Mencius

Article abstract: Chinese philosopher{$I[g]China;Mencius} Through a lifetime of reflection, Mencius clarified and expanded the wisdom embodied in Confucius’s works, rendering Confucian ideas more accessible. His own writings eclipsed other interpretations of Confucius and gained acceptance as the orthodox version of Confucian thought.

Early Life

Mencius (MEHN-shee-uhs) was born probably about 372 b.c.e. in the small principality of Zou in northeastern China, not far from the birthplace of Confucius (551-479 b.c.e.), whose work Mencius spent his life interpreting. Knowledge of Mencius’s early life is scarce. What evidence exists must be extracted from his own writing, most notably the Menzi (first transcribed in the early third century b.c.e.; English translation in The Confucian Classics, 1861; commonly known as Mencius), although many biographical observations are found in the great historian Sima Qian’s Shiji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960).

Mencius was probably a member of the noble Meng family, whose home, like that of Confucius, was in the city-state of Lu, in what is now southwestern Shandong Province. Certainly Mencius’s education was one that was common to the aristocracy, for he was thoroughly familiar with both the classical Shijing (traditionally fifth century b.c.e.; The Book of Songs, 1937) and the Shujing (compiled after first century b.c.e.; English translation in The Chinese Classics, Vol. 5, Parts 1 and 2, 1872; commonly known as Classic of History), which together provided the fundamentals of his classical training. Moreover, he had a masterly grasp of Confucius’s work and quoted it frequently, leading to the assumption that he studied in a Confucian school, purportedly under the tutelage of Confucius’s grandson, who was himself a man of ministerial rank in the central state of Wei.

Known as Menzi to his students, Mencius assumed the role of teacher early in his life and never abandoned it. Rejecting material well-being and position as ends in themselves, he, like many Confucians, nevertheless aspired to hold office inside one of the courts of the Chinese states. He did indeed become a councillor and later the minister of state in Wei. In such positions, he tutored students, not all of them noble, in classical works: the dynastic hymns and ballads anthologized in The Book of Songs and state papers from archives (from 1000 to 700 b.c.e.) that formed the Classic of History. These were works from which, by the end of the second century b.c.e., Confucian precepts developed. During these early years of observation and teaching, Mencius gained disciples, furthered his interpretations of Confucius, and enjoyed considerable renown in many parts of China.

Life’s Work

Mencius was Mencius’s principal work. It appeared late in his life. Had it incorporated less wisdom than his many years of diverse experiences and reflections allowed, or a less lengthy refinement of Confucius’s thoughts, it would not be likely to rank as one of the greatest philosophical and literary works of the ancient world.

Mencius garnered experience through his wanderings and temporary lodgments in various Chinese courts and kingdoms. He was fortunate to live in an age when, despite continuous political turmoil, dynastic rivalries, and incessant warfare, high levels of civility prevailed in aristocratic circles. Teacher-scholars, as a consequence, were readily hosted—that is, effectively subsidized—by princely families eager to advance their children’s education and to instruct and invigorate themselves through conversation with learned men.

Some of Mencius’s temporary affiliations can be dated. Between 323 and 319 b.c.e., Mencius was installed at the court of King Hui of Liang, in what is now China’s Szechwan Province. He moved eastward about 318 b.c.e. to join the ruler of the state of Qi (Ch’i), King Xun (Hsüan). Prior to his sojourn to Liang (although the dates are conjectural), Mencius visited and conversed with princes, rulers, ministers, and students in several states: Lu, Wei, Qi, and Song (Sung).

Mencius’s journeys were not feckless. They related directly to his philosophical and historical perceptions. Like Confucius, Mencius believed that he lived in a time of troubles in which—amid rival feudatories and warring states, divided and misruled—China was in decline. Also like Confucius, Mencius looked back fondly on what he thought had been the halcyon days of Chinese government and civilization under the mythical kings (2700 b.c.e.-770 b.c.e.), when a unified China had been governed harmoniously.

Drawing on Chinese legends incorporated into literary sources familiar to him from the Xia (Hsia; c. 2100-1600 b.c.e.), Shang (1600-1066 b.c.e.), and Zhou (Chou; 1066 b.c.e.-256 c.e.) Dynasties, Mencius concluded that the ideal governments of these earlier days had been the work of hero kings—Yao, Shun, and Yu (Yü)—whose successors had organized themselves into dynasties. These were the sage kings, who, like kings Wen and Wu of the Zhou family, had been responsible for China’s former greatness. Their dissolute successors, however, such as the “bad” kings of the Xia and the Shang Dynasties, were equally responsible for the subsequent debasement of the sage kings’ remarkable achievements and erosion of their legacy.

For Mencius, a vital part of this legacy was the concept of the mandate of Heaven. It was an idea that he ascribed to the early Zhou kings, who justified their authority by it. These kings asserted that they had received the mandate directly from the deity, who designated Zhou rulers sons of Heaven, viceroys of Heaven. Effectively, that charged them with the responsibilities of being the deity’s fief holders. The Zhou kings, in turn, proceeded to impose lesser feudal obligations on their own fief holders and subjects. In Mencius’s view, this arrangement was more than merely an arbitrary justification for Zhou authority; it was also a recognition of authority higher than man’s. Because the mandate of Heaven was not allocated in perpetuity, it was essentially a lease that was operative during good behavior. When rulers lost virtue and thereby violated the mandate, the punishment of Heaven descended on them. Their subjects, their vassals, were constrained to replace them. It was on...

(The entire section is 2668 words.)

