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Chinese History - Ming Dynasty 明朝 (1368-1644)

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Ming Dynasty
literature, thought and philosophy

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Further Development of Neo-Confucian Philosophy

Although Confucianism had been adopted as "orthodox" state doctrine since the Han Dynasty, and Neo-Confucianism since the Yuan Dynasty, there existed many liberate and oppositional ways of thought among the Confucian scholarship, especially the Donglin Academy 東林院. Taoism and Chan-Buddhism showed their influence in the thinking of Ming scholars that retired official posts and developed quietistic philosophies that were more oriented to the own person and the place of humans in the universe than to construct an ideal state like the pre-Han philosophers had done. The greatest Ming philospher is Wang Yangming 王陽明 (Wang Shouren 王守仁) who created an anti-intellectual thought of implementing the Neo-Confucian thinking of inheriting universal order (li 理) in every being into a philosophy of natural goodness of man. An innate knowledge (liangzhi 良知) enables man to reach goodness even without learning or studying the Confucian Classics. Li Zhi 李贄 even renounces the orthodox Confucianism and accuses his contemporarians of pharisaism. He sympathized with Buddhism and vernacular literature of the urban population, and he acted as advocate of discriminated and disadvantaged groups like the poor average people, women and ethnic minorities. Other people scrutinized Confucian Classics with exact criteria.

Science and Knowledge

In the field of scientific literature, Mei Yingzu 梅膺祚 was the first to develop the modern 214 character radicals in his dictionary Zihui 字彙. Numerous publications about geography - also of foreign countries, techniques, agronomy, geologycraftsmanship, military, medicine and pharmakology were published, for example Chen Fu's 陳旉 and Wang Zhen's 王禎 Nongshu 農書 "Book of Agronomy", Xu Guangqi's 徐光啟 agronomic encyclopedia Nongzheng Quanshu 農政全書, and Li Shizhen's 李時珍 pharmakological encyclopedia Bencao Gangmu 本草綱目. Another interesting book is the illustrated encyclopedia Sancai Tuhui 三才圖會 "Assembled illustrations of the three realms of Heaven, Earth and Man". At the end of Ming, Jesuit missionaries translated Western writings (and not only the Bible!, Chinese: Shengjing 聖經), and Chinese writers described machines the Jesuits had presented to the Chinese Emperors. Like today, the Chinese scholars of late Ming Dynasty were especially interested in science and technique of the West. But Western missionaries and travelers also brought Chinese science to Europe.

Anecdotes, Stories and Novels

The advance in printing technique as well as the demand an urban public made it necessary and possible for vernacular literature to become more widespread than ever before. Anecdotes, stories and tales were published in collections like Pai'an Jingqi 拍案驚奇 "Surprising stories causing the reader to pound the table" and Jingu Qiguan 今古奇觀 "Wonderful tales of old and new times". Probably the most important late Ming anecdote writer is Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 who wrote the ghost story Pingyaozhuan 平妖傳 and the collection Xingshi Hengyan 醒世恆言 "Proverbs awakening the world" . Apart short stories, voluminous novels (changpian xiaoshuo 長篇小說) were written that consisted of hundreds of small tales about local and historic heroes: the hero tales Xiyouji 西游記 "Journey to the West" by Wu Cheng'en 吳承恩, Fengshen Yanyi 封神演義 "Investiture of the Gods", the Sanguo Yanyi 三國演義 "Three Kingdoms", and the Shuihuzhuan 水滸傳 "Water Margin" or "Bandits of Liangshan Swamp", said to be written by Luo Guangzhong 羅貫忠, and finally, the erotic social critic Jin Ping Mei (Jinpingmei) 金瓶梅 "Plums in a golden vase". Theatre plays had been popular since the Song Dynasty, and we possess a collection of famous Yuan theatre plays published during Ming, the Yuanquxuan 元曲選. The greatest Ming theatre play is Tang Xianzu's 湯顯祖 Mudanting 牡丹亭 "Peony Pavillion".

Go back to the Ming Dynasty introduction page and learn more about Ming Dynasty economy, arts, literature, government...

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