An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Mengzi 孟子

Jul 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

Mengzi 孟子 "Master Meng" is a collection of stories of the Confucian philosopher Meng Ke 孟軻 (385-304 or 372-289 BCE, latinized as "Mencius") and his discussions with rulers, disciples and adversaries. It is part of the Confucian Canon as one of the Four Books (Sishu 四書).

Master Meng Ke

Master Meng was an adherent of the Confucian tradition transmitted by Zisi 子思 (Kong Ji 孔伋), a grandson of Confucius, and lived in the mid-4th century BCE, during the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE). Mengzi, courtesy name Ziyu 子輿 or Ziju 子居, hailed from the small state of Zou 鄒 (modern Zouxian 鄒縣, Shandong). His father died when he was still a child. Mengzi's mother (called "Meng Mu" 孟母) is traditionally venerated as an example of excellent virtue. She moved their home three times in order to live in a better neighbourhood, and it was herself who taught the young Meng Ke the first lessons of virtuous behaviour. Mengzi travelled from court to court and served the rulers of the states of Qi 齊 and Wei 魏, as well as those of the smaller states of Teng 滕, Xue 薛, and Song 宋. In Wei (at that time called Liang 梁) he served King Hui 梁惠王 (r. 379-335). Unfortunately most lords appreciated the teachings of the legalist or military advisers, who suggested strengthening the state by a powerful central government, while Mengzi's teachings of a benevolent and humane government seemed too theoretical for them. He was at least able to gain the confidence of the kings Hui of Liang and Xuan of Qi 齊宣王 (r. 342 – 324) for some time.

After his canonisation in 1083 as "Duke of Zou" 鄒國公, and in 1330 as "Ducal Second Saint" (yasheng gong 亞聖公), Mengzi became the second grand master of Confucianism and was named together with Confucius himself as the pair Kong-Meng 孔孟, their teachings as "the way of Confucius and Mencius" (Kong-Meng zhi dao 孔孟之道). During the May Fourth movement 五四運動 in 1919, Mengzi was attacked as the "second boss of the Confucian shop" (Kongjia dian er laoban 孔家店二老闆, Kongdian di er lao 孔店地二老) which, it was said, had contributed to the fossilization of Chinese society and the traditional Chinese world of thought.

Mengzi was such an important teacher of Confucianism that a plethora of "annalistic biographies" (nianpu 年譜) have been compiled. The most important are Cheng Fuxin's 程復心 Mengzi nianpu 孟子年譜 (Yuan), Tan Zhenmo's 譚貞默 Mengzi biannian lüe 孟子編年略 (Ming), and Di Ziqi's 狄子奇 Mengzi biannian 孟子編年 (Qing).

The book Mengzi

Although the history Shiji 史記 states that the author of the Mengzi was Meng Ke himself (together with some of his disciples like Wan Zhang 萬章), it must be assumed that at least part of the book was compiled by his disciples after Meng Ke's death. Zhao Qi 趙岐 (Han), Zhu Xi 朱熹 (Song) and Jiao Xun 焦循 (Qing) were of the opinion that Meng Ke had compiled the book himself. This assertion is doubted by Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824), Su Zhe 蘇轍 and Chao Gongwu 晁公武 (1105-1180) who were sure that the book is a compilation of Mengzi's disciples. Today a middle course between the two competing groups is preferred which also follows the early argument of the historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 (145 or 135-86 BCE), author of the Shiji, who said that the core part of the book was written by Meng Ke, while his disciples added some other parts.

The Mengzi is seven-chapters long, each of which is divided into two parts. The titles of most chapters are the names of Meng Ke's conversational partners, like King Hui of Liang, Duke Wen of Teng 滕文公, Gongsun Chou 公孫丑, Wan Zhang, or Gaozi 告子; the chapter Li Lou 離婁 is, in a method also known from the "Confucian Analects" Lunyu 論語, named after the first words (in this case, the name of a semi-historical person); the same goes for the last chapter, Jinxin 盡心 "Exhausting all his heart".

