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Mencius: A Life

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Source: Mencius, The Chinese Classics: Translated into English with Preliminary Essays and Explanatory Notes by James Legge. Vol. 2 The Life and Teachings of Mencius. (London: N. Trübner, 1875). Chapter: SECTION I.: LIFE OF MENCIUS.

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1.The materials for a Memoir of Mencius are very scanty. The birth and principal incidents of Confucius’ life are duly chronicled in the various annotated editions of the Ch‘un Ts‘ew, and in Sze-ma Ts‘ëen.

Paucity and uncertainty of materials.
It is not so in the case of Mencius. Ts‘ëen’s account of him is contained in half a dozen columns which are without a single date. That in the “Cyclopædia of Surnames” only covers half a page. Chaou K‘e is more particular in regard to the early years of his subject, but he is equally indefinite. Our chief informants are K‘ung Foo, and Lëw Heang in his “Record of Note-worthy Women,” but what we find in them has more the character of legend than history.

It is not till we come to the pages of Mencius himself that we are treading on any certain ground. They give the principal incidents of his public life, extending over about twenty-four years. We learn from them that in the course of that time he was in such and such places, and gave expression to such and such opinions; but where he went first and where he went last, it is next to impossible to determine. I have carefully examined three attempts, made by competent scholars of the present dynasty, to construct a Harmony that shall reconcile the statements of the “Seven Books” with the current chronologies of the time, and do not see my way to adopt entirely the conclusions of any one of them.1 The value of the Books lies in the record which they furnish of Mencius’ sentiments, and the lessons which these supply for the regulation of individual conduct and national policy. It is of little importance that we should be able to lay them down in the strict order of time.

With Mencius’ withdrawal from public life, all traces of him disappear. All that is said of him is that he spent his latter years along with his disciples in the preparation and publication of his Works.

From this paragraph it will be seen that there is not much to be said in this section. I shall relate, first, what is reported of the early years and training of our philosopher, and then look at him as he comes before us in his own pages, in the full maturity of his character and powers.

2. Mencius is the latinized form of M?ng-tsze, “The philosopher M?ng.”

His surname, birth-place; parents; the year of his birth, bc
371. His surname thus connects him with the M?ng or M?ng-sun family, one of the three great Houses of Loo, whose usurpations were such an offence to Confucius in his day. Their power was broken in the time of duke Gae (bc 493—467), and they thenceforth dwindle into comparative insignificance. Some branches remained in obscurity in Loo, and others went forth to the neighbouring States.

The branch from which Mencius sprang found a home in the small adjacent principality of Tsow, which in former times had been made known by the name of Choo. It was absorbed by Loo, and afterwards by Ts‘oo, and its name is still retained in one of the districts of the department of Yen-chow in Shan-tung. Confucius was a native of a district of Loo having the same name, which many contend was also the birth-place of Mencius, making him a native of Loo and not of the State of Tsow. To my mind the evidence is decidedly against such a view.1

Mencius’ name was K‘o. His designation does not appear in his Works, nor is any given to him by Sze-ma Ts‘ëen or Chaou K‘e. The latter says that he did not know how he had been styled; but the legends tell that he was called Tsze-keu, and Tsze-yu. The same authorities—if we can call them such—say that his father’s name was Keih, and that he was styled Kung-e. They say also that his mother’s maiden surname was Chang. Nothing is related of the former but that he died when his son was quite young, but the latter must have a paragraph to herself. “The mother of Mencius” is famous in China, and held up to the present time as a model of what a mother should be.

The year of Mencius’ birth was probably the 4th of the emperor Lëeh, bc 371. He lived to the age of 84, dying in in the year bc 288, the 26th of the emperor Nan, with whom terminated the long sovereignty of the Chow dynasty. The first twenty-three years of his life thus synchronized with the last twenty-three of Plato’s. Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, Demosthenes, and other great men of the West, were also his contemporaries. When we place Mencius among them, he can look them in the face. He does not need to hide a diminished head.

3. It was his misfortune, according to Chaou K‘e, “to lose his father at an early period;2 but in his youthful years he enjoyed the lessons of his kind mother, who thrice changed her residence on his account.”

Mencius’ mother.

At first they lived near a cemetery, and Mencius amused himself with acting the various scenes which he witnessed at the tombs. “This,” said the lady, “is no place for my son;”—and she removed to a house in the market-place. But the change was no improvement. The boy took to playing the part of a salesman, vaunting his wares, and chaffering with customers. His mother sought a new house, and found one at last close by a public school. There her child’s attention was taken with the various exercises of politeness which the scholars were taught, and he endeavoured to imitate them. The mother was satisfied. “This,” she said, “is the proper place for my son.”

Han Ying relates another story of this period. Near their house was a pig-butcher’s. One day Mencius asked his mother what they were killing the pigs for, and was told that it was to feed him. Her conscience immediately reproved her for the answer. She said to herself, “While I was carrying this boy in my womb, I would not sit down if the mat was not placed square, and I ate no meat which was not cut properly;—so I taught him when he was yet unborn.1 And now when his intelligence is opening, I am deceiving him;—this is to teach him untruthfulness!” With this she went and bought a piece of pork in order to make good her words.

As Mencius grew up, he was sent to school. When he returned home one day, his mother looked up from the web which she was weaving, and asked him how far he had got on. He answered her with an air of indifference that he was doing well enough, on which she took a knife and cut the thread of her shuttle. The idler was alarmed, and asked what she meant, when she gave him a long lecture, showing that she had done what he was doing,—that her cutting her thread was like his neglecting his learning. The admonition, it is said, had its proper effect; the lecture did not need to be repeated.

There are two other narratives in which Chang-she figures, and though they belong to a later part of Mencius’ life, it may be as well to embrace them in the present paragraph.

