Mencius (Mengzi, Meng Ke or Meng Zi, 372-289 B.C.) was a Confucian disciple who made major contributions to the humanism of Confucian thought. The source of Confucian classic also called Mencius, he traveled throughout China during the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) to advise kings on the principles of good governance. His conversations with rulers were recorded in the book Mencius, which is regarded as one the Four Books — along with The Analects of Confucius, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean — the core classics associated with Confucianism. [Source: Global Times, February 20, 2017]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Mencius (a Latinization of Mengzi, or Master Meng) was the greatest Confucian of the fourth century B.C. He is one of the three Confucian masters of the Classical age who have left us texts or recorded sayings, the other two being Confucius himself, and Xunzi. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “ Mencius was a particularly powerful advocate for the thought of Confucius. Living in the fourth century B.C., about one hundred years after Confucius, Mencius, too, was concerned about the contradiction between the ideal of a peaceful, unified, hierarchical feudal kingdom and the reality of nearly constant warfare between de facto independent feudal states in which the large and powerful preyed upon and absorbed the smaller and weaker states. Like Confucius, Mencius offered his services to feudal lords. Also like Confucius, Mencius had a more successful career as a teacher than as an official. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“The effect of the combined work of Confucius, the codifier and interpreter of a system of relationships based on ethical behavior, and Mencius, the synthesizer and developer of applied Confucian thought, was to provide traditional Chinese society with a comprehensive framework on which to order virtually every aspect of life.There were to be accretions to the corpus of Confucian thought, both immediately and over the millennia, and from within and outside the Confucian school. Interpretations made to suit or influence contemporary society made Confucianism dynamic while preserving a fundamental system of model behavior based on ancient texts.” [Source: Library of Congress]

Books: Mencius is one of the most studied figures in early Chinese history. The book that bears his name is rich in accessible ideas, and his personality emerges with engaging vividness. The most widely used full translation of the text is by D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1970). D.C. Lau’s complete translation is on Library Reserve. Analyses of Mencius’s thought abound: one widely admired example is Kwong-loi Shun’s “Mencius and Early Chinese Thought” (Stanford: 2000). /+/

Good Websites and Sources on Classical Chinese Thought: Robert Eno, Indiana University; Religious Tolerance ; Religion Facts Religion Facts ; Classical Chinese Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

Mencius’s Life

Tomb for Mencius's parents in Qufu

Dr. Eno wrote: “Mencius was a native of the state of Zou, located next to Lu on the Shandong peninsula. His exact dates are unknown, but he lived from about 375 until the end of the fourth century. During his younger years, he was a leading Confucian master, but his fame was only assured by his actions as an old man, when, in the belief that the times were ripe for a dramatic change, Mencius actively sought political positions. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“About 315, Mencius was actually appointed to a high advisory post by the king of Qi, the most powerful state in the east. However, as we saw when we discussed this episode in an earlier section, the king exploited Mencius. Through a deception, he lured Mencius into uttering words that the king advertised as a “wise man’s” mandate for Qi to invade the state of Yan, to the north. Mencius’s apparent complicity in the invasion of Yan embarrassed him. He soon resigned his post and went into retirement, muttering about how Heaven had apparently determined to extend the era of chaos beyond what a sage person, such as Mencius, might have expected. In retirement, Mencius and his followers compiled a series of texts describing his political career and including brief sayings and longer arguments in defense of his ideas. The compilation of these texts, known as the “Mencius”, is one of the most influential books in Chinese history. /+/

“Mencius (c. 372-289 B.C.) and Xunzi (c. 298-238 B.C.) were contemporaries and both were followers of Confucianism. They belonged to the so-called "scholars", and both lived in the present Shandong in eastern China. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Both elaborated the ideas of Confucius, but neither of them achieved personal success. Mencius recognized that the removal of the ruling house of the Zhou no longer presented any difficulty. The difficult question for him was when a change of ruler would be justified. And how could it be ascertained whom Heaven had destined as successor if the existing dynasty was brought down? Mencius replied that the voice of the "people", that is to say of the upper class and its following, would declare the right man, and that this man would then be Heaven's nominee. This theory persisted throughout the history of China. Xunzi's chief importance lies in the fact that he recognized that the "laws" of nature are unchanging but that man's fate is determined not by nature alone but, in addition, by his own activities. Man's nature is basically bad, but by working on himself within the framework of society, he can change his nature and can develop. Thus, Xunzi's philosophy contains a dynamic element, fit for a dynamic period of history. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Mencius’s Philosophy

