THE FOUR BOOKS—MENCIUS - The Feudal Period(B.C. 600-200)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Feudal Period(B.C. 600-200)

No Chinaman thinks of entering upon a study of the Five Classics until he has mastered and committed to memory a shorter and simpler course known as The Four Books.

The first of these, as generally arranged for students, is the Lun Yü or Analects, a work in twenty short chapters or books, retailing the views of Confucius on a variety of subjects, and expressed so far as possible in the very words of the Master. It tells us nearly all we really know about the Sage, and may possibly have been put together within a hundred years of his death. From its pages we seem to gather some idea, a mere silhouette perhaps, of the great moralist whose mission on earth was to teach duty towards one's neighbour to his fellow-men, and who formulated the Golden Rule: "What you would not others should do unto you, do not unto them!"

It has been urged by many, who should know better, that the negative form of this maxim is unfit to rank with the positive form as given to us by Christ. But of course the two are logically identical, as may be shown by the simple insertion of the word "abstain;" that is, you would not that others should abstain from certain actions in regard to yourself, which practically conveys the positive injunction.

When a disciple asked Confucius to explain charity of heart, he replied simply, "Love one another." When, however, he was asked concerning the principle that good should be returned for evil, as already enunciated by Lao Tzŭ (see ch. iv.), he replied, "What then will you return for good? No: return good for good; for evil, justice."

He was never tired of emphasising the beauty and necessity of truth: "A man without truthfulness! I know not how that can be."

"Let loyalty and truth be paramount with you."

"In mourning, it is better to be sincere than punctilious."

"Man is born to be upright. If he be not so, and yet live, he is lucky to have escaped."

"Riches and honours are what men desire; yet except in accordance with right these may not be enjoyed."

Confucius undoubtedly believed in a Power, unseen and eternal, whom he vaguely addressed as Heaven: "He who has offended against Heaven has none to whom he can pray." "I do not murmur against Heaven," and so on. His greatest commentator, however, Chu Hsi, has explained that by "Heaven" is meant "Abstract Right," and that interpretation is accepted by Confucianists at the present day. At the same time, Confucius strongly objected to discuss the supernatural, and suggested that our duties are towards the living rather than towards the dead.

He laid the greatest stress upon filial piety, and taught that man is absolutely pure at birth, and afterwards becomes depraved only because of his environment.

Chapter x. of the Lun Yü gives some singular details of the every-day life and habits of the Sage, calculated to provoke a smile among those with whom reverence for Confucius has not been a first principle from the cradle upwards, but received with loving gravity by the Chinese people at large. The following are extracts (Legge's translation) from this famous chapter:—

"Confucius, in his village, looked simple and sincere, and as if he were not able to speak. When he was in the prince's ancestral temple or in the court, he spoke minutely on every point, but cautiously.

"When he entered the palace gate, he seemed to bend his body, as if it were not sufficient to admit him.

"He ascended the dais, holding up his robe with both his hands and his body bent; holding in his breath also, as if he dared not breathe.

"When he was carrying the sceptre of his prince, he seemed to bend his body as if he were not able to bear its weight.

"He did not use a deep purple or a puce colour in the ornaments of his dress. Even in his undress he did not wear anything of a red or reddish colour.

"He required his sleeping dress to be half as long again as his body.

"He did not eat rice which had been injured by heat or damp and turned sour, nor fish or flesh which was gone. He did not eat what was discoloured, or what was of a bad flavour, nor anything which was not in season. He did not eat meat which was not cut properly, nor what was served without its proper sauce.

"He was never without ginger when he ate. He did not eat much.

"When eating, he did not converse. When in bed, he did not speak.

"Although his food might be coarse rice and vegetable soup, he would offer a little of it in sacrifice with a grave respectful air.

"If his mat was not straight, he did not sit on it.

"The stable being burned down when he was at Court, on his return he said, 'Has any man been hurt?' He did not ask about the horses.

"When a friend sent him a present, though it might be a carriage and horses, he did not bow. The only present for which he bowed was that of the flesh of sacrifice.

"In bed, he did not lie like a corpse. At home, he did not put on any formal deportment.

"When he saw any one in a mourning dress, though it might be an acquaintance, he would change countenance; when he saw any one wearing the cap of full dress, or a blind person, though he might be in his undress, he would salute them in a ceremonious manner.

"When he was at an entertainment where there was an abundance of provisions set before him, he would change countenance and rise up. On a sudden clap of thunder or a violent wind, he would change countenance."