Mencius

Article abstract: Through a lifetime of reflection, Mencius clarified and expanded the wisdom embodied in Confucius’s Lunyu (late sixth or early fifth century b.c.e.; Analects, 1861), rendering Confucian ideas more accessible. His Mengzi eclipsed other interpretations of Confucius and gained acceptance as the orthodox version of Confucian thought.

Early Life

Mencius was born about 372 b.c.e. in the small principality of Zou in northeastern China, not far from the birthplace of Confucius, whose work Mencius spent his life interpreting. Knowledge of Mencius’s early life is scarce. What evidence exists must be extracted from his own writing, most notably the Mengzi, although many biographical observations are found in the great historian Sima Qian’s Shi-ji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960, rev. ed. 1993), a large work that has been translated in part many times and is best known by its original title.

Mencius was probably a member of the noble Meng family, whose home, like that of Confucius, was in the city-state of Lu, in what is now southwestern Shandong Province. Certainly Mencius’s education was one that was common to the aristocracy, for he was thoroughly familiar with both the classical Shi Jing (c. 500 b.c.e.; Book of Odes, 1891) and the Shu Jing (c. 626 b.c.e.; Book of Documents, 1846), which together provided the fundamentals of his classical training. Moreover, he had a masterly grasp of Confucius’s work and quoted it frequently, leading to the assumption that he studied in a Confucian school, purportedly under the tutelage of Confucius’s grandson, who was himself a man of ministerial rank in the central state of Wei.

Known as Mengzi to his students, Mencius assumed the role of teacher early in life and never abandoned it. Rejecting material well-being and position as ends in themselves, he, like many Confucians, nevertheless aspired to hold office inside one of the courts of the Chinese states. He did indeed become a councillor and later the minister of state in Wei. In such positions, he tutored students, not all of them noble, in classical works: the dynastic hymns and ballads anthologized in the Book of Odes and state papers from archives that formed the Book of Documents. These were works from which, by the end of the second century b.c.e., Confucian precepts developed. During these early years of observation and teaching, Mencius gained disciples, furthered his interpretations of Confucius, and enjoyed considerable renown in many parts of China.

Life’s Work

Mengzi was Mencius’s principal work. It appeared late in his life. Had it incorporated less wisdom than his many years of diverse experiences and reflections allowed or a less lengthy refinement of Confucius’s thoughts, it would not be likely to rank as one of the greatest philosophical and literary works of the ancient world.

Mencius garnered experience through his wanderings and temporary lodgments in various Chinese courts and kingdoms. He was fortunate to live in an age when, despite continuous political turmoil, dynastic rivalries, and incessant warfare, high levels of civility prevailed in aristocratic circles. Teacher-scholars, as a consequence, were readily hosted—that is, effectively subsidized—by princely families eager to advance their children’s education and to instruct and invigorate themselves through conversation with learned men.

Some of Mencius’s temporary affiliations can be dated. Between 323 and 319 b.c.e., Mencius was installed at the court of King Hui of Liang, in what is now China’s Sichuan Province. He moved eastward about 318 to join the ruler of the state of Qi, King Xuan. Prior to his sojourn to Liang (although the dates are conjectural), Mencius visited and conversed with princes, rulers, ministers, and students in several states: Lu, Wei, Qi, and Song.

Mencius’s journeyings were not feckless. They related directly to his philosophical and historical perceptions. Like Confucius, Mencius believed that he lived in a time of troubles in which—amid rival feudatories and warring states, divided and misruled—China was in decline. Also like Confucius, Mencius looked back fondly on what he thought had been the halcyon days of Chinese government and civilization under the mythical kings (2700-770 b.c.e.), when a unified China had been governed harmoniously.

Drawing on Chinese legends incorporated into literary sources familiar to him from the Xia (c. 2200-1766 b.c.e.), Shang (c. 1384-1122 b.c.e.), and Zhou (1122-221 b.c.e.) dynasties, Mencius concluded that the ideal governments of these earlier days had been the work of hero-kings—Yao, Shun, and Yu—whose successors had organized themselves into dynasties. These were the Sage Kings, who, like kings Wen and Wu of the Zhou family, had been responsible for China’s former greatness. Their dissolute successors, however, such as the “bad” kings of the Xia and the Shang dynasties, were equally responsible for the subsequent debasement of the Sage Kings’ remarkable achievements and erosion of their legacy.

For Mencius, a vital part of this legacy was the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. It was an idea that he ascribed to the early Zhou kings, who justified their authority by it. These kings asserted that they had received the mandate directly from the deity, who designated Zhou rulers as Sons of Heaven, viceroys of Heaven. Effectively, that charged them with the responsibilities of being the deity’s fief holders. The Zhou kings, in turn, proceeded to impose lesser feudal obligations on their own fief holders and subjects. In Mencius’s view, this arrangement was more than merely an arbitrary justification for Zhou authority; it was also a recognition of authority higher than that of humans. Because the Mandate of Heaven was not allocated in perpetuity, it was essentially a lease that was operative during good behavior. When rulers lost virtue and thereby violated the mandate, the punishment of Heaven descended upon them. Their subjects, their vassals, were constrained to replace them. It was on this basis, as Mencius knew, that the Zhou kings had successfully reigned for four centuries.

Equally important in this hierarchical scheme developed around the Zhou conception of the Mandate of Heaven, of Sage Kings functioning in response to it, were the roles of sage ministers. It was these ministers whom Mencius credited with the rise and harmonious rule of the Sage Kings. In times when the Mandate of Heaven had obviously been forgotten or ignored, Mencius wished not only that this ideal past would be restored but also that his presence at various courts would allow him to identify, assist, and guide potential Sage Kings, fulfilling the role of sage minister himself or through his...

(The entire section is 2838 words.)