Mencius declared that man was by nature good. He expostulated the idea that a ruler could not govern without the people's tacit consent and that the penalty for unpopular, despotic rule was the loss of the "mandate of heaven." Mencius was an idealist who emphasized justice and humanity; proposed the idea of popular rule; and is credited with articulating the famous "Mandate of Heaven" ideology. "Any man can become a Yao or Shun," he said (Yao or Shun were two great mythological kings) and "the people are the most important element in a nation. Therefore to gain the peasantry is to become sovereign." *[Source: The Library of Congress *]


Dr. Eno wrote: “Mencius is famous for a set of doctrines that Confucianism found very useful in preserving its position of philosophical authority and political idealism. He taught that states exist for the benefit of the people, and that every ruler’s legitimacy ultimately derives from the will of his people. Heaven’s role in the world was to facilitate the political effectiveness of the people’s will. He urged rulers to adopt policies of humane government in the interests of the people. Any single ruler adopting such policies, he argued, could expect to win the good will of people of all states, who would wish to have him as their own ruler. This being so, Heaven would help engineer such a ruler’s ultimate conquest over the armies of all the patrician lords. Humane government was thus the path to the Mandate of Heaven. /+/ [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“For Mencius, the ultimate rule giver is the heart/mind – the center of our feeling responses – that all members of the human species are born with and share in common. Its complex patterns of spontaneous judgments represent the destiny Tian has “mandated” for each and all of us, and to become fully human is to learn how to attend to its messages with perfect sensitivity, having mastered through practice the art of following our ethical instincts in everyday action.” /+/

One of the most famous passages in the “Mencius” is a demonstration of the intuitive nature of moral sentiments by means of an imaginative example. It reads: “Mencius said, All people possess within them a moral sense that cannot bear the suffering of others. The former kings had such a moral sense and thus they devised means of government that would not allow people to suffer. If a ruler were to employ the moral sense that makes human suffering unendurable in order to implement such humane government, he would find bringing the entire empire into order to be simple, as though he were turning the world in his hand.” /+/

Mencius’s Relevance to the Modern World

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh wrote in the Wall Street Journal:Consider Mencius, a Confucian philosopher who saw the world as anything but stable. Hard work does not necessarily lead to prosperity. Bad deeds will not necessarily be punished. There are no guarantees. Mencius advocated thinking not in terms of making decisions but of setting trajectories in motion. [Source: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2016 ^]

“Imagine a student who has decided he wants to become a diplomat. He’s always been great at mediating conflicts among his peers. He was involved in Model U.N. in high school, the international section is his favorite part of the newspaper, and he’s become pretty fluent in Spanish. He knows that majoring in international relations and taking his junior year abroad in Spain will give him the experiences that will propel him toward that career in diplomacy. ^

“So he goes off to Spain, but after a month falls ill with a severe respiratory virus that lands him in the hospital. It is his first experience of hospitalization, and it plants a seed: He becomes curious about how and why doctors and hospitals do what they do. Things can now go one of two ways. He can remain wedded to his long-term plan and let that interest in health care die out. The hospital experience will make for a few good stories for his friends, but it won’t interfere with his plan to take the diplomatic world by storm. Or he can keep diving into his new obsession, reading everything he can, maybe making friends with some of the young residents on his medical team, and eventually return to the U.S. and devote himself to a health-care field instead.^

“None of this has anything to do with the fact that he was in Spain; it’s just that one series of experiences led to another and opened up things to him that weren’t part of the plan. There’s nothing wrong with spending a year in Madrid or majoring in international relations. But there is something wrong with going abroad as part of a plan that fits in with a vision of who you already are and where you’re going. Concrete, defined plans for life are abstract because they are made for a self who is abstract: a future self that you imagine based on a snapshot of yourself now. You are confined to what is in the best interests of the person you happen to be right now—not of the person you will become. ^

Mencius encourages us to think of life not in terms of decisions but as a series of ruptures that lead us from one thing to another. He would say to the students of today and their anxious parents: Live with a constant awareness of the ever-changing world and your ever-shifting self. Train your mind to stay open and constantly take into account all the complex stuff that is you.” ^

Mencius and the State of Qi

Dr. Eno wrote: “To strengthen his hand, he engineered a political masterstroke. Just at this time, the greatest Confucian of the age, a master named Mencius (Mengzi), had turned up in the state of Qi announcing that he was in quest of a sage ruler who would employ him and put into practice Confucian principles of government. The king did what no one had ever done before: he raised a visiting Confucian to a position of high prestige in government, appointing Mencius an advisor of the first rank. Mencius, an old man who had lived his entire life hoping for his moment in the sun, did not have the political acumen to turn the offer down. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Shortly after his appointment, Mencius was approached by another minister who was an intimate of the king’s. This man came to Mencius’s home on a social visit, and in the course of the conversation, he asked Mencius whether in his opinion, in light of the irregular conduct of the ruler of Yan, that state was would be a proper object of a righteous war. /+/

