previous sub-section
Chapter 7 Cutting Loose The Provocative Style of Yin Chih (1427-1511)
next sub-section

Yin Chih's Assault On The Confucian Revival

A major new phenomenon that surfaced during Yin Chih's years in government, and provoked his hostility, was the revival of philosophical Confucianism, which had been in limbo since the death of Fang Hsiao-ju in the Nanking slaughter of 1402. In question was not routine knowledge of the approved Confucian curriculum, which every regular official in government studied as a matter of course, but rather the sustained and systematic rethinking of Confucianism's essential meaning, a quest for moral truth and inner certitude. Two great names in this endeavor were Wu Yü-pi (1392-1469) and Ch'en Hsien-chang (1428-1500), both revered icons in their own lifetimes and later. Yet Yin Chih condemned both of them, not so much on purely ideological grounds as for their behavioral shortcomings. Why? What was it about Wu Yü-pi and Ch'en Hsien-chang that angered Yin Chih?

With the Yung-lo emperor's suppression of Confucian freethinking (in the Chu Chi-yu case of 1404) and his sponsorship of the orthodox


Ta ch'üan (Great compendia) on the Five Classics, the Four Books, and Sung Neo-Confucian metaphysics, individual philosophical inquiry was effectively discouraged. One of the first men to resume it, working carefully within the bounds of the official orthodoxy, was Wu Yü-pi.

His father had been a Nanking official. Wu Yü-pi had been with him in Nanking in 1402, and although he was only ten years old at the time, he must have experienced something of what happened in that city. In any case, at the age of seventeen, he gave up his studies for the civil service exams, broke with his father, and returned home to Ch'ung-jen County, Kiangsi (about a hundred miles northwest of T'ai-ho). There he managed his family's small estate, living and dressing as a common peasant while pondering Confucianism's inner meaning. He had no interest in history or institutions, no interest in current politics, no interest in large-scale questions of national sociomoral order or the future of the realm, all issues that had earlier on obsessed Fang Hsiao-ju. Wu's obsession was personal psychic reconstruction, the individual quest for a perfect moral state of mind, an obsession rooted in doctrine that he took from the state-sanctioned orthodoxy itself. This quest he deliberately pursued in conjunction with (rather than as an escape from) the labor, the discomforts, and the random irritations of life at the everyday level of a working commoner.

As word of Wu Yü-pi's endeavor spread, he attracted a following of men who had, for one reason or another, dropped out of the race for socioacademic success. But Wu had to tread carefully for fear that too large a following would attract the suspicions of the authorities, and he drove many would-be truth seekers away. He assured those who became his disciples that there was no easy path to ethical enlightenment. One imagines Wu and his small band of followers (none came from T'ai-ho) looking like so many common peasants grubbing at chores, talking little, each absorbed in using Wu's formula of "seriousness" and "reverence" (ching ) to advance by slow and halting steps to some final psychic peace.[30]

Wu Yü-pi became a national celebrity, and he was several times invited to come to Peking for consideration for a possible appointment. Finally, in 1457, he accepted, invited by none other than General Shih Heng, one of the leaders of the coup that had just deposed the Ching-t'ai emperor and restored his older brother to the throne of Ming China.

Wu Yü-pi arrived in Peking in June 1458 and stayed there most of the summer. General Shih recommended that he be made an adviser to


the heir apparent (5B). The emperor himself arranged a banquet and urged Wu to accept the offer. Wu gave the matter some thought.

The philosopher's behavior in the summer of 1458 struck some observers as seriously flawed. For example, so deep was his gratitude to Shih Heng that he wrote a preface for the general's genealogy. He even went so far as to style himself the general's "protégé" (men-jen ).[31] Thirty-year-old Yin Chih, at the time a Han-lin junior compiler, described the celebrated philosopher, a man more than twice his age, in disdainful detail:

When Wu Yü-pi arrived, the court treated him with courtesy. High officials and eunuchs went to pay calls on him. At first, Wu addressed every official as "excellency." Later on he discriminated, treating powerful people with excessive courtesy, while addressing those without the chin-shih degree dismissively (as hsiu-ts'ai ), and not even escorting them to the door [of his lodging]. Whenever he received rich gifts from people in high places, he would go to their homes to express his gratitude. He collected their calling cards and made an album of them, telling people: "This is for my descendants, so they'll see the great honor of this moment." People disparaged Wu for doing that.

I didn't go visit Wu, but one day when Ch'iu Chün and I went to [Grand Secretary] Li Hsien's home to deliver some poems, Wu Yü-pi happened to be there. I noticed that he was wearing a palm-fiber hat with a peaked crown and wide brim. The grand secretary said [to us, in a tone of mock politeness,] that he was too poor a student to grasp Wu's advanced views, so he and Wu were talking on a lower level that he could understand. Li looked at me and grinned: "I just can't follow the old gentleman!" Wu brought out some confused written proposal, and after a while, Li got up in such a way as to suggest that the interview was over. I rose too. Wu bowed to me and said: "May your excellency leave first, because I have a private matter to discuss with the grand secretary."

