The Chinese philosopher Wang Fu-chih (1619-1692) was well known for his "nationalist" beliefs and his theory of historical evolution. One of the outstanding thinkers of the 17th century, he provides an important intellectual link between imperial and revolutionary China.
Wang Fu-chih was born on Oct. 7, 1619, in the province of Hunan in central China, later the home of such famous revolutionaries as Huang Hsing and Mao Tse-tung. Mao, in fact, facetiously proposed the theory that Hunanese are natural rebels because they eat so many red peppers. Wang's father and brother were noted scholars, and they seem to have influenced his career in the direction of scholarship. As a child, Wang exhibited an enormous capacity for reading, and it was said that he had a phenomenal memory and could read ten times faster than the average educated individual. He passed the rigorous provincial civil service examination in 1642, and it seemed that he had a great future as a scholar-official.
Wang was on the way to Peking to take the examination for the highest civil service degree (chin-shih) when suddenly his career ambitions were crushed. The rebel Li Tzu-ch'eng took Peking in April 1644, overthrowing the Ming dynasty as the last Ming emperor hanged himself in despair. Two months later the Manchus from the North ousted Li Tzu-ch'eng and placed themselves as foreign conquerors on the Chinese throne.
Wang, irate that barbarian people now ruled China, devoted the next six years to resisting the Manchus. He raised an army in his native province and, after suffering defeat at the hands of the Manchus, fled to southeastern China, where he attached himself to a Ming descendant, the prince of Kuei. For a few years he followed the Ming prince around southern China but finally realized that military action against the powerful Manchu armies was hopeless, and he retired in 1651 as a hermit to his native town.
From then until his death, Wang immersed himself in thought and writing. He often lived an impoverished existence, sometimes able to write only with the ink and paper donated by his few friends and students. Although his writings were extensive (amounting to some 358 Chinese volumes, or chüan), few of his works were published in his lifetime, and some he gave away in repayment for gifts of food and money.
Wang was a devoted student of Neo-Confucian philosophy of the Sung dynasty, and he took the philosopher Chang Tsai as his favorite. Neo-Confucian thought is somewhat difficult for the Westerner to fully grasp, but it basically fell into two different schools: the first, with Chu Hsi as its great spokesman, argued that the universe was composed of "ether" (ch'i) and that behind all matter was "principle" (li); the second, led by Wang Yang-ming, believed that the human mind consisted of "pure principle," and thus one could achieve understanding by introspection.
During the 16th century a great philosophical debate raged between the two schools, the first advocating a dualistic theory and encouraging the scholar to "investigate things" in search of "principle," the second advocating a monistic outlook and urging one to "look within himself." Wang suggested a compromise which he had discovered in his readings of Chang Tsai. Wang felt that principles were manifested only in matter and thus believed that the universe could be explained in a monistic fashion, but that one must diligently investigate not only himself but also his environment in order to achieve understanding. Wang's compromise led him into a variety of areas of unusual research, including the study of mathematics, astronomy, and geography, with the assistance of some Jesuit missionaries.
Believing that human society takes on radically different forms in different historical periods and geographical areas, Wang developed his evolutionary theory of history. He rejected the prevalent Chinese idea that there was a "golden age" in the past, and instead he asserted that "the present is better than the past, and the future will be still better than the present; each period has its own characteristics." To Wang, the ruler had an obligation to alter policies and institutions in order to meet changing times and to better the material livelihood of his subjects.
In one of his most famous works, the Yellow Book (Huang shu), Wang proposed an interesting corollary in which later commentators have seen the seeds of "nationalism." He wrote that "if the Chinese do not mark themselves off from the barbarians, then the principle of earth is violated … if men do not mark themselves off and preserve an absolute distinction between societies, then the principle of man is violated." Wang was not a racist, but he did believe that different cultures and geographical areas should keep to their own customs and should have their own rulers and forms of government. In this argument one can see a veiled attack against the Manchu regime; Wang clearly felt that the Manchus belonged in Manchuria, not in China. He was an ardent patriot, and throughout his historical writings he praised those who remained loyal to their dynasties and condemned those who acted as traitors.
Since most of Wang's writings remained in manuscript form until the 19th century, he died as he had lived, a relatively obscure hermit. With the concern for institutional change and the growing nationalist sentiments in the face of the Western threat, however, Wang's writings rapidly gained popularity. Several editions of his collected works were published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thousands of young Chinese, many of them nationalists and revolutionaries, began to read Wang's writings and to venerate him as a national hero.
In 1915 students and intellectuals in Wang's own province of Hunan honored him by establishing the Society for the Study of Wang Fu-chih (Ch'uan-shan hsüehshe). Mao Tse-tung attended several of the society's meetings, elated to discover that one from his own province had held such radical views over 2 centuries earlier. In 1962, in commemoration of the 270th anniversary of his death, more than 90 scholars gathered in the capital of Hunan to discuss Wang Fu-chih's writings and his historical legacy. Few Chinese thinkers who lived prior to the 20th century have received such laudatory treatment by the People's Republic of China.
Some of Wang Fu-chih's translated writings, along with a short critical interpretation, can be found in W. T. De Bary, ed., Sources of the Chinese Tradition (1960). A biography of Wang is in the publication by the U.S. Library of Congress, Orientalia Division, Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period, 1644-1912, edited by Arthur W. Hummel (2 vols., 1943-1944).