His wife was squatting down one day in her own room, when Mencius went in. He was so much offended at finding her in that position, that he told his mother, and expressed his intention to put her away, because of “her want of propriety.” “It is you who have no propriety,” said his mother, “and not your wife. Do not ‘the Rules of Propriety’ say, ‘When you are about to ascend a hall, raise your voice; when you enter a door, keep your eyes low?’ The reason of the rules is that people may not be taken unprepared; but you entered the door of your private apartment without raising your voice, and so caused your wife to be caught squatting on the ground. The impropriety is with you and not with her.” On this Mencius fell to reproving himself, and did not dare to put away his wife.

One day, when he was living with his mother in Ts‘e, she was struck with the sorrowfulness of his aspect, as he stood leaning against a pillar, and asked him the cause of it. He replied, “I have heard that the superior man occupies the place for which he is adapted, accepting no reward to which he does not feel entitled, and not covetous of honour and emolument. Now my doctrines are not practised in Ts‘e:—I wish to leave it, but I think of your old age, and am anxious.” His mother said, “It does not belong to a woman to determine anything of herself, but she is subject to the rule of the three obediences. When young, she has to obey her parents; when married, she has to obey her husband; when a widow, she has to obey her son. You are a man in your full maturity, and I am old. Do you act as your conviction of righteousness tells you you ought to do, and I will act according to the rule which belongs to me. Why should you be anxious about me?”

Such are the accounts which I have found of the mother of Mencius. Possibly some of them are inventions, but they are devoutly believed by the people of China;—and it must be to their profit. We may well believe that she was a woman of very superior character, and that her son’s subsequent distinction was in a great degree owing to her influence and training.

4. From parents we advance to be under tutors and governors. The moulding hand that has wrought upon us in the pliant years of youth always leaves ineffaceable traces upon the character.

Mencius’ instructors; and early life.
Can anything be ascertained of the instructor or instructors of Mencius? The reply to this inquiry must be substantially in the negative, though many have affirmed that he sat as a pupil at the feet of Tsze-sze, the grandson of Confucius. We are told this by Chaou K‘e, whose words are:—“As he grew up, he studied under Tsze-sze, acquired all the knowledge taught by ‘The Learned,’ and became thoroughly acquainted with ‘The Five King,’ being more especially distinguished for his mastery of the She and the Shoo.” A reference to dates, however, shows that this must be incorrect. From the death of Confucius to the birth of Mencius there were 108 years, and supposing—what is by no means probable—that Tsze-sze was born in the year his father died, he must have been 112 years old when Mencius was born. The supposition of their having stood to each other in the relation of master and scholar is inconsistent, moreover, with the style in which Mencius refers to Tsze-sze. He mentions him seven times, showing an intimate acquaintance with his history, but never once in a manner which indicates that he had personal intercourse with him.

Sze-ma Ts‘ëen’s account is that “Mencius studied with the disciples of Tsze-sze.” This may have been the case. There is nothing on the score of time to make it impossible, or even improbable; but this is all that can be said about it. No famous names from the school of Tsze-sze have been transmitted to posterity, and Mencius nowhere speaks as if he felt under special obligation to any instructor.

One short sentence contains all that he has said bearing on the point before us:—“Although I could not be a disciple of Confucius myself, I have endeavoured to cultivate [my virtue] by means of others [who were].”1 The chapter to which this belongs is rather enigmatical. The other member of it says:—“The influence of a sovereign sage terminates in the fifth generation. The influence of one who is merely a sage does the same.” By “one merely a sage” Mencius is understood to mean Confucius; and by extending his influence over five generations, he shows how it was possible for him to place himself under it by means of others who had been in direct communication with the Master.

We must leave the subject of Mencius’ early instructors in the obscurity which rests upon it. The first forty years of his life are little more than a blank to us. Many of them, we may be sure, were spent in diligent study. He made himself familiar during them with all the literature of his country. Its classics, its histories, its great men, had received his careful attention. Confucius especially became to him the chief of mortal men, the object of his untiring admiration; and in his principles and doctrines he recognized the truth for want of an appreciation of which the bonds of society all round him were being relaxed, and the empire hastening to a general anarchy.

How he supported himself in Tsow, we cannot tell. Perhaps he was possessed of some patrimony; but when he first comes forth from his native State, we find him accompanied by his most eminent disciples. He probably imitated Confucius by assuming the office of a teacher,—not that of a school-master in our acceptation of the word, but that of a professor of morals and learning, encouraging the resort of inquiring minds, in order to resolve their doubts and inform them on the true principles of virtue and society. These disciples would minister to his wants, though we may presume that he sternly maintained his dignity among them, as he afterwards did towards the princes of the time, when he appeared among them as a lecturer in another sense of the term. In Book VII. Pt II. xliii., and Book VI. Pt II. ii., we have two instances of this, though we cannot be sure that they belonged to the earlier period of his life.

5. The state of China had waxed worse and worse during the interval that elapsed between Confucius and Mencius. The elements of disorganization which were rife in the times of the earlier sage had gone on to produce their natural results.

State of China in Mencius’ time.
One feeble sovereign had followed another on the throne, and the dynasty of Chow was ready to vanish away. Men were persuaded of its approaching extinction. The feeling of loyalty to it was no longer a cherished sentiment; and the anxiety and expectation were about what new rule would take its place.

Many of the smaller fiefs or principalities had been reduced to a helpless dependence on, or been absorbed by, the larger ones. Of Loo, Ch‘ing, Wei, Woo, Ch‘in, and Sung, conspicuous in the Analects, we read but little in Mencius. Tsin had been dismembered, and its fragments formed the nuclei of three new and vigorous kingdoms,—Wei, Chaou, and Han. Ts‘e still maintained its ground, but was barely able to make head against the States of Ts‘in in the West and Ts‘oo in the South. The struggle for supremacy was between these two, the former, as it was ultimately successful, being the more ambitious and incessant in its aggressions on its neighbours.

