China’s history of civilization, culture, and social patters has been greatly shaped by philosophy. Over the centuries, there have been influential ancient philosophers that have come up with fascinating thoughts and binding ideas that have shaped governance, arts, interaction and various Chinese industries. In this write up, we will explore the life and teachings of Mencius, who was a Confucian philosopher.
Mencius, who was born Mèng Kē and is sometimes known as Mengzi, was a popular and influential Chinese Confucian philosopher. He is often described as the ‘second Sage’ after the father of Confucianism- Confucius and he is part of Confucius’ 4th generation of disciples. According to most historical works and literary sources, he inherited the Confucianism philosophy from Confucius himself and chose to develop it even further.
He lived during the Warring Sates period and according to most historical records, he spent most of his life traveling around the ancient Chinese state as he offered advice to different rulers. Supposedly, all the conversations that Mencius had with these rulers form the basis of his book (the Mencius), which has been canonized as a Confucian classic.
Mencius – Early Years and Biography
Mencius, whose birth name is Meng Ke, was born in the State of Zou, which is now within Zoucheng county-level city found in Shandong Province. He was a student of Confucius’ grandson known as Zisi and one of the key interpreters of Confucian philosophy. He traveled throughout China for about 40 years to offer counsel to different rulers for reform during the Warring States Period and he served as a scholar and an official at the Jixia Academy in the state of Qi.
Unfortunately, his father died when he was very young, but his mother (Meng Mu/Zhang) is valued as an admirable female figure in Chinese culture. There is a popular Chinese idiom that says ‘mèngmǔ-sānqiān; lit’, which emphasizes the need to find the rightful environment to bring up children. This is mostly because Mencius’ mother had to move about 3 times to find the right environment for her child to grow. They were very poor and lived near a cemetery, and Meng Mu found Mencius imitating mourners as he grew up. For this reason, she moved near a market town, where Mencius started behaving like the merchants who were greatly despised in China. When she saw this, she decided to move near a school, where Mencius was inspired by students and started studying. She was fulfilled by this and decided to stay there.
Unfortunately, Mencius was a truant but his mother found ways to keep him in check and he became more diligent in his studies. Upon his mother’s death, Mencius took 3 years of leave of absence from his official duties to mourn her. Because he couldn’t effect immediate changes in his contemporary world, he immediately retired from public life. When he passed on, he was buried in the Mencius Cemetery in Zoucheng, where a monument carried by a humongous tortoise and crowned with dragons is found right in front of his grave.
What did Mencius teach?
Mencius greatly emphasized on the concept that man is righteous and humane and nature, and it is the influence of society and his daily environment that causes the bad moral character in man. To explain the goodness of man, he uses the example of a child falling down a well, and claims that anyone who witnesses this will be distressed and will feel ashamed because they didn’t rescue the child. In this case, the feeling of right and wrong shows elements of wisdom, that of commiseration is the beginning of humanity, that of compliance simply shows propriety and that feeling of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness. According to him, man has these 4 beginnings and they are entirely natural. He is convinced that human nature has an inborn tendency towards goodness, but moral rightness cannot be achieved in totality, which is why external controls tend to fail in improving society.
Besides that, he taught that education simply awakens the innate abilities of the human mind. He denounced memorization and advocated the need for active interrogation of the text as the best way of learning and engaging with a book. He also believed that destiny plays an integral role in shaping the roles of human beings in their society. He taught that one who follows his destiny lives a long and successful life but he who rebels against destiny is bound to die before his time.
In terms of politics and economics, he greatly emphasized the significance of the common citizens within a state. He taught that citizens are powerful and they can easily overthrow or even kill a controversial ruler who neglects their needs and rules in a harsh manner. He was convinced that even though a king or any other leader has a much higher status than a commoner, he is actually subordinate to the masses of the people and the resources found within his territory. Along with this, he taught that the only way to secure significant benefits for the disadvantages and the aged is through low tax rates, free trade, and the equal sharing of the tax burden.
How did Mencius influence China?
Mencius is said to have been twice as influential as Confucius and his disciples included a large number of feudal lords from ancient China. He is considered a major philosopher in China and through his belief that the government simply existed to cultivate a virtuous citizenry; he positively influenced governance and politics in China. Special importance was attributed to Mencius’ works by the Neo-Confucians of the Song Dynasty and he has been revered as the cofounder of Confucianism (second to Confucius) for the last 1,000 years.
Here are some of the popular quotes by Mencius;
Mencius Quotes on Human Nature
‘If you let people follow their feelings, they will be able to do good. This is what is meant by saying that human nature is good.’
‘Human nature is good, just as water seeks low ground. There is no man who is not good, just as there is no water that does not flow downward.’
‘The tendency of man’s nature to good is like the tendency of water to flow downward.’
‘Human nature is disposed to do good.’
Mencius Quotes on Compassion
“The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence; the heart of shame, of dutifulness; the heart of courtesy and modesty, of observance of the rites; the heart of right and wrong, of wisdom. Man has these four germs just as he has four limbs. For a man possessing these four germs to deny his own potentialities is for him to cripple himself.”
‘The ways are two: love and want of love. That is all.’
‘The five kinds of grains are considered good plants, but if the grains are not ripe, they are worse than cockles. It is the same with regard to kindness, which must grow into maturity.’
‘The feeling of compassion is the beginning of humanity.’
The Mencius, which is one of the Chinese 13 Classics, is a collection of ancient anecdotes, conversations, and genuine interviews by Mencius, the Confucian philosopher and it was written around the 4th Century B.C. It explores Mencius’ views and thoughts on the topics of moral and political philosophy. The interviews and conversations are either between Mencius and his students or Mencius and the various rulers who ruled during the Warring States Period in China. The book documents his travel across the different states, and philosophical debates and conversations with anyone he met on his journey.
The main principle of Mencius’ philosophy is that human nature is righteous, good, and humane. According to him, general responses of common citizens to the policies made by rulers embody this principle, and a state that has righteous and humane policies is set to flourish. When the citizens have freedom from good rule, they allocate time to care for everything else, and they naturally become better people in society.
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