I bowed and left, and [Wu's] disciple Huang Shun-chung accompanied me partway. I stopped and spoke to him. "Scholars don't wear palm-fiber hats," I said. "Why does Master Wu wear one?" Huang said: "It's just to keep off the sun." "Public affairs can be discussed in public," I continued. "Private affairs shouldn't be discussed at all. By what right does a private person [like Wu] get to discuss private affairs with a grand secretary?" Huang said: "They're just discussing the question whether to accept or decline the offer of an appointment." "He should decide that for himself," I replied. "Why should he ask the grand secretary to decide it?" To that Huang replied: "The court appointed Master Wu adviser to the heir apparent, and it won't accept his refusal; but he feels he can't take the position unless he has the grand secretary's firm support. That's what he's asking about." I said: "How can he tell whether the grand secretary will really support him or not? What he


should think about is his own fitness for the job. I looked at the six-point proposal he prepared. It consists of nothing but the commonplace remarks of a classics student. There's nothing of any use in it. One can gauge his scholarship from the emptiness of his verbiage. You'd best convince him to decline the offer and retire home. Otherwise, he'll be mocked when people find out his substance doesn't match his reputation." "I guess he shouldn't stay," replied Huang.[32]

In the end, Wu Yü-pi did decide to go home. Yin clearly disliked Wu (the Ming dynastic history says the philosopher had earlier slighted him at a banquet).[33] He also related secondhand some derogatory things about Wu Yü-pi that may or may not have been true. But it is clear from the conversation that he thought all the adulation had turned the sixty-seven-year-old philosopher's head, and that intellectually and otherwise he was completely out of his depth in the sophisticated political world of Peking. Wu's continuing pretension to peasant status also irritated him. It was out of place. Wu Yü-pi's renown had stemmed from his lifelong commitment to a spartan regimen of farming and studying and a lonely and heroic quest for personal sagehood. His flirtation with power so late in his life appeared to Yin Chih a serious and unforgivable act of misjudgment. Wu Yü-pi was no sage. He was a shallow fraud.

Yin Chih's negative comments on Ch'en Hsien-chang came much later, and from a distance. In 1483, the Ministry of Personnel, acting on the fervent recommendation of provincial officials, summoned Ch'en to Peking. They wanted him to take a special exam, and then to appoint him to some suitable position.

Although he had been a student of Wu Yü-pi's for a time, times had changed, and Ch'en eventually threw off the restraints of the official Confucian orthodoxy that Wu had always accepted. Ch'en held the degree of B-list chü-jen and had attended the imperial college. But he was a committed truth seeker; and he returned home to Kwangtung Province, and there, after many years of arduous effort, he finally achieved "consciousness of the oneness of all things, and of his own participation in the dynamic transformation of the universe."[34] As word of Ch'en's unorthodox "philosophy of the natural" spread, his fame grew wider and wider, and his admirers in officialdom implored the court in Peking to place this tall visionary, with the seven moles displayed visibly across his face, in some suitable post high in court circles.[35]

There is no indication that Yin Chih had ever met Ch'en Hsien-chang. At least, when Ch'en gave in to the recommendations made in his behalf and made his celebrated trip to Peking, Yin was posted in


Nanking as vice minister of personnel. In any event, Yin's comments about him were thoroughly derogatory. He reviewed all the basic facts of Ch'en's career and noted that when, long before, Ch'en had finished job training as a chien-sheng , and should have taken an appointment, his friends urged him to win fame by refusing outright and going home, which he did. Then, continued Yin, "he devoted himself to strange ideas and high-flown discussion." Upon his arrival in Peking in 1483, Ch'en refused to take any test with the Ministry of Personnel. He then wrote ten poems in praise of his coprovincial, the palace eunuch Liang Fang, and Liang Fang prevailed upon the Ch'eng-hua emperor to let Ch'en go home with the honorary post of examining editor (7B) in the Han-lin Academy; and so philosopher Ch'en departed the capital, in splendor, borne on a palanquin, the road lined with crowds of admirers holding parasols to shade him from the rays of the sun. "How could anyone who knows Confucian morality [chih tao-i che ] act like that?" Yin demanded to know. "He never achieved his chin-shih degree, and so he made use of tao-hsueh [dissenting Confucian study] to delude people [about his intelligence]. Had he ever achieved [his degree], he would certainly have turned out to be insatiably ambitious."[36]

previous sub-section
Chapter 7 Cutting Loose The Provocative Style of Yin Chih (1427-1511)
next sub-section