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Learning from the past to guide the future

China Daily| Updated: December 11, 2023 L M S


Wang's statue greets visitors to his former home in Shaoxing. [Photo by He Wen/For China Daily]

Scholars are exploring and utilizing the legacy of one of China's leading neo-Confucian philosophers. Wang Yangming (1472-1529) developed the "Philosophy of Mind" that emphasizes understanding the world from within the mind. His famous doctrine of the "unity of knowing and acting" states that knowledge is the beginning of action, while action is the completion of knowledge. Wang, from Zhejiang province, advocated that knowledge and action should be combined, and that one can acquire knowledge through action.

The authorities of Shaoxing city, Zhejiang, where Wang spent most of his lifetime, have managed to use academic exchanges to promote Wang's philosophy while examining its practical influence on modern society.

In 2020, the city launched the Conference on Wang Yangming Mind Philosophy.

Over the past three years, the annual event has become a platform for scholars from around the world to share their views on the Philosophy of Mind.

"Wang's Philosophy of Mind has existed for more than 500 years," said Ding Wei, vice-chairman of the International Confucian Association, when addressing the opening ceremony of the 2023 Conference on Wang Yangming Mind Philosophy on Oct 31. "Despite rapid social development, our desire to improve ourselves, and to build a better future, remains constant. That's why we are still studying it."


Neo-Confucian philosopher Wang Yangming's former residence in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province. [Photo by He Wen/For China Daily]

One of the highlights of the opening ceremony was the cooperation reached by five research institutes in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region and Zhejiang, Guizhou, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, where Wang lived and worked. The five institutes will enhance the protection and maintenance of Wang's teachings.

In recent years, Shaoxing has spent 8 billion yuan ($1.09 billion) on maintaining Wang's former residence. It reopened to the public in 2022 and has received more than 300,000 visits.

During this year's conference, Shaoxing promoted 10 aspects of his life featuring Yangming culture, including Kuaiji Mountain, Fufeng Mountain (formerly Niutou Mountain), Yunmen Temple, and Chenxi township. All these venues were linked to Wang during his lifetime.

To make the opaque, and sometimes abstract, philosophical thoughts more accessible to the younger generation, Shaoxing has launched multimedia products, including books, operas, short videos, songs and animations centering on Wang's beliefs.

Digital technology has also helped boost the promotion of Yangming culture. A digital literature museum is open to the public at Wang's former residence in Shaoxing. In addition to paper books, over 1,000 digital literary works about Yangming culture are available.


Bags featuring Wang's calligraphy and quotes sold at shops in Zhejiang's Yuyao. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Yuyao, a county-level city in Ningbo where Wang was born, has also been delving into innovative ways to promote Yangming culture.

A bookstore near his former residence in Yuyao features a variety of Yangming culturethemed products. One of its bestsellers is a bag that is adorned with Wang's calligraphy.

Li Fubin, manager of the bookstore and one of the bag's designers, says that he drew inspiration from a piece of Wang's original calligraphy works that is kept at the Yuyao Cultural Relics Protection and Management Preservation Institute.

The piece, which was written by Wang for his students, is one of his typical kaishu (regular script) works and was listed among China's grade-one cultural relics.

The bag stood out from some 1,700 products to win the bronze prize at a tourism product competition organized by the Zhejiang Provincial Department of Culture and Tourism in August.

Tapping into the creativity of young people is another way to breathe new life into historical culture.


Li Jiayi, a college student, displays her oil-paper umbrella design. [Photo provided to China Daily]

In 2019, Yuyao cooperated with the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, the country's first collaborative institution partnered with an overseas university, to establish the Centre for Yangming Cultural Research and Practice. Yangming culture is integrated into the university's Product Design and Manufacturing course. Students are required to design artworks featuring Yangming culture, which were displayed at an annual exhibition at Wang's former residence.

Thirteen oil-paper umbrellas were also on display at the May exhibition.

"The exhibits are the result of the integration of traditional Chinese culture and undergraduate teaching," said Wu Tao, dean of the university's Faculty of Science and Engineering at the opening ceremony of the exhibition. "They showcase the exploration and reflection of Wang's philosophy by the students. It's also a practice of his doctrine of the 'unity of knowing and acting'."

The umbrella named Calligraphy Lotus, designed by Li Jiayi, was named the "Most Popular Work" at the exhibition. Its cover features a lotus pattern that turns black when in contact with rain.

The removable point of the umbrella can be replaced by a brush head, transforming it into a large ink brush.

Li Jiayi says that she was inspired by Wang's thought that self-reflection is like a clear spring that can refresh one's mind.

"According to Wang's philosophy, we should stay sane and kind like lotus flowers in good and bad times," she says.


Tourists visit the venue. [Photo by He Wen/For China Daily]

Wang's philosophy has also been applied in the community correction efforts in Yuyao.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day holiday period, the Yuyao Hongdun Social Work Service Center and a local cafe launched a special program for community correction volunteers and offenders.

They could exchange credit points that they earned through public service activities for a cup of coffee and a set of mooncakes. The patterns in the coffee foam and embossed on the seasonal snacks feature Wang's quotes.

"I felt enlightened as I used the credit points that I earned through my own work. It was meaningful," said a 29-year-old man surnamed Li who was sentenced to a year and three months under probation for the crime of picking quarrels and provoking trouble.

Yu Yin in Ningbo contributed to this story.


A night performance is staged at the residence. [Photo by He Wen/For China Daily]


Coffee and cakes featuring Wang's calligraphy and quotes sold at shops in Zhejiang's Yuyao. [Photo provided to China Daily]