Chinese philosopher and thinker Mencius (Mengzi)

Updated:Sat, Jun 23, 2012 22:26 PM    Related:Mencius


Better known in China as 'Master Meng' (Chinese: Mengzi, 孟子), Mencius was a fourth-century BCE Chinese phylosopher and thinker whose importance in the Confucian tradition is second only to that of Confucius himself.


Better known in China as “Master Meng” (Chinese: Mengzi, 孟子), Mencius was a fourth-century BCE Chinese thinker whose importance in the Confucian tradition is second only to that of Confucius himself. In many ways, he played the role of St. Paul to Confucius’ Jesus, interpreting the thought of the master for subsequent ages while simultaneously impressing Confucius’ ideas with his own philosophical stamp. He is most famous for his theory of human nature, according to which all human beings share an innate goodness that either can be cultivated through education and self-discipline or squandered through neglect and negative influences, but never lost altogether. While it is not clear that Mencius’ views prevailed in early Chinese philosophical circles, they eventually won out after gaining the support of influential medieval commentators and thinkers such as Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi, 1130-1200 CE) and Wang Yangming (1472-1529 CE). (See Romanization systems for Chinese terms.) Today contemporary philosophical interest in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology has inspired fresh appraisals of Mencius, while recent philological studies question the coherence and authenticity of the text that bears his name. Mencius remains a perennially attractive figure for those intrigued by moral psychology, of which he was the foremost practitioner in early China.


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 effect changes in his contemporary world, he retired from public life.

Mencius is buried in the town of Zhou, just south of the town of Qufu in Shandong, China.

Ethical Ideal

Mencius elaborated on the Confucian ideal by highlighting four ethical attributes — ren (benevolence, humaneness), li (observance of rites), yi (propriety), and zhi (wisdom). While he retained the use of ren in the broader sense to refer to an all-encompassing ethical ideal, he used it more often in the narrower sense to emphasize affective concern. Ren in this narrower sense has to do with love or concern for others, and involves a reluctance to cause harm and the capacity to be moved by the suffering of others. The scope of such concern includes not just human beings but also certain kinds of animals, and there is a gradation in ren in that one has special concern for and obligations to those closer to oneself. Ren results from cultivating the special love for parents that everyone shares as an infant and the affective concern for others shown in the well-known Mencian example of our commiseration for the infant on the verge of falling into a well.

Besides using yi to refer to the propriety of conduct, Mencius also used it to refer to an ethical attribute that has to do with a proper regard for oneself and distancing oneself from disgrace. However, disgrace is no longer measured by ordinary social standards but has to do with one's falling below certain ethical standards. As an ethical attribute, yi has to do with a firm commitment to such standards. One regards what falls below such standards as potentially tainting oneself, and insists on distancing oneself from such occurrences even at the expense of death. One example is that of a beggar, who is starving to death, being given food in an abusive manner. The beggar would reject the food despite the resulting loss of life; according to Mencius, everyone shares responses of this kind, which provide the starting point for cultivating yi.

Mencius continued to use li to refer to various rules of conduct in ceremonial and other kinds of social contexts, and in addition used it to refer to an ethical attribute having to do with the observance of li. This attribute involves a general disposition to follow the rules of li, as well as a mastery of the details of li that enables one to follow li with ease. It also involves one's observing li with the proper attitude and mental attention, such as reverence in interacting with others or sorrow in mourning, and one should be prepared to suspend or depart from rules of li in exigencies.

In early Chinese thought, xin, which refers to the physical heart, is regarded as the site of both cognitive and affective activities. It is translated sometimes as “heart”, sometimes as “mind”, and in recent literature often as “heart/mind” to highlight the different aspects of the activities of xin. Xin can form certain directions, which can take the form of long term goals in life or more specific intentions. The fourth ethical attribute, zhi, or wisdom, involves having proper directions of the heart/mind, which in turn requires an ability to assess situations without adhering to fixed rules of conduct. This discretionary judgement may lead one to deviate from established rules of li, and may also guide one's behavior in situations in which no general rule is applicable.

Besides the above four ethical attributes, Mencius also highlighted other desirable qualities such as a steadfastness of purpose that enables one to follow what is proper without being swayed by fear or uncertainty. For him, the ideal form of courage involves an absence of fear and uncertainty that is based on one's awareness that one is adhering strictly to what is proper, or yi. He also urged that one should cultivate oneself so that one follows what is proper and willingly accepts unfavorable conditions of life that are not within one's control or are of such a nature that altering them requires improper conduct. The point is sometimes put by saying that one should willingly accept ming, what is not within one's control, and according to Mencius, one should devote effort to ethical pursuits and not worry about these external conditions of life.

The Heart/Mind and Human Nature

For Mencius, the four ethical attributes, ren, yi, li, and zhi, result from our cultivating four kinds of predispositions of the heart/mind that everyone shares. These include commiseration, the sense of shame, a reverential attitude toward others, and the sense of right and wrong. He referred to these as the four ‘sprouts’ or ‘beginnings’, and regarded the four ethical attributes as growing from these predispositions in the way that a plant grows from a sprout. Besides commiseration and the sense of shame, he also regarded love for parents and obedience to elder brothers as the starting point for cultivating ren and yi respectively. His view that the heart/mind has these ethical predispositions provides the basis for his response to the Moist and the Yangist challenges.