The princes were thus at constant warfare with one another. Now two or more would form a league to resist the encroaching Ts‘in, and hardly would that object be accomplished before they were at war among themselves. Ambitious statesmen were continually inflaming their quarrels. The recluses of Confucius’ days, who withdrew in disgust from the world and its turmoil, had given place to a class of men who came forth from their retirements provided with arts of war or schemes of policy which they recommended to the contending chiefs. They made no scruple of changing their allegiance, as they were moved by whim or interest. Kung-sun Yen and Chang E may be mentioned as a specimen of those characters. “Are they not really great men?” it was once asked of Mencius. “Let them once be angry, and all the princes are afraid. Let them live quietly, and the flames of trouble are extinguished throughout the kingdom.”1

It is not wonderful that in such times the minds of men should have doubted of the soundness of the ancient principles of the acknowledged sages of the nation. Doctrines, strange and portentous in the view of Mencius, were openly professed. The authority of Confucius was disowned. The foundations of government were overthrown; the foundations of truth were assailed. Two or three paragraphs from our philosopher will verify and illustrate this representation of the character of his times.

“A host marches [in attendance on the ruler], and stores of provisions are consumed. The hungry are deprived of their food, and there is no rest for those who are called to toil. Maledictions are uttered by one to another with eyes askance, and the people proceed to the commission of wickedness. Thus the royal ordinances are violated, and the people are oppressed, and the supplies of food and drink flow away like water. The rulers yield themselves to the [bad] current, or they urge their [evil] way [against a good one]; they are wild; they are utterly lost.”2

“The five chiefs of the princes were sinners against the three kings. The princes of the present day are sinners against the five chiefs. The great officers of the present day are sinners against the princes. . . . The crime of him who connives at and aids the wickedness of his prince is small, but the crime of him who anticipates and excites that wickedness is great. The officers of the present day all go to meet their sovereigns’ wickedness, and therefore I say that they are sinners against them.”1

“Sage kings cease to arise, and the princes of the States give the reins to their lusts. Unemployed scholars indulge in unreasonable discussions. The words of Yang Choo and Mih Teih fill the empire. If you listen to people’s discourses, you will find that they have adopted the views either of Yang or of Mih. [Now,] Yang’s principle is—‘each one for himself,’ which does not acknowledge [the claims of] the sovereign. Mih’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. Kung-ming E said, ‘In their kitchens there is fat meat. In their stables there are fat horses. But their people have the look of hunger, and on the wilds there are those who have died of famine. This is leading on beasts to devour men.’ If the principles of Yang and Mih are not stopped, and the principles of Confucius not set forth, those perverse speakings will delude the people and stop up [the path of] benevolence and righteousness. When benevolence and righteousness are stopped up, beasts will be led on to devour men, and men will devour one another.”2

6. It is in Ts‘e that we first meet with Mencius as a counsellor of the princes,3

Mencius the first time in Ts‘e; some time between bc
332 and 323. and it was in this State that he spent much the greater part of his public life. His residence in it, however, appears to have been divided into two portions, and we know not to which of them to refer many of the chapters which describe his intercourse with the prince and his ministers; but, as I have already observed, this is to us of little moment. Our interest is in what he did and said. It matters little that we cannot assign to each saying and doing its particular date.

That he left Ts‘e the first time before bc 323 is plausibly inferred from Bk II. Pt II. xiv. 4;4 and assuming that the conversation in the same Book, Pt I. ii., took place immediately before or after his arrival,1 we can determine that he did not enter the State before bc 331, for he speaks of himself as having attained at forty years of age to “an unperturbed mind.” The two chapters contain the most remarkable expressions indicative of Mencius’ estimate of himself. In the first, while he glorifies Confucius as far before all other men who had ever lived, he declines having comparisons drawn between himself and any of the sage’s most distinguished disciples. In the second, when going away sorrowful because he had not wrought the good which he desired, he observes:—“Heaven does not yet wish that the empire should enjoy tranquillity and good order. If it wished this, who is there besides me to bring it about?”

We may be certain that Mencius did not go to Ts‘e uninvited. His approach was waited for with curious expectation, and the king, spoken of always by his honorary epithet of Seuen, “The Illustrious,” sent persons to spy out whether he was like other men.2 They had their first interview at a place called Ts‘ung, which was so little satisfactory to the philosopher that he resolved to make only a short stay in the State. Circumstances occurred to change this resolution, but though he remained, and even accepted office, yet it was only honorary;—he declined receiving any salary.3

From Ts‘ung he appears to have retired to P‘ing-luh, where Ch‘oo, the prime minister, sent him a present, wishing, no doubt, to get into his good graces. I call attention to the circumstance, though trifling in itself, because it illustrates the way in which Mencius carried himself to the great men. He took the gift, but subsequently, when he went to the capital, he did not visit the minister to acknowledge it. His opinion was that Ch‘oo might have come in person to P‘ing-luh to see him. “There was a gift, but no corresponding respect.”1

When Mencius presented himself at the capital of the State, he was honourably received by the king. Many of the conversations with the sovereign and officers which are scattered through the seven Books, though the first and second are richest in them, must be referred to this period. The one which is first in place,2 and which contains the fullest exposition of the philosopher’s views on government, was probably first likewise in time.3 It sets forth the grand essential to the exercise of royal government,—a heart on the part of the sovereign impatient of the sufferings of the people, and eager to protect them and make them happy; it brings home to king Seuen the conviction that he was not without such a heart, and presses on him the truth that his not exercising it was from a want of will and not from any lack of ability; it exposes unsparingly the errors of the course he was pursuing; and concludes by an exhibition of the outlines and happy issues of a true royal sway.

Of this nature were all Mencius’ communications with the sovereign; but he lays himself open in one thing to severe censure. Afraid apparently of repelling the prince from him by the severity of his lessons, he tries to lead him on by his very passions. “I am fond of beauty,” says the king, “and that is in the way of my attaining to the royal government which you celebrate.” “Not at all,” replies the philosopher. “Gratify yourself, only do not let your doing so interfere with the people’s getting similar enjoyment for themselves.”4 So the love of money, the love of war, and the love of music are dealt with. Mencius thought that if he could only get the good of the people to be recognized by Seuen as the great aim which he was to pursue, his tone of mind would be so elevated, that the selfish passions and gratifications of which he was the slave would be purified or altogether displaced. And so it would have been. Where he fails, is in putting his points as if benevolence and selfishness, covetousness and generosity, might exist together. Chinese moralists rightly find fault with him in this respect, and say that Confucius never condescended to such a style of argument.

