The Nature and Historical Context of the Mencius
E Bruce and A Taeko Brooks
Alan Chan (ed), Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations (Hawaii 2002) 242-281

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This paper, worked out by both of us but delivered by one of us at the Singapore Mencius Conference in January 1999, argues for a dual structure of the Mencian school after Mencius, with one successor group taking a philosophical approach, and the other emphasizing political reality, over approximately the first half of the 03rd century. The key stages in the argument are:

1. The view that the entire Mencius text stems from, and contains the words of, the historical Mencius, is cast in doubt by the nature of the material, and especially by oppositions within the material. We begin by citing several examples of inconsistent treatment of the same figure (Yi Yin) or the same principle (good government) in different parts of the text. This demonstration is preparatoryto what follows.

2. We first examine the interviews of Mencius with various rulers, which constitute the whole of MC 1. With one exception, we agree with Lau that these have been arranged in chronological order. However, there are two strongly contrasted types of material within the MC 1 sequence. In one group, one or more of the following is true: (1) there is an implied duration of under 3 minutes; (2) the ruler sets the theme on which Mencius then discourses; (3) Mencius observes reasonable propriety in his reply; and (4) he does not assume the ruler's familiarity with the Confucian texts Shr and Shu, but rather uses homely examples from everyday experience in making his point. In the other group, by contrast, one or more of the following is true: (1) the interview may last a long time; (2) Mencius sometimes defines the theme himself; (3) in developing it he often attacks the ruler; and (4) in the course of the conversation, either Mencius or the ruler may quote the Shr or Shu. The latter define an artificially Confucianized context in which Mencius dominates the ruler; the former are much more plausible as transcripts from actual interviews with actual late 04th century rulers. We conclude that the former group are genuine if perhaps terse transcripts of real occasions, whereas the latter have all the earmarks of retrospective wishful thinking on the part of an increasingly arrogant Mencian posterity, and were probably added to MC 1 to magnify the relatively mild and respectful role which Mencius had actually played during his lifetime.

3. An implication is drawn from this for the strange fact that the Mencius is in double chapters, each about the size of the entire Analects of Dau/Dv Jing, and each named only for the incipit of its first half.

4. MC 2A2 is identified as a probable composite of remembered conversations between Mencius and his disciples, edited together after his death as a counterpart to the public record contained in the genuine portion of MC 1. These two records would have been of approximately the same size, and would each have been accommodated in one roll of bamboo strips. Only the later additions, such as we have just argued for in the case of MC 1, forced the original text with its original incipit into requiring a second physical roll of bamboo strips, still going under the name established by the original incipit.

5. The remaining material, MC 2-7, is then taken up, and linguistic and extratextual arguments are introduced to suggest that they form two series, MC 2-3 and MC 4-7. These in turn are found to differ in content and emphasis in such a way as to suggest that they are the texts of two separate successor schools. One of these we call the northern one, and assume was located in Mencius's native town of Dzou; its text shows a pronounced theoretical or philosophical emphasis. The other we call the southern one, and assume that it had remained in the state of Tvng, which was the location of Mencius's last official position, and where his successors may still have occupied the house given him as a perquisite of that position; its text shows an ongoing concern with the difficulties of addressing a ruler, and has overall a pronounced political as well as ethical interest. There is some commonality of ideas between the two groups, implying some degree of ongoing contact, but they develop in different directions. It is the northern school, especially in its later chapters MC 6-7, which develops a theory of allowable revolution against a bad ruler; the southern school remains much closer to the decorum which was probably necessary between a ruler and his most critical advisors.

6. It is then shown that ideological development takes place within each of these parallel text sequences. In brief, the northern or philosophical school winds up with an emphasis on inner rather than outer morality, and the southern or political school increasingly abandons its initial optimism about the possibility of a government centered on the people, of the people's economic prospects under the existing government, and of the possibility of making meaningful contribution by advising a ruler who has other things in mind. The detailed arguments for these developments, both increasingly pessimistic but always distinct in tone and context, occupy much of the paper, and cannot be repeated here.

7. The original examples of ideological inconsistency cited at the outset of the paper are then revisited, to see how far the present two-school theory, plus the refinement of development of thought within each school, can account for them. It is found that the essential features of those contrasts are satisfactorily explained by the theory, and the theory is accordingly taken as functional.