Table 1. Chapters of the Mengzi
1.-2. 梁惠王 Liang Huiwang Liang Huiwang A-B
3.-4. 公孫丑 Gongsun Chou Gongsun Chou A-B
5.-6. 滕文公 Teng Wengong Teng Wengong A-B
7.-8. 離婁 Li Lou Li Lou A-B
9.-10. 萬章 Wan Zhang Wan Zhang A-B
11.-12. 告子 Gaozi Gaozi A-B
13.-14. 盡心 Jin Xin "Exhausting all his heart" A-B

The arrangement of the chapters is explained by Zhao Qi from the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) in the following way: Mengzi was of the opinion that the sage rulers of the past, Yao 堯 and Shun 舜, had ruled with the methods of kindheartedess (ren 仁) and appropriate behaviour (yi 義). These were the most important guidelines for government and had to be explained to a ruler first, in this instance King Hui of Liang. The practical adaption of these principles is explained next (chapter Gongsun Chou 公孫丑), followed by the argument that a revival of the virtues used in antiquity was most important (Teng Wengong 滕文公). In the chapter Li Lou the use of the rites (li 禮) is explained that go out of the heart. Of all proper behaviour the most important was filial piety (xiao 孝), accordingly described in the next chapter (Wan Zhang 萬章). Filial piety arose from emotions and character (qing xing 情性), which are explained in the following chapter (Gaozi 告子). Man could only control his emotions by exhausting all his heart (Jin xin) to come into one line with Heaven's will.

The bibliographic chapter Yiwenzhi 藝文志 of the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 speaks of eleven chapters, which means that 4 chapters were added later. Indeed, Zhao Qi mentions the titles of four "outer" chapters (waishu 外書: Xingshan bian 性善辯 "Discussing the goodness of human nature", Wenshuo 文說 "Explanation from literature", Xiaojing 孝經 "Classic of filial piety" [not the received Xiaojing!], and Weizheng 爲政 "Active government") which are not included in the received version, probably because of their inferior quality compared with the seven "inner chapters" (neipian 内篇). Surviving parts of the Outer Book seem to be forgeries by the Ming period scholar Yao Shilin 姚士粦.

For a long time, the book Mengzi was seen as one of the many schools of thought (zhuzi 諸子) and was only classified as a Confucian treatise between the Han and the Tang 唐 (618-907) periods. The Tang period scholar Han Yu, who wrote the treatise Yuandao 原道, was the first to say that Mengzi was the real successor of Confucius. It became a Confucian classic only during the Northern Song period 北宋 (960-1126), when it was integrated into the canon of the Jiujing 九經 "Nine Classics". The position of the book was consecrated by the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) philosopher Zhu Xi, who made it part of the canonical "Four Books". From then on the book Mengzi was part of the canon to be studied by everyone who wanted to pass the state examinations.

The most important surviving ancient prints of the Mengzi are the small-sized edition of eight Classics (bajing 八經) from the Song period that was reprinted several times as a facsimile by the imperial household during the Kangxi reign 康熙 (1662-1722), a large-type print from the Song period including Zhao Qi's commentary (reprinted in the collectanea Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 and Sibu beiyao 四部備要), a print of the Nine Classics from 1640 by the Qiugu Studio 求古齋, the edition of the Thirteen Classics (shisanjing 十三經) with commentaries (Shisanjing zhushu fu kaozheng 十三經注疏附考證) printed by the imperial press of the Hall of Military Glory (Wuyingdian 武英殿) during the Qianlong reign 乾隆 (1736-1795), and the version in the Jiaoshi congshu 焦氏叢書, published during the early 19th century by the Diaogu Studio 雕菰樓.

The oldest commentators were Zhao Qi (Mengzi zhu 孟子注) and Liu Xi 劉熙 from the Later Han period. Liu Xi's commentary, as well as that of the Liang period 梁 (502-557) scholar Qimu Sui 綦母邃, is lost. Only during the Northern Song period the Mengzi attracted the deeper interest of Confucian scholars. There is a commentary traditionally attributed to Sun Shi 孫奭, Mengzi shu 孟子疏, which is included in the collection Shisanjing zhushu 十三經注疏. The most important commentator of the age of Neo-Confucianism was the Southern Song period 南宋 (1127-1279) scholar Zhu Xi, who wrote the commentary Mengzi zhangju jizhu 孟子章句集注, short Mengzi jizhu 孟子集注. The standard Qing period commentary is Jiao Xun's Mengzi zhengyi 孟子正義.