Notwithstanding the apparent cordiality of the king’s reception of him, and the freedom with which Mencius spoke his mind at their interviews, a certain suspiciousness appears to have been maintained between them. Neither of them would bend to the other. Mencius would not bow to the royal state; Seuen would not vail bonnet to the philosopher’s cloak. We have one amusing instance of the struggles to which this sometimes gave rise. One day Mencius was preparing to go to court of his own free will, when a messenger arrived from the king, saying he had intended to come and see him, but was prevented by a cold, and asking whether Mencius would not appear at the audience next morning. Mencius saw that this was a device on the part of the king to avoid stooping to visit him, and though he had been about to go to court, he replied at once that he was unwell. He did not hesitate to meet the king’s falsehood with one of his own.

He did not wish, however, that the king should be ignorant of the truth, and went out next morning to pay a visit of condolence. He supposed that messengers would be sent from the court to inquire about his health, and that, when they took back word that he had gone out visiting, the king would understand how his sickness of the day before was only feigned.

It happened as he expected. The king sent a messenger, and his physician besides. Mencius being out, they were received by M?ng Chung, either his son or cousin, who complicated the affair by an invention of his own. “To-day,” he said, “he was a little better, and hastened to go to court. I don’t know whether he has reached it by this time or not.” No sooner were the visitors gone with this story, than he sent several persons to look for the philosopher, and urge him to go to the court before he returned home.

It was now necessary that a full account of the matter should reach the royal ears; and to accomplish this, Mencius neither went home nor to the court, but spent the night at the house of one of the high officers. They had an animated discussion. The officer accused Mencius of showing disrespect to the king. The philosopher replied that no man in Ts‘e showed so much respect for the sovereign as he did, for it was only he who brought high and truly royal subjects under his notice.

“That,” said the officer, “is not my meaning. The rule is—‘When the prince’s order calls, the carriage must not be waited for.’ You were going to the court, but when you heard the king’s message, you did not do so. This seems not in accordance with that rule.” Mencius explained:—“There are three things universally acknowledged to be honourable,—nobility, age, and virtue. In courts, nobility holds the first place; in villages, age; and for helping one’s generation and presiding over the people, the other two are not equal to virtue. The possession of one of the three does not authorize the despising of one who has the other two.

“A prince who is to accomplish great deeds will have ministers whom he does not call to go to see him. When he wishes to consult with their, he goes to them. The prince who does not honour the virtuous, and delight in their ways of doing, to this extent, is not worth having to do with.

“There was T‘ang with E Yin:—he first learned of him, and then made him his minister; and so without difficulty he became sovereign. There was the duke Hwan with Kwan Chung:—he first learned of him, and then made him his minister; and so without difficulty he became chief of all the princes.

“So did T‘ang behave to E Yin, and the duke Hwan to Kwan Chung, that they would not venture to call them to go to them. If Kwan Chung might not be called to him by his prince, how much less may I be called, who would not play the part of Kwan Chung!”1

We are to suppose that these sentiments were conveyed to the king by the officer with whom Mencius spent the night. It is a pity that the exposition of them could only be effected in such a roundabout manner, and was preceded by such acts of prevarication. But where the two parties were so suspicious of each other, we need not wonder that they separated before long. Mencius resigned his honorary appointment, and prepared to return to Tsow. On this occasion king Seuen visited him, and after some complimentary expressions asked whether he might expect to see him again. “I dare not request permission to visit you [at any particular time],” replied Mencius, “but, indeed, it is what I desire.”2

The king made another attempt to detain him, and sent an officer, called She, to propose to him to remain in the State, on the understanding that he should have a house large enough to accommodate his disciples, and an allowance of ten thousand measures of grain to support them. All Mencius’ efforts had not sufficed to make king Seuen and his ministers understand him. They thought he was really actuated like themselves by a desire for wealth. He indignantly rejected the proposal, and pointed out the folly of it, considering that he had already declined a hundred thousand measures in holding only an honorary appointment.

So Mencius turned his back on Ts‘e; but he withdrew with a slow and lingering step, stopping three nights in one place, to afford the king an opportunity to recall him on a proper understanding. Some reproached him with his hesitancy, but he sufficiently explained himself. “The king,” he said, “is, after all, one who may be made to do good. If he were to use me, would it be for the happiness of Ts‘e only? It would be for the happiness of the people of the whole empire. I am hoping that the king will change; I am daily hoping for this.

“Am I like one of your little-minded people? They will remonstrate with their prince, and on their remonstrance not being accepted, they get angry, and, with their passion displayed in their countenance, they take their leave, and travel with all their strength for a whole day, before they will rest.”1

7. After he left Ts‘e, Mencius found a home for some time in the small principality of T‘?ng, on the south of Ts‘e, in the ruler of which he had a sincere admirer and docile pupil.

Mencius in T‘ang;—from his leaving T‘se to bc
318. He did not proceed thither immediately, however, but seems to have taken his way to Sung, which consisted mostly of the present department of Kwei-tih in Ho-nan.2 There he was visited by the heirson of T‘?ng, who made a long detour, while on a journey to Ts‘oo, for the purpose of seeing him. The philosopher discoursed on the goodness of human nature, and the excellent ways of Yaou and Shun. His hearer admired, but doubted. He could not forget, however, and the lessons which he received produced fruit before long.

From Sung Mencius returned to Tsow, by way of Sëeh. In both Sung and Sëeh he accepted large gifts from the rulers, which help us in some measure to understand how he could maintain an expenditure which must have been great, and which gave occasion also for an ingenious exposition of the principles on which he guided his course among the princes.

