Ancient China in Context
Mencius:
China's Second Sage
E Bruce Brooks and A Taeko Brooks

 

Cover: MenciusFrom late Tang onward, and especially in the Confucianism of Ju Syi and other Sung thinkers, Mencius represented the high point of the classical tradition. The text's meditative aspect, and its distancing from the realities of practical politics, suited the situation of the serving elite of that period, while also flattering their aspirations. The Mencius still occupies a dominant position at the present time. The real history of Mencius is less grand, but historically no less interesting.

Mencius was born to a noble Lu family, the once important Mvng clan, in the town of Dzou. He was at first associated with the Confucian School of Lu, whose text was the Analects, and certain chapters of the Analects, to which he contributed in his mature years, show clear traces of his ideas. He was acquainted with every major thought current of his time: the hard statecraft theorists in Chi (whose text was the Gwandz), the meditative school of Lu (whose text was the Dau/Dv Jing), and the humanistic if also ritualistic strand of Confucian thinking reflected in the Dzwo Jwan. He was strongly influenced by the sub-elite Micians, whose writings are preserved in the Mwodz. All these elements are visible in his thought. He contributed much to the two Analects statecraft chapters (LY 12 and 13, from c0326 and c0322, respectively). But the growing ritualistic trend in the Analects school (which is also visible in those chapters), and its increasing distaste for meditation as a way of knowledge (a method to which Mencius was himself personally committed), along with a desire to philosophize on the larger stage of world events, led to his departure from Lu and the Analects school in 0320. His brief and largely ignominious public career then followed.

He went first to Lyang, where he had constructive and promising interviews with the aged King, who was trying to implement the new populist theory of government, and found that it was not working for him. Mencius explained it to him. What would have happened next no one will ever know, since the King presently died, and Mencius and the King's heir failed to find grounds of agreement. Mencius then left for Chi, where in due course he was entrusted with the duties of a minister. He recommended that Chi's spectacular victory in disturbed Yen, the state to the north of Chi, should be followed up by political annexation. This provoked a reaction from a coalition of rival states, led by Jau, who drove Chi out of Yen and put a son of the previous King on the throne. Mencius left in disgrace, and to better supply his policy needs, the King of Chi founded the Ji-sya establishment, whose six stipendiaries,who conspicuously had no governmental responsibilities, would instead think hard and produce usable statecraft theory. Mencius' time was over.

He finished out his career with a position at tiny Tvng, to the south of Lu on the border with Sung. There he advised the ruler, who was in a militarily hopeless position against the powerful states, to at least fail with dignity, hoping for a more fortunately situated successor in the remote future. One preserved conversation between Mencius and a disciple, from 0316, shows an interesting personality, with an inner life based on meditation and an outer policy based on conviction rather than experience, though the conviction was and remains honorable and even inspiring. It continues to inspire many.

After his death, his disciples split into two groups. One, interested in practical politics, remained in Tvng and developed certain economic theories, which are embodied in chapters 2 and 3 of the present Mencius text. The other group, more philosophically inclined, went north to Dzou; their text is Mencius 4-7. It is these northern Mencian writings, more reflective and inward than the southern ones, which have exerted the most appeal in later centuries. When Sywndz came to power in the area in 0254, he issued a warning to his philosophical rivals, including the two Mencian schools as well as the Analects school in the Lu capital (and the Dau/Dv Jing group, still active in that city, and the last Micians, probably in the territory of former Sung), that their waywardness would no longer be tolerated. When Chu finally absorbed this territory into itself (bringing off what Chi had failed to do earlier), Sywndz carried out his threat, and all these philosophical schools ceased to exist. Some Mencian escapees continued activity in Chi or further west in Chin, but the golden age of Lu-based philosophy was at an end.

Extracts from Mencius:

This book follows Mencius through his intellectual antecedents, his career as an advisor to rulers, and his posthumous survival in the writings of two successor schools, by extracts from the Mencius text and from some of the texts with which it was in dialogue at key points. Texts are given in Chinese as well as English, for those who wish to include the Mencius among the rudiments of a Sinological education.

For an overview of the entire classical period, which treats Mencius and his two successor schools in the larger context of state modernization, see the survey volume, The Emergence of China.

E Bruce Brooks

E BRUCE BROOKS is Research Professor of Chinese, and A TAEKO BROOKS is Research Associate, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Mencius: China's Second Sage

Approximately 224 pages
Tentative $46.95 cloth. ISBN 978-1-936166-30-5
Tentative $23.95 paper. ISBN 978-1-936166-70-1
Tentative Release Date: December 2014

When announced, this book may be ordered from the University of Massachusetts Press

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