideology, which indicated that “Li is the pattern and law of everything, Qi is the element of everything. The whole of the universe is constituted of Li and Qi together, and every object has its own Li and Qi”.

Hence, Wang Yangming started to stare at bamboo and other things for days, trying to find out “Li” and “Qi" of them.

Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty

Carved Lacquer Pen of the Ming Dynasty — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Demotion on Politics and Formation of Philosophy

His father became tired of his weird behaviors; so he found a wife for Wang Yangming and commanded him to participate in the Imperial Examination, which Yangming not only passed but obtained an excellent score. 

Afterward, he was assigned to some political positions, but got punished and demoted a few years later, because he displeased a powerful but treacherous eunuch named Liu.

After being informed that Liu already sent some assassins to ambush him, Wang Yangming left a will, threw his clothes and shoes into a lake to fake his death, which completely fooled the assassins, and then escaped. 

He secretly told his father that he was still alive, then he went to the place he was demoted to, a small post house in the middle of nowhere, with severe climates and horrible natural environments, where he had to build his own house and do many physical labors.


Then he established a school to teach nearby people to read and write.

During this period, the School of Mind was comprehended and established in that desolate place.

Cave that Wang Yangming used to Live During This Period

Cave that Wang Yangming Used to Live During This Period — Xiuwen County, Guizhou Province

Serving as An Excellent Politician

Three years later, the powerful but treacherous eunuch was eliminated by Zhengde Emperor Zhu Houzhao.


Then, Wang Yangming got promoted several times by officials who highly appreciated him before.

Besides being a great philosopher, Wang was also an exceptional governor that brought people stable lives, and a remarkable general that defeated strong armies of some brigands within only a few months.

After that, his reputation as a sly but aggressive general spread quickly. 

The Rebellion of A Powerful King

Soon, Wang Yangming noticed that a king living in the province where he was working stocked many weapons and soldiers, and had bribed many officials in Ming’s central government, which were obvious signs of getting ready for a rebellion.

However, he didn’t have enough evidence to accuse an honorable king yet.


Meanwhile, his playful emperor Zhu Houzhao barely showed up in government meetings, nor cared about those political “trifles”. 

As Wang expected, soon, the king led his 80,000 soldiers and initiated a rebel war, occupied the whole province quickly, and kept expanding.

Exquisite Gold Hairpin, Unearthed From Mausoleum of King Yizhuang (1498 - 1556) of the Ming Dynasty

Exquisite Gold Hairpin, Unearthed From Mausoleum of King Yizhuang (1498 - 1556) of the Ming Dynasty — Jiangxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Recruitment of An Army

At that time, there was still no command from the central government to defeat the king yet. 

All Wang Yangming had was a seal, the one that he was given to defeating brigands before, which authorized him the right to command armies. 

Ironically, he had no soldiers to command.

Wang Yangming, who had only a few hundred guards, quickly organized some officials that wanted to fight against the rebel army. 

Under that circumstance, he leaked much fake news that misled the rebel king, and successfully bought himself enough time to recruit an army.

Soon, he established an army that was made of loyal officers, volunteer civilians, and complied brigands.

Portrait of Wang Yangming, Painted by Court Artist Jiao Bingzhen of the Early Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Portrait of Wang Yangming, Painted by Court Artist Jiao Bingzhen of the Early Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Brilliant Psychological Warfare

When the rebel king and his army were fighting in another important city, Wang Yangming commanded his soldiers to attack the king’s supreme headquarter.

Though he only had about 80, 000 volunteer civilians and former complied brigands, he sent many spies into the king’s base camp city telling people that he had 300,000 first-class, well-trained soldiers of the Ming Empire, and everyone should close the door to keep safe, etc.

After enough bragging and psychological warfare, he carefully made an excellent attacking plan to take over the city at night. 

Surprisingly, when he led his army trying to attack the city, no one was there to fight against him.

Soldiers inside the city were scared by Wang's reputation and his psychological warfare, so they all fled, and left the gates of the city wall wide open.

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620

Cavalry Army of the Ming Dynasty in the Painting "Ping Fan De Sheng Tu", Painted Around 1573-1620 - National Museum of China

The Legendary Final Success

After Wang Yangming took this city under control, he led his army to fight the final, decisive war in Poyang Lake.  

After three days of intense wars, they successfully defeated the king’s well-trained main force, captured the rebel king, and achieved final success.

This king had been preparing for the rebellion for a decade and stocked a large amount of money, well-trained soldiers, and weapons, but failed within a month after he initiated the war.

Wang Yangming, however, used only a seal, organized an army, and defeated the king decisively and efficiently, all by himself.

Stele to Memorize this War and to Compliment Zhengde Emperor, Written by Wang Yangming

Stele to Memorize this War and Compliment Zhengde Emperor, Written by Wang Yangming — Mount Lu, Jiangxi Province (Photo by Zhang Zhugang)

Extraordinary Legacy

A few years later, his father passed away, so he resigned from his political position and went back to his hometown. 

During his mourning period, he also established some schools to teach his philosophy and wrote many brilliant books to further present his ideas.

In his 50s, he was summoned back to defeat some rebel troops, which had bothered the government for a long time.

However, leaders of those rebellion armies immediately surrendered, after having heard that Wang had arrived as the chief commander.

On his way back home, Wang Yangming passed away sick and old.

Wang Yangming was a noble-born deviant, a knowledgeable sage with outstanding military achievements, and a saint with legendary experiences. 

In the end, he realized all of his dreams: he served his country with absolute loyalty and success and performed excellently in everything he had done.

Main Ideas

Main Beliefs of Wang Yangming

His School of Mind states that human desire is the principle of nature, and those two could be harmonized and united. Hence, the ultimate, ideal scenario is the Unity of Knowing and Acting.


  • Human acknowledges the world naturally.


When the summer comes, we know it’s hot. When the wind blows, we know it’s getting cold. When we saw a beautiful person, we know he or she is good-looking. Humans are born knowing these.


  • People could aware of both good and evil, right and wrong. This is regarding human desires that always consisted of two sides.


  • It is human's intuitive knowledge to tell good from evil, right from wrong.  


  • The Unity of Knowing and Acting is to do right and good things while avoiding and refusing to do wrong and evil ones. 


For instance, a one-year-old boy sees a pretty girl, so he moves forward and holds her hands or kisses her, which is the Unity of Knowing and Acting. 

An adult sees a beautiful person but didn’t kiss him or her immediately, because they know it is inappropriate, that is also the Unity of Knowing and Acting. 

But if a married person fell for someone else, knowing it is wrong to cheat on his or her spouse, but still going for it, that is Acting against Knowing. 

Chinese Characters of the "Unity of Knowing and Acting"

Chinese Characters of the "Unity of Knowing and Acting"

  • Knowing what is right and good is relatively easy; however, acting that way is not quite easy for ordinary people. 


Desire, idleness, lust, prejudice, and avarice are very common weaknesses that may lead to people acting against their intuitive knowledge. These are inner enemies, the type that is quite difficult to completely conquer. 


Therefore, defeating those inner enemies is the basic requirement of being a sage.


  • Everything we do, we need to know if it is right and if it’s what we truly want.


  • Achievable things are worth fighting. Unobtainable things that don’t belong to us, should be let go.

  • Humans’ feelings, happiness or sadness, contentment, or disappointment, are decided by ourselves.


Cultivation of a peaceful and stable mind is a good way to stay happy and satisfied. 


  • Things need to be practiced and done; knowing something without putting it into action means nothing.


A dream doesn’t exist unless it is put into practice.

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