Comments and Corrections to D.C. Lau's Mencius
(Version of June 26, 1997)

This version of "Comments and Corrections," based upon the research of P.J. Ivanhoe, David S. Nivison and Bryan W. Van Norden, was compiled by Van Norden (who is, therefore, solely responsible for all errors). Comments and corrections to these comments and corrections are welcome, but please do not cite this without obtaining permission.

D.C. Lau's Mencius (New York: Penguin Books, 1970) was a major achievement by a brilliant translator and comparative philosopher. Nonetheless, scholarship has advanced considerably since Lau's translation. "Comments and Corrections," which grows out of thousands of hours teaching Mencius at Stanford and other institutions, is an attempt to correct what we now know to be errors in Lau's translation, and provide students with some guidance on particularly difficult passages. The arguments for various corrections and interpretations have frequently been omitted to save space. (In the future, Van Norden plans to produce a book providing translations and commentary on selected passages from the Mencius, but it is hoped that this will serve until that project is completed.) Comments and corrections to these "Comments and Corrections" are always welcome.

Good general studies of Mencius include

For a general bibliography of Chinese philosophy, see


(p. 49, n. 2): Lau's note is easy to misunderstand. A "little over 400 metres" is the length of one li. The distance Mencius traveled to visit King Hui (1,000 li) is about 400 KILOmeters.


(p. 54): "How virtuous must a man be before he can become a true King?" A more literal translation would be, "What must one's Virtue (te) be like so that one can become a [true] King?"

"He becomes a true King by bringing peace to the people." This should be, "Once cares for the people and becomes a king." The word pao is mistranslated throughout 1A7 as "to bring peace." Pao is both an emotional state (to care for) and a kind of behavior (to take care of). (Notice that in 2A6 (p. 83) Lau renders pao as "take under his protection.")

"The King was sitting in the upper part of the hall, and someone led an ox through the lower part." An odd translation, implying that livestock is led through the King's palace. The translation should be, "The King was sitting up in his pavilion, and someone led an ox past below." The hall (t'ang) is actually a raised platform with a canopy over it, so that the King, sitting up in it, is high above the level of the courtyard below, which is where the ox is. Many copies of the paperback edition of Lau's Mencius have a picture on the cover of a t'ang similar to the one King Hsuan would have been in.

The general point of the ox incident is that King Hsuan is capable of being compassionate. We know that he is capable because he has actually shown compassion toward the ox. What is necessary now is that the King recognize his own capacity for compassion, and then exercise that capacity on the suffering of his own people.

(p. 56): "What made you think that my heart accorded with the way of a true King?" Literally, "In what way does this heart (tz'u hsin) accord with being a [true] King?" The phrase "this heart" means this feeling (which was manifested in the King's sparing of the ox) or this disposition (to have such feelings of compassion). The word hsin is used in a similar way in 2A6. Later, in Neo-Confucianism, tz'u hsin is taken to be a reference to the one moral hsin that all humans share (see P.J. Ivanhoe, Ethics in the Confucian Tradition (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990)).

"Hence your failure to become a true King is due to a refusal to act, not to an inability to act." Literally, "Hence, Your Majesty's not being a [true] King is due to not acting; it is not due to not being able." To speak of "refusal" is to employ the language of conscious choice. The text of 1A7, in contrast, leaves open the possibility that the King's problem is not obstinacy but just moral inertia (perhaps acedia), reinforced by his (false) belief that he simply can't be virtuous. (On the notion of acedia, see the references to "apathy, spiritual" in the index to Lee Yearley, Mencius and Aquinas (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990).)

(p. 57): "Hence one who extends his bounty can bring peace to the Four Seas; one who does not cannot bring peace even to his own family." "Bounty" is a translation of en, which Lau renders (correctly) as "kindness" on p. 56. A more literal translation would be, "Hence, if one extends one's kindness, it will be sufficient to care for [all within] the Four Seas. If one does not extend one's kindness, one will lack the wherewithal to care for one's wife and children." Mencius believes, then, that we have control over our emotions. We can train them (over time, through gradual self-cultivation) to extend to new objects (cf. 7B31). Apparently, Mencius thought adults were more capable of shaping their emotions than did either Aristotle or Kant.

(General): Good secondary sources to consult on 1A7 include:


