Preserving the Heart: Destruction in Chinese Philosophy

Ralph WangAugust 19, 2021Creation and DestructionInterfaith Connections

"Shave your hair or you won’t graduate."

I had kept my ponytail on a very rigorous grooming routine for almost two years, and everyone knew my hairstyle at my school. My teachers never liked my hair, but they had never given me such a direct and clear order. They thought keeping a different hairstyle was a symbol of trouble and a distraction for my schoolmates.

It was a Friday night. Dejected, I returned to my room and lay on my bed. Staring at the ceiling, I imagined the zap zap sound of the scissors ruthlessly cutting my hair. I went through my photo album and looked nostalgically at my ponytail. My heart was struggling. I had kept my ponytail for two years; how could I just cut it off and surrender to my teacher’s tyranny?

Noticing I hadn't gone to bed yet, my father knocked on my door. I explained to him that my hair was a part of my body and I didn't want to give it up! My ponytail had become an important part of my personality and a way of expressing my identity.

After some back and forth, my father told me the story of Wang Yangming.

In Ming Dynasty China, during the year 1506, Liujin, the most powerful and corrupt eunuch in the imperial court, stood in front of the Forbidden Palace with all of the other officials knelt down before him. Wang Yangming, a tenacious young scholar, challenged Liujin even though he had only been a member of the court for less than two years.

Soon Wang Yangming was banished to Longchang, with the emperor’s assassins on his trail. Wang Yangming somehow survived this ordeal, and he did not internalize resentment or seek revenge. Instead, he waited patiently and created his own school of Confucian thought. This school was characterized by the principle: stick to your heart no matter what.

Yangming believed our reactions to the world and our appearance are not what define us; instead, it is our heart, our minds, and our internal peace that do.

"As for you", my father told me, "your hair doesn't define your personality.”

Reading excerpts from Yangming’s book late into the night, I thought deeply about his work. Yangming was a novice and a minority at the time. But he solved his internal dilemma by not viewing his problems as a conflict. Yangming compromised and worked with other scholars while keeping his heart focused on a bigger goal.

I had a good night's sleep that night and the first thing the next day, I went to the barbershop.

I showed up to school on Monday and my teachers were pleased to see my hairstyle. To be frank, their happiness upset me — had I lost?

But then, I thought: no. This was not a game between me and power. It was a playground, a place where I could figure out what mattered most to me and how to compromise to achieve a bigger goal. My hair was not worth the price to pay. This was the way to preserve my heart.

Yangming, as one of the most important Confucianist scholars in China, pointed out the way Chinese philosophy views creation and destruction: as the two sides of one thing. Creation and destruction, though they seem to conflict with each other, can live in simple harmony.

Destruction, in Chinese philosophy, often means a simple element in the long flow of the universe. With challenge comes opportunities; destruction can be a portal to ignite creation. Yangming was sent away from the court, but the destruction of his career did not lead to more hatred. Instead, it led him to the creation of a great philosophy. Destruction of my hair did not take away my personality. Instead, it taught me great lesson on how to treat conflicts.

Ralph Wang is a 17-year-old high school student from Beijing, China. Currently a senior student, his interests include philosophy, religion, and humanities. He is also a martial artist, currently a white belt one stripe in Jiujitsu.