“When you were in Ts‘e,” said one of his disciples, “you refused 100 yih of fine gold, which the king sent, while in Sung you accepted 70 yih, and in Seeh 50. If you were right in refusing the gift in the first case, you did wrong in accepting it in the other two. If you were right in accepting it in those two cases, you were wrong in refusing it in Ts‘e. You must accept one of these alternatives.” “I did right in all the cases,” replied Mencius. “When I was in Sung. I was about to undertake a long journey. Travellers must be provided with what is necessary for their expenses. The prince’s message was—‘a present against travelling-expenses;’ why should I have declined the gift? In Seeh I was under apprehensions for my safety, and taking measures for my protection. The message was—‘I have heard you are taking measures to protect yourself, and send this to help you in procuring arms.’ Why should I have declined the gift? But when I was in Ts‘e. I had no occasion for money. To send a man a gift when he has no occasion for it is to bribe him. How is it possible that a superior man should be taken with a bribe?”1

Before Mencius had been long in Tsow, the crown-prince of T‘?ng succeeded to the rule of the principality, and, calling to mind the lessons which he had heard in Sung, sent an officer to consult the philosopher on the manner in which he should perform the funeral and mourning services for his father.2 Mencius of course advised him to carry out in the strictest manner the ancient regulations. The new prince’s relatives and the officers of the State opposed, but ineffectually. Mencius’ counsel was followed, and the effect was great. Duke W?n became an object of general admiration.

By and by Mencius proceeded himself to T‘?ng. We may suppose that he was invited thither by the prince as soon as the rules of mourning would allow his holding free communication with him. The chapters which give an account of their conversations are really interesting. Mencius recommended that attention should be chiefly directed to the encouragement of agriculture and education. He would have nourishment secured both for the body and the mind of every subject.1 When the duke was lamenting the danger to which he was exposed from his powerful and encroaching neighbours, Mencius told him he might adopt one of two courses;—either leave his State, and like king T‘ae go and find a settlement elsewhere, or be prepared to die for his patrimony. “If you do good,” said he, “among your descendants in after-generations there will be one who shall attain to the Royal dignity. But results are with Heaven. What is Ts‘e to you, O prince? Be strong to do good. That is all your business.”2

After all, nothing came of Mencius’ residence in T‘?ng. We should like to know what made him leave it. Confucius said that, if any of the princes were to employ him, he should achieve something considerable in twelve months, and in the course of three years the government would be perfected.3 Mencius taught that, in his time, with half the merit of former days double the result might be accomplished.4 Here in T‘?ng a fair field seemed to be afforded him, but he was not able to make his promise good. Possibly the good purposes and docility of duke W?n may not have held out, or Mencius may have found that it was easier to theorize about government, than actually to carry it on. Whatever may have been the cause, we find him in bc 319 at the court of king Hwuy of Leang.

Before he left T‘?ng, Mencius had his rencounter with the disciples of the “shrike-tongued barbarian of the south,” one Heu Hing, who came to T‘?ng on hearing of the reforms which were being made at Mencius’ advice by the duke W?n. This was one of the dreamy speculators of the time, to whom I have already alluded. He pretended to follow the lessons of Shin-nung, one of the reputed founders of the empire and the father of husbandry, and came to T‘?ng with his plough upon his shoulder, followed by scores of followers, all wearing the coarsest clothes, and supporting themselves by making mats and sandals. It was one of his maxims that “the magistrates should be labouring men.” He would have the sovereign grow his own rice, and cook his own meals. Not a few of “The Learned” were led away by his doctrines, but Mencius girt up his loins to oppose the heresy, and ably vindicated the propriety of a division of labour, and of a lettered class conducting the government. It is just possible that the appearance of Heu Hing, and the countenance shown to him, may have had something to do with Mencius’ leaving the State.

8. Lëang was another name for Wei, one of the States into which Tsin had been divided.

Mencius in Leang;—bc
319, 318. King Hwuy, early in his reign, bc 364, had made the city of Taeleang, in the present department of K‘ae-fung, his capital, and given its name to his whole principality. It was the year before his death, when Mencius visited him.1 A long, stormy, and disastrous rule was about to terminate, but the king was as full of activity and warlike enterprise as ever he had been. At his first interview with Mencius, he addressed him in the well-known words, “Venerable Sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand le, may I presume that you are likewise provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?” Mencius in reply starts from the word profit, and expatiates eloquently on the evil consequences that must ensue from making a regard to profit the ground of conduct or the rule of policy. As for himself, his theme must be benevolence and righteousness. On these he would discourse, but on nothing else, and in following them a prince would obtain true and sure advantages.

Only five conversations are related between king Hwuy and the philosopher. They are all in the spirit of the first which has just been described, and of those which he had with king Seuen of Ts‘e. There is the same freedom of expostulation, or, rather, boldness of reproof, and the same unhesitating assurance of the success that would follow the adoption of his principles. The most remarkable is the third, where we have a sounder doctrine than where he tells king Seuen that his love of beauty and money and valour need not interfere with his administration of royal government. Hwuy is boasting of his diligence in the government of his State, and sympathy with the sufferings of his people, as far beyond those of any of the neighbouring rulers, and wondering how he was not more prosperous than they. Mencius replies, “Your Majesty is fond of war;—let me take an illustration from it. The drums sound, and the weapons are crossed, when suddenly the soldiers on one side throw away their coats of mail, trail their weapons behind them, and run. Some of them run a hundred paces, and some run only fifty. What would you think if those who run fifty paces were to laugh at those who run a hundred paces?” “They may not do so,” said the king; “they only did not run a hundred paces, but they also ran.” “Since your Majesty knows this,” was the reply, “you need not hope that your people will become more numerous than those of the neighbouring kingdoms.” The king was thus taught that half measures would not do. Royal government, to be effectual, must be carried out faithfully and in its spirit.

King Hwuy died in bc 319, and was succeeded by his son, the king Sëang. Mencius appears to have had but one interview with him. When he came out from it, he observed to some of his friends:—“When I looked at him from a distance, he did not appear like a sovereign; when I drew near to him, I saw nothing venerable about him.”1

It was of no use to remain any longer in Lëang; he left it, and we meet with him again in Ts‘e.

9. Whether he returned immediately to Ts‘e we cannot tell, but the probability is that he did, and remained in it till the year bc 311.2

Mencius the second time in Ts‘e;—to bc
311. When he left it about seven years before, he had made provision for his return in case of a change of mind in king Seuen. The philosopher, I apprehend, was content with an insufficient assurance of such an alteration. Be that as it may, he went back, and took an appointment again as a high noble.

