Mencius, from Myths and Legends of China, 1922 by E. T. C. Werner
Full name Mencius 孟子 Born 372 BC Died 289 BC (aged 83) Era Ancient philosophy Region Chinese philosophy School Confucianism Main interests Ethics, Social philosophy, Political philosophy Notable ideas Confucianism Ancestral name (姓): Ji (Chinese: 姬; Pinyin: Jī) Clan name (氏): Meng (Ch: 孟; Py: Mèng) Given name (名): Ke (Ch: 軻; Py: Kē) Courtesy name (字): Unknown Posthumous name (謚): Master Meng the Second Sage (Ch: 亞聖孟子; Py: Yàshèng Mèngzǐ) Styled: Master Meng (Ch: 孟子; Py: Mèngzǐ)
Mencius (Chinese: 孟子; pinyin: Mèng Zǐ; Wade–Giles: Meng Tzu; Zhuyin Fuhao: ㄇㄥˋ ㄗˇ, most accepted dates: 372 – 289 BCE; other possible dates: 385 – 303/302 BCE) was a Chinese philosopher who was arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself.
Mencius, also known by his birth name Meng Ke or Ko, was born in the State of Zou, now forming the territory of the county-level city of Zoucheng (originally Zouxian), Shandong province, only thirty kilometres (eighteen miles) south of Qufu, Confucius' birthplace.
He was an itinerant Chinese philosopher and sage, and one of the principal interpreters of Confucianism. Supposedly, he was a pupil of Confucius' grandson, Zisi. Like Confucius, according to legend, he travelled China for forty years to offer advice to rulers for reform. During the Warring States Period (403–221 BCE), Mencius served as an official and scholar at the Jixia Academy in the State of Qi (1046 BCE to 221 BCE) from 319 to 312 BCE. He expressed his filial devotion when he took an absence of three years from his official duties for Qi to mourn his mother's death. Disappointed at his failure to affect changes in his contemporary world, he retired from public life.
Mencius is buried in the "Mencius Cemetery" (孟子林, Mengzi Lin, also known as 亚圣林, Yasheng Lin), which is located 12 km to the northeast of Zoucheng's central urban area. A stele carried by a giant stone tortoise and crowned with dragons stands in front of his grave.
Mencius' mother is often held up as an exemplary female figure in Chinese culture. One of the most famous traditional Chinese four-character idioms is 孟母三遷 (mèng mǔ sān qiān; literal translation: "Mencius' mother, three moves").
This saying refers to the legend that Mencius' mother moved house three times before finding a location that she felt was suitable for the child's upbringing. As an expression, the idiom refers to the importance of finding the proper environment for raising children.
Mencius's father died when he was very young. His mother Zhang (仉) raised her son alone. They were very poor. At first they lived by a cemetery, where the mother found her son imitating the paid mourners in funeral processions. Therefore the mother decided to move. The next house was near a market in the town. There the boy began to imitate the cries of merchants (merchants were despised in early China). So the mother moved to a house next to a school. Inspired by the scholars and students, Mencius began to study. His mother decided to remain, and Mencius became a scholar.
Another story further illustrates the emphasis that Mencius' mother placed on her son's education. As the story goes, once when Mencius was young, he was truant from school. His mother responded to his apparent disregard for his education by taking up a pair of scissors and cutting the cloth she had been weaving in front of him. This was intended to illustrate that one cannot stop a task midway, and her example inspired Mencius to diligence in his studies.
One of Mencius's direct descendants was Dr. Meng Chih, former director of China House, and director of the China Institute in 1944. Time magazine reported Dr. Meng's age that year as 44. North Carolina's Davidson College and Columbia University were his alma mater. He was attending a speech along with Confucius descendant H. H. Kung.
Mencius' interpretation of Confucianism has generally been considered the orthodox version by subsequent Chinese philosophers, especially by the Neo-Confucians of the Song dynasty. Mencius' disciples included a large number of feudal lords, and he was actually more influential than Confucius had been. The Mencius (also spelled Mengzi or Meng-tzu), a book of his conversations with kings of the time, is one of the Four Books that Zhu Xi grouped as the core of orthodox Neo-Confucian thought. In contrast to the sayings of Confucius, which are short and self-contained, the Mencius consists of long dialogues, including arguments, with extensive prose.
View on human nature
While Confucius himself did not explicitly focus on the subject of human nature, Mencius asserted the innate goodness of the individual, believing that it was society's influence – its lack of a positive cultivating influence – that caused bad moral character. "He who exerts his mind to the utmost knows his nature" and "the way of learning is none other than finding the lost mind".
The Four Beginnings (or Sprouts)
To show innate goodness, Mencius used the example of a child falling down a well. Witnesses of this event immediately feel
“ alarm and distress, not to gain friendship with the child's parents, nor to seek the praise of their neighbors and friends, nor because they dislike the reputation [of lack of humanity if they did not rescue the child]...
The feeling of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the feeling of deference and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the feeling of right or wrong is the beginning of wisdom.
