Mencius (ca. 371-ca. 289 B.C.) 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 in Lu.
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 to Ch'i.
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 Chihsia, 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 post.
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.
There are two acceptable English translations of the Meng-tzu: one by James Legge in his The Chinese Classics (5 vols. in 8, 1861-1872; 2d ed. rev. 1865-1895) and the other by W. A. Dobson in Mencius (1963). Both of these works contain valuable biographical information on Mencius. Also worth reading is I. A. Richards, Mencius on the Mind (1932).