Context

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 337

The exact date and authorship of this collection of philosophical dialogues and anecdotes have remained a subject of dispute for centuries, but there is no doubt about the existence of the man, Mencius (Mengzi), in the fourth to third centuries b.c.e. Mencius taught students, lectured to the rulers of his time, and expounded his political and moral philosophy in much the same way as most of the Confucians did.

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When very young, Mencius lost his father, and his mother worked alone at a weaving loom to support her son. Mencius’s childhood education is said to have been of the ideal kind, and his mother has been held in reverence by the Chinese as an ideal mother. It is said that she was so determined to cultivate her son’s moral integrity at a very early age that she took extreme caution in her own speech and behavior in front of him. Once their landlord slaughtered a hog. When the young Mencius saw it, he asked his mother why. In jest his mother answered that the landlord was preparing a feast for him. Immediately afterward, she regretted her statement; in order to correct her untruthful statement, she sold her badly needed clothing to buy some meat with which she actually served him a good dinner. Another time, she was distressed by Mencius’s fondness for play when she wanted him to concentrate on studies. After some ineffective admonition, she took out a knife and cut the warp on her loom. Because she could no longer weave, the family was without food. This drastic gesture impressed the young boy so much that he never again neglected his studies.

After studying with a disciple of Confucius’s grandson, Mencius emerged in his adult life as a recognized standard-bearer of Confucianism. In his expositions on Confucius’s teachings, however, Mencius ventured much further in metaphysical speculations than his master ever did. From Mencius, Confucianism gained a fully developed theory on human nature and a clear orientation toward idealism.

Innate Goodness

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Mencius subscribed to the basic Confucian doctrine of ren (benevolence), but in elaborating on this doctrine he gave it a metaphysical basis. Confucius urged people to be humane toward others so that society might be harmonious and peaceful; Mencius urged people to be kind to others because, as he says, to be kind is humanity’s natural propensity. People are born good, and evil ways are perversions. Every human being has innate goodness; hence, if one can maintain one’s original nature, one will remain good. In Mencius’s own language, this original good human nature is the “heart of the child,” or the untainted heart. If unperverted, one’s original childlike heart will lead one toward the good, just as “water naturally flows downward.” If already perverted, one can attain salvation only by returning to one’s original state of goodness.

How is this innate goodness of humanity observed? Mencius suggested looking at the sympathetic feeling that is a part of humanity’s nature. He uses the following illustration: Anybody seeing a child about to fall into a well would immediately spring to the child’s aid. One would do this without reflecting on the advantage and disadvantage of one’s action; one would not think about what merit one would gain if one rescued the child, or what blame one would have to face if one refused to reach out a hand. One would leap to save the child because the peril of the child would spontaneously fill one with a sense of alarm. This example proves the existence of a sense of mercy in every person.

With similar illustrations, Mencius argued that he had proved the existence of a sense of shame, a sense of courtesy, and a sense of right and wrong in humanity’s original nature. Together with the sense of mercy, these senses constitute the four good beginnings of humanity’s development. According to Mencius, the sense of mercy is the beginning of ren (humanity); the sense of shame should lead people to righteousness; the sense of courtesy, if allowed to develop, will give people decorum; and the sense of right and wrong is the foundation for wisdom. As with a person’s four limbs, these four senses are already inseparable parts of any person at birth. Also as with the four limbs, these four senses develop to their proper healthy proportions if people cultivate them; otherwise they wither away through misuse or desuetude.

Basing his argument on his observation of the uninstructed child, Mencius asserts in his work that humanity has intuitive ability and knowledge. He points out that every child “knows” how to love his or her parents, and as the child grows, he or she “knows” how to respect elder siblings. The former is true ren (humanity) and the latter is true yi (righteousness). Therefore, says Mencius, people are born with the innate knowledge to distinguish the right from the wrong and the innate ability to act according to the right.

