Forget Marx and Mao; Chinese city honours once-banned Confucian Wang Yangming

A technician works on a robotic likeness of Wang Yangming, a 16th-century Confucian philosopher whose teachings are undergoing a major revival, in Guiyang, China, on Sept 17, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

GUIYANG, China (NYTIMES) - Nearly 500 years after he died, the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming once again wielded a calligraphy brush, carefully daubed it into a tray of black ink and elegantly wrote out his most famous phrase: zhi xing he yi, or "the unity of knowledge and action".

A crowd murmured its approval as his assistant held up the paper for all to see.

"I respect Wang Yangming from the bottom of my heart!" blurted retiree Cao Lin, 69, a retiree.

Watching the scene unfold was Zhou Ying, who manages Wang - or at least a very realistic robot that not only looks like Wang but is able to imitate his calligraphy and repeat more than 1,000 of his aphorisms.

"This is exactly what we're hoping to achieve with the robot," Zhou said as Wang began writing another saying. "We feel this is a way to get people interested in these old ideas."

Promoting these old ideas has been a priority for President Xi Jinping, who has rekindled enthusiasm for traditional culture as part of a broader push to fill what many Chinese see as their country's biggest problem: a spiritual void caused by its headlong pursuit of prosperity.

And when China's most powerful leader in 40 years endorses a philosopher, even a long-dead Confucian one, people rush to take action.

The epicentre of Wang's revival has been this city of four million people perched on a plateau in China's mountainous south. When Wang spent three years in exile here in the early 16th century, Guiyang was a remote outpost on imperial China's southern border.

Today, as the capital of one of China's poorest provinces, it has high-speed rail service to the coast and is trying to position itself as a centre of big data - and traditional culture.

Since President Xi began promoting the philosopher three years ago, officials in and around Guiyang have built a Wang Yangming-themed park, constructed a museum to showcase his achievements, turned a small cave into a shrine in his honour and, yes, commissioned a robot to bring him to life.

"It's a way to promote moral behaviour in society as a whole," said Mr Larry Israel, a scholar at Middle Georgia State University in Macon who has written about the revival.

Restoring a sense of public morality has been a policy goal of Mr Xi, who is set to be reappointed as Communist Party leader at the party's 19th congress which started on Wednesday (Oct 18).

In his efforts to address the country's spiritual shortcomings, Mr Xi has spoken favourably of Confucius, praised Buddhism and presided over a revival of traditional religious practices that were once condemned as superstitious.

But he has seemed most comfortable praising the life and works of Wang Yangming.

Born in 1472, Wang was a scholar with a promising career in the imperial court in Beijing when, in 1506, he spoke out against the cruelty of a well-known courtier. That offence earned him banishment to faraway Guiyang.

During his years here, Wang ran a post house on the edge of town. That gave him time to meditate on the philosophical problem that would define his legacy - understanding how people know right from wrong. His conclusion: People have an inborn conscience that they must act upon, regardless of the consequences.

It was this advocacy of moral action that apparently appeals to the no-nonsense Mr Xi, who has cracked down on vice and corruption within the party's ranks. Mr Xi frequently refers to Wang, who regained favour in 1509, and then loyally served the emperor as a military leader who quashed a rebellion.

However, some see Wang, with his emphasis on following one's internal moral compass, as a risky thinker for an authoritarian state to embrace.

"Wang Yangming can pave the way for a philosophy of autonomy - that standards don't come from outside. that they are inner," said Mr Sebastien Billioud, co-author of a recent book on Confucian thought in today's China. "And of course autonomy is always dangerous for authoritarian regimes."

During the first decades of communist rule, Wang's works were banned as "bourgeois". Even into the 1990s, it was still risky to talk about him at academic conferences.

"We held small private meetings" to discuss Wang, recalled philosophy professor Zhang Xinmin at Guizhou University on the city's outskirts. "We were monitored the whole time," he said.

The ban on Wang began to lift around 2000 with a revival in the popularity of Confucian studies. Then, in 2014, Mr Xi explicitly told local leaders to promote Wang's thoughts. Suddenly, Wang was China's hottest philosopher since Marx.

"It was completely unexpected," Prof Zhang said.

Wang's rehabilitation has turned Guiyang into a hive of activity. One reason is that until a recent promotion, the province was led by one of Mr Xi's proteges, Mr Chen Min'er.

Mr Chen's loyalty is on display at the Guiyang Confucius Academy, a vast complex of museums, fountains, dioramas and lecture halls on the city's outskirts. When it opened in 2013, it made little mention of Wang. But now there is a museum devoted to him nearly as big as the hall to Confucius himself.

"Both Uncle Xi and Chen Min'er love him," said party official Xu Qi who is in charge of the museum.

Guiyang's embrace of Wang can also show how much work Mr Xi still has before him.

On the city's north side is the Yangming Cave, where Wang taught and whose name he adopted as his own. (His name at birth was Wang Shouren.) The cave is now encircled by a cultural park that is the centrepiece of a 600-acre real estate project of luxury high-rises and malls.

A senior local official, who asked not to be identified because of the delicacy of the issue, said the project was being investigated for corruption. When asked what he intended to do about it, however, his answer did not seem exactly in keeping with Wang's advocacy of independent moral action.

"We are waiting, until after the 19th Party congress to see how to proceed," he said.

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