Meng Ke's Philosophy

As a Confucian philosopher, Mengzi held in high esteem virtues that he called the "four principles" (siduan 四端), namely kindheartedness (ren 仁), appropriate behaviour (yi 義), etiquette (li 禮), and wisdom (zhi 智). Yet while Confucius was a kind of idealist, Meng Ke can be seen as more practical, and as the more aggressive of the two. Meng Ke did not shy away from conflicts with representatives of other schools and even dared to criticize kings.

He was, compared to Confucius, more explicit in the explanation of the term "kindheartedness" or "humanity" (ren). Kindheartedness was, in his eyes, an instrument of a self-deprecating ruler, and saw himself as a servant to his people. He acted on behalf of the people who were protected by Heaven. The personal behaviour of personal kindheartedness which Confucius had spoken of was thus by Mengzi extended into the field of government. A benevolent government (renzheng 仁政) was the true "Way of the king" (wangdao 王道), expressed in low taxes (bo shui lian 薄稅斂), austerity in lifestyle, and sparingly used punishment (sheng xing fa 省刑罰). The ruler had to care for sufficient grain so that the people would be able to serve their parents and nourish their family and to live a life of happiness. A ruler deserved that name because he was able to "protect the people" (bao min 保民) and because the care for people was the most important item on his agenda (min wei gui 民爲貴), the grain altars (sheji 社稷) came second, while lordship was only of minor importance (jun wei qing 君爲輕).

Rulers not exerting the Confucian way of the king and ruling in the Way of a hegemon (ba dao 霸道) had to be admonished by their ministers, and it was even their duty to remonstrate the ruler for cruelty in government, if the worst came to the worst, even to kill the tyrant. The ruler himself had to be obedient to his virtual father, Heaven. If he did not conduct a government of benevolence, Heaven would express his anger by sending floods and natural disasters, and also directly through the people, who would leave the country of the tyrant, or rebel against him.

Kindhearted government had to begin with a just distribution of land to all people so that they were able to live from their fields and the animals on their farm. Only if the people were guaranteed these basic needs, there would be place for the virtues of filial piety, loyalty, and trustworthiness.

Another important philosophical issue of Mengzi is the goodness of human nature (ren xing shan 人性善). According to him all humans have by nature a compassion for others and will not see them suffering (bu ren ren zhi xin 不忍人之心). If a child falls into a well, everbody would instinctively hurry to save it. The ruler, accordingly, would not dare see his people suffer from hunger and cold, while "his own stables are full of well-fed horses". The inherence of goodness enables everybody to become a perfect saint, because he has an innate knowledge of what is good (liang zhi 良知) and therefore the potential for good actions (liang neng 良能).

Mengzi compares this innate knowledge with water that will, following the natural laws, flow downwards. Similarly, man would become good without doubt, if only he practiced this goodness in an appropriate way. The potential to become a sage ruler like Yao or Shun, Mengzi says, was given to everybody, even without adhering to a teacher, without having to study it, and without contemplation. Everybody possessed the natural access to moral values, which were bestowed upon him by Heaven, like kindheartedness (ren), righteousness (yi "an instinct of what is right or appropriate"), a need for ritual and etiquette (li), and knowledge (zhi) of what was good and bad. These four innate virtues (si de 四德) had to be enshrined in the heart (cun xin 存心) and nourished in the character (yang xin 養性), especially by persons of higher standing, i.e. the rulers of a state.

The virtues yi and zhi had only had minor importance for Confucius, and were elevated to a higher position by Mengzi, as integral part of the four virtues. They had a concrete expression in human behaviour, the "four expressions of feeling" (si xin 四心) or "four branches of the mind" (si duan), namely compassion (ceyin 惻隱, as expression of kindheartedness), feeling ashamed (xiu'e 羞惡, as expression of rightousness), giving precedence (cirang 辭讓, as expression of propriety), and an instinct for right and wrong (shifei 是非, as an expression of wisdom). Because everybody disposed of these feelings, they came to be compared to the four limbs of the body (si ti 四體). Of these four, kindness and righteousness were the more important, the first one being the feeling between two persons, and the latter the reverence towards a senior or elder person. Kindness was a matter of the inner feelings, while righteousness was an outer expression towards the other. If the ruler acted kindheartedly and righteously, he would serve as a shining example to the whole people. The superior of the ruler was Heaven.

In many instances, Mengzi stressed, it was not possible to enjoy personal profit (li 利) and simultaneously behave in a morally impeccable way. In such cases the righteous man had rather to abandon his profit, or even his life, in order to behave irreproachably.

Mengzi suggested several methods to achieve this Heavenly perfection. Man had to "exhaust his heart" (jinxin) to find the perfectly good character bestowed upon him by Heaven. He had to preserve and nourish it, in order to serve Heaven. A kind of self-cultivation would help fostering this goodness throughout one's life, so that youth and old age met each other perfectly. Man had furthermore to restrain his desires. Austerity would make him all the richer, and not deprive him in any way. He had furthermore to take care that his heart would not go astray and leave the path of propriety. Sincerity (cheng 誠) was, as Mengzi says, an ideal instrument to travel along the human, and thus the Heavenly Way (tian dao 天道). Honesty or sincerity was not one of the four cardinal virtues, but nevertheless one important aspect of virtue or righteousness. This was so important that it required man to "turn against himself" (zifan 自反), in order to fulfil the imperative of kindheartedness, propriety, and loyalty (zhong 忠).

Meng Ke and the "Hundred Schools"

The book Mengzi is famous for the disputing force with which Meng Ke attacked his opponents, especially representatives of the school of the Divine Husbandman (Shen Nong 神農) who argued that everybody should engage in agriculture (bing geng 並耕) in order to achieve an egalitarian society. He criticized the libertarian Yang Zhu 楊朱 for his egoism (wei wo 爲我 "[all and only] for me"), and the Mohists for their egalitarian approach of universal love (jian ai 兼愛).

Literary Value of the Mengzi

Meng Ke liked to use parables to clarify his theories and to express simple, but crucial circumstances by analogies, like the people that was "yearning for a good ruler like desiccated land for rain", or somebody who was "looking at the point of a fine hair instead of at the large beam". Overhasty methods are described in the allegory of the peasant "helping" his shoots to grow by pulling them up, and inappropriate criticicism of others is described in the parable of a deserter having run away fifty paces who laughs at laughing about another deserter having run away a hundred paces. A man who used to daily steal a hen from his neighbour was caught and thereupon promised that he would in the future only steal a hen once a month. Another story speaks of a husband playing a rich man at home, while begging for alms when outside. Many of these parables are very popular in China and have lost nothing of their attraction to this very day. The Mengzi is not only a great collection of philosophical thought but also a very important book contributing to the development of prose literature in ancient China.

