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Mengzi 孟子

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The 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 Sishu 四書 "Four Books".

Master Meng Ke

Master Meng was an adherent of the Confucian tradition transmitted by Zisi 子思 (Kong Ji 孔伋), a grand-son of Confucius (Kongzi 孔子), and lived in the mid-4th century BCE (the dates range from 385-304 to 372-289), 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 to live in a better neighbourhood, and it was herself who taught the young Meng Ke the first lessons of virtual behaviour. Mengzi traveled from court to court and served the rulers of the states of Qi 齊 and Wei 魏, and those of the smaller states of Teng 滕, Xue 薛, and Song 宋. In Wei 魏 (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 human 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, 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) that, 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 lot 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 from the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368), Tan Zhenmo's 譚貞默 Mengzi biannian lüe 孟子編年略 from the Ming period 明 (1368-1644), and Di Ziqi's 狄子奇 Mengzi biannian 孟子編年 from the Qing period 清 (1644-1911).

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. It is seven chapters long, which are each divided in 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, Gunsun 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 is valid for the last chapter, Jinxin 盡心 "Exhausting all his heart". The arrangement of the chapters is explained by Zhao Qi 趙岐 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, ruled with the methods of humankindness (ren 仁) and proper 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 Wei (Liang Huiwang 梁惠王). 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 is most important (Teng Wengong 滕文公). In the chapter Li Lou 離婁 the use of the rites (li 禮) is explained that go out of the heart. Of all proper behaviour the most important is filial piety (xiao 孝) that is accordingly described in the next chapter (Wan Zhang 萬章). Filial piety arises from affects and character (qing xing 情性), which are explained in the following chapter (Gaozi 告子). Man can only control his affects by exhausting all his heart (Jin xin 盡心) to come into one line with Heaven's will. The imperial bibliography Yiwenzhi 藝文志 of the official dynastic history Hanshu 漢書 speaks of eleven chapters, which means that 4 chapters were later added. Indeed, Zhao Qi mentions the titles of four "outer" chapters (waishu 外書: Xingshan bian 性善辯 "Discussing the human nature", Wenshuo 文說 "Explanation from the 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 lower 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. Zhao Qi, Zhu Xi 朱熹 and Jiao Xun 焦循 were of the opinion that Meng Ke had compiled the book. This assertion is doubted by Han Yu 韓愈, Su Zhe 蘇轍 and Chao Gongwu 晁公武 who were sure that the book is a compilation of Mengzi's disciples. Today a middle way between the two competing groups is preferred that also follows the early argument of the historian Sima Qian 司馬遷 who said that the core part of the book was written by Meng Ke, while his disciples added some other parts.
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 has written the treatise Yuandao 原道, was the first to said 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) Neo-Confucian 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 to pass the state examinations.
The most important surviving ancient prints of the Mengzi are the small-sized edition version 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-character 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 with commentaries (Shisanjing zhushu fu kaozheng 十三經注疏附考證) printed by the imperial printing shop 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 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, are 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, the 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 scholar Zhu Xi, who has written the commentary Mengzi zhangju jizhu 孟子章句集注, short Mengzi jizhu 孟子集注. The standard Qing commentary is Jiao Xun's Mengzi zhengyi 孟子正義.