(p. 76) "Meng Shih-she resembled Tseng Tzu while Po-kung Yu resembled Tzu-hsia." One point to keep in mind here is that Mencius's teacher was either Tzu-ssu or a disciple of Tzu-ssu, and Tzu-ssu (in addition to being Confucius's grandson) was a disciple of Tseng Tzu. So Mencius is in the spiritual line of descent from Tseng Tzu. Tzu-hsia founded a competing Confucian sect. Tseng Tzu and Tzu-hsia represent two extremes within the Confucian movement. Tseng Tzu was apparently not intellectually acute (Analects 11:18), but seemed to have a strong emotional commitment to the Way (Analects 8:3, 4, 7). Tzu-hsia was clever (Analects 3:8) and learned (Analects 11:2), but he was accused of emphasizing insignificant details over matters of substance (Analects 19:12), and Confucius found it necessary to warn him, "Be a noble scholar. Do not be a petty scholar." (Analects 6:13) Po-kung Yu is similar to Tzu-hsia, then, in that both emphasize something superficial. Tzu-hsia overemphasizes the outward form and insignificant details of ritual practice, while Po-kung Yu overemphasizes popularly "courageous" behavior. Meng Shih-she, in contrast, is similar to Tseng Tzu in recognizing that real virtue has to do not just with how one acts but with one's emotional state. As Mencius goes on to explain, though, Tseng-Tzu's courage is, ultimately, superior to both the "courage" of Po-kung Yu and that of Meng Shih-she, because he recognizes that real courage requires, not fearlessness, but the wisdom to know what is, and what is not to be feared.

(p.77): What is ch'i (which Lau romanizes in this passage but translates as "air" in 6A8 and 7A36)? Ch'i was originally the mist that rose from heated sacrifices to the spirits. Later, ch'i came to refer to mist generally (fog, clouds, etc.). In some philosophic texts (such as this one), ch'i is a fluid, found both in the air and in the human body, which is responsible for the intensity of one's passions and one's morale. In Neo-Confucianism, everything in the universe is thought to be a composite of li (principle) and ch'i, but this metaphysical view did not develop until after the time of Mencius. (See P.J. Ivanhoe, Ethics in the Confucian Tradition (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990).)

"The will, when blocked, moves the ch'i. On the other hand, the ch'i, when blocked, also moves the will." The two difficulties with this sentence are the words rendered "will" (chih) and "blocked" (yi). In the West, the will is treated in various ways, but was originally thought of as some third faculty, which determined the orientation of the faculties of appetition and cognition. This is not what chih is. Chih is most likely not a faculty distinct from the hsin ("heart"), but is simply the hsin, thought of as having some kind of focus or orientation. Consequently, I recommend "intention" as a translation for chih. (For a defense of this view, see B. W. Van Norden, "Mengzi and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency," International Philosophical Quarterly, 32:2 (June 1992).)

Commentators differ on the meaning of the word rendered "blocked." One meaning it can have is "to unify," and that may be its meaning here. In other words, the correct translation might be, "The intention, when unified [i.e., when focused on some goal or object], moves the ch'i. On the other hand, the ch'i, when unified [i.e., when focused on some goal or object], also moves the intention." Mencius is advising us, then, to focus our intention (chih) so that it guides our ch'i, rather than the other way around.

Interestingly, Chuang Tzu inverts Mencius's advice. Compare A. C. Graham's translation of a passage from Book 4 of the Chuang Tzu (Chuang-tzu: Inner Chapters (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1981), p.68) which uses a different character that also means "to unify": "Unify your attention (chih). Rather than listen with the ear, listen with the heart. Rather than listen with the heart, listen with the energies (ch'i)." (Cf. Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, p. 54) Here, Chuang Tzu seems to be telling us to reach beneath the chih so that we can be guided by the ch'i. Presumably, Chuang-tzu thinks the ch'i will be a better guide because it is less individuated than the chih (we merge more with other things when guided by the ch'i), and also because guidance by the ch'i is less self-conscious (more wu wei) than guidance by the heart and chih.

"If you fail to understand words, do not worry about this in your heart; and if you fail to understand in your heart, do not seek satisfaction in your ch'i." This should be, "What you do not get from [moral] doctrines, do not seek for in your heart. What you do not get from your heart, do not seek for in ch'i." Kao Tzu is saying that one should accept and impose on oneself some moral doctrine (yen). One can do this because human nature is malleable, and can be easily shaped to fit any moral doctrine (cf. 6A1 ff.). Mencius argues, in contrast, that what you do not get from doctrines, you must seek for in the innate (but incipient) intuitions of your heart. He agrees with Kao Tzu, though, that the ch'i cannot be relied upon as a source of guidance. (As we saw above, this puts him at odds with Chuang Tzu.)

What is it that one "does not get" from doctrines (yen)? Presumably, doctrines are limited in two ways. (1) One needs the intuitions of the heart (hsin) to tell one how to apply doctrines to concrete cases (as in 4A17, where Mencius tells us to use our own discretion (ch'uan) to realize that we must violate ritual in order to save a drowning sister-in-law). (2) In order to succeed in cultivating oneself, one must contact one's innate, incipient moral inclinations (literally: sprouts, tuan). The effort to bootstrap oneself into being moral by simply adopting a moral doctrine (which is what Kao Tzu is advocating) will fail. This is the point of the story of the "man from Sung" (see below).