Mozi did not believe that human beings have the appropriate predispositions to begin with, but thought that one could restructure one's motivations accordingly after endorsing the doctrine of indiscriminate concern. However, in the absence of such predispositions, the practice of indiscriminate concern seems humanly impossible, a point seized upon by Mozi's opponents. Mencius, on the other hand, held the view that human beings have ethical predispositions that relate to the ethical ideal in the way that a sprout relates to a full-grown plant. Such predispositions contain within them a direction of development in the way that a sprout contains within it a certain direction of growth, and they also provide the appropriate emotional resources that one can draw on to achieve the ideal. In his debate with a contemporary Moist Yizi, Mencius put the point by saying that the ethical way of life has one root — both the validity of that way of life and the emotional resources required for living it have one root in the relevant predispositions.

Related points are made in Mencius's debate with another contemporary intellectual Gaozi. Mencius opposed Gaozi's view that yi (propriety) is external, and also opposed part of a maxim of Gaozi's that says: “what one does not get from words, do not seek in the heart/mind”. While the nature of these disagreements has been subject to different interpretations, it is likely that Mencius was again making similar points about the basis of our ethical life. For Gaozi, yi (propriety) is external in that one should seek it from ethical doctrines, and if one cannot obtain it from doctrines, there is no point in seeking it from within the heart/mind. By contrast, Mencius believed that the heart/mind already has ethical predispositions that point in an ethical direction. Accordingly, yi is internal in that our recognition of what is proper derives from these predispositions of the heart/mind rather than from external doctrines, and so one should seek yi in the heart/mind rather than from doctrines.

Mencius also opposed Gaozi's view that there is neither good nor bad in the xing (nature) of human beings and that one should derive yi (propriety) from doctrines and reshape oneself accordingly. For Gaozi, xing has to do primarily with eating and having sex, the two activities that continue life in human beings, both within the individual and from generation to generation. Mencius, on the other hand, characterized xing in terms of the direction of development of the ethical predispositions of the heart/mind, and for him xing is good as these predispositions already point in an ethical direction. The task of self-cultivation is not to reshape but to nourish one's predispositions.

The Yangists construed xing in biological terms, and regarded xing as the proper direction of development for human beings. Gaozi's position endorses the biological conception of xing but rejects the idea that we should follow xing; instead, we should derive yi from doctrines and reshape ourselves accordingly. Mencius agreed with the Yangists in viewing xing as the proper direction of development, but he rejected the biological conception of xing. Instead, xing for him is constituted by the ethical direction implicit in the predispositions of the heart/mind. Such predispositions have their source in tian, and so one also serves tian by nourishing and cultivating these predispositions. Mencius did not deny that human beings have biological tendencies, but held that the ethical predispositions of the heart/mind have priority over these other tendencies and should more properly be viewed as the content of xing. Examples like the beggar who declined food given with abuse, at the expense of loss of life, show that human beings do believe that ethical propriety has priority over even life itself.

Self-Cultivation and the Political Order

Although the heart/mind has the relevant ethical predispositions, they need to be nourished for them to grow and flourish. One should direct attention to and seek yi under their guidance, and should act accordingly till one can do so with ease and can take joy in so acting. At the same time, just as one should avoid injury to a plant in order to allow it to grow, we also need to attend to the various factors that can potentially harm one's ethical development. Mencius on several occasions highlighted the senses as something that can lead one astray. The senses operate automatically — when they come into contact with their ideal objects, they are pulled along by these objects and have neither the capacity to reflect on the propriety of the course of action nor the capacity to refrain from being pulled along. By contrast, the heart/mind has the capacity to reflect on what is proper, and has the capacity to halt any course of action it regards as improper. The heart/mind should do so under the guidance of its ethical predispositions, and should constantly exercise these capacities to ensure that one progresses in an ethical direction.

There are other factors that can interfere with one's ethical development. One may be led astray by erroneous ethical doctrines, such as the teachings of the Moist and the Yangist, and Mencius explicitly stated that he saw one of his main tasks as that of combating such doctrines. One may also be led astray by certain forms of problematic desires. For example, in a series of dialogues between Mencius and King Xuan of the state of Qi, the king referred to his great desire to expand territories and even to his feverish desires for wealth, women, and display of valor. These desires not only led the king to harsh policies, but also led him to engage in rationalizations about how he lacked the ability to be caring toward his people. Mencius's response was to try to steer the king toward seeing that a more caring policy toward the people is not only not incompatible with the king's desires, but actually enables their attainment in a higher form.

Like Confucius, Mencius regarded the transformative power of a cultivated person as the ideal basis for government. In addition, he spelled out more explicitly the idea that order in society depends on proper attitudes within the family, which in turn depends on cultivating oneself. Also, he made explicit the point that gaining the heart/mind of the people is the basis for legitimate government, as it is the response of the people that reveals who has the authority from tian to take up the position of king. Only the ruler who practices ren government can draw the allegiance of the people, and such a ruler will become invincible, not in the sense of superior military strength, but in the sense of being without opposition. A ren ruler enjoys the allegiance of the people and is unlikely to confront any hostilities; even if a few seek to oppose him, the opposition can easily be defeated with the support of the people. This idea provides one example of how Mencius would try to convince a ruler that his initial desire (viz., being invincible in the sense of superior military strength) can be accomplished in a higher form (viz., being invincible in the sense of being without opposition) through the practice of ren government.

Mencius' mother

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.

She is one of 125 women of which biographies have been included in the Lienü zhuan, written by Liu Xiang.




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