Mencius Biography

(Philosopher)

Born: 372 BC

Born In: Zoucheng, China

Mencius was a Chinese philosopher and noted exponent of the Confucian School of Philosophy, active during the Warring States Period. Born as MèngKē and revered in Eastern Asia as Meng-tzu or Master Meng, his name Mencius has been Latinized by the seventeenth century Jesuit priests from Men-tzu. All his adult life, he traveled from place to place, searching for a ruler with high moral quality, who would turn his teachings into practice and unify the country. Firm in his belief that human nature is naturally righteous and a state that looks after citizens’ interest rather than hegemony over others would flourish naturally, he urged the feudal lords to work for the benefit of their subjects. However, his mission failed to succeed and once he realized that he retired from political life. He spent his last years, teaching selected disciples, developing an innovative approach to the understanding of politics, self-cultivation, and human nature and thus intensely influencing the course of East Asian culture.

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Quick Facts

Also Known As: Meng Ke, Mengzi

Died At Age: 83

Family:

father: Meng Ji

mother: Zhǎng

Born Country: China

Quotes By Mencius Philosophers

Died on: 289 BC

place of death: Zoucheng, Shandong, China

Childhood & Early Years

Mencius was born as MèngKē, alternatively Meng K’o, in 372 BC in Zou (Tsou), a minor state located near Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius. Currently, the area falls under the Chinese province of Shandong.

While some believe that he was born into a poor family, others claim that he belonged to the Meng-sun clan, one of the three ruling families of the area. However, little is known about his early life except that his father, Meng Ji, died when he was three years old.

After his father’s death, he was raised by his mother, Meng Mu or Zhǎng. Revered in the Chinese culture as a wise woman and a loving mother; she has been immortalized by the Chinese idiom, Mencius's mother moves thrice (Mencius's mother moves three times), which refers to the importance of environment in raising a child.

According to the legend, when Mencius was small, he lived with his mother near a cemetery, playing around the graves, pretending to build tombs, watching people who came to bury their dead. But when his mother found him imitating the paid mourners, she decided to move.

She next took a house near a market. There too little Mencius continued with his observation, imitating the traders in his play, mimicking the sounds from the nearby slaughterhouse. Watching him, his mother once again decided to move and set up her new home next to a school.

In time Mencius started attending schools, where he studied Six Arts, which possibly mean six canonical texts such as Odes, Rites, Poetry, Documents, Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Book of Changes. However, Six Arts could also mean six secular subjexts like ritual, music, archery, chariot-driving, writing and mathematics.

Like all little children, Mencius sometimes played truant and neglected his studies, which invited a strange response from his mother. Meng Mu was weaving a cloth and to teach him a lesson, she took up a pair of scissors and cut the cloth in half right in front of his eyes.

Explaining her act, she said that one studies to broaden his knowledge base and to earn respect. But if he neglects it now, it would not bear fruit; but would be lost forever, just like the cloth she had been weaving and he would be forced to lead a lowly existence.

Realizing his folly, Mencius began to concentrate on his studies. Although little is known about this period, it is generally believed that he studied under Confucius's grandson Tzu-ssu (481–402). However, the dates suggest that he could not have done that. 

It is more likely that he studied in a school established by Tzu-ssu in the Lu area and was taught by his student, Shi Shuo. There he received instruction in the standard Confucian texts like Book of Odes (Shih ching) and Book of Documents (Shu ching).

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A Wondering Sage

Many scholars believe that Mencius began teaching in his hometown Tsou, where he quickly established himself as a respected teacher. However, no historical record has been found about him until he moved to Qi, also known as Ch'I.

It is most likely that he arrived in Qi as early as in 335 BC, remaining there possibly till 324 BC. Thereafter, he traveled south. It is not known for sure if he held any governmental position in Qi; but some believe that he did.

It is said that while he was leaving Qi, the Emperor offered him 100 yi in pure gold. As he did not need the money, he refused it, holding that giving a gift without any reason was similar to giving bribes.

On leaving Qi in 324, he traveled south to the states of Sung/Sung and Hsüeh, offering counsel to the kings and princes to rule justly and be virtuous in their personal conduct. Over the time, he gathered a large number of disciples around him, many of whom were feudal lords.

When it was time to leave the area, he was offered 70 yi by the ruler of Sung and 50yi by the ruler of Hsüeh. This time, he accepted the gifts as he needed money not only for traveling, but also to buy weapons.

From Sung, Mencius traveled southwards, finally arriving in his home state of Tsou. Once there, he was invited by the Duke Wen of T'eng to serve as an advisor at his court. There he had long discourses with the duke on statecraft and also on the funeral of his father.

Very soon, the Duke's other advisors detested his influence on their master and therefore he had to leave T'eng, traveling next to Liang, the capital of Wei. Here he was welcomed by the aged King Hui (344-319), with whom he had numerous discourses.

In 318 BC, as King Xiang succeeded his father as the King of Wei, Mencius decided to leave, possibly because the new ruler lacked kingly virtues. He next moved to Qi, at that time ruled by King Hsüan.

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In Qi (Ch'I)

In Qi, he served as a scholar at the Jixia Academy, also known as the Academy of the Gate of Chi, with distinction. It was one of the foremost academies of that time, where scholars from all over China came to study and teach, enabling Mencius to interact with them.

He also received an honorary position in the government of Qi and offered advices to the young king, trying to mould him into a good king. But, here too he faced difficulty. While King Hsüan was more interested in the practical aspects of governance, his views were more idealistic.

One day, the king asked him about early Chinese rulers, who were successful in establishing authority over other states. At this Mencius became angry and said that the Confucian school was never interested in such things and proceeded to advise him on to what he termed true kingship, drawing examples from antiquity.

Very soon, differences began to crop up between him and the king. In 315 BC, before attacking the state of Yen, King Hsüan asked Mencius for advice. Although the latter had a reservation about the outcome of the action, he did not reply directly; but gave an evasive answer.

The king constructed it as its approval and sent out his soldiers. Although Mencius was disturbed that the king could not properly understand his advice, he continued stay there. He was however proven right when in 312 BC Yen successfully expelled King KingHsüan' soldiers.

Death of his mother was another important incidence of this period. She died sometime between 318 and 312 BC and on hearing the news he returned to Lu, where he undertook an elaborate and expensive funeral ceremony. He also observed mourning for three years, as was prescribed those days. 

By and by, Mencius could see that the King hardly ever consulted him and his policies too were contrary to his teachings. Disgusted, he soon decided to leave and returned to his hometown, Tsou, where he spent rest of his life, surrounded by few of disciples, continuing to study the teachings of Confucius.

Major Work

Mencius is best known for his eponymous book, Mencius or Mèngzǐ.  Considered as one of the Chinese Thirteen Classics, the book is a collection of conversations, anecdotes, and interviews (both genuine and imagined), through which his views on moral as well as political philosophy can be understood.

The book also documents his travels throughout ancient China, thus providing more or less an authentic description of his life. However, many scholars believe that he himself did not write the book. According to them, it was written by his disciples in late fourth century BC.

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Personal Life & Legacy

Although it is not known if Mencius had any children, it is most likely that he had got married and his wife was named Tian. There is an interesting story concerning her.

One day he went into his personal quarter to find his wife lying in an inappropriate posture. Enraged, he ordered her to leave. But at that point his mother came in to tell him that he was at fault because he entered the room unannounced.

There is confusion about the year of his death. While most scholars believe that he died in 289 BC, others believe that he passed away in 305 BC.  His cemetery is located 12 km to the northeast of Zoucheng's central urban area.

See the events in life of Mencius in Chronological Order

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