The innate knowledge and ability of people, like their basic senses or feelings, are analogous to the seeds of a plant. To allow these seeds to germinate, Mencius brings forth another notion: the cai of humanity, or people’s “natural powers.” Thus if one exhausts one’s natural powers, one will realize one’s potential of being good, and one who does evil is failing to exercise one’s natural powers. Although human nature is basically good, people can be led astray by their contact with the outside world. If people rely only on their sense perceptions (on seeing, hearing, taste, and so forth) without subjecting them to the control of their mind (heart), which is the office of thinking, then they fall into evil ways. Here Mencius’s theory of the “mind” is something very comparable to “reason,” but the mind of the Mencian doctrine is closely linked to his theory of a mystic qi. Mencius, in explaining his theory of innate knowledge, gives his view on the origin of evil, which is a subject not treated by Confucius himself.

Righteousness

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Mencius never speaks of ren (humanity or benevolence) without mentioning yi (righteousness). He is not the first Confucian philosopher to use the term yi, but the emphasis certainly is his. Although “right,” “fair,” and “just” are all within the commonly accepted senses of the word yi, in Mencius’s usage, this word most frequently stands for a concrete sense of justice and fairness. Mencius seems to stress the importance of fulfilling one’s obligations toward other people. These obligations are social in nature. Thus, an unfilial son is not yi because he fails to repay his parents’ kindness toward him, and a servant deserting his or her master is not yi because the individual fails to repay the master’s favors. In this light, Mencius’s yi does not suggest anything like the Western abstract concept of righteousness. However, there is at least one place where Mencius does seem to bring in an absolute righteousness. When he warns rulers not to abuse their subjects, Mencius states that rulers have an obligation to protect the interest of the people. Because rulers do not directly owe any favor to the people, Mencius in this case accepts an absolute standard of righteousness even though he fails to define it.

The social basis of the Mencian concept of righteousness creates perplexing problems when social obligations come into conflict with one another. A man is a righteous son to his father and a righteous minister to his king only as long as there is no conflict of interest between his father and his king, but this condition does not always exist. There is an anecdote in this book that illustrates such difficulties. The story concerns a warrior in ancient China who encountered his own former teacher on the battlefield, on the opposite side of no-man’s-land. Remembering his obligation toward his former teacher, the warrior should show his respect to his present enemy. However, as a loyal soldier to his lord, the warrior should shoot his former teacher to death. Caught in such a dilemma, the warrior won immortality and historical acclaim by a curious compromise. He broke off the points of four of his arrows and shot the arrows at his former teacher. Then he promptly withdrew with a clear conscience.

In contrast to the idea of righteousness, Mencius put li, or “profit” (not to be confused with li, or “rules of propriety”). He blamed humanity’s departure from righteousness to seek personal gain for the disorder and unhappiness in society. Greed leads to strife as people, both in and outside the government, go after profit and fight for personal benefit. Only if everyone strives for that which is right and does what he or she ought to do, can the human community prosper in peace. This is what Mencius preached to the rulers and to his disciples alike. It should be noted, however, that Mencius did not dismiss the importance of material well-being, and the work is not always clear on how Mencius would draw the distinction between the desirable and the undesirable kind of profit.

Government and Rulers

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That Mencius recognized the need for material well-being is evident in his political and economic ideas. His ideal government is one with both moral leadership and adequate social welfare. Like Confucius himself, Mencius advocated rule by moral excellence and humane feeling. Rulers must be considerate of their subjects’ interests. If the ruler is benevolent, the state will prosper because people will not only flock toward it but also imitate its virtuous way of living. Because benevolent government could bring peace and prosperity to people without the need for any other action, Mencius’s theory amounts to rule by moral magnetism.

Mencius was aware of the larger political and economic forces that were at work in society in addition to the moral forces in which he had great confidence. He realized that a state does not exist without people, so he advised the rulers that people must come first, the state second, and the king last. These are his often-quoted words: “People are the roots of the nation. If the roots are not firm, the nation collapses.” Indeed the king must win the “hearts” of his subjects; otherwise, his administration will be doomed. Mencius urged the ruler to give to and to share with the people what they desire and not to do to them what they would not like. Because all human beings like the pleasures of life, the king must work to increase the pleasures of life and to share them with his people. Here Mencius clearly accepts public profit and material well-being for everybody as something good and moral that does not violate the principle of righteousness.