If he was contented with a smaller reformation on the part of the king than he must have desired, Mencius was not himself different from what he had been. In the court and among the high officers his deportment was equally unbending; he was the same stern mentor.

Among the officers was one Wang Hwan, called also Tsze-gaou, a favourite with the king, insolent and presuming. Him Mencius treated with an indifference and even contempt which must have been very provoking. A large party were met one time at the house of an officer who had lost a son, for the purpose of expressing their condolences. Mencius was among them, when suddenly Wang Hwan made his appearance. One and another moved to do him honour and win from him a smile,—all indeed but Mencius, who paid no regard to him. The other complained of the rudeness, but the philosopher could show that his conduct was only in accordance with the rules of propriety.1

Now and then he became the object of unpleasant remark and censure. At his instigation, an officer, Ch‘e Wa, remonstrated with the king on some abuse, and had in consequence to resign his office. The people were not pleased with Mencius, thus advising others to their harm, and yet continuing to retain his own position undisturbed. “In the course which he marked out for Ch‘e Wa,” they said, “he did well, but we do not know as to the course which he pursues for himself.” The philosopher, however, was never at a loss in rendering a reason. He declared that, as his office was honorary, he could act “freely and without restraint either in going forward or retiring.”2 In this matter we have more sympathy with the condemnation than with the defence.

Some time during these years there occurred the death of Mencius’ excellent mother. She had been with him in Ts‘e, and he carried the coffin to Loo, to bury it near the dust of his father and ancestors. The funeral was a splendid one. Mencius perhaps erred in having it so from his dislike to the Mihists, who advocated a spare simplicity in all funeral matters.1 His arrangements certainly excited the astonishment of some of his own disciples,2 and were the occasion of general remark.3 He defended himself on the ground that “the superior man will not for all the world be niggardly to his parents,” and that, as he had the means, there was no reason why he should not give all the expression in his power to his natural feelings.

Having paid this last tribute of filial duty, Mencius returned to Ts‘e, but he could not appear at court till the three years of his mourning were accomplished.4 It could not be long after this when trouble and confusion arose in Yen, a large State to the north-west of Ts‘e, in the present Chih-le. Its prince, who was a poor weakling, wished to go through the sham of resigning his throne to his prime minister, understanding that he would decline it, and that thus he would have the credit of playing the part of the ancient Yaou, while at the same time he retained his kingdom. The minister, however, accepted the tender, and, as he proved a tyrannical ruler, great dissatisfaction arose. Shin T‘ung, an officer of Ts‘e, asked Mencius whether Yen might be smitten. He replied that it might, for its prince had no right to resign it to his minister, and the minister no right to receive it. “Suppose,” said he, “there were an officer here with whom you were pleased, and that, without informing the king, you were privately to give him your salary and rank; and suppose that this officer, also without the king’s orders, were privately to receive them from you:—would such a transaction be allowable? And where is the difference between the case of Yen and this?”5

Whether these sentiments were reported to king Seuen or not, he proceeded to attack Yen, and found it an easy prey. Mencius was charged with having advised the measure, but he ingeniously repudiated the accusation. “I answered Shin T‘ung that Yen might be smitten. If he had asked me—‘Who may smite it?’ I would have answered him—‘He who is the minister of Heaven may smite it.’ Suppose the case of a murderer, and that one asks me—‘May this man be put to death?’ I will answer him—‘He may.’ If he ask me—‘Who may put him to death?’ I will answer him—‘The chief criminal judge may put him to death.’ But now with one Yen to smite another Yen:—how should I have advised this?” This reference to “The minister of Heaven” strikingly illustrates what was said about the state of China in Mencius’ time. He tells us in one place that hostile States do not correct one another, and that only the supreme authority can punish its subjects by force of arms.1 But there was now no supreme authority in China. He saw in the emperor but “the shadow of an empty name.” His conception of a minister of Heaven was not unworthy. He was one who, by the distinction which he gave to talents and virtue, and by his encouragement of agriculture and commerce, attracted all people to him as a parent. He would have no enemy under heaven, and could not help attaining to the Royal dignity.2

King Seuen, after conquering and appropriating Yen, tried to get Mencius’ sanction of the proceeding, alleging the ease and rapidity with which he had effected the conquest as an evidence of the favour of Heaven. But the philosopher was true to himself. The people of Yen, he said, had submitted, because they expected to find in the king a deliverer from the evils under which they groaned. If they were pleased, he might retain the State, but if he tried to keep it by force, there would simply be another revolution.3

The king’s love of power prevailed. He determined to keep his prey, and ere long a combination was formed among the neighbouring princes to wrest Yen from him. Full of alarm he again consulted Mencius, but got no comfort from him. “Let him restore his captives and spoils, consult with the people of Yen, and appoint them a ruler—so he might be able to avert the threatened attack.”4

The result was as Mencius had predicted. The people of Yen rebelled. The king felt ashamed before the philosopher, whose second residence in Ts‘e was thus brought to an unpleasant termination.

10. We do not know that Mencius visited any of the princes after this. On leaving Ts‘e, he took his way again to Sung, the duke of which had taken the title of king in bc 317.

