The most important man in the history of Confucianism after its founder is Mencius (372-289 B.C.), who has been traditionally regarded by the Chinese people as their “Second Sage,” a title reserved for Confucius alone. Mencius was sufficiently bold dare to rebuke the king for his mistakes. He fearlessly informed the king that if he was not qualified to rule, he should step down and make way for a better king. He even confidently advanced his own theory of government: “The people are the most important element in a state; next come the gods of land and grain; least of all is the ruler himself.” This was undoubtedly the first Chinese expression of a theory of democratic administration. For an ordinary person to advance these progressive ideas and to criticize the behavior of an all-power monarch was at this time to risk his life.
The Life of Mencius
Mencius was born in the state of Zhou (present-day Zouxian County, Shandong Province). He lost his father when he was still a child, and he and his mother were very close. The famous story about Mencius’ mother is that his mother moved three times-from beside a cemetery to beside a marketplace, to finally beside a school—before finding a location that she felt was suitable for his upbringing. Mencius may have studied in one of the Confucian schools established in the Lu area. Mencius was trained as a scholar and teacher and received instruction in the standard Confucian texts such as the Classic of Poetry and the Classic of History.
Mencius lived in troubled times, when China was torn apart by frequent wars among rival principalities. At that time, many philosophers appeared with their varied ideas on how to attain peace, stability and good life. That period is often called "A Hundred Schools of Thought Contend".
Mencius’ life experience was similar to that of Confucius. He too was a teacher and took his students with him while touring states in search of a ruler who would put his teachings into practice. Mencius seems to have established a reputation in Zou as a teacher, but nothing is recorded of his activities until his arrival in Qi, north of Lu, and one of the most powerful states of that period. Mencius must have arrived in Qi during the reign of King Wei (357-320 B.C.), perhaps as early as 335. Mencius left Qi about 324 and traveled south. At once he was invited to serve as an adviser at the court of Duke Wen of T'eng, a small state south of Zou. 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.
In 320 B.C., his reputation as a learned and profound thinker well established, Mencius eventually got the chance to put his ideals into some form of practice in the State of Wei. 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 Qi.
Mencius was rather stuffy, terribly serious, and somewhat of a prude. To him principle was of paramount importance. Unlike King Hsüan, the King of Qi at that time, 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 answered that the Confucian school had never professed interest in the hegemony, 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. In 315 Qi 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 Qi army. Out of disgust with Qi policies and irritated that King Hsüan so seldom consulted him, Mencius resolved to leave for his home.
Mencius remained in Zou for the rest of his life. He was joined by a few loyal disciples, and they continued their study of the Confucian texts. He left behind him The Book of Mencius. In 289 B.C., Mencius died peacefully in his hometown at the age of 82. a great temple was constructed after the model of the Confucian Temple in Zou, to honor the great man. Mencius, in the minds of the Chinese people, ranks second only to Confucius in terms of reverence, honour and devotion.
Mencius' Views on Human and Politics
Mencius held that human nature was essentially good, and that it was evil circumstance that corrupted man’s mind and actions. All men were born with the beginnings of virtue and with an inclination toward goodness that was as natural as the inclination of water to flow downward. It was only neglect and abuse of this innate goodness that lead men into evil ways. He believed that man’s inborn virtue could be cultivated by conscious effort and education. He therefore thought highly of scholars. For Mencius, the four ethical attributes, ren (benevolence), yi (righteousness), li (propriety), and zhi (wisdom), result from our cultivating four kinds of predispositions of the heart/mind that everyone shares. These include commiseration, the sense of shame, a reverential attitude toward others, and the sense of right and wrong. He referred to these as the four ‘sprouts’ or ‘beginnings’, and regarded the four ethical attributes as growing from these predispositions in the way that a plant grows from a sprout. Besides commiseration and the sense of shame, he also regarded love for parents and obedience to elder brothers as the starting point for cultivating ren and yi respectively.
Like Confucius, Mencius regarded the transformative power of a cultivated person as the ideal basis for government. The governor exists for the sake of the governed, to give people peace and sufficiency, and to lead them by education and example to the life of virtue. He held that rulers should attend to the needs of the people if they wished to remain in power, and that government should be in the hands of the benevolent. The basis for Mencius theory of a good government by benevolence was that man was born with goodness, in Mencius’ view, every king was able to rule by a policy of benevolence, and every citizen was able to accept it. A benevolence ruler enjoys the allegiance of the people and is unlikely to confront any hostilities; even if a few seek to oppose him, the opposition can easily be defeated with the support of the people.
Mencius formulated a view of social hierarchy which dominated the outlook of the Chinese for centuries. According to this view, society was composed of two complementary groups- the superior men, those of the ruling group, and the mean men, those meant to be ruled. He believed that: "Those who labor with their minds govern others; those who labour with their hands are governed by others". Because of the influence of Mencius' philosophy, the Chinese were traditionally divided into four social classes: scholar-officials, peasants, craftsmen and merchants.