Wood-block engraving of Mencius, a philosopher who believed in the natural moral goodness of human beings.

The philosopher Mencius was a follower of Confucius who advocated benevolent government based on the natural moral goodness of people. East Asian culture was greatly influenced by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius.

Mencius (385–303/302 BCE) was a third-generation follower of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE). He wanted to reform his era by advocating a system of benevolent government based on the natural moral goodness of humans.

The influence of Mencius in defining ancient Confucianism is second only to that of Confucius himself. Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian (Shiji) of the second century BCE tells us that Meng Ke (Mencius) was from the state of Zou, which neighbored the state of Lu. He studied with a disciple of Confucius’s grandson, Zisi (492–431 BCE). Like Confucius, Mencius traveled to various states looking for a worthy ruler. He held a minor post without any authority as guest minister or teacher under King Xuan of Qi (319–301 BCE). Unable to influence the political climate, he retired with Wan Zhang (flourished fourth century BCE) and other disciples to write the book of philosophy known as the Mencius.

Book of Mencius

The Book of Mencius is one of the Four Books of Confucianism. After the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), the Mencius eclipsed the Xunzi. Unlike the Analects (Lunyu) of Confucius, the Mencius contains developed prose essays and detailed arguments. In keeping with most ancient Chinese texts, the Mencius employs arguments based on an appeal to the authority of the sage rulers of antiquity. It also makes regular use of argument by analogy.

Mencius believed that a person’s moral integrity is a matter of the heart-mind (xin). The emphasis on the inner quality of a person’s moral life marked a change from Confucius, who clearly delineated the inner from the outer. Person-to-person care or humanity (ren) remained the core value, the innermost quality of the heart-mind, and first among the four cardinal virtues. For Confucius ren meant everything noble in the well-bred person, disinterested concern for others, and other subtle qualities. For Mencius, ren meant simply benevolence. According to Mencius, the other virtues such as rightness (yi), ritual action (li), and moral wisdom (zhi) are also qualities of the heart-mind. In contrast to Confucius’s general and vague teachings, Mencius’s design for humane rulership is practical and effective. Mencius advocated abating punishments, reducing taxes, improving crop yields, and ensuring that the people are trained in moral cultivation. Although his political agenda was more practical than Confucius’s, Mencius continued to advocate Confucius’s idea that the ruler has to be virtuous to properly order society and to maintain the throne. When the ruler sets the moral example and the common people follow that example, then there will be fewer crimes and less need for punishment. Mencius accepted the ancient teaching that heaven’s decree or mandate (tianming) sanctioned the ruler’s position on the throne. Hence, the moral cultivation and development of the ruler were of the utmost importance. Mencius expanded the concept of the Mandate of Heaven, which had been traditionally limited to natural disasters, to include peasant rebellion as a sign that the ruler had lost the mandate to rule. Sanctioning peasant rebellion as a reason to call for a ruler’s downfall naturally affected subsequent history. For Mencius the most important aspect of the state is the common people. The people take priority over the national symbols, the altars to the gods of grain and soil, and the ruler. The ideal for Mencius is a kind and moral government.

Human Nature

Mencius explicated the notion that human character is basically good, an idea that is only implied in the Analects. One of the theories of human nature popular during Mencius’s time was the view that human nature is nothing more than the biological drives and desires. In a debate with Mencius, Gaozi argued that human nature is the desire for food and sex. Mencius argued that people are basically or originally morally good. In this manner he could justify linking the Mandate of Heaven and rebellion. The natural world has built-in moral values, such as the Mandate of Heaven, and humans as part of the natural world also have innate or natural moral values. If naturally good peasants are forced to rebel, then there must be something wrong with the ruler’s virtue. The moral values are part of the human heart-mind, which is sometimes referred to as the “original heart-mind” or the “true heart-mind.” The moral values emanate from the heart-mind. The heart-mind of compassion is the starting point of benevolence (ren). The heart-mind of shame gives a person a sense of duty (yi). The heart-mind of courtesy and modesty inspires ritual observances (li). The heart-mind of right and wrong is the beginning of moral wisdom (zhi).

Mencius was rediscovered in the Song dynasty (960–1279) by the neo-Confucians, especially Zhu Xi (1130–1200). Zhu Xi codified the Book of Mencius as one of the Four Books, which served as a major part of the curriculum for the civil service examinations. As neo-Confucianism spread across East Asia, the Koreans and Japanese were reintroduced to Mencius’s teachings. Emphasis on the inner quality of the heart-mind, the four cardinal virtues, use of education to develop a person’s inner nature, and the practice of humane government are characteristics of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese neo-Confucianism that were originally derived from the ideas of Mencius. It is not an exaggeration to say that East Asian culture was shaped by the Kong-Meng (Confucius and Mencius) teachings.

Mencius on Human Nature

Mencius, a very influential third-generation follower of Confucius, believed in the natural moral goodness of humanity. From “On Human Nature”:

Everyone has a heart that is sensitive to the sufferings of others. The great kings of the past had this sort of sensitive heart and thus adopted compassionate policies. Bringing order to the realm is as easy as moving an object in your palm when you have a sensitive heart and put into practice compassionate policies. Let me give an example of what I mean when I say that everyone has a heart that is sensitive to the sufferings of others. Anyone today who suddenly saw a baby about to fall into a well would feel alarmed and concerned. It would not be because he wanted to improve his relations with the child’s parents, nor because he wanted a good reputation among his friends and neighbors, nor because he disliked hearing the child cry. From this it follows that anyone who lacks feelings of commiseration, shame, and courtesy or a sense of right and wrong is not a human being. From the feeling of commiseration benevolence grows; from the feeling of shame righteousness grows; from the feeling of courtesy ritual grows; from a sense of right and wrong wisdom grows.

Source: Ebrey, P. B.. (1981). Chinese civilization: A sourcebook. New York, The Free Press, 23.

Further Reading

Allan, S. (1997). The way of water and sprouts of virtue. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ames, R. T. (1991). The Mencian conception of ren xing: Does it mean human nature? In H. Rosemont (Ed.), Chinese texts and philosophical contexts (pp. 143–178). La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Chan Wing-tsit. (1963). A source book in Chinese philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fung Yu-lan. (1952). History of Chinese philosophy: Vol. 1. The period of the philosophers (from the beginnings to circa 100 B.C.). (D. Bodde, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Graham, A. C. (1986). The background of the Mencian theory of human nature. In Studies in Chinese philosophy and philosophical literature (pp. 7–66). Singapore: Institute of East Asian Philosophies.

Graham, A. C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Hsiao Kung-Chun. (1979). A history of Chinese political thought. (F. Mote, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lau, D. C. (Trans.). (1970). Mencius. Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin Books.

Legge, J. (Trans.). (1960). The Chinese classics (5 vols.). Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong.

Munro, D. J. (1969). Concept of man in early China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Nivison, D. S. (1996). The ways of Confucianism: Investigations in Chinese philosophy. B. W. Van Norden (Ed.). Chicago: Open Court.

Richards, I. A. (1932). Mencius on the mind. London: Routledge.

Waley, A. (1956). Three ways of thought in ancient China. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Source: Sellmann, James D. (2009). Mencius. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1442–1444. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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