“Now, Mencius was a Confucian, and Confucians were not known as warmongers. Nevertheless, Yan represented a sore provocation. Zizhi had shamelessly exploited Confucian myths and Confucian ethics to engineer a power play. Mencius could not but have felt the greatest resentment against him. Moreover, Mencius, who had long hoped to play a significant role in pragmatic politics, had actually developed detailed ways of explaining the proper way in which Heaven’s Mandate was supposed to be transferred. He had developed these doctrines both to reassure his potential employers that he was not an opponent of hereditary succession and also to explain why Confucius had not himself received the Mandate, an historical fact that was rather embarrassing to Confucians who wished to claim that the founder of their school had been the greatest sage known to history. /+/

“Mencius claimed that the Mandate could be moved only when a ruler was extraordinarily evil, or, in the case of men such as Yao and Shun, only when the ruling king presented his successor to Heaven and Heaven approved. How did Heaven show its approval? Mencius’s answer was, “Heaven does not speak, it moves through action and event,” and in so doing, “Heaven hears through the ears of the people and sees through the eyes of the people.” That is, only when the population at large showed its clear approval could one claim that the Mandate should be transferred. The transfer of the Mandate through cession was not a private matter between a ruler and his chosen successor, it was in the end a matter of popular assent. /+/

“The seizure of the throne of Yan by Zizhi conformed to none of Mencius’s requirements, and to the minister of Qi who was sitting in his home anxious for an answer, Mencius replied, “Oh yes, Yan is indeed worthy of punishment!”This was all that the minister was waiting for. He had actually been sent by the king to pry just such an answer from Mencius. In short order the troops of Qi marched north to attack Yan and reverse this “Confucian” succession, and they did so, it was proclaimed, with the explicit sanction of the most famous Confucian of the age. In was in vain that Mencius protested that he had been unaware that he was being asked for his advice in an official capacity. “If I had known what the king meant to do,” he said, “I would have told him that though Yan was worthy of being attacked by a righteous state, Qi was not such a state!” He saw clearly that Qi’s invasion was not a matter of ethics but of power. Now, of course, it was too late. King Xuan’s invasion could not have gone better. Zizhi was in fact very unpopular in Yan and the troops from Qi, which marched to place the heir apparent on the throne instead, were much welcomed. When the King Xuan boasted to Mencius of his success, Mencius warned him that though the troops were welcome now, that welcome would soon be worn out if they did not quickly return home and Qi withdraw from its meddling in Yen’s politics. /+/

Mencius on Human Nature

Mencius folio

On human nature, Mencius wrote: “All human beings have a mind that cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. The ancient kings had a commiserating mind and, accordingly, a commiserating government. Having a commiserating mind, a commiserating government, governing the world was like turning something around on the palm of the hand. [Source: Mencius, 2A.6, “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 129; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

“Here is why I say that all human beings have a mind that commiserates with others. Now,1 if anyone were suddenly to see a child about to fall into a well, his mind would always be filled with alarm, distress, pity, and compassion. That he would react accordingly is not because he would use the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the child’s parents, nor because he would seek commendation from neighbors and friends, nor because he would hate the adverse reputation. From this it may be seen that one who lacks a mind that feels pity and compassion would not be human; one who lacks a mind that feels shame and aversion would not be human; one who lacks a mind that feels modesty and compliance would not be human; and one who lacks a mind that knows right and wrong would not be human. [1 At the beginning of the passage Mencius recalls that the ancient kings had this “mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others.” Here he affirms that people of the present also have it.]

“The mind’s feeling of pity and compassion is the beginning of humaneness (ren); the mind’s feelings of shame and aversion is the beginning of rightness (yi); the mind’s feeling of modesty and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the mind’s sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.

“Human beings have these four beginnings just as they have four limbs. For one to have these four beginnings and yet to say of oneself that one is unable to fulfill them is to injure one’s ruler. When we know how to enlarge and bring to fulfillment these four beginnings that are within us, it will be like a fire beginning to burn or a spring finding an outlet. If one is able to bring them to fulfillment, they will be sufficient to enable him to protect ‘all within the four seas’; if one is not, they will be insufficient even to enable him to serve his parents.”

