Importance of Mencius in Chinese history

Because of my upcoming plans to return to China and Tibet in a few weeks (May-June 2017), I wanted to highlight a very important figure in Chinese history, Mencius. I will be attending a wedding of one of my students in Zoucheng, the birthplace of Mencius on my trip to China. A city I have visited many times in the past. Mencius was born in the State of Zou, now a county level city  of Zoucheng in Shandong province, about eighteen miles south of Qufu, Confucius birthplace. He was an itinerant Chinese philosopher and sage and one of the principal interpreters of Confucianism. The picture below is of one of my students at the gate of the Mencius Temple I took during a visit in the Spring of 2013. Supposedly, he was a pupil of Confucius’ grandson, Zisi. Like Confucius, according to legend, he traveled throughout China for forty years to offer advice to rulers for reform. During the Warring States period (403–221 BC), Mencius served as an official and scholar at the Jixia  Academy in the State of Qi (1046 BC to 221 BC) from 319 to 312 BC. He expressed his filial devotion when he took three years leave of absence from his official duties for Qi to mourn his mother’s death. Disappointed at his failure to effect changes in his contemporary world, he retired from public life. What is most amazing to me, is that this Temple (park), dedicated to his memory and contribution was not constructed for more than a thousand years after his death.

Below is a picture of a Yuan Dynasty turtle with a stele honoring Mencius I took during one of my visits. Mencius’s interpretation of Confucianism has generally been considered the orthodox version by subsequent Chinese philosophers, especially by the Neo-Confucians of the Song Dynasty. Mencius’s disciples included a large number of feudal lords and he was actually more influential than Confucius had been. The Mencius (also spelled Mengzi or Meng-tzu), a book of his conversations with kings of the time, is one of the Four Books that Zhu Xi grouped as the core of orthodox Neo-Confucian thought. In contrast to the sayings of Confucius, which are short and self-contained, the Mencius consists of long dialogues, including arguments, with extensive prose. Mencius believed that if a ruler were a man of virtue then people would aspire to that same kind of virtuous life, and further, would enjoy their days more fully in being governed justly.

Mencius emphasized the significance of the common citizens in the state. While Confucianism generally regards rulers highly, he argued that it is acceptable for the subjects to overthrow or even kill a ruler who ignores the people’s needs and rules harshly. This is because a ruler who does not rule justly is no longer a true ruler. Speaking of the overthrow of King Zhou of Shang, Mencius said, “I have merely heard of killing a villain Zhou, but I have not heard of murdering [him as] the ruler.”  Below is an image of Mencius I took during my visit to the Mencius Temple in Zoucheng.

This saying should not be taken as an instigation to violence against authorities but as an application of Confucian philosophy to society. Confucianism requires a clarification of what may be reasonably expected in any given relationship. All relationships should be beneficial, but each has its own principle or inner logic. A King, or Ruler, must justify his position by acting benevolently before he can expect reciprocation from the people. In this view, a King is like a steward. Although Confucius admired Kings of great accomplishment, Mencius is clarifying the proper hierarchy of human society. Although a King has presumably higher status than a commoner, he is actually subordinate to the masses of people and the resources of society. Otherwise, there would be an implied disregard of the potential of human society heading into the future. A ruler (implied here is the Emperor who rules as a mandate from Heaven) is significant that governs only for what one gives, not for what one takes.

Mencius was considered the “second sage” second only to Confucius mainly due to his promotion of Confucian study and teaching exemplified by the Academy of Nishon Hill south of Qufu that was adjacent to the cave in which Confucius was said to be born. His primary contribution was his development of Confucius’ ideological structure that would later be known as the Doctrines of Confucius and Mencius. His Policy of Benevolence and development of a system for ideological education would be followed for ways to rule the nation and has had a profound effect of Chinese society up until today. The picture below is of me sitting in the Academy at the Temple in Zoucheng. His own book Meng zi was regarded as required reading and essential for scholars who might by chosen by the government for a job and an essential element of the examination system that was to be put in place in early China. In addition to Zeng Zi and Mencius would be Yan Hui from Qufu, who was Confucius favorite disciple. All three have temples built in their hometowns to honor their contributions to the development of Confucianism. I have visited all three in attempted to gain further understanding as to their influence on Chinese history. They became famous in Chines history as three of the “four families”, the fourth being the descendants of Confucius. The Qufu Normal School where I taught and lived for three year (2011-13) was founded by the “four families” in the 1800’s. The school for the descendents ended in 1912 with the founding of the Chinese republic in 1912. I lived and taught there while also teaching at Jining University in Qufu