(p.78): "Whenever one acts in a way that falls below the standard set in one's heart, it will collapse." There are at least two ways to read this line. (1) The way Lau, Kwong-loi Shun and P.J. Ivanhoe read this line is as follows. Some actions make one's moral sensibility (heart, hsin) uneasy. To perform these actions diminishes one's ch'i. (2) In contrast, Van Norden reads the line as follows. Lau's translation suggest dissatisfaction with one's actions, but it is important to distinguish between being dissatisfied and being unsatisfied. Say I force myself to work in a soup kitchen on the weekends, even though I cannot manage the feelings of genuine benevolence appropriate to these actions. (We might say that I am acting not benevolently, but "benevolently.") Mencius, I think, would describe what is happening by saying that my heart feels unsatisfied (pu ch'ieh), in that I have not contacted or activated the feelings of benevolence that are present, potentially, in my heart. It is not, however, that my heart is dissatisfied, in the sense that my heart opposes my "benevolent" action. Hence, Van Norden prefers the translation, "Whenever one's actions leave one's heart unsatisfied (pu ch'ieh), [the ch'i] will collapse."

"There was a man from Sung who pulled at his rice plants because he was worried about their failure to grow." Miao refers to grain plants, not rice plants.

(General): Good secondary sources to consult on 2A2 include:


(p.83): "The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence...." "Germ" is Lau's unfortunate translation of tuan. Tuan is not a mysterious word in Chinese; it means simply sprout, the first shoot of a plant as it begins to grow. Lau is thinking of "germ" in the sense of "the germ of an idea," but it is easier to just think "sprout" wherever Lau writes "germ."

This might seem like an insignificant point, but a great deal is actually at stake. "Sprout" suggests something active, reactive and fragile. These are precisely the characteristics, according to Mencius, of the incipient beginnings of the virtues that all humans have and must learn to cultivate. None of the other terms that are mistakenly used by translators for tuan (such as germ, spark, beginning, font, etc.) have all the appropriate connotations. Mencius chooses his metaphors carefully, so we should take them seriously.

(General): Good secondary sources to consult on 2A6 include:


(p.105, n.3): According to Lau, the "dual basis" (literally, "two roots," erh pen) is (L1) the denial of gradations of love (i.e., universal love), and (L2) the insistence on the practice of universal love beginning with one's parents. When Mencius claims that Heaven gives things a "single basis, then, he would be referring to some third basis, distinct from either of the bases that Yi Tzu recognizes.

Lau's interpretation is possible, but more elegant is David Nivison's. According to Nivison, the two bases are (N1) the heart of benevolence, which manifests itself in one's spontaneous love for one's parents, and (N2) a principle or doctrine (yen, cf. 2A2) of universalization, which asserts that one ought to extend one's spontaneous benevolent reactions so that one cares for everyone equally. On this reading, there are only two bases total under discussion. Mencius is admitting that Heaven has given us one of these bases (N1), but denies that it has given us the other (N2).

Notice that on Nivison's reading, Yi Tzu's position is a compromise between "Purist" Mohism and Mencianism. Yi Tzu admits that humans begin with spontaneous and (non- universal) benevolent reactions, but recommends a process of re-training these reactions until one comes to feel benevolence toward all humans equally. This is subtly different from Mencius, who agrees that we must extend our feelings of benevolence, but insists that even after extension is completed we will (and ought to) have more concern for our relatives, friends and neighbors than for strangers.

(General): Good secondary sources to consult on 3A5 include:


(p.106): "When you refused even to see them, the feudal lords naturally appeared insignificant to you. Now that you have seen them, they are either kings or, at least, leaders of the feudal lords." This translation makes the immediately following comment of Ch'en Tai about "Bending the foot in order to straighten the yard" a gross non-sequitur. The translation should be, "[Your] not going to wait upon any of the lords seems to be due to a [comparatively] insignificant [matter of] principle. Now, if you were once to wait upon them, at most you would make one of them sovereign, and at the least you would make one of them hegemon."


(p.109): "If Sung, a small state, were to practice Kingly Government and be attacked by Ch'i and Ch'u for doing so...." Why would Ch'i and Ch'u attack Sung for practicing "Kingly government"? One suggestion is that what is actually being asked is this. "Sung is a small state. Now [its ruler] is about to assume the title of 'king.' If Ch'i and Ch'u dislike this and attack it...." In other words, assuming the title of "king" might be taken as a hostile political act, provoking other states to attack. Mencius responds that if the ruler of Sung becomes a true king (instead of merely assuming the title of "king") and treats his people with kindness, he can count on their loyalty in a war.


(p. 122): "There is a way to win their hearts; amass what they want for them; do not impose what they dislike on them" Lau's translation may be correct, but given what Mencius says in 1B1, 2, 4, 5 et al., it is more likely that the correct translation here is, "As for what you like, amass it along with them; as for what you dislike, do not impose it on them." The idea here is to apply the Confucian Golden Rule in government. (Cf. Analects 15:24.)


(p.122): "It is not worth the trouble to talk to a man who has no respect for himself, and it is not worth the trouble to make a common effort with a man who has no confidence in himself." More literal is, "One cannot talk with those who destroy themselves. One cannot do anything [in conjunction] with those who discard themselves."

"The former attacks morality...." There are at least three ways to read this fascinating line. (1) "Those whose doctrines oppose ritual and righteousness are called those who destroy themselves." