|Mencius (371-289 BC) was a
Chinese philosopher and one of the most important early Confucian
thinkers. His philosophy is characterized by its idealism and
the assertion that man's nature is basically good.
Confucius, the great Chinese teacher and thinker, died in
479 B.C., and on the eastern seaboard of China his disciples
established schools which carried on the teachings of the
master. By the end of the 4th century a number of important
Confucian philosophers emerged, and the most brilliant of
these philosophers was Mencius. Mencius elaborated on and
refined many of the ideas of Confucius, and his interpretations
became as influential in the Chinese tradition as the ideas
of the master himself.
Mencius, which is the Latinized form of Meng-tzu (Master
Meng), was born in Tsou, a small state south of Lu, the home
state of Confucius. Lu lay in what is now the southern part
of Shantung Province and had been an important political and
cultural center for much of the Chou dynasty (1122-256 B.C.).
Mencius's full name was Meng K'o, and he was the descendant
of the Meng, or Meng-sun, clan, one of the three ruling families
Almost nothing is known about his early life. Like Confucius,
Mencius apparently lost his father at an early age, and he
was raised by his mother, who did not remarry. There are several
amusing but apocryphal stories about his mother and Mencius's
childhood, and these are the only pieces of information about
his early life.
Mencius may have studied in one of the Confucian schools
established in the Lu area, perhaps the school created by
Confucius's grandson Tzu-ssu. Mencius was trained as a scholar
and teacher and received instruction in the standard Confucian
texts such as the Book of Odes (Shih ching) and the Book of
Documents (Shu ching).
Mencius seems to have established a reputation in Tsou as
a teacher, but nothing is recorded of his activities until
his arrival in Ch'i, north of Lu, and one of the most powerful
states of that period. Mencius must have arrived in Ch'i during
the reign of King Wei (357-320 B.C.), perhaps as early as
335. We do not know if Mencius held any position in the Ch'i
government at this time or even how long he remained in Ch'i.
Mencius left Ch'i about 324 and traveled south through the
states of Sung and Hsüeh, where he received travel funds
from the rulers of these states, finally arriving in his home
state of Tsou. At once he was invited to serve as an adviser
at the court of Duke Wen of T'eng, a small state south of
Tsou. Mencius went to T'eng, where he advised the duke on
mourning ritual for his recently deceased father. He also
held several long discussions on statecraft with Duke Wen,
who was greatly impressed by Mencius's learning.
Mencius did not remain long in T'eng and most likely was
forced to leave because he had incurred the animosity of some
of the duke's advisers, who resented the stranger's influence.
Mencius then went to Liang, the capital of Wei, a state to
the west of Ch'i and Sung. He was well received by the aged
King Hui, with whom he had several satisfying interviews.
Mencius had a less amiable relationship with Hui's successor,
Hsiang, who became king in 319, and Mencius decided to return
The previous year King Wei of Ch'i had died and was succeeded
by his son, King Hsüan (reigned 319-310 B.C.). King Hsüan
was an extremely ambitious and energetic ruler who hoped to
make Ch'i the leader of the entire Chinese state system. In
order to enhance Ch'i's prestige the Ch'i rulers had built
in the Ch'i capital an academy called Chi-hsia, where scholars
from all parts of China were invited to study and exchange
ideas. Members of the academy included some of the most important
thinkers of the time. It is not certain whether Mencius was
an actual participant at the Chi-hsia discussions, although
he certainly must have been acquainted with many of the scholars
who were there. Mencius was given an honorary position in
the Ch'i government but does not seem to have held a policy-making
Mencius was rather stuffy, terribly serious, and somewhat
of a prude. To him principle was of paramount importance.
Unlike King Hsüan, who was primarily interested in practical
matters of government, Mencius was willing to discuss only
theoretical matters. On one occasion King Hsüan asked
Mencius about early Chinese rulers who had established hegemony
over other Chinese states, expressing a wish to emulate them.
Mencius arrogantly answered that the Confucian school had
never professed interest in the hegemons, and thus he had
nothing to say on the matter. He then proceeded to give a
long, abstract discourse on what he termed true kingship,
citing examples from remote antiquity to illustrate his argument.
Mencius's career in Ch'i was temporarily interrupted by the
death of his mother. He returned to Lu, where he conducted
an elaborate funeral for her and observed mourning for the
prescribed period of 3 years.
In 315 Ch'i attacked the state of Yen in the northeast. Before
sending out his expedition King Hsüan asked Mencius for
advice. Mencius, not wishing to commit himself, gave an evasive
answer which the King construed as approval. Actually, Mencius
had reservations about this course of action and was disturbed
that the King failed to understand his advice. In 312 Yen
expelled the Ch'i army. Out of disgust with Ch'i's policies
and irritated that King Hsüan so seldom consulted him,
Mencius resolved to leave for his home.
Mencius remained in Tsou for the rest of his life. He was
joined by a few loyal disciples, and they continued their
study of the Confucian texts. The date of his death is uncertain,
but it is traditionally given as 289 B.C. Some scholars think
that he died as early as 305.
Mencius's teachings have been preserved in a book titled
Meng-tzu, a seven-chapter work of anecdotes most likely collected
by his disciples. Most of the anecdotes consist of conversations
between Mencius and his disciples or, occasionally, a ruler.
His basic philosophy, if it can be called that, is an extreme
idealism which views human nature as basically good and evil
as only an obfuscation of one's innate goodness. He placed
great emphasis on the necessity for one to try to recover
his original goodness and, through learning, to seek what
he called the "lost mind" of benevolence. Mencius
also believed that if the government fails to maintain benevolent
rule and abuses the people, they have a right to revolt.