With these declarations, Mencius appears as a champion of the people against tyrannical governments. He is particularly remembered for his expressions in support of the people’s right to revolt. There is enough in the sayings attributed to Confucius himself that implies this right to rebel. Confucius makes the observance of Heaven’s will a necessary condition for the ruler to keep his throne, and he blames the king’s loss of the Heavenly Mandate for the downfall of his dynasty. Mencius elaborates on this view and makes it explicit. He calls a person without ren (benevolence) a scoundrel, and a person without yi (righteousness) a scourge, both deserving defeat, even death, regardless of their social station.

Two Types of People

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Much as Mencius championed the people’s right to revolt against a tyrannical ruler, this Confucian sage did not believe in self-rule. In his work, Mencius upholds a natural division of labor in society on the basis of the different aptitudes of people. There are, he says, two types of people: those of brain and those of brawn. The former work with their minds and are destined to rule, while the latter work with their hands to feed the former and are to be ruled by the former. In this way, he affixes an unmistakable stamp of approval on the Confucian attitude that only the literati, who tend to monopolize education and literature, are fit to conduct the affairs of the government.

Mencius argued that between the two types of people exists a basic difference that helps to justify their separate destinies. Briefly, this difference lies in the spiritual fortitude of those with education. Mencius attributes a moral strength to the true scholar who, unlike the uneducated, is capable of maintaining a steadfast heart even when he or she is threatened with financial insecurity. For the ordinary person, an ensured material provision is necessary to keep him or her behaving properly. What the hungry stomachs of the common people would consume first, Mencius is saying here, are moral scruples. Consequently in the Mengzi, Mencius urges intelligent rulers to look after their people’s livelihood first. He demands that rulers make certain that each farmer has around his house about an acre of land planted in mulberry trees, to enable anyone over fifty to be clothed in silk. Poultry and meat animals should be bred in season so that those over seventy will never lack a meat diet. In addition, Mencius would assign at least fifteen acres of land to any family of eight mouths in order to keep them all well fed. The establishment of schools to teach the people Confucian principles comes last because principles can take roots only in minds when stomachs are full.

Mencius’s Mysticism

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The difference between Mencius and Confucius comes into sharp relief when Mencius leaves the concrete and practical issues of the day to deal with the abstract. In the Mengzi, Mencius injects metaphysics into the Confucian system. He does so by going beyond Confucius in accepting Heaven at different times as a supreme being with a discerning moral will, as a fatalistic pattern, or as the authority that creates virtue and sets the standard of righteousness. Mencius starts with his theory of human nature and asserts that it is Heaven that gives people their innate knowledge contained in his mind (or heart—the Chinese word, xin, means both heart and mind). The mind, or innate knowledge, is what makes people great because by exercising their minds, people can come to “know” their original nature. Mencius’s theory of untainted heart, however, is not the same as the mystic Daoist theory of untampered heart: The latter does not talk about humanity’s mind and its importance.

The mysticism in the system of Mencius begins when he states that when people exercise their minds to the utmost, they will also come to “know” Heaven. The unerring and unwavering attitude to examine oneself in search of one’s good nature is called, in Mencian terms, cheng, or sincerity. A person practicing the principles of humanity and altruism with “sincerity” can succeed in returning to his original nature, which is a part of Heaven. Consequently Mencius declares that “All beings are complete within man.” The person who has attained this state is a perfect person, or a junzi. The junzi radiates a spiritual influence wherever he or she appears. Under the junzi’s influence, the ordinary people become good and the state becomes orderly. This spiritual influence, in most cases, is described by Mencius as qi, or the irresistible, all-pervading force.

The basic senses of the term, qi, include “air,” “all gaseous matters,” and “the air that surrounds a person.” Mencius uses this term largely in the last sense. He assumes that a person with such an influential air around him or her must first possess that degree of spiritual perfection described above. In Mencius’s ecstatic description of this all-pervading force, claiming that it flows “above and below together with Heaven and Earth,” and that it “fills the entire universe between Heaven and Earth,” the qi acquires puzzlingly mystic proportions.

