Mengzi and the State

All three of the Confucian philosophiers we are discussing this week, Kongzi, Mengzi, and Xunzi have plenty to say about how to rule, but if we are imagining how thinkers in recent times might want to deploy these classic writings to the ends of political reform I find that Mengzi stands out in articulating political sensibilities that might well fit into contemporary policy discussion. Let us examine just three examples of this, one which we might relate to environmental issues, one to the responsibilities of the state in crisis, and the third an argument which might well be discussed in the context of examining the structural origins of crime in society.

“If one does not disrupt the farming seasons with building projects, but only waits until after the crops have been harvested, the grain will be inexhaustible. If overly fine nets are not used in the ponds, so that sufficient fish and turtles are left to reproduce, they will be inexhaustible. If people bring their axes into the mountain forests only in the proper season, the wood will be inexhaustible.” 1A3.31

Here we see encapsulated a Confucian resource management policy. Clearly, the fruits of nature are there at the disposal of human societies, but their management is not merely a matter of quantities: it is a matter of timing (in the case of grain or logging) or of methods and tools (the nets used in fishing).

“No one knows to limit how much of the food is consumed by dogs and sows. Then no one knows to disburse food from the granary when there are bodies in the street dead of starvation. When someone dies, You say, It wasn’t me. It was due to the harvest.’ How is this different from killing someone by stabbing him and saying, ‘It wasn’t me. It was due to the weapon’? If Your Majesty does not blame the harvest, then the people of the world will come to You.”  1A3.52

Here Mengzi offers a clear statement of about state responsibilities: they should not blame the vicissitudes of nature for their own insufficient policies. The claim is stronger yet: for Mengzi is implying these policies should not merely be seen as indirect responsibility, but the direct responsibility of the one who wields the knife.

“This is the Way of the people: those who have a constant livelihood have a constant heart; those who lack a constant livelihood lack a constant heart. No one who fails to have a constant heart will avoid dissipation and evil. When they thereupon sink into crime, to go and punish them is to trap the people. When there are benevolent people in positions of authority, how is it possible for them to trap the people?”  3A3.3 3

Finally, in this quote we see Mengzi’s view that what differentiates the moral conduct of the people in society is, as he puts it in 6A7.1,  “the richness of the soil and to unevenness in the rain and in human effort” that composes their environment, rather than inherent differences. If we were to think of this as it might be deployed in a more recent debates over crime and society, Mengzi’s sympathies, presumably, would lie with those who emphasise the structural origins of criminal behavior such as poverty or lack of education. A state which places greater emphasis on a highly punitive legal system is failing to understand the problem.

  1. These quotes from Bryan W. Van Norden trans. Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries Hackett, 2008.  1A3.3 []
  2. Ibid., 1A3.5 []
  3. Ibid., 3A3.3. See also 6A7.1 for his barley example. []


Welcome to the student blog of MO3354. This module on the intellectual history of late modern East Asia explores the ways social, political and religious movements, as well as the evolving ideas of key individuals in Korea, Japan, and China hoped to transform or reimagine the social and political order of their times Literary and visual sources as well as philosophical or religious texts, debates, and the political tracts of various movements will be at the core of the module and offer opportunities to explore the multiplicity of inspirations and dynamic nature of the intellectual history of the region that challenges some common depictions of the relationship between tradition and modernity, as well as assumptions about the simplistic adaptation of Western ideologies in East Asian history.

The postings found here are authored by students during the semester and will offer their reflections on assigned and further reading.1

  1. Students will not be using their real names []