Mencius on the the Goodness of Human Nature

Mencius Tangut

Dr. Eno wrote: “Mencius’s best known doctrine was that all people were born with an inherently good nature – a set of moral impulses that would spontaneously let them distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, what was permitted by “li" from what was not. This doctrine allowed him to support his populist vision of the state, which aligned the will of the people with Heavenly morality, and also spurred him to attempt to convince the increasingly debased warlord rulers of his day that they were, at root, sage kings like the Emperors Yao and Shun. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Mencius wrote: “Why do I say that all people possess within them a moral sense that cannot bear the suffering of others? Well, imagine now a person who “all of a sudden “sees a small child on the verge of falling down into a well. “Any “such person would experience a sudden sense of fright and dismay. This feeling would not be one which they summoned up in order to establish good relations with the child’s parents. They would not purposefully feel this way in order to win the praise of their friends and neighbors. Nor would they feel this way because the screams of the child would be unpleasant. (Mencius, 2A.6)

“Now by imagining this situation we can see that one who lacked a sense of dismay in such a case could simply not be a person. And I could further show that anyone who lacked the moral sense of shame could not be a person; anyone who lacked a moral sense of deference could not be a person; anyone who lacked a moral sense of right and wrong could not be a person. /+/

“Now the sense of dismay on another’s behalf is the seed of “ren” planted within us, the sense of shame is the seed of righteousness, the sense of deference is the seed of “li”, and the sense of right and wrong is the seed of wisdom. Everyone possesses these four moral senses just as they possess their four limbs. For a person to possess such moral senses and yet to claim that he cannot call them forth is to rob oneself; and for a person to claim that his ruler is incapable of such moral feelings is to rob his ruler. /+/

“As we possess these four senses within us, if only we realize that we need to extend and fulfill them, then the force of these senses will burst through us like a wildfire first catching or a spring first bubbling forth through the ground. If a person can bring these impulses to fulfillment, they will be adequate to bring all the four quarters under his protection. But if a person fails to develop these senses, he will fail to protect even his own parents. /+/

Dr. Eno writes: “While much of the argumentation in this passage is not strong by modern standards, it was very forceful in Mencius’s day. And the specific claim that people would universally feel a rush of panic if they spotted a child about to die retains great force, especially among those who would, like Mencius, interpret that rush of adrenaline as a moral response. Mencius’s arguments allowed him to protect the Confucian devotion to ritual from the attacks which later philosophies had brought against it by building ritual and righteousness – and 3 the entire character of the “junzi” – right into the consciousness of human beings from birth, a moral structure of mind which Mencius claimed was formed within us by Heaven itself. /+/

Mencius as a Response to Mohism


Dr. Eno of wrote: “Philosophically, Mencius’s doctrine that human beings have certain moral responses hard-wired as part of our species.specific destiny was a potentially effective response to Mohist claims that right-actions had to be determined through objective, rational criteria that tied morality to the calculus of maximizing action “benefits” (a term that Mencius always uses with the pejorative, self-regarding sense of “profit”).Mohism called on people to override apparently ethical responses, such as preferential love of family, that might undermine obedience to Mohist utilitarian prescripts, and Mencius went to great lengths to argue that this was a perverse distortion of our natural moral predispositions, endowed in us by Tian. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“A Mohist named Yi Zhi wished to visit Mencius, and asked an introduction from Mencius’s disciple Xu Bi. Mencius said, “I have long wished to meet him, but I am ill now. When I’m better, I’ll go pay him a visit. There’s no need for him to come here.” But later, Yi Zhi pressed Xu Bi for an introduction once again. Mencius said, “I can see him now. If one is not straightforward, then the “dao” will not become clear. I’ll straighten him out. I hear that Yi Zhi is a Mohist. Mohists make frugality in funerals part of their “dao”. Yi Zhi aspires to change the world in this way, and it must be that he believes frugal funerals to be honorable, yet he himself gave his parents lavish funerals – it would seem that he treated his parents dishonorably.” Xu Bi reported this to Yi Zhi, who said, “The Confucian “dao” holds that the ancients prized acting towards others with as much care as one gives a newborn babe in arms. What would this mean? I believe it means loving all without distinction, beginning with one’s parents.” Xu Bi reported this to Mencius, who said, “Does Yi Zhi truly believe that men can love their neighbors’ children as much as their brothers’? His argument actually relies on that special example picturing how we’d feel if we saw some innocent baby crawling to the edge of a well. When Tian gives birth to a thing, it gives it only one set of roots. Yi Zhi’s arguments seem to work because he gives them two roots. /+/

““Most likely, in past ages men did not bury their parents, but simply consigned their bodies to an open ditch when they died. But some days later, passing by, they would have seen how the foxes had gnawed on the corpses and the flies sucked. Sweat would have stood out on their brows as they averted their eyes. Now that sweat was not conjured up for others to see – it would have been the feelings of their inmost heart pouring forth on their faces. Then they would have returned to their homes to get shovels and baskets to cover the corpses over. If burying them thus was truly the right thing, then when filial sons and men of “ren” bury their parents it is certainly in accord with the “dao”.” Xu Bi reported this answer to Yi Zhi, who stared blankly for a time and then said, “I have taken his point.” (“Mencius”, 3A.5) 4 Note in particular that the critical argument offered in this passage pictures the origins of burial rituals not in terms of social benefits, rationally calculated, but in terms of what the text suggests is a universal, innate affective response, something all people would spontaneously share. /+/