Mencius in Loo;—bc
309. A report also had gone abroad that he was setting about to practise the true royal government, but Mencius soon satisfied himself of its incorrectness.1

The last court at which we find him is that of Loo, bc 309. The duke P‘ing had there called Yoh-ching, one of the philosopher’s disciples, to his councils, and indeed committed to him the administration of the government. When Mencius heard of it, he was so overjoyed that he could not sleep.2

The first appearance (in point of time) of this Yoh-ching in the Seven Books is not much to his credit. He comes to Ts‘e in the train of Wang Hwan, the favourite who was an offence to the philosopher, and is very sharply reproved for joining himself to such a character “for the sake of the loaves and fishes.”3 Other references to him are more favourable. Mencius declares him to be “a good man,” “a real man.”4 He allows that “he is not a man of vigour,” nor “a man wise in council,” nor “a man of much information,” but he says—“he is a man that loves what is good,” and “the love of what is good is more than a sufficient qualification for the government of the kingdom;—how much more is it so for the State of Loo!”5

Either on his own impulse or by Yoh-ching’s invitation, Mencius went himself also to Loo, hoping that the prince who had committed his government to the disciple might be willing to listen to the counsels of the master. The duke was informed of his arrival by Yoh-ching, and also of the deference which he exacted. He resolved to go and visit him and invite him to the court. The horses were put to the carriage, and the duke was ready to start, when the intervention of his favourite, a worthless creature called Tsang Ts‘ang, diverted him from his good purpose. When told by the duke that he was going to visit the scholar M?ng, Ts‘ang said, “That you demean yourself to pay the honour of the first visit to a common man, is, I apprehend, because you think that he is a man of talents and virtue. From such men the rules of ceremonial proprieties and right proceed; but on the occasion of this M?ng’s second mourning, his observances exceeded those of the former. Do not go to see him, my prince.” The duke said, “I will not;”—and carriage and horses were ordered back to their places.

As soon as Yoh-ching had an audience of the duke, he explained the charge of impropriety which had been brought against Mencius; but the evil was done. The duke had taken his course. “I told him,” said Yoh-ching, “about you, and he was coming to see you, when Tsang Ts‘ang stopped him.” Mencius replied to him, “A man’s advancement is effected, it may be, by others, and the stopping him is, it may be, from the efforts of others. But to advance a man or to stop his advance is really beyond the power of other men; my not finding in the prince of Loo a ruler who would confide in me, and put my counsels into practice, is from Heaven. How could that scion of the Tsang family cause me not to find the ruler that would suit me?”1

Mencius appears to have accepted this intimation of the will of Heaven as final. He has a remarkable saying, that Heaven controls the development of a man’s faculties and affections, but as there is an adaptation in his nature for these, the superior man does not say—“It is the appointment of Heaven.”2 In accordance with this principle he had striven long against the adverse circumstances which threw his hopes of influencing the rulers of his time again and again in the dust. On his first leaving Ts‘e we saw how he said:—“Heaven does not yet wish that the empire should enjoy tranquillity and good order.” For about fifteen years, however, he persevered, if peradventure there might be a change in the Heavenly councils. Now at last he bowed in submission. The year after and he would reach his grand climacteric. We lose sight of him. He retired from courts and great officers. We can but think and conjecture of him, according to tradition, passing the last twenty years of his life amid the more congenial society of his disciples, discoursing to them, and compiling the Works which have survived as his memorial to the present day.

11. I have endeavoured in the preceding paragraphs to put together the principal incidents of Mencius’ history as they may be gathered from his Writings. There is no other source of information about him, and we must regret that they tell us nothing of his domestic life and habits. In one of the stories about his mother there is an allusion to his wife, from which we may conclude that his marriage was not without its bitternesses. It is probable that the M?ng Chung, mentioned in Bk II. Pt II. ii., was his son, though this is not easily reconcileable with what we read in VI. Pt I. v., of a M?ng Ke, who was, according to Chaou K‘e, a brother of M?ng Chung. We must believe that he left a family, for his descendants form a large clan at the present day. He-w?n, the 56th in descent from Mencius, was, in the period Këa-tsing (ad 1522—1566), constituted a member of the Han-lin college, and of the Board in charge of the five King, which honour was to be hereditary in the family, and the holder of it to preside at the sacrifices to his ancestor.1 China’s appreciation of our philosopher could not be more strikingly shown. Honours flow back in this empire. The descendant ennobles his ancestors. But in the case of Mencius, as in that of Confucius, this order is reversed. No excellence of descendants can extend to them; and the nation acknowledges its obligations to them by nobility and distinction conferred through all generations upon their posterity.

[1 ] The three attempts are—one by the author of “Supplemental Observations on the Four Books,” an outline of which is given in his Notes on Mencius, Art. III.; one by the author of the “Topography of the Four Books,” and forming the 24th section of the “Explanations of the Classics under the Ts‘ing dynasty;” and one prefixed to the Works of Mencius, in “The Four Books, with the Relish of the Radical Meaning” (Vol. I., Proleg., larger Work, p. 131). These three critics display much ingenuity and research, but their conclusions are conflicting.—I may be pardoned in saying that then learned labours have affected me just as those of the Harmonizers of the Gospel Narratives used to do in former years,—bewildering more than edifying. Most cordially do I agree with Dean Alford (New Testament, Vol. I., Proleg., I. vii. 5):—“If (? since) the Evangelists have delivered to us truly and faithfully the Apostolic Narratives, and if (? since) the Apostles spoke as the Holy Spirit enabled them, and brought events and sayings to their recollection, then we may be sure that, if we knew the real process of the transactions themselves, that knowledge would enable us to give an account of the diversities of narration and arrangement which the Gospels now present to us. But without such knowledge, all attempts to accomplish this analysis in minute detail must be merely conjectural, and must tend to weaken the Evangelic testimony rather than to strengthen it.”

[1 ] Yen Joh-keu and Ts‘aou Che-shing stoutly maintain the different sides of this question, the latter giving five arguments to show that the Tsow of Mencius was the Tsow of Loo. As Mencius went from Ts‘e on the death of his mother to bury her in Loo (Bk II. Pt II. vii.), this appears to prove that he was a native of that State. But the conclusion is not necessary. Loo was the ancestral State of his family, and on that account he might wish to inter his parent there, according to the custom of the Chow dynasty (see the Le Ke, Bk II. Pt I. i. 26). The way in which Tsow always appears as the residence of Mencius, when he is what we should say “at home,” appears to me decisive of the question, though neither of the disputants presses it into his service. Compare Bk III. Pt I. ii.; Bk VI. Pt II. i. and v. The point is really of no importance, for the States of Tsow and Loo adjoined. “The rattle of the watchman in the one was heard in the other.”

