Mencius maintains that all people are good by nature and all people possess four beginnings. "The sense of compassion is the beginning of benevolence; the sense of shame the beginning of righteousness; the sense of modesty the beginning of decorum; the sense of right and wrong the beginning of wisdom." Since all people are born good and have these four beginnings in themselves, the rulers only need to accord the people guidance so as to help them bring into full play the good in human nature instead of impeding it. Anyone possessing these four and saying that he cannot do what is required of him is abasing himself." If people can have their complete development of the good in their nature, they will be able to coexist in peace and harmony with their family, with other people and even with the whole society.
If viewed from the perspective of prose writing style, Mencius is different from the succinct style of The Analects. Though also written in the style of discourse, the writings in Mencius are at most times lengthy and the debates meticulously organized. Moreover, the style is stern and forceful, always teeming with the air of orator. Mencius once said sarcastically, "How can you assume I am fond of debating?I do so because I have no alternative." In order to promote the practice of benevolent government, he reiterated his stand in the debates with great patience. The opening part of "King Hui of Liang" of the first chapter of Mencius sets the tone of the whole chapter and even of the whole book. The first chapter starts with debates. Mencius goes to see King Hui of Liang, and the first thing King Hui of Liang asks is, "Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand miles may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?" King Hui of Liang's most immediate concern is to inquire about what profit Mencius has brought to him. The word "profit," in the mind of King Hui of Liang, refers in particular to the means that will help the State of Liang to become rich and powerful. Mencius, on the contrary, placing his stress on "benevolence and righteousness," replies, "Why must your Majesty use that word 'profit?' What I am provided with are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics." Immediately after this, Mencius puts forth several parallel hypotheses. If King Hui of Liang concerns himself with "What is to be done to profit my kingdom?," the great officers will concern themselves with "What is to be done to profit our families?" and the inferior officers and the common people will concern themselves with "What is to be done to profit our persons?" If everyone only cares for the things which are of immediate concern or interest to him, "the superiors and the inferiors will probably try to snatch this profit from each other, and the kingdom will be endangered." Upon hearing King Hui of Liang's one-sentence inquiry about "profit," Mencius utters several sentences in succession in reply so as to advocate his doctrine of "benevolence and righteousness," which shows his efforts to talk the king into accepting his ideas through the rhetorical power of parallelism and running-on sentences. Apart from these rhetorical devices, Mencius also uses the method of discourse, in one way or another very much identical with the wisdom of the Socratic method.
Mencius is well-versed in drawing analogies. His writings are "Simple in diction but pregnant with meaning." Sayings like "Those who retreat fifty paces mock those who retreat a hundred" and "Help the seedlings grow by pulling them upward" have now become idioms known to every household.
Selected from China’s Literature: Treasures of Civilization (China Intercontinental Press, Beijing, 2010)
The middle period of the Warring States of ancient China (475 B.C – 221 B.C) was a tumultuous time. Often known as the period of The Hundred Schools of Thought, it was an era in which various philosophies fought for supremacy. Mencius was one of the leading thinkers and educators of the time.
Mencius would travel to different states to meet their kings, with the objective of conveying to them his views on how the state must be ruled. One day, he visited King Liang Hui of the Wei State, the greatest state in China at the time, hoping the King would listen to him and his ideas of benevolent ruling. However, in their very first meeting Mencius was openly critical of Liang Hui, and only succeeded in annoying the ruler. After the meeting, Mencius regretted his hasty judgment and rash behavior. At the same time, he was well aware the any hesitation on his part to rectify what had happened could only worsen the situation in such turbulent times. Every day after that, he would wait for the King’s summons in the court hall, but each time he was informed by the palace guards that the King was unwell and was resting.
One morning, Mencius received information that the King was taking a walk in the palace garden and he went there, insisting on meeting with him. It so happened that Liang Hui was thinking about Mencius’ words at the time. Seeing Mencius coming to him, Liang Hui pretended to be engaged in observing the beautiful scenery that surrounded him and cited a few lines from the Book of Songs, the first collection of poems of ancient China. After Mencius greeted him, the King asked, “My distinguished master, do men of virtue and knowledge like you also spend time viewing such beautiful animals and sceneries?” Two palace maids accompanying the King laughed quietly with their heads bent low, having perceived an overtone in the King’s words.
To their surprise, Mencius appeared to not have caught what Liang Hui had implied. Instead, he bowed to the King and replied, “Your Lord, it is because we are of virtue and knowledge, we may enjoy such rare beauty. If men do not possess virtue or knowledge but only pretty gardens and animals, they won’t find anything pleasing from them anyway.” Surprised as Liang Hui was, he knew that Mencius’ words held weight. So he responded by giving his full attention to what the latter had to say.
“Your Lord, when Emperor Wen of the Western Zhou Dynasty made a plan for building the Garden Terrace in his palace, he dedicated himself to the project and had all his people work for him. They were happy to work, and the building was completed within a few days. One day, Emperor Wen took a walk in the garden and saw a female deer crouching in the grass. The deer was strong and healthy. The birds around it were also healthy and beautiful. He then visited the pond at the Terrace and was glad to observe that the fish in it looked as good as the other animals. The terrace and the pond were renamed with the word "?" which means “intelligence of the soul”, and the people were pleased to see the many rare and precious plants and animals in the garden. Emperor Wen shared his joy with his people, so he could enjoy their happiness also.
“On the contrary, according to another ancient record, Emperor Tang of the Western Zhou Dynasty made an oath before he rebelled against Emperor Jie of Xia Dynasty. At that time Jie compared himself to the sun, yet his people were crying out, ‘When on earth shalt thou die! As we would rather die with thee!’ People hated him so much that they would rather die than live under the cruel Emperor. Jie also had a magnificent terrace and many rare animals but could he really enjoy them?” Hearing the eloquent words of Mencius, King Liang Hui was ashamed and a little shaken. The ruler found this feeling unexpected since he had previously attempted to embarrass Mencius. And Mencius, appearing slow-witted, had given the king another lesson.
People often say that a man of great wisdom usually appears slow-witted. Could any other story be more convincing than this?
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