Next in educational order follows the work briefly known as MENCIUS. This consists of seven books recording the sayings and doings of a man to whose genius and devotion may be traced the final triumph of Confucianism. Born in B.C. 372, a little over a hundred years after the death of the Master, Mencius was brought up under the care of his widowed mother, whose name is a household word even at the present day. As a child he lived with her at first near a cemetery, the result being that he began to reproduce in play the solemn scenes which were constantly enacted before his eyes. His mother accordingly removed to another house near the market-place, and before long the little boy forgot all about funerals and played at buying and selling goods. Once more his mother disapproved, and once more she changed her dwelling; this time to a house near a college, where he soon began to imitate the ceremonial observances in which the students were instructed, to the great joy and satisfaction of his mother.

Later on he studied under K'ung Chi, the grandson of Confucius; and after having attained to a perfect apprehension of the roms or Way of Confucius, became, at the age of about forty-five, Minister under Prince Hsüan of the Ch'i State. But the latter would not carry out his principles, and Mencius threw up his post. Thence he wandered away to several States, advising their rulers to the best of his ability, but making no very prolonged stay. He then visited Prince Hui of the Liang State, and abode there until the monarch's death in B.C. 319. After that event he returned to the State of Ch'i and resumed his old position. In B.C. 311 he once more felt himself constrained to resign office, and retired finally into private life, occupying himself during the remainder of his days in teaching and in preparing the philosophical record which now passes under his name. He lived at a time when the feudal princes were squabbling over the rival systems of federation and imperialism, and he vainly tried to put into practice at an epoch of blood and iron the gentle virtues of the Golden Age. His criterion was that of Confucius, but his teachings were on a lower plane, dealing rather with man's well-being from the point of view of political economy. He was therefore justly named by Chao Ch'i the Second Holy One or Prophet, a title under which he is still known. He was an uncompromising defender of the doctrines of Confucius, and he is considered to have effectually "snuffed out" the heterodox schools of Yang Chu and Mo Ti.

The following is a specimen of the logomachy of the day, in which Mencius is supposed to have excelled. The subject is a favourite one—human nature:—

"Kao Tzŭ said, 'Human nature may be compared with a block of wood; duty towards one's neighbour, with a wooden bowl. To develop charity and duty towards one's neighbour out of human nature is like making a bowl out of a block of wood.'

"To this Mencius replied, 'Can you, without interfering with the natural constitution of the wood, make out of it a bowl? Surely you must do violence to that constitution in the process of making your bowl. And by parity of reasoning you would do violence to human nature in the process of developing charity and duty towards one's neighbour. From which it follows that all men would come to regard these rather as evils than otherwise.'

"Kao Tzŭ said, 'Human nature is like rushing water, which flows east or west according as an outlet is made for it. For human nature makes indifferently for good or for evil, precisely as water makes indifferently for the east or for the west.'

"Mencius replied, 'Water will indeed flow indifferently towards the east or west; but will it flow indifferently up or down? It will not; and the tendency of human nature towards good is like the tendency of water to flow down. Every man has this bias towards good, just as all water flows naturally downwards. By splashing water, you may indeed cause it to fly over your head; and by turning its course you may keep it for use on the hillside; but you would hardly speak of such results as the nature of water. They are the results, of course, of a force majeure. And so it is when the nature of man is diverted towards evil.'

"Kao Tzŭ said, 'That which comes with life is nature.'

"Mencius replied, 'Do you mean that there is such a thing as nature in the abstract, just as there is whiteness in the abstract?'

"'I do,' answered Kao Tzŭ.

'"Just, for instance,' continued Mencius, 'as the whiteness of a feather is the same as the whiteness of snow, or the whiteness of snow as the whiteness of jade?'

"'I do,' answered Kao Tzŭ again.

"'In that case,' retorted Mencius, 'the nature of a dog is the same as that of an ox, and the nature of an ox the same as that of a man.'

"Kao Tzŭ said, 'Eating and reproduction of the species are natural instincts. Charity is subjective and innate; duty towards one's neighbour is objective and acquired. For instance, there is a man who is my senior, and I defer to him as such. Not because any abstract principle of seniority exists subjectively in me, but in the same way that if I see an albino, I recognise him as a white man because he is so objectively to me. Consequently, I say that duty towards one's neighbour is objective or acquired.'

