The Ming and Qing dynasties saw drastic changes in the Chinese society and were a turning point of great historical significance. Extraordinarily sharp contradictions and conflicts between the old and new forces resulted in a pattern in the scientific and ideological fields that was characterized by intertwining new and old elements.
Old forces: the Four Books and Five Classics
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, Neo-Confucianism had occupied a dominant position in official ruling thoughts. The examinations focused on the Four Books and Five Classics. The Four Books refer to The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean, The Confucian Analects, and The Works of Mencius. The Five Classics include The Book of Odes, The Book of History, The Book of Changes, The book of Rites, and The Spring and Autumn annals. All are classic books of Confucians. The answers had to be based on the notes and commentaries of Zhu Xi and personal views couldn't be aired. The style of writing was rigidly provided to be composed of eight parts and was called "Eight-part Essay" or "Stereotyped Writing." The imperial examinations, to a great extent, evolved into a tool of the court to bring the people's thoughts under strict control. Xie Jishi, a censor during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng, was condemned as "unscrupulous"and exiled to bordering areas because he made notes to the books of Neo-Confucianism in a way different from that of Cheng and Zhu. Such cultural despotic ruling led to a depressing situation among intellectuals and seriously hindered scientific and cultural growth.
New forces: personal liberation, equality and democracy
The Ming and Qing dynasties was a period that witnessed intertwining contradictions of all sorts and huge changes and renovations. On one hand, the despotism swelled and ritual norms became increasingly rigid. On the other hand, the ruling class grew extremely corrupt. Both political and religious situations went beyond control and position of the dominant ritualism was seriously threatened. The peasants' war at the end of the Ming Dynasty increased public suspicion of and criticism against the despotism and established rules. The early emergence of new economy and introduction of modern science of the west since the middle Ming Dynasty also offered a fresh impetus to the cultural renovation. Some enlightened intellectuals at the turn of the Ming and Qing dynasties, catering for the trend of commodity economy, initiated a wave of early enlightenment in the ideological field that called for personal liberation, equality and democracy.
Li Zhi of the Ming Dynasty was famous for his heterodoxy. He lashed out with his criticism of Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism, which was greatly promoted by the ruling class, and denied the claim that the doctrines of Confucianism and Mencius were the best. In his philosophy, Confucius was not a saint, but "a common person" and the Four Books and Five Classics should not be the only thinking standards. Li said every person had selfish motives and "individual habits in dressing and eating reflect the relations among people." It is a natural gift to seek material pleasure and every one can follow one's nature to emancipate one's personality.
During the turn of the Ming and Qing dynasties, great thinkers included Wang Fuzhi, Huang Zongxi and Gu Yanwu. Wang Fuzhi emphasized that laws of things are embodied in the material world and these laws could be correctly understood with observation. His philosophy toppled the theoretic foundation of apriorism of Cheng-Zhu Neo-Confucianism. He also confirmed the rationality of emotional desire and selfish desire as natural instincts of human beings. Huang Zongxi alleged in public that, "the emperor is the biggest bane of the world." In his philosophy, the ruler and the subject were not master and servant, but equal teacher and friend, denying obsolete ethical norms completely. He also advocated replacing "the laws of the world enabling every person to get their own share" with "the single law of a family" to constrain the rule of the emperor. With reference to the fact that scholars addicted to reading the annotations of Cheng (Cheng Hao and Cheng Yi) and Zhu (Zhu Xi) were seriously removed from reality, Gu Yanwu exclaimed that "every person is responsible for the rise and fall of the world." He insisted on being pragmatic and caring about the national economy and people's livelihoods, and being dedicated to social reform.
The thinkers during the Ming and Qing dynasties also put forward diverse theories and assumptions about restricting the imperial power. The most prominent concept was to advocate freedom of speech, establish bottom-to-top supervision mechanisms to ensure clean politics, proper decisions and social stability.
The progressive thinkers passed criticism on the Neo-Confucianism with an unprecedented incisive style of writing, initiating a wave of progressive thoughts characterized by profound and novel philosophical concepts, political insight and a practical, critical spirit, and launching fierce attacks to the despotic ruling. Their thoughts had a tremendous enlightening influence that have lasted for centuries and gave great inspiration to the later generations.