“The reading on Mohism includes an anecdote concerning the Mohist Fu Tun, who with typical Mohist righteousness demands that his son be executed for crimes, rather than spared on account of Fu Tun’s feelings. Mohists disciplined themselves to override normal affective or emotional responses in order to respond with full commitment to the demands of basic Mohist ethical imperatives, such as acting for the benefit of all impartially, or uprooting oneself on a moment’s notice to pursue an opportunity to stop offensive war.We see an example in the “Mencius”, when the Mohist Song Keng passes through Mencius’s district. /+/

“Song Keng was on his way to Chu. Mencius encountered him at Shiqiu and asked, “Where are you going, Sir?” Song Keng said, “I have been told that the armies of Qin and Chu have gone to war, and I shall visit the King of Chu and persuade him to call it off. If the King of Chu does not appreciate my argument, I will visit the King of Qin and persuade him likewise. Between the two I shall surely encounter success.” “I shall not presume to ask in detail, but I would like to hear the main gist of your argument.” Song Keng said, “I will explain that there is no profit in it.” Mencius said, “Your intentions are certainly lofty, but your formula is unacceptable....” (“Mencius”, 6A.4) This type of militant ethical “voluntarism,” willfully overriding the normally mixed responses of the heart in order to align one’s energy and commitment fully towards an ideal goal, was, for Mencius, an abandonment of the heart that humans were destined to follow. /+/

Mencius on Self-Cultivation


Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “The “Mencius” is a very rich text with an abundance of passages that are of great significance to intellectual history and fun to read. Mencius was a master of argument and of the analogical parable, and his book is filled with color. One of Mencius’s concerns was the description of the process of self-cultivation, and the Confucian master is portrayed very much as a hero in the text, a man who has been through a crucible of discipline in search of enlightenment. His descriptions of the man in control of the Dao reveal how deeply he felt himself in touch with this sacred Way of the Ancient Kings, and he speaks of how, at the moment that it is grasped, “the hands dance and the feet prance,” and how one thereafter “encounters its source and every turn.” For Mencius, this was actually a process of self-discovery, for the joy of mastering the Dao is that once we do, we recognize it as the expression of our own deepest nature, a nature that is intrinsically social and ethical, and which delights most in joining with others to bring happiness to all. “He who knows his nature knows Heaven,” he said, though he added that it was disappointing for the sage to have to watch others fail to realize their true goodness and be unable to single.handedly alter the darkness of the age. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“There is in the “Mencius” one detailed discussion of self-cultivation which strikingly illustrates the relationship between Confucian ritualism and the late Zhou warrior society from which it was born. The passage describes the self-cultivation of the Confucian “junzi”, and models that experience on the trained psychology of the master warrior or martial artist...Its subtle analysis of human motivation, self-realization, and ethical potential is a powerful response to the one.dimensional Mohist commitment to whip up one’s energy to follow Mohist maxims no matter what the cost. /+/

“Mencius describes here a subtle process whereby the individual brings the spontaneous forces of his body under absolute control in the service of a behavioral goal or way of life. In his life-like description, Mencius makes use of a traditional Chinese concept of a force or energy that pervades the human body and all of the living universe. That energy is called “”qi””, and was believed to be the subtlest physical component of the body, circulating within it in unpredictable ways. (If you want to know what “qi” is, you need to picture it when it is out of control. For example, recall the last time that you drank six cups of coffee before going to bed – those heebie.jeebies racing through you as you stare at the ceiling at 3:00 A.M. is your “qi” in a wild state. Under control, that same energy will produce the sparkling finish of a term paper, completed at 3:00 A.M. the morning of the due date. In Mencius, its powers are aimed at even more critical issues.)” /+/

Mencius’s long discussion of self-cultivation is in the form of a conversation that “probably took place about ten years before the climax of Mencius’s political life, but it relates to his ambitions to achieve high position and lead the ruler of Qi towards Heaven’s mandate. Gongsun Chou, with whom Mencius is speaking, was a native of Qi and a follower of Mencius. It will be useful to note in advance that the term “heart,” in ancient Chinese, covers the meanings of “heart,” “mind,” and often “sense” as well (as in the “sense of dismay” discussed above). The conversation may represent the earliest analysis of the ideas that lie behind East Asian traditions of martial arts, and should be of great interest to anyone who has engaged in them.” In addition, “It will help to bear in mind throughout this long passage that the primary topic is how Mencius attained the condition of having an “unmoving heart.” The word for “heart” is often rendered “heart-mind” by translators, because it may refer to elements of emotion and affect as well as to cognitive aspects of the person. .+/

Mencius on Attaining an ‘Unmoved Mind’ and the Martial Arts

leftIn the discussion of self-cultivation, the Mencius reads: “ Gongsun Chou asked, “If you, Sir, were to receive a high post among the grandees of Qi and were able to implement your “dao”, it would not be startling if the ruler were to rise to the position of hegemon or even a true King. If this were to occur, would your heart be moved by this?” “No,” replied Mencius. “By the age of forty I had cultivated a heart that could not be moved.” “If that is so, then you, Sir, have exceeded the valor of the warrior Meng Ben by far!” “That is not difficult,” said Mencius. “Actually, the philosopher Gaozi attained an unmoving heart earlier than I.” “Is there a “dao” for achieving an unmoving heart?” asked Gongsun Chou. ““Yes,” replied Mencius, “there is.” [Source: “From Mencius 2A.2: The discussion of the unmoved mind. /+/]

“The formula by which the warrior Bogong You nurtured his valor was this: ‘I shall not allow my skin to recoil in the least or let my stare flinch. I shall consider the slightest touch of another to be as insulting as if he were whipping me publicly in a market or court. What I would not accept from a coarsely clad commoner, I will not accept from the ruler of a state of ten thousand chariots. I shall look upon stabbing a great ruler as though I were stabbing a coarsely clad commoner. I shall have no fear of patrician lords. Any insulting sound that reaches my ear I must return.” “The formula by which the warrior Mengshi She nurtured his valor was this: ‘I shall regard defeat as the same as victory. To advance only after having measured the enemy or meet the enemy only after having plotted for victory shows fear of the enemy armies. How could I guarantee victory? All I can be assured of is that I will be fearless.’ “Mengshi She resembles Confucius’s disciple Zengzi; Bogong You resembles Confucius’s disciple Zixia. I do not know which type of valor is the finer, but Mengshi She was a man who preserved self-control. /+/

““Once, Zengzi addressed a man named Zixiang thus: ‘Do you delight in valor? I once heard from the Master about Great Valor. “If I search inwardly and find that I am not fully upright, though I face a mere coarsely clad commoner, I shall not threaten him. If I search inwardly and find that I am fully upright, though I face ten million men I will attack.”’ The manner in which Mengshi She preserved his “qi” is not as fine as Zengzi’s.” Zixia was a disciple of Confucius who was known for specializing in text study and focusing his own followers on the minor points of ritual as a discipline. Zengzi (or Master Zeng) was a younger disciple who was known for his attention to capturing the ethical spirit of Confucius’s “dao”, without such deep emphasis on textual and ritual study. Zengzi’s influence during the Warring States era was particularly great, and Mencius was trained in his teaching tradition. Zengzi is generally authoritative when quoted in the “Mencius”.7

Mencius on Qi

right”Qi gong” Dr. Eno wrote: In ancient China, “”qi” was pictured as a type of vaporous substance that penetrated the cosmos – it made the stars shine and water flow, and in people, it was a powerful force (the original graph seems to suggest steam). If properly harnessed, “qi” could help people achieve great things in the world and could also nourish the body and keep it healthy. If dissipated through careless living or unfocused activity, it could sabotage the ability to follow through in action and undermine physical health. “qi” cultivation was a basic aspect of the training of many schools, including Confucianism and Daoism. There were also schools whose Daos consisted of nothing other than “qi” cultivation. (An important product of such schools was martial arts training, both in the Classical period and later. Many contemporary East Asian martial arts still place “qi” at the center of their training.) [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

In the discussion of self-cultivation, the Mencius reads: Gongsun Chou said, “May I inquire about the formulas that you and Gaozi used to attain an unmoving heart?” Mencius replied, “Gaozi’s rule was, ‘If you cannot find sanction for a course of action in the teachings, do not search for it in your heart. If you cannot find sanction for a course of action in you heart, do not search for it in your “qi”.’ I agree to the formula, ‘If you do not find it in the heart, do not search for it in the “qi”.’ But it is unacceptable to say, ‘If you do not find it in the teachings, do not search for it in your heart.’ “The will is the leader of the “qi”, and “qi” is something that fills the body. Wherever the will leads the “qi” follows. Thus there is a saying, ‘Grasp your will and do not dissipate your “qi”.’” Gongsun Chou said, “On the one hand you have said, ‘Wherever the will leads the “qi” will follow.’ But you have also said, ‘Grasp your will and do not dissipate your “qi”.’ Is there not an inconsistency?” [Source: “From Mencius 2A.2: The discussion of the unmoved mind. Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Mencius answered, “When the will is unified it moves the “qi”. But when the “qi” is unified, it can move the will. For example, when you see a man stumble or rush about, this is the action of his “qi”. In such cases, it has turned back upon the heart and moved it.” Gaozi appears in the “Mencius” principally as an adversary, arguing that human nature is neither good nor bad – the debates on this point appear below. Some commentators speculate he was a Mohist, but in the few other Warring States texts that portray him, he seems to be a Confucian, though not of Mencius’s school. Note that there is a core disagreement between Mencius and Gaozi here on whether “the teachings” or “the heart” should have authority over one’s actions. They agree that the heart should have authority over the “qi”, and this is probably an anti-Mohist position, designed to counter the Mohist teaching that one should discipline oneself to follow the rationally derived imperative of universality over the spontaneous tendency to love one’s intimates more than others. /+/

Mencius Temple

“Gongsun Chou said, “May I presume to inquire how you, Sir, excel?” “I can interpret what speech means,” replied Mencius, “and I nurture well my flood-like “qi”.” Gongsun Chou asked, “What do you mean by ‘flood-like “qi”?’“ “It is hard to describe,” said Mencius. “This is a “qi” that is as great and hard as can be. If one nurtures it by means of straightforward action and never injures it, then it will fill all between heaven and earth. It is a “qi” that is a companion to righteousness and the Dao. Without these, it will starve away. It is generated through the long accumulation of acts of righteousness. It is not something that can be seized through a single righteous act. If in your actions there is any sense of inadequacy in your heart, it will starve away. “This is why I say that Gaozi never really understood righteousness. He looked for it in external standards other than the heart. But your task must always be before you and you must not go making small adjustments. The task of nurturing this “qi” must never be forgotten by the heart, but you must not meddle and try to help it grow. Don’t be like the simpleton from the state of Song. /+/

““There was a man of Song who was concerned that the sprouts in his field were not growing well, so he went and tugged at each one. He went home utterly exhausted and said, ‘Oh, I’ve made myself ill today! I’ve been out helping the sprouts to grow.’ His sons rushed out to look and found the stalks all shriveled up. “There are few in the world who do not ‘help their sprouts grow.’ There are those who do not ‘weed’ – they have simply given the whole task up as useless. But the ones who tug on the sprouts to help them grow – they are worse than useless, for they do harm!” /+/

Dr. Eno writes: “The attack on Gaozi’s “externalization” of right is a reformulation of the earlier position ascribed to Gaozi, that one should take direction from “the teachings” rather than from one’s heart. Mencius’s criticism of Gaozi is likely influenced by the fact that the Mohist ethical system focused on a concept of “right” that reduced its meaning to “acts that are universal, rather than partial,” and reduced its practice to unwavering commitment to act in accord with Mohism’s simple set of objective ethical rules.” /+/

Mencius and the Mandate of Heaven

Early Chinese monarchs were both priests and kings. The Chinese people believed that their rulers were chosen to lead with a "mandate of heaven" — the Chinese belief that a dynasty was ordained to rule, based on its demonstrated ability to do so. It was a kind of political legitimacy based on the notion that the overthrow of ruler was justified if the ruler became wicked, lost the trust of the people or double-crossed the supreme being.

The “mandate of heaven” was first adopted during the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 B.C.) and was described as a divine right to rule. Mencius wrote about it at length and framed it in both moral and cosmic terms, stating that if a ruler was just and carried out the prescribed rituals to the ancestors then his rule and the cosmic, natural and human order would be maintained.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “In the Chinese tradition, the emperor did not necessarily have the absolute power that is associated with the traditional monarchies of Europe. The emperor’s actions had to be tempered by basic political expectations, and he had to act properly as an integral part of the cosmic order. The expectation was that an emperor should be an exceptional being — a sage king — and his right to rule was contingent upon his ability to skillfully mediate the cosmic forces. As mediator between Heaven and Earth, the emperor was thought to be a major participant in all cosmic actions, and as such he had to conduct himself accordingly, or the repercussions, in terms of cosmic dislocation, could be very serious. If things went wrong — a bad crop year, for instance — the emperor could be held responsible. He could be overthrown, and this would be considered legitimate. When such an overthrow occurred, it would be understood that the emperor had “lost” the Mandate of Heaven. In this way the notion of imperial legitimacy was fundamentally linked to the notion of maintaining the cosmic order.

Mandate of Heaven

Mencius on On The Duty of Ministers to Reprove a Ruler

The Mencius reads: “Mencius said to King Xuan of Qi, “Suppose that one of the king’s subjects entrusted his wife and children to his friend and journeyed to Chu. On returning he found that he had allowed his wife and children to be hungry and cold. What should he do?” The king said, “Renounce him.” “Suppose the chief criminal judge could not control the officers. What should he do?” The king said, “Get rid of him.” “Suppose that within the four borders of the state there is no proper government?” The king looked left and right and spoke of other things. [Source: Mencius 1B:6, “ Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 124-126, 146-147; Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

King Xuan of Qi asked, “Is it true that Tang banished Jie and King Wu assaulted Zhou?”1 Mencius replied, “This is contained in the records.”2 “For a minister to slay his ruler — can this be countenanced?” “One who despoils humaneness is called a thief; one who despoils rightness is called a robber. Someone who is a robber and a thief is called a mere fellow. I have heard of the punishment of the fellow Zhou but never of the slaying of a ruler.” [1According to tradition, Tang, as the first ruler of the Shang dynasty, was responsible for ousting the depraved Jie, the last ruler of the Xia dynasty. King Wu, as one of the founders of the Zhou dynasty, is credited with deposing the wicked Zhou, the last ruler of the Shang; 2 Tang’s ousting of Jie is recorded in the Classic of Documents, “The Announcement of Zhoughui” and “The Announcement of Tang,” and King Wu’s removal of Zhou in the Classic of Documents, “The Great Declaration” and “The Successful Completion of the War.”] [Mencius 1B:8 ]

“The people of Qi having attacked Yan and taken possession of it, the several lords were making plans to rescue Yan. King Xuan said, “Many of the lords are making plans to attack this solitary man. How shall I prepare for them?” Mencius replied, “Your minister has heard that there was one who with seventy li extended his government to the entire realm: this was Tang. I have not heard of one with a thousand leagues who feared others. [Mencius 1B:11 ]

“The Classic of Documents says When Tang undertook the work of punishment he began with Ge. 5 The whole world trusted him. When he pursued the work of punishment in the east, the Yi in the west felt aggrieved; when he pursued the work of punishment in the south, the Di in the north felt aggrieved, saying, “Why does he leave us until last?”6 “The people looked to him as to clouds and rainbows in a time of great drought. Those going to market had no need to stop; those tilling the fields were unimpeded. He punished the rulers but comforted the people. He was like timely rain descending, and the people were greatly delighted. The Classic of Documents says “ ‘We await our ruler; when he comes we will be revived.’7 “Now Yan oppressed its people, and the king went and punished it. The people believed he was going to deliver them from out of water and fire and, bringing baskets of rice and pitchers of drink, they welcomed the king’s army. Then to have slain their fathers and elder brothers, bound their sons and younger brothers, destroyed their ancestral temple and carried off their treasured vessels — how can this be condoned? Certainly the world fears the might of Qi. Now the king has doubled his territory but has not practiced humane government: it is this that is setting the troops of the realm in motion. If the king will immediately issue orders to return the captives and stop the removal of the precious vessels, and if he will consult with the people of Yan about withdrawing once a ruler has been installed for them, he may still be able to stop an attack.” [5 This quotation, while not exact, is close to the language of “The Announcement of Zhonghui” in the Classic of Documents. See James Legge, The Chinese Classics, vol. 3 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893.1895; reprint, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1979), 180; 6 Again, though the wording is slightly different, this quotation is close to the language of “The Announcement of Zhonghui” in the Classic of Documents. See Legge, 180.181; 7 The language closely resembles “The Announcement of Zhonghui.” See Legge, 181] [Mencius 5B:9 ]

Yasheng Hall in the Temple of Mencius

“King Xuan of Qi asked about high ministers. Mencius said, “Which high ministers is the king asking about?” The king said, “Are the ministers not the same?” “They are not the same. There are ministers who are from the royal line and ministers who are of other surnames.” The king said, “May I inquire about those who are of the royal line?” “If the ruler has great faults, they should remonstrate with him. If, after they have done so repeatedly, he does not listen, they should depose him.” The king suddenly changed countenance. “The king should not misunderstand. He inquired of his minister, and his minister dares not respond except truthfully.” The king’s countenance became composed once again, and he then inquired about high ministers of a different surname. “If the ruler has faults, they should remonstrate with him. If they do so repeatedly, and he does not listen, they should leave.”

Diametrically Opposed to Mencius: Xun Zi and the Legalists

Diametrically opposed to Mencius, for example, was the interpretation of Xun Zi (ca. 300-237 B.C.), another Confucian follower. Xun Zi preached that man is innately selfish and evil and that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion. See Separate articles on the Legalists. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Xun Zi's unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law (fa), or Legalism. The doctrine was formulated by Han Fei Zi (d. 233 B.C.) and Li Si (d. 208 B.C.), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish and therefore the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above and to enforce laws strictly. The Legalists exalted the state and sought its prosperity and martial prowess above the welfare of the common people. Legalism became the philosophic basis for the imperial form of government. When the most practical and useful aspects of Confucianism and Legalism were synthesized in the Han period (206 B.C. - A.D. 220), a system of governance came into existence that was to survive largely intact until the late nineteenth century. *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Mandate of Heaven: Clinic 007; Books: Amazon

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua;; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2021

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