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Further reading:
Bai, Tongdong (2009). "The Price of Serving Meat: On Confucius's and Mencius's Views of Human and Animal Rights", Asian Philosophy, 19/1: 85-99.
Berthrong, John H. (2008). "The Hard Sayings: The Confucian Case of xiao in Kongzi and Mengzi", Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 7/2: 119-123.
Chan, Alan Kam-leung, ed. (2002). Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press).
Chan, Wing-cheuk (2014). "Philosophical Thought of Mencius", in Vincent Shen, ed., Dao Companion to Classical Confucian Philosophy (Dordrecht/New York: Springer), 153-178.
Cheng, Anne (2003). "Mengzi, 372?-289? BCE", in Yao Xinzhong, ed. RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedia of Confucianism (London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon): 420-423.
Cheng, Anne (2003). "Mengzi (The Book of Mengzi)", in Yao Xinzhong, ed. RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedia of Confucianism (London/New York: RoutledgeCurzon), 423-425.
Cheng, Anne (2003), "Si-Meng xuepai (The Zisi-Mengzi school)", in Yao Xinzhong, ed. RoutledgeCurzon Encyclopedia of Confucianism (London/New York: RoutledgeCurzon), 572-573.
Ding, Weixiang (2008). "Mengzi's Inheritance, Criticism, and Overcoming of Moist Thought", Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 35/3: 403-419.
Fang, Xudong (2016). "To Obey or not to Obey? Mencius' Discourse on the Political Duties of Officials", Journal of Chinese Humanities, 2/2: 190-216.
Geisz, Steven F. (2008). "Mengzi, Strategic Language, and the Shaping of Behavior", Philosophy East and West, 58/2: 190-222.
Gilbert, S.R. (2009). "Mengzi's Art of War: The Kangxi Emperor Reforms the Qing Military Examination", in Nicola Di Cosmo, ed. Military Culture in Imperial China (Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press), 243-256.
Huang, Chun-chieh, Gregor Paul, Heiner Roetz (2008). The Book of Mencius and its Reception in China and Beyond (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz).
Hunter, Michael (2014). "Did Mencius Know the Analects?", T'oung Pao, 100/1-3: 33-79.
Hutton, Eric L. (2002). "Moral Connoisseurship in Mengzi", in Liu Xiusheng, Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi (Indianapolis: Hackett), 163-186.
Im, Manyul (2004). "Moral Knowledge and Self Control in Mengzi: Rectitude, Courage, and qi", Asian Philosophy, 14/1: 59-77.
Ivanhoe, Philip J. (2002). "Confucian Self Cultivation and Mengzi's Notion of Extension", in Liu Xiusheng, Philip J. Ivanhoe, eds. Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi (Indianapolis: Hackett), 221-241.
Ivanhoe, P.J. (2006). "Mengzi's Conception of Courage", Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 5/2: 221-234.
Ivanhoe, Philip J. (2011). "[John] McDowell, Wang Yangming, and Mengzi's Contributions to Understanding Moral Perception", Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 10/3: 273-290.
Kim, Myeong-seok (2014). "Is there no Distinction between Reason and Emotion in Mengzi?", Philosophy East and West, 64/1: 49-81.
Kim, Sungmoon (2010). "The Secret of Confucian wuwei Statecraft: Mencius's Political Theory of Responsibility", Asian Philosophy, 20/1, 27-42.
Laing, Ellen Johnston (2014). "The Posthumous Careers of Wang Zhaojun, of Mencius' Mother, of Shi Chong and of his Concubine Lüzhu (Great Pearl) in the Painting and Popular Print Traditions", in Shane McCausland, Hwang Yin, eds., On Telling Images of China: Essays in Narrative Painting and Visual Culture (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press), 239-264.
Li, Huarui (2016). "Northern Song Reformist Thought and its Sources: Wang Anshi and Mencius", in Patricia Buckley Ebrey, Paul Jakov Smith, eds., State Power in China, 900-1325 (Seattle/London: University of Washington Press), 219-243.
Liu, Xiusheng, Philip J. Ivanhoe, ed. (2002). Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi (Indianapolis/Cambridge, MA: Hackett).
McRae, Emily (2011). "The Cultivation of Moral Feelings and Mengzi's Method of Extension", Philosophy East and West, 61/4: 587-608.
Nivison, David (2002). "Mengzi as Philosopher of History", in Alan K.L. Chan, ed., Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press), 282-304.
Nuyen, A.T. (2013). "The 'Mandate of Heaven': Mencius and the Divine Command Theory of Political Legitimacy", Philosophy East and West, 63/2: 113-126.
Perkins, Franklin (2004). "Wisdom in Mengzi: Between Self and Nature", in Albert A. Anderson, Steven V. Hicks, Lech Witkowski, eds. Mythos and Logos: How to Regain the Love of Wisdom (Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi), 205-219.
Perkins, Franklin (2006). "Reproaching Heaven: The Problem of Evil in Mengzi", Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 5/2: 293-312.
Radice, Thomas (2011). "Manufacturing Mohism in the Mencius", Asian Philosophy, 21/2: 139-152.
Roetz, Heiner (2008). "Mengzi's Political Ethics and the Question of its Modern Relevance", in Huang Chun-chieh, Gregor Paul, Heiner Roetz, eds. The Book of Mencius and its Reception in China and Beyond (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz), 202-214.
Shun, Kwong-Loi (2002). "Mencius, Xunzi, and Dai Zhen: A Study of the Mengzi ziyi shuzheng", in Alan K.L. Chan, ed. Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press), 216-241.
Tiwald, Justin (2008). "A Right of Rebellion in the Mengzi?", Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, 7/3: 269-282.
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