[2 ] The legend writers are more precise, and say that Mencius was only three years old when his father died. This statement, and K‘e’s as well, are difficult to reconcile with what we read in Bk I. Pt II. xvi., about the style in which Mencius buried his parents. If we accept the legend, we are reduced there to great straits.

[1 ] See Choo He’s “Education for the Young,” at the commencement of the chapter on “Instruction,” which begins with the educational duties of the mother, while the child is yet unborn.

[1 ] See Book IV. Pt II. xxii.

[1 ] Bk III. Pt II. ii.

[2 ] Bk I. Pt II. iv. 6.

[1 ] Bk VI. Pt II. vii. 1, 4.

[2 ] Book III. Pt II. ix. 9.

[3 ] In the “Annals of the Empire” (Vol. I., Proleg., larger Work, p. 134), Mencius’ visit to king Hwuy of Lëang is set down as having occurred in bc 335, and under bc 318 it is said—“Mencius goes from Leang to Ts‘e.” The visit to Lëang is placed too early, and that to Ts‘e too late. The disasters of king Hwuy, mentioned Bk I. Pt I. v. 1, had not all taken place in bc 318, and if Mencius remained 17 years in Leang, it is strange we have only five conversations between him and king Hwuy. So far from his not going to Ts‘e till bc 318, it will be seen from the next note that he was leaving Ts‘e before bc 323.

[4 ] Mencius’ words are—“From the commencement of the Chow dynasty till now more than 700 years have elapsed.” It was to the purpose of his argument to make the time appear as long as possible. Had 800 years elapsed, he would surely have said so. But as the Chow dynasty commenced in bc 1121, the year bc 322 would be its 800th anniversary, and Mencius’ departure from Ts‘e did not take place later that the year before bc 323.

[1 ] This chapter and the one before it have very much the appearance of having taken place on the way from Tsow to Ts‘e. Mencius has been invited to a powerful court. He is emerging from his obscurity. His disciples expect great things for him. Kung-sun Ch‘ow sees him invested with the government of Ts‘e, and in the elation of his heart makes his inquiries.

[2 ] Bk IV. Pt II. xxxii.

[3 ] Bk II. Pt II. xiv.

[1 ] Bk VI. Pt II. v.

[2 ] Bk I. Pt I. vii.

[3 ] I judge that this was the first set conversation between king Seuen and Mencius, because of the inquiry with which the king opens it,—“May I be informed by you of the transactions of Hwan of Ts‘e, and W?n of Tsin?” A very brief acquaintance with our philosopher would have taught him that he was the last person to apply to about those characters.

[4 ] Bk I. Pt II. i. iii. v.; et al.

[1 ] Bk II. Pt II. ii.

[2 ] Bk II. Pt II. x. I consider that this chapter, and others here referred to, belong to Mencius’ first departure from Ts‘e. I do so because we can hardly suppose that the king and his officers would not have understood him better by the end of his second residence. Moreover, while Mencius retires, his language in x. 2 and xi. 5, 6 is of such a nature that it leaves an opening for him to return again.

[1 ] Bk II. Pt II. xii.

[2 ] This is gathered from Bk III. Pt I. i. 1, where the crown-prince of T‘?ng visits Mencius, and from Bk II. Pt II. iii., where his accepting a gift in Sung appears to have been subsequent to his refusing one in Ts‘e.

[1 ] Bk II. Pt II. iii.

[2 ] Bk III. Pt I. ii. The note of time which is relied on as enabling us to follow Mencius here is the intimation, Bk I. Pt II. xiv., that “Ts‘e was about to fortity Seeh.” This is referred to bc 320, when king Seuen appointed his brother T‘ëen Ying over the dependency of Seeh, and took measures to fortify it.

[1 ] Bk III. Pt I. iii.

[2 ] Bk I. Pt II. xiii. xiv. xv.

[3 ] Confucian Analects XIII. x.

[4 ] Bk II. Pt I. i. 13.

[1 ] There are various difficulties about the reign of king Hwuy of Lëang. Sze-ma Ts‘een makes it commence in 369 and terminate in 334. He is then succeeded by Seang whose reign ends in 318; and he is followed by Gae till 295. What are called “The Bamboo Books” extend Hwuy’s reign to bc 318, and the next 20 years are assigned to king Gae. “The Annals of the Empire” (which are compiled from “The General Mirror of History”) follow the Bamboo Books in the length of king Hwuy’s reign, but make him followed by Sëang: and take no note of a king Gae.—From Mencius we may be assured that Hwuy was succeeded by Sëang, and the view of his Life, which I have followed in this sketch, leads to the longer period assigned to his reign.

[1 ] Bk 1. Pt I. vi.

[2 ] This conclusion is adopted because it was in 311 that Yen rebelled, when the king said that he was very much ashamed when he thought of Mencius, who had strongly condemned his policy towards the State of Yen.—This is another case in which the chronology is differently laid down by the authorities, Sze-ma Ts‘een saying that Yen was taken by king Min the son and successor of Seuen.

[1 ] Bk IV. Pt II. xxvii.

[2 ] Bk II. Pt II. v.

[1 ] Bk III. Pt I. v. 2.

[2 ] Bk II. Pt II. vii.

[3 ] Bk I. Pt II. xvi.

[4 ] Some are of opinion that Mencius stopped all the period of mourning in Loo, but the more natural conclusion, Bk II. Pt II. vii. 1, seems to me that he returned to Ts‘e, and stayed at Ying, without going to court.

[5 ] Bk II. Pt II. viii.

[1 ] Bk VII. Pt II. ii.

[2 ] Bk II. Pt I. v.

[3 ] Bk I. Pt II. x.

[4 ] Bk I. Pt II. xi.

[1 ] See Bk III. Pt II. v. vi.

[2 ] Bk VI. Pt II. xiii.

[3 ] Bk IV. Pt I. xxv.

[4 ] Bk VII. Pt II. xxv.

[5 ] Bk VI. Pt II. xiii.

[1 ] Bk I. Pt II. xvi.

[2 ] Bk III. Pt II. xiv.

[1 ] See Morrison’s Dictionary, on Mencius.

Last modified April 13, 2016