However, this Mencian concept of qi need not be a puzzle if the basis of his theory is considered. According to him, people acquire this all-pervading force by practicing the principles of humanity and morality according to the dictates of Heaven, conceived as a supreme moral voice. The process of acquiring this force, then, is a constant doing of righteous deeds without stop or affectation. People can do so only when they use their minds to examine themselves and to rediscover the righteous senses (the four basic good senses already discussed) that come with their birth. In this analysis, the mystic qi of Mencius is no more than a moral force stated metaphorically.

Mencius’s Legacy

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These are the basic tenets of an idealistic philosopher who, next to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi, perhaps did the most in establishing Confucianism as the controlling orthodoxy in Chinese thought for at least two millennia. Much, of course, has been read back into his book. Many apologists of Chinese tradition attempt to offer Mencius as the great champion of democracy in Eastern political thought. They cite Mencius’s words on the importance of people but they overlook the Mencian pattern of social hierarchy. Almost every rebel in Chinese history quoted Mencius to support his revolt against the government. At the same time, every ruler found comfort in this work when he contemplated punitive campaigns to suppress rebellions. Above all, Mencius has been adopted by the Chinese state-socialists as their ancient spokesperson.

In the same manner, the mystic element in this work has been made use of by different schools of thought. The Daoists have always wanted to include Mencius in their ranks, and they are not entirely without justification. Certain basic elements of Daoist mysticism antedated, or at least coexisted with, Confucian thought. The theory of the all-pervading force of Mencius certainly has a familiar ring to the ears of a Daoist. These problems cannot be tackled before philological studies of the text can establish the indisputable authenticity of any statements attributed to Mencius in this book and can secure other corroborating evidence to make the full implications of these statements clear.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Creel, H.G. Chinese Thought from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953. A very clear text with a good chapter on Mencius. Includes a brief bibliography, selected readings, and a useful index.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. Confucian Moral Self Cultivation. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. This work provides a very good introduction to important Confucian philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. Ethics in the Confucian Tradition: The Thought of Mencius and Wang Yang-ming. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1990. Looks at neo-Confucian Wang Yang-ming’s interpretation of Mencius. Includes chapters that contrast the two philosophers’ approaches to the nature of morality, human nature, sagehood, the origin of evil, and self-cultivation. A good introduction to Mencius’s thought.

Koller, John M., and Patricia Joyce Koller. Asian Philosophies. 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1998. A general introduction to Asian philosophy. Contains a brief section on the philosophy of Mencius within a chapter on the main concepts in Confucianism. A good introduction for beginners.

Mote, Frederick W. Intellectual Foundations of China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971. Contains intelligent scholarly essays, a select bibliography, and an index. The entries on Mencius are brief, but very good for placing him in context.

Nivison, David S. The Ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese Philosophy. Edited by W. Van Norden. Chicago: Open Court, 1996. This work includes a substantial treatment of Mencius on issues such as weakness of will, virtue, motivation, and issues in translating Mencius. Includes an introduction by W. Van Norden

Richards, I. A. Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1932. An enlightening work using linguistic methods developed in the West. Richards offers a critique of Mencius’s method of argument. A very useful book in comparative philosophy.

Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. A scholarly study that compares the major issues in Chinese philosophy with Western philosophical concepts. Includes a very helpful chapter on Mencius. Provides a bibliography, notes, and an index.

Shun, Kwong-loi. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. This work is the first of three proposed volumes on Confucian-Mencian ethics. This volume focuses on the texts of Mencius and their influence on early Confucian thinkers. It includes a thorough index, bibliography, and notes.

Verwilghen, Albert Felix. Mencius: The Man and His Ideas. New York: St. John’s University Press, 1967. Provides an introduction to Mencius and his philosophy.

Waley, Arthur. Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. Winchester, Mass.: Allen and Unwin, 1939. A standard among scholars. A very readable work with a helpful bibliography, glossary, and index. Includes good introductions and translations.

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