8. Further examples are then given, of how the two-school theory can account for other strange inconsistencies in the Mencius. Among the terms examined under this heading are sying "human propensity," chvng "sincerity," and finally tyen "Heaven." That further investigation concludes with this paragraph:

More generally, subsuming all the above examples, we submit that these evidences of intelligible development of ideas within the text support our theory, and that our theory in turn provides a dynamic overview against which many of the text's internal inconsistencies can be at least partly resolved, leaving for close analysis indeed a residue, but one from which considerable material not requiring or not amenable to such analysis has first been eliminated. We offer this theory, then, not in place of analysis but ultimately as an aid and precursor to analysis. The argument for the theory is its success in accounting for difficulties in the text. Its proof will like in the success of future analysis using it as a starting point.

9. Under the heading "Envoi," the paper concluded with the following paragraph:

The Mencius is a difficult text, and apart from the text itself and a few other contemporary texts of contrasting outlook but ultimately of similar nature, we have very little knowledge of the time in which it was written. We must therefore expect that there will always be points, or whole passages, whose intent eludes us as having general meaning or none at all, whereas contemporary readers might have had much more specific reactions. We believe that the present theory offers the possibility of recovering, from the structure and interrelationships of the text, some sense of its original specificity. If that possibility should prove fruitful, it may lead to an increased appreciation of the evidently difficult conditions under which the authors worked, and the degree to which, despite disappointments and reverses, and against the course of the mainstream of history in their own time, they persisted in their advocacy of a better world, inhabited by better people. For their insights into how society works, or how it might work if it realized the best possibilities of its human material, and above all for their courage in maintaining and developing those insights until the very end of their time in the world, the present world may well be grateful.

Update 2006

The article as originally published provided a Mencius Worksheet (p273), which gave the distribution of text and major interpolations for each stratum of each text sequence, thus presenting our theory in a single diagram. That diagram was meant not only as a summary, but also as a convenient way to plot the occurrence of any terms of interest in the text. At the time of presentation in Singapore, the offer was made to show how terms discussed in other papers predistributed before the Conference patterned on that worksheet, and in fact how far that patterning both confirmed the present theory and illuminated the subject of those papers. This offer was taken up by exactly nobody at the Conference, but the experiment remains an interesting one, and to facilitate it, and other investigations like it, we included a similar, slightly updated Worksheet, meant to be printable out on one page, with the Mencius entry in our on-line work Classical Chinese Texts.

We have recently (September 2006) been asked if that Worksheet still reflects our current view of the Mencius. Not entirely. We have recently been moved to reconsider the position of some parts of MC 2, and those changes will appear in the Classical Chinese Texts entry in due course. Also, and more generally, some seeming complications in the text were not addressed in the paper, and thus do not find a place on the Worksheet. Among these is the possibility that (for instance) not all of MC 4 was completed before MC 5 was begun, so that there may be chronological overlap between what we have for simplicity treated as separate accretional layers. Another and possibly kindred possibility is that MC 4, for example, has a core plus addenda structure, the two layers being distinguishable by an Analects-type pairing of sayings in the core, a pattern not found, and indeed often violated, by the addenda. Exploring these possibilities belongs to the area of future research.

As a further sort of update, we expect soon to be able to refer interested persons to later articles by Steve Angle and Manyul Im (scheduled to appear in the first issue of Warring States Papers), which in their different ways, and with various reservations, find that the model here proposed is largely sound, and also significantly fruitful in analytical insights.

Those who have had trouble with disingenuous "readers" for academic presses may be amused at our version of that experience, which is reported in n3 of the above article. That note reads:

An anonymous reader for the University of Hawai'i Press has suggested that the integral view of the Mencius is a "paper tiger" that no one in fact holds, and that the present argument against that view is thus superfluous. We forbear to weary our readers by citing in extenso scholars who subscribe to some variant of the Shr Ji 74 statement that the text was written by Mencius in retirement, in collaboration with several disciples, and who regard our Mencius as "one of the best preserved texts from the Warring States period" (D C Lau tr, Mencius, Penguin 1970, 222). The same reader asserts that our alternate hypothesis, attributing to the text a significant time depth, "has been noted by others, for example Nivison and Riegel." We have been unable to verify this assertion, and have referred it to the scholars in question. Professor Riegel has replied, "I have not made the claim about the Mencius ascribed to me," and Professor Nivison has responded, "I don't know what that guy's talking about."

Sinology needs to develop a collective sense that people who lie in the way this "reader" has lied do not deserve continuing membership or credibility in the field. That development seems to be still in the future. Meanwhile, we are all the more grateful to our editor Alan Chan for inviting our presentation in the first place, for including our article in the conference volume in the second place, and for defending it against malicious fabrications in the third place.

E Bruce Brooks
A Taeko Brooks

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