Mencius Research Paper

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The Chinese philosopher Mencius (c. 371–c. 289 BCE) was a follower of Confucius who advocated benevolent government based on the natural moral goodness of humankind. East Asian culture was greatly influenced by the teachings of both men.

Meng Ke, commonly referred to in the West as Mencius, the Latinized form of his title Mengzi (“Master Meng”), was a philosopher, itinerant official, and teacher during China’s chaotic Warring States period (475–221 BCE). As had been the case with Confucius, Mencius had very limited success as an administrator and court adviser. But he was a successful teacher, and his ideas, as recorded in the book that bears his name, later played a central role in the development of Confucianism—a philosophy that remains an important component in the culture of East Asia.

Born in the minor state of Zhou, located at the base of the Shandong Peninsula in eastern China, Mencius is said to have received his earliest education from a disciple of Kong Ji, or Zi Si, the grandson of Confucius. As a young man, Mencius obtained a position at the court of the local ruler, King Xuan of the state of Qi. Here the young philosopher advised the king by citing examples of moral and virtuous behavior from the age of the ruler-sages Yao and Shun, and from the ancient Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. Given that this was a time characterized by warfare, intrigue, and shifting political alliances, it is not surprising that Mencius’s emphasis on the ideals of humanity, benevolence, and righteousness failed to find a sympathetic ear at the Qi court. While other philosophers and advisers, such as the strategist Sunzi, encouraged warring kings to strengthen their administrations, to seek weaknesses in their opponents, and to utilize every tactic possible in order to protect and enlarge their kingdoms, Mencius urged rulers to seek peace, to lead by moral example, and to strive to recreate the golden age of the past. While Mencius was a respected philosopher and welcomed by the rulers of several states during his life, only one, King Hui of the Liang in the state of Wei, followed his advice. When King Hui died, Mencius, then forty years of age, withdrew from public life and worked along with several of his disciples compiling his writings and drafting commentaries on earlier texts.

In his writings Mencius emphasized two principles as the keys to restoring order and harmony to society. The first was jen (humanity, benevolence). The second concept was xiao, or filial piety, which was derived from his belief in the larger principle of yi (righteousness, duty). Mencius placed even greater emphasis on the importance of filial piety than Confucius, perhaps in an effort to counter the beliefs of the followers of Mozi, a rival philosopher who was an exponent of universal love. The concepts of jen and xiao were meant to shape not only a person’s immediate familial relationships, but also the relationship between a ruler and his subjects. A king was to be noble and to treat his subjects as his own children, providing them with security, guidance, and tempered discipline. In return, the common people were to be obedient and loyal to their ruler. Although a socially conservative philosopher, Mencius added a new component to the Confucian ideology that led some to consider him and his ideas dangerous. This more radical idea was the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, that the ruler’s family had been sanctioned to rule by a divine power. If a ruler was an able and benevolent administrator who governed his people well, then he would retain the mandate. But should the ruler prove to be incompetent, or worse, morally corrupt and a despot, the mandate could be revoked and his subjects would then be free to overthrow him and his family.

As a Confucian philosopher, Mencius was opposed to other contending schools during the Warring States period. His beliefs, as detailed in the book that bears his name, played a key role in the development of Confucian philosophy during subsequent Chinese history. Zhu Xi (1130–1200), a scholar of the Song dynasty (960–1279), combined the texts of Confucius’s Lunyu (Analects) with The Book of Mencius, Da Xue (Great Learning), and Zhong yong (Doctrine of the Mean) to form the Four Books. This collection, together with the Five Classics of ancient Chinese literature, formed the basis for the traditional Confucian education system and was a body of work that was memorized by seven centuries of Chinese scholars. The civil service examinations that recruited China’s imperial bureaucracy during the Song, Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911/12) dynasties were heavily influenced by the ideas of Mencius and his followers.


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  2. Creele, H. G. (1953). Chinese thought from Confucius to Mao Tsetung. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. de Bary, W. T., Chan, W., & Watson, B. (Eds.). (1960). Sources of Chinese tradition (Vol. 1). New York: Columbia University Press.
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  5. Legge, J. (Trans.). (1895). The Chinese classics, with a translation, critical and exegetical notes, prolegomena, and copious indexes: Vol. 2. The works of Mencius. Oxford, U.K.: The Clarendon Press.
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  7. Richards, I. (1932). Mencius on the mind. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co.
  8. Schwartz, B. (1985). The world of thought in ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  9. Waley, A. (1939). Three ways of thought in ancient China. London: G. Allen and Unwin.

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