Poem and calligraphy by Wang Yang-ming
In Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mencius and Wang Yang-Ming (1990) Philip J. Ivanhoe compares and contrasts the ethical thought of two of China's most important philosophers, Mencius (Meng Tzu, ca. 372 - ca 289) and Wang Yang-ming (1472 - 1529) and in the process provides insight into the writings of a number of other Chinese philosophers.
With nearly a 2,000 year span separating these two men, one could well wonder what would be the point of such an endeavor. But as I have discussed in other reviews,(*) Mencius replaced Confucius as the primary historical sage when Confucianism was revolutionized during the Song dynasty by the introduction of a metaphysical foundation for Confucianism in response to the metaphysically profound thought of one of Confucianism's two primary competitors, (Mahayana) Buddhism. Wang was a neo-Confucian and held Mencius in highest regard, but, as Ivanhoe shows, re-interpreted Mencius by his own lights, often with results that Ivanhoe argues constitute a misunderstanding of Mencius.
Oversimplifying, Confucius grounded his ethics on a heavenly-ordained tradition established in a past already far removed from his own time. For Confucius, this tradition was preserved and propagated by certain rites (li), whose proper performance would connect the worshipper directly with this heavenly source, keeping him and society on the straight and narrow. A few centuries later Confucianism had some serious competition from the likes of very interesting philosophers like Mo Tzu, and in reaction to this Mencius made some profound modifications in the tenets of Confucianism. In particular, Mencius posited a heavenly-ordained human nature (which therefore had to be "good"), the development of whose intrinsic dispositions would provide the basis of ethics. Prima facie, this might seem like a small adjustment, but Mencius rejected all ethics based on rules and abstract principles external to that human nature. In particular, this legendary tradition could no longer serve as a guide for ethics, except insofar as it reflected this universal human nature.
1,500 years later the term li was used by the first neo-Confucians to refer to the a priori metaphysical principles that served as the DNA of the universe and all existing things. These principles, in complicated concurrence with ch'i - the force which implements li (again oversimplifying) - form and guide everything, including human nature. The ground of ethics was thus shifted through human nature to a deeper metaphysical foundation. The neo-Confucians were aware that this new li was more than a little reminiscent of dharma, as was its relation to human nature. So they were at great pains to adorn this notion with many traditionally Confucian supplements and vocabulary to separate themselves from the execrated Buddhism. Wang Yang-ming did so, as well, but in his more consistent (to my mind) working out of the consequences of this initial metaphysical step he arrived at metaphysical and ethical positions that nearly any Mahayana Buddhist school would be comfortable with. Wang was a monist and idealist (much closer to Hegel than Berkeley) who concluded that ethical self-development requires the rejection of "selfish" thoughts - those thoughts which would try to draw a distinction between oneself and the rest of the universe.
In five chapters Ivanhoe compares and contrasts the positions taken by Mencius and Wang with respect to the nature of morality, human nature, the origin of evil, self-cultivation and sagehood. Modern Western philosophy, for all of its many complications, has made no advance whatsoever on any of those topics, as far as I can see (which, I will grant, is not that far). Before Western philosophy began to change its nature in the 18th century, all of these topics were viewed as crucially important. But I have ranted elsewhere about the alienation of modern academic philosophy from the living sources of the philosophical impulse.
This book may not be for everyone, but I will mention that Ivanhoe writes so clearly that I was able to understand everything, even though I am only a few baby steps past Absolute Beginner in Asian philosophy.
After this enticing introduction to the ethical thought of Wang Yang-ming (and, as in Greco-Roman philosophy, ethics was always the core of Chinese philosophy), I shall definitely be turning to translations of Wang's own texts.