"Mencius replied, 'The cases are not analogous. The whiteness of a white horse is undoubtedly the same as the whiteness of a white man; but the seniority of a horse is not the same as the seniority of a man. Does our duty to our senior begin and end with the fact of his seniority? Or does it not rather consist in the necessity of deferring to him as such?'

"Kao Tzŭ said, 'I love my own brother, but I do not love another man's brother. The distinction arises from within myself; therefore I call it subjective or innate. But I defer to a stranger who is my senior, just as I defer to a senior among my own people. The distinction comes to me from without; therefore I call it objective or acquired."

"Mencius retorted, 'We enjoy food cooked by strangers just as much as food cooked by our own people. Yet extension of your principle lands us in the conclusion that our appreciation of cooked food is also objective and acquired.'"

The following is a well-known colloquy between Mencius and a sophist of the day who tried to entangle the former in his talk:—

The sophist inquired, saying, "'Is it a rule of social etiquette that when men and women pass things from one to another they shall not allow their hands to touch?'

'"That is the rule,' replied Mencius.

'"Now suppose,' continued the sophist, 'that a man's sister-in-law were drowning, could he take hold of her hand and save her?'

'"Any one who did not do so,' said Mencius, 'would have the heart of a wolf. That men and women when passing things from one to another may not let their hands touch is a rule for general application. To save a drowning sister-in-law by taking hold of her hand is altogether an exceptional case.'"

The works of Mencius abound, like the Confucian Analects, in sententious utterances. The following examples illustrate his general bias in politics:—"The people are of the highest importance; the gods come second; the sovereign is of lesser weight."

"Chieh and Chou lost the empire because they lost the people, which means that they lost the confidence of the people. The way to gain the people is to gain their confidence, and the way to do that is to provide them with what they like and not with what they loathe."

This is how Mencius snuffed out the two heterodox philosophers mentioned above:—

"The systems of Yang Chu and Mo Ti fill the whole empire. If a man is not a disciple of the former, he is a disciple of the latter. But Yang Chu's egoism excludes the claim of a sovereign, while Mo Ti's universal altruism leaves out the claim of a father. And he who recognises the claim of neither sovereign nor father is a brute beast."

Yang Chu seems to have carried his egoism so far that even to benefit the whole world he would not have parted with a single hair from his body.

"The men of old knew that with life they had come but for a while, and that with death they would shortly depart again. Therefore they followed the desires of their own hearts, and did not deny themselves pleasures to which they felt naturally inclined. Fame tempted them not; but led by their instincts alone, they took such enjoyments as lay in their path, not seeking for a name beyond the grave. They were thus out of the reach of censure; while as for precedence among men, or length or shortness of life, these gave them no concern whatever."

Mo Ti, on the other hand, showed that under the altruistic system all calamities which men bring upon one another would altogether disappear, and that the peace and happiness of the Golden Age would be renewed.

In the Ta Hsüeh, or Great Learning, which forms Sect. xxxix. of the Book of Rites, and really means learning for adults, we have a short politico-ethical treatise, the authorship of which is unknown, but is usually attributed partly to Confucius, and partly to TSÊNG TS'AN, one of the most famous of his disciples. In the former portion there occurs the following well-known climax:—

"The men of old, in their desire to manifest great virtue throughout the empire, began with good government in the various States. To achieve this, it was necessary first to order aright their own families, which in turn was preceded by cultivation of their own selves, and that again by rectification of the heart, following upon sincerity of purpose which comes from extension of knowledge, this last being derived from due investigation of objective existences."

One more short treatise, known as the Chung Yung, which forms Ch. xxviii. of the Book of Rites, brings us to the end of the Four Books. Its title has been translated in various ways.1 Julien rendered the term by "L'Invariable Milieu," Legge by "The Doctrine of the Mean." Its authorship is assigned to K'UNG CHI, grandson of Confucius. He seems to have done little more than enlarge upon certain general principles of his grandfather in relation to the nature of man and right conduct upon earth. He seizes the occasion to pronounce an impassioned eulogium upon Confucius, concluding with the following words:—

"Therefore his fame overflows the Middle Kingdom, and reaches the barbarians of north and south. Wherever ships and waggons can go, or the strength of man penetrate; wherever there is heaven above and earth below; wherever the sun and moon shed their light, or frosts and dews fall,—all who have blood and breath honour and love him. Wherefore it may be said that he is the peer of God."


1 Chung means "middle," and Yung means "course," the former being defined by the Chinese as "that which is without deflection or bias," the latter as "that which never varies in its direction."