Men have these Four Beginnings just as they have their four limbs. Having these Four Beginnings, but saying that they cannot develop them is to destroy themselves.
Human nature has an innate tendency towards goodness, but moral rightness cannot be instructed down to the last detail. This is why merely external controls always fail in improving society. True improvement results from educational cultivation in favorable environments. Likewise, bad environments tend to corrupt the human will. This, however, is not proof of innate evil because a clear thinking person would avoid causing harm to others. This position of Mencius puts him between Confucians such as Xunzi who thought people were innately bad, and Taoists who believed humans did not need cultivation, they just needed to accept their innate, natural, and effortless goodness. The four beginnings/sprouts could grow and develop, or they could fail. In this way Mencius synthesized integral parts of Taoism into Confucianism. Individual effort was needed to cultivate oneself, but one's natural tendencies were good to begin with. The object of education is the cultivation of benevolence, otherwise known as Ren.
According to Mencius, education must awaken the innate abilities of the human mind. He denounced memorization and advocated active interrogation of the text, saying, "One who believes all of a book would be better off without books" (尽信书，则不如无书, from 孟子.尽心下). One should check for internal consistency by comparing sections and debate the probability of factual accounts by comparing them with experience.
Mencius also believed in the power of Destiny in shaping the roles of human beings in society. What is destined cannot be contrived by the human intellect or foreseen. Destiny is shown when a path arises that is both unforeseen and constructive. Destiny should not be confused with Fate. Mencius denied that Heaven would protect a person regardless of his actions, saying, "One who understands Destiny will not stand beneath a tottering wall". The proper path is one which is natural and unforced. This path must also be maintained because, "Unused pathways are covered with weeds." One who follows Destiny will live a long and successful life. One who rebels against Destiny will die before his time.
View on politics
Mencius emphasized the significance of the common citizens in the state. While Confucianism generally regards rulers highly, he argued that it is acceptable for the subjects to overthrow or even kill a ruler who ignores the people's needs and rules harshly. This is because a ruler who does not rule justly is no longer a true ruler. Speaking of the overthrow of the wicked King Zhou of Shang, Mencius said, "I have merely heard of killing a villain Zhou, but I have not heard of murdering [him as] the ruler."
This saying should not be taken as an instigation to violence against authorities but as an application of Confucian philosophy to society. Confucianism requires a clarification of what may be reasonably expected in any given relationship. All relationships should be beneficial, but each has its own principle or inner logic. A Ruler must justify his position by acting benevolently before he can expect reciprocation from the people. In this view, a King is like a steward. Although Confucius admired Kings of great accomplishment, Mencius is clarifying the proper hierarchy of human society. Although a King has presumably higher status than a commoner, he is actually subordinate to the masses of people and the resources of society. Otherwise, there would be an implied disregard of the potential of human society heading into the future. One is significant only for what one gives, not for what one takes.
Comparisons to contemporaries
Xun Zi was a Confucian who believed that human nature is originally bad, and the purpose of moral cultivation is to develop our nature into goodness. Obviously, Mencius was at odds with him. Zhu Xi declared his views to be unorthodox, supporting Mencius' stance that human nature is inherently good.
Mencius' argument that unjust rulers may be overthrown is reminiscent of Socrates' argument in Book I of Plato's Republic.
- Four Books
- Xun Zi
- Cheng Yi (philosopher)
- Zhu Xi
- Lu Jiuyuan
- Wang Yangming
Notes and references
- ^ The original clan name was Mengsun (孟孫), and was shortened into Meng (孟). It is unknown whether this occurred before or after Mencius's death.
- ^ Traditionally, his courtesy name was assumed to be Ziche (子車), sometimes incorrectly written as Ziyu (子輿) or Ziju (子居), but recent scholarly works show that these courtesy names appeared in the 3rd century CE and apply to another historical figure named Meng Ke who also lived in Chinese antiquity and was mistaken for Mencius.
- ^ That is, the second sage after Confucius. Name given in 1530 by Emperor Jiajing. In the two centuries before 1530, the posthumous name was "The Second Sage Duke of Zou" (鄒國亞聖公) which is still the name that can be seen carved in the Mencius ancestral temple in Zoucheng.
- ^ Romanized as Mencius.
- ^ Chan 1963: 49.
- ^ 孟子林 (Mencius Cemetery)
- ^ "Education: China House". TIME. Monday, Sep. 04, 1944. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,885702,00.html. Retrieved May 22, 2011.
- ^ Charles O. Hucker, China to 1850: A Short History, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1978, p. 45
- ^ The Mencius 7:A1 in Chan 1963: 78.
- ^ The Mencius 6:A11 in Chan 1963: 58.
- ^ The Mencius 2A:6 in Chan 1963: 65. Formatting has been applied to ease readability.
- ^ The Mencius 1B:8 in Chan 1963: 62.
- Chan, Wing-tsit (translated and compiled). A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963.
- Graham, A.C., Disputers of the TAO: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China (Open Court 1993). ISBN 0-8126-9087-7
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