“Death as the Ultimate Concern in the Neo-Confucian Tradition: Wang Yangming’s Followers as an Example” by Peng Guoxiang

Philosophy Seminar Series: Thursday, 2 Feb 2012, 2-4pm, Philosophy Resource Room; Speaker: Peng Guoxiang, Professor in Chinese Philosophy, Intellectual History and Religions, Peking University; Moderator: Dr. Ben Blumson

A prevalent view of Confucianism is that Confucian scholars have paid great attention to the value and significance of life while overlooking the question of death. As far as the Confucian tradition before the mid-Ming dynasty is concerned, this observation is roughly correct. Can we, however, consequently assert there has been no deep reflection upon and insight into death at all in the larger Confucian tradition? In fact, among Neo-Confucian scholars in the middle and late Ming Dynasty, especially among the students and followers of Wang Yangming王陽明(1472-1528), death as an ultimate concern received considerable attention.

I shall take Confucians in the middle and late Ming dynasty, mostly the followers of Wang Yangming, as an example to probe death as an ultimate concern in the Neo-Confucian tradition. My account includes three interrelated aspects. First, relying upon original evidence, I will point out that the taboo regarding talking about death changed dramatically and that concern with death became a central focus and explicit problem for a large number of Confucian scholars in general and among the followers of Wang in particular. Second, I will show that these Confucians’ concern about death arose not only from the influence of Buddhism but also from the political environment in which they lived. Finally, I will compare the striking views advocated by Wang’s followers about the way to liberate oneself from death with those of Buddhism. I will argue that the origin of the fundamental difference in their responses to death lies in the very different ontological bases of Confucianism and Buddhism. Spiritually, a Confucian may accept wu 無 in the sense of “detachment” as a kind of living wisdom. Ontologically, however, a Confucian cannot give up you 有, “existence,” or morality as an ultimate commitment.

About the speaker: Peng Guoxiang is a Professor of Chinese philosophy, intellectual history and religions at Peking University and the director of the Center for Cultural China Studies at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies of PKU. He was visiting professor, visiting scholar, and research fellow of universities including University of Hawai’i, Harvard University, Wesleyan University, National Taiwan University, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, etc. He received many fellowships and awards including Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel Research Award bestowed by the Humboldt Foundation and the Ministry for Education and Research of Germany. He was invited to give lectures at universities in the United States, Europe and East Asia. He is secretary general of the Chinese Society for Confucian Studies and board member of the International Confucian Association. He is also a member of the editorial advisors of the European Journal for Philosophy of Religion (Europe), the executive editor of the Journal of the History of Chinese Philosophy (Beijing), etc. His publications include four books and more than seventy peer reviewed articles.


More information on the Philosophy Seminar Series can be found here. A list of past talks in the series can be found here.

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