A Brief Introduction to Mencius

When discussing Confucianism, the first book people think of is The Analects of Confucius, which is understandably the most famous Confucian work by a wide margin. This book is, Scripture aside, the most important book I’ve ever read in forming my own political and social ideas, and my opinion of Confucius is largely the same as his student Tsze-kung:

Were our Master in the position of the ruler of a State or the chief of a Family, we should find verified the description which has been given of a sage’s rule: he would plant the people, and forthwith they would be established; he would lead them on, and forthwith they would follow him; he would make them happy, and forthwith multitudes would resort to his dominions; he would stimulate them, and forthwith they would be harmonious. While he lived, he would be glorious. When he died, he would be bitterly lamented. How is it possible for him to be attained to?

Eventually, I’ll need to write an article on The Analects (aside from Lyall’s substandard translation). In any case, less known, at least in the West, are the rest of the “Four Books,” The Doctrine of the MeanThe Great Learning, and Mencius, which is awkwardly named after its author. I’ve just finished going through all four of these to gather material for my Twitter bot and it struck me that Mencius may be a better introduction to Confucianism than The Analects.

You see, one distinguishing feature of The Analects is that it’s composed mostly of individual sayings and very brief dialogues, often without context, and very few chapters are more than a paragraph or two. For example, Book VII Chapter VII, “The Master said, ‘From the man bringing his bundle of dried flesh [as tuition] for my teaching upwards, I have never refused instruction to anyone.'” Another, from Book VIII Chapter VIII, “The Master said, ‘It is by the Odes that the mind is aroused. It is by the Rules of Propriety that the character is established. It is from Music that the finish is received.'”

Now, most of them aren’t terribly obscure, especially with the help of translator’s notes, and it’s reminiscent of the style of the Book of Proverbs; Mencius, though, bears more resemblance to Plato’s Dialogues. It still contains many short sayings, and few dialogues are more than a couple pages, though several are at least a few paragraphs. As a result, though annotations are still helpful, Mencius is significantly more straightforward and easier to follow, especially for those new to Confucian thought.

Those who have read The Analects will immediately recognise Mencius’s general style. He bases his arguments in references to the actions and conduct of past sage-emperors, on the Odes, and occasionally other such classics. In doctrine, too, he closely follows Confucius, frequently emphasising the importance of the Rites and the practice of virtue above all else. The very first chapter of the book, for example, is as Confucian as one can be:

Mencius went to see king Hûi of Liang.

The king said, ‘Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand , may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?’

Mencius replied, ‘Why must your Majesty use that word “profit?” What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics.

‘If your Majesty say, “What is to be done to profit my kingdom?” the great officers will say, “What is to be done to profit our families?” and the inferior officers and the common people will say, “What is to be done to profit our persons?” Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered. In the kingdom of ten thousand chariots, the murderer of his sovereign shall be the chief of a family of a thousand chariots. In a kingdom of a thousand chariots, the murderer of his prince shall be the chief of a family of a hundred chariots. To have a thousand in ten thousand, and a hundred in a thousand, cannot be said to be a large allotment, but if righteousness be put last, and profit be put first, they will not be satisfied without snatching all.

‘There never has been a benevolent man who neglected his parents. There never has been a righteous man who made his sovereign an after consideration.

‘Let your Majesty also say, “Benevolence and righteousness, and let these be our only themes.” Why must you use that word– “profit?”‘

Mencius does add one innovation, on the innate goodness of men. Confucius himself never directly addressed the issue, but in Mencius’s own time there was considerable debate over whether men are inherently good, evil, or a mixture of both. Book VI, Part II, Chapter II says:

The philosopher Kâo said, ‘Man’s nature is like water whirling round in a corner. Open a passage for it to the east, and it will flow to the east; open a passage for it to the west, and it will flow to the west. Man’s nature is indifferent to good and evil, just as the water is indifferent to the east and west.’

Mencius replied, ‘Water indeed will flow indifferently to the east or west, but will it flow indifferently up or down? The tendency of man’s nature to good is like the tendency of water to flow downwards. There are none but have this tendency to good, just as all water flows downwards.

‘Now by striking water and causing it to leap up, you may make it go over your forehead, and, by damming and leading it, you may force it up a hill;—but are such movements according to the nature of water? It is the force applied which causes them. When men are made to do what is not good, their nature is dealt with in this way.’

Now, this question seems to me insoluble without reference to Divine revelation. Mencius is correct that men are inherently good, but without knowledge of Original Sin it’s difficult to explain why men so often fail anyway.

Another subject of much debate in Mencius’s time centred on Mo Tî’s doctrine of universal love. This idea sounds great to modern ears, and translator James Legge has some sympathy for it and contends that Mencius overstates his case against it. Regardless, Mencius fiercely criticises this deviation from the Confucian way, commenting in Book III, Part II, Chapter IX, “Mo’s principle is— ‘to love all equally,’ which does not acknowledge the peculiar affection due to a father. But to acknowledge neither king nor father is to be in the state of a beast.”

I read Legge’s translation in Dover Publications’ edition, which includes an extensive, and very helpful, introduction, an index, copious notes, and the original Chinese text. Many of his notes cover linguistic issues, which will be of interest to readers who enjoy learning about foreign languages, but not very helpful otherwise. He’s also rather idiosyncratic; some passages have an almost Biblical feel to them, but occasionally they’re a bit awkward. He also uses a system of romanisation unique to himself, though this is more of a minor nuisance than a major problem.

Legge’s translation was published in 1895, but I also occasionally referenced David Hinton’s version from almost exactly a century later, and which I read in full several years ago. Hinton’s translation is more straightforward and easier to follow, but he has less literary sense than Legge; unfortunately, I can’t say which is more accurate. He also has a much shorter introduction than Legge, and far fewer notes, so you’re mostly on your own here. I’ve heard that D.C. Lau’s translation is good, but haven’t read it myself. Which one to get depends on what you’re looking for; if you want something modern, go with Hinton, but if you want more help in an introduction and notes, go with Legge. I prefer Legge, but it’s a weak preference, so I recommend looking at each, and possibly others, and choosing whichever style you prefer.

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