The teachings of Mengzi

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 representants of other schools, and he even dared to criticize kings. He was, compared to Confucius, more explicit in the explanation of the term of "kindheartedness" or "humanity" (ren).
Benevolent government (renzheng 仁政). Kindheartedness was, in his eyes, an instrument of a ruler, who despised himself and saw himself as a servant to his people. He acted on behalf of the people, which was 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 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 serve their parents and nourish their family and to live a life of happiness. A ruler was a such because he was able to "protect the people" (bao min 保民) and because the people was the most important item on his agenda (min wei gui 民爲貴), the grain altars (sheji 社稷) being the second part, and lordship 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 the duty of the minister to remonstrance against cruelty in government, in the worst case, even to kill the tyrant. The ruler himself had to be obedient to his virtual father, Heaven. If he did not conduct government of benevolence, Heaven would express his anger by sending floods and natural disasters, and also directly through the people, which 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 animal on their farm. Only if the people was guaranteed these basic needs, there would be place for the virtues of filial piety, loyalty, and trustworthiness.
The goodness of human nature. Another important philosophical issue of Mengzi is the goodness of human nature (ren xing shan 人性善). 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 suffering hunger and cold, while "his own stables are full of well-fed horses". The inherence of goodness makes it possible that everybody is able to become a perfect saint, because he has an innate knowledge about what is good (liang zhi 良知) and therefore the potential to do good things (liang neng 良能). Mengzi compares this innate knowledge with water that will, following the natural laws, flow downwards. Similarly, man will become good without doubt, if only he practices this goodness in an appropriate way. The potential to become a sage ruler like Yao 堯 or Shun 舜, Mengzi says, is given to everybody, even without adhering to a teacher, without having to study it, and without contemplating about it. Everybody possesses the natural access to moral values, which are 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 is good and what not. These four innate virtues (si de 四德) have 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 one of the four virtues. The have 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 disposes of these feelings, they came be compared to the four limbs of the body (si ti 四體). Of these four, kindness and righteousness are the more important, the first being the feeling between two persons, and the latter the reverence towards a senior person. Kindness is a matter of the inner feelings, while righteousness is an outer expression towards the other. If the ruler acts kindheartedly and righteous, he will serve as a shining example to the whole people. The superior of the ruler is Heaven. In many instances, Mengzi stressed, it is not possible to enjoy a personal profit and simultaneously behaving in a moral way. The righteous man had in such cases rather to abandon his profit, or even his life, in order to behave morally correct.
Mengzi suggested several methods to achieve this Heavenly perfectness. Man had to "exhaust his heart" (jinxin) to find the Heaven-bestowed perfectly good character in it. He had to preserve this heart and to nourish this character, in order to serve Heaven. A kind of self-cultivation will help fostering this goodness throughout one's life, so that youth and old age perfectly meet each other. Man had furthermore to restrict his desires. Austerity will make him all the more rich, and not deprive him in any way. He had furthermore to care for that his heart would not go astray and leave the path of propriety. Sincerity (cheng 誠) is, as Mengzi says, an ideal instrument to travel on the human, and therefore, also the Heavenly way (tian zhi dao 天之道). Honesty or sincerity is not one of the four cardinal virtues, but nevertheless one important aspect of the virtue of righteousness. It is so important that it requires that man eventually "turns against himself" (zifan 自反), in order to fulfill the imperative of kindheartedness, propriety, and loyalty (zhong 忠).
Critique towards other schools. The book Mengzi is famous for the disputing force with which Meng Ke attacks his opponents, especially representants of the school of the Divine Husbandman (Shen Nong 神農) that argued that everybody should engage in agriculture (bing geng 並耕) in order to achieve an egalitarian society. He criticized the libertinist Yang Zhu 楊朱 for his egoism (wei wo 爲我 "for me"), and the Mohists for their egalitarian approach of universal love (jian ai 兼愛). Meng Ke likes to use parables to clarify his theories and to express simple, but crucial circumstances by analogies, like the people that is yearning for a good ruler like desiccated land for rain, or somebody who is looking at the point of a small hair instead of at the large balk. Overhasty methods are described in the allegory of the peasant helping his shoots to grow by lifting them up, and unappropriate criticizing others is described in the parable of a deserter running fifty paces laughing about a deserter running away a hundred paces wide. A man who used to daily steal a hen from his neighbour, promised not to steal a hen but once a month in the future, instead of instantly ending his misbehaviour. Another story speaks of a husband playing a rich man at home, while begging for alms when outside. A lot of these parables are very popular in China and have lost nothing of their attractiveness even today. 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.

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

Sources: Shui Weisong 水渭松 (1986), "Mengzi 孟子", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 537. ● Yu Dunkang 余敦康 (1987), "Mengzi 孟子", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 613. ● Wu Rongzeng 吳榮曾 (1992), "Mengzi 孟子", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, p. 657. ● Xu Hongxing 徐洪興 (1992), "Mengzi 孟子", in Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Zhexue 哲學 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), p. 69. ● Xie Xianghao 謝祥皓, Liu Zongxian 劉宗賢 (1993), Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chubanshe). ● Pang Pu 龐樸 (ed. 1997), Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, p. 24.

July 24, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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