Meng Zhi: On Government*

Meng Zhi, known to the west as Mencius, was a Chinese philosopher of the fourth century B.C., whose influence on his intellectual tradition is roughly equivalent to the joint influence of St. Paul and Aristotle on Western thought. Better known to English speakers by the Latinization of his name, “Mencius,” Mengzi thought of himself as merely defending the teachings of Confucius against rival philosophical doctrines, especially the “egoism” of Yang Zhu and the universalistic consequentialism of Mozi. However, Mengzi was actually a very original thinker, whose doctrine of the goodness of human nature went far beyond anything Confucius had said. Long after his death, Mengzi’s interpretation of Confucianism became orthodoxy, meaning that generations of Chinese intellectuals literally memorized his work.

On Government

Mencius had an audience with King Hui of Liang. The king said, “Sir, you did not consider a thousand li too far to come You must have some ideas about how to benefit my state.” Mencius replied, “Why must Your Majesty use the word ‘benefit” All I am concerned with are the benevolent and the right. If Your Majesty says, ‘How can I benefit my state?’ your officials will say, ‘How can I benefit my family,’ and officers and common people will say, ‘How can I benefit myself.’ Once superiors and inferiors are cornpeting for benefit, the state will be in danger. When the head of a state of ten thousand chariots is murdered, the assassin is invariably a noble with a fief of a thousand chariots, When the head of a fief of a thousand chariots is murdered, the assassin is invariably head of a subfief of a hundred chariots. Those with a thousand out of ten thousand, or a hundred out of a thousand, had quite a bit. But when benefit is put before what is right, they are not satisfied without snatching it all. By contrast there has never been a benevolent person who neglected his parents or a righteous person who put his lord last. Your Majesty perhaps will now also say, ‘All I am concerned with are the benevolent and the right. Why mention ‘benefit?’ ”

After seeing King Xiang of Liang, Mencius to someone, “When I saw him from a distance he did not look like a ruler, and when I got closer, I saw nothing to command respect. But he asked ‘How can the realm be settled?’ I answered, ‘It can be settled through unity.’ ‘Who can unify it?’ he asked. I answered, ‘Someone not fond of killing people.’ ‘Who could give it to him?’ I answered ‘Everyone in the world will give it to him. Your .Majesty knows what rice plants are? If therere is a drought in the seventh and eighth months, the plants wither, but if moisture collects in the sky and forms clouds and rain falls in torrents, plants suddenly revive. This is the way it is; no one can stop the process. In the world today there are no rulers disinclined toward killing. If there were a ruler who did not like to kill people, everyone in the world would crane their necks to catch sight of him. This is really true. The people would flow toward him the way water flows down. No one would be able to repress them.’ ”

King Xuan of Qi asked, “Is it true that King Wen’s park was seventy li square’,” Mencius answered, “That is what the records say.” The King said, “Isn’t that large?” Mencius responded, ‘The people considered it small.” “Why then do the people consider my park large when it is forty li square?” “In the forty square li of King Wen’s park, people could collect firewood and catch birds and rabbits. Since he shared it with the people, isn’t it fitting that they considered it small? When I arrived at the border, I asked about the main rules of the state before daring to enter. I learned that there was a forty-li park within the outskirts of the capital where killing a deer was punished like killing a person. Thus these forty li are a trap in the center of the state. Isn’t it apprpriiate that the people consider it too large?”

After an incident between Zou and Lu, Duke Mu asked, “Thirty-three of my officials died but no common people died. I could punish them, but I could not punish them all. I could refrain from punishing them but they did angrily watch their superiors die without saving them. What would be the best course for me to follow?” Mencius answered, “When the harvest failed, even though your granaries were full, nearly a thousand of your subjects were lost — the old and weak among them dying in the gutters, the able — bodied scatter ing in all directions. Your officials never reported the situation, a case of superiors callously inflicting suffering on their subordinates. Zengzi said, ‘Watch out, watch out! What you do will be done to you.’ This was the first chance the people had to pay them back. You should not resent them. If Your Highness practices benevolent government, the common people will love their superiors and die for those in charge of them.”

King Xuan of Qi asked, “Is it true that Tang banished Jie and King Wu took up arms against Zhou?” Mencius replied, “That is what the records say.” “Then is it permissible for a subject to assassinate his lord?” Mencius said, ”Someone who does violence to the good we call a villain; someone who does violence to the right we call a criminal. A person who is both a villain and a criminal we call a scoundrel I have heard that the scoundrel Zhou was killed, but have not heard that a lord was killed

King Xuan of Qi asked about ministers Mencius said, ”What sort of ministers does Your Majesty mean?” The king said ‘ Are there different kinds of ministers?” “There are. There are noble ministers related to the ruler and ministers of other surnames.” The king said, “I’d like to hear about noble ministers.” Mencius replied, “When the ruler makes a major error, they point it out. If he does not listen to their repeated remonstrations, then they put someone else on the throne.” The king blanched. Mencius continued, “Your Majesty should not be surprised at this. Since you asked me, I had to tell you truthfully.” After the king regained his composure, he asked about unrelated ministers. Mencius said, “When the king makes an error, they point it out. If he does not heed their repeated rernonstrations, they quit their posts.”

Bo Gui said, “I’d like a tax of one part in twenty What do you think?” Mencius said, “Your way is that of the northern tribes. Is one potter enough for a state with ten thousand households?” “No, there would not be enough wares.” The northern tribes do not grow all the five grains, only millet They have no cities or houses, no ritual sacrifices. They do not provide gifts or banquets for feudal lords, and do not have a full array of officials. Therefore, for them, one part in twenty is enough But we live in the central states How could we abolish social roles and do without gentlemen? If a state cannot do without potters, how much less can it do without gentlemen Those who want to make government lighter than it was under Yao and Shun are to some degree barbarians Those who wish to make government heavier than it was under Yao and Shun are to some degree [tyrants like] Jie.”

*from “China Confucius”,

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