Huang Tsung-hsi

Huang Tsung-hsi (1610-1695) was a Chinese scholar and political philosopher who, with other Chinese intellectuals, sought to provide a philosophical framework that would open up new vistas of scholarship and restore morality and equity to Chinese politics.

Huang Tsung-hsi was the son of Huang Tsun-su, a prominent official in Peking and a member of the Eastern Grove Society (Tung-lin), which opposed the rapacious activities of Wei Chung-hsien, a powerful and unscrupulous eunuch, who managed to dominate the young emperor and thus rose to almost absolute control in the court. The Tung-lin group advocated a return to political morality, and they often held secret meetings in Huang's home to discuss political problems and strategy.

In 1625 Huang Tsun-su was dismissed from office and killed in prison during the following year for criticizing Wei Chung-hsien. Huang Tsung-hsi set forth for the capital, determined to avenge his father's death by killing the officials involved. But before he could carry out his planned revenge, a new emperor was enthroned who purged the eunuch faction, and Wei Chung-hsien committed suicide.

While still in his youth Huang developed a keen interest in history and literature which was further stimulated by his marriage to the daughter of a well-known writer and playwright. But until 1649 Huang's primary role was that of political critic and activist. In the 1630s he had joined the Fu-she, a society similar to that in which his father had participated, and once he was almost arrested for signing a petition deploring corruption in the court of the late Ming dynasty.


Fight against the Manchu

In spite of his forthright criticisms, however, Huang remained loyal to the Ming dynasty and was outraged by the Manchu conquest of China in 1644. Like many other talented scholars of his day, Huang spent much of the 1640s engaged in anti-Manchu resistance movements which centered on various descendants of the Ming imperial house in South China. Huang attained very high political office in the administration of one of these claimants to the throne of the fallen Ming dynasty. But the cause was hopeless, and Huang Tsung-hsi retired from his political and military activities in 1649.

From 1649 to his death in 1695, Huang refused to accept service under the Manchus, the Ch'ing dynasty, and instead followed the path of several of his associates in choosing to dedicate his life to scholarship. Even in 1679, when the emperor, K'ang-hsi, offered him a chance to compete in a special examination and to help compile the official history of Huang's beloved Ming dynasty, Huang refused to accept. Except for visits to a number of important scholars, he spent most of his later life near his birthplace in the coastal province of Chekiang.


Scholarship and Political Philosophy

Huang's writings are characterized by their breadth of interest and their systematic and factual content. Huang had a deep interest in the Chinese classics and wrote many critical analyses dealing with earlier periods in Chinese philosophy. Among his several works of criticism was his Ming-ju hsüeh-an (Records of Confucian Thought in the Ming Period), a monumental multi-volume accomplishment, which was one of the first comprehensive attempts at a systematic analysis of a period in intellectual history. As a historian, Huang is known as the founder of the Eastern Chekiang school, which advocated general interpretation as well as objective research and which had a great influence on later historians. He wrote several works of history and spent considerable effort on histories of the Southern Ming loyalist regimes which sprouted up after the Manchu conquest. Huang was also interested in literature and compiled several anthologies, as well as writing his own prose and poetry.

Huang Tsung-hsi's most famous work was his Ming-i tai-fang lu (1662; A Plan for a Prince). In this volume he developed his political philosophy by making not only a number of general premises but also suggesting practical reforms. He was deeply disturbed by the nature of Chinese government and society during the late Ming and early Ch'ing periods, and he wrote this treatise in the hope that some later regime would implement his recommendations. Like the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, Huang argued that government must promote the happiness of the people.

Feeling that the imperial government had become too autocratic, Huang urged emperors to place more responsibility in the hands of their ministers and to revise the law codes in the interests of the common people. His proposed reforms were in some instances strikingly similar to those of the great 11th-century statesman Wang An-shih. Huang held that the influence of eunuchs should be greatly diminished and considerably more attention should be paid to the often corrupt clerks and assistants in local government. A universal system of public education should be established in order to broaden the pool of talent in the empire. The civil service examinations should concentrate more on contemporary affairs, and all land should be publicly owned and distributed by the government on the basis of need.

In Ming-i tai-fang lu Huang reflected the late Ming revival of interest in current problems and in political morality. Although Huang was certainly not suggesting a democratic government, he was attempting to provide more equitable guidelines for imperial China. As a man of exceptional talent and dedication, Huang deserves to be remembered as a remarkable figure in the late years of Chinese traditional philosophy.


Further Reading on Huang Tsung-hsi

A biography of Huang Tsung-hsi is in Arthur Hummel, ed., Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period (2 vols., 1943; 1 vol., 1964). A study of his Ming-i tai-fang lu is W. T. De Bary, "Chinese Despotism and the Confucian Ideal: A Seventeenth-century View," in John K. Fairbank, ed., Chinese Thought and Institutions (1957). A fine survey of 17th-century Chinese thought with special attention to Huang and with some translations of his writings is in W. T. De Bary, ed., Sources of Chinese Tradition (1960).