(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


The primary sources for information regarding the life of Mencius (MEHN-shee-uhs) are the book Menzi (first transcribed in the early third century b.c.e.; English translation in The Confucian Classics, 1861; commonly known as Mencius), the Han Shi Waizhuan (second century b.c.e.; Han Shih Wai Chuan, 1952), and the Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960) of Sima Qian. Legend identifies Mencius as from the Meng family of the state of Lu. Historian Sima Qian claims that Mencius came from Zou, a state bordering Lu in Shandong.

Mencius studied with followers of Confucius’s grandson, Zi Si, and eventually found himself among the class of philosophers in China who were maintained as councilors, with no official responsibilities for government. Like others of this class, Mencius traveled from state to state seeking an agreeable position. Though details about the sequence of Mencius’s travels conflict among historical accounts, it is generally agreed that he spent a good deal of this time in the states of Liang and Qi. According to Sima Qian, Mencius visited the Jixia Academy (founded by King Wei of Qi in the fourth century b.c.e.), presumably to debate with other philosophers who gathered there, and was eventually made a minister in the state of Qi.


The Mencius came to be regarded as one of the four classics during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 c.e.), and from this time onward, it has been regarded as a major expression of many of the ideals of Confucianism....

(The entire section is 668 words.)


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

In China, “Confucianism” is often referred to as “the way of Confucius and Mencius.” Mencius accepted Confucius’ teachings without reservation, and his own teachings are largely elaborations of those of Confucius. He articulated Confucianism in an ingenious way; he defended Confucianism against rival ideologies such as Moism and Yangism; and he combined Confucianism with his own theory of human nature. The book of Mencius is therefore regarded as one of the four central Confucian classics (the other three are the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, and the Analects of Confucius). Mencius’ moral courage and adherence to the practice of Confucianism exemplified the ideal personality of Confucianism.

Ren and Yi

In Mencius’ theory, as in that of Confucius, ren (benevolence, human-heartedness) and yi (righteousness) are central concepts. To be ren and to do whatever is in accordance with yi are essential to having a good life and a good society. According to Mencius, “ren is man’s peaceful abode and yi his proper path.” In other words, ren is the standing position of a moral agent, and yi is the character of moral acts. Ren is moral perfection that results in wisdom, courage, honor, and yi. Though ren and yi do not derive their justification from beneficial consequences, the power of ren and yi is so great that nothing can stop it. The “kingly way” defined by ren and yi can render ba (hegemonic force, the way of a despot) totally ineffective.

Yangism and Mohism

To defend Confucianism against rival ideologies, Mencius focused his criticism on Yangism and Mohism. Yang Zi advocated egoism. “He would not even pull out one hair to benefit the entire empire,” because a hair is part of one’s body, which is given by heaven. This attitude is in direct opposition to Confucius’ teaching that one has moral obligations to society; it is also, as Mencius put it, “a denial of one’s ruler.” Mozi, at the other extreme, advocated love without discrimination, which is not only unnatural but also amounts to a denial of one’s father, for loving without discrimination will cause one’s father to be treated in the same way as a stranger. “To deny one’s ruler and one’s father is to be no different from the beasts.”

Theory of Human Nature

A fuller rejection of Yangism and Mohism requires a theory of human nature, a theory that answers the question, What is the decree of heaven? According to Mencius, humans differ from other animals in that they have four hearts or incipient tendencies: The hearts of compassion (the germ of ren), of shame (of yi), of courtesy and modesty (of li, or rites), and of right and wrong (of wisdom). Their existence is indicated by the immediate impulses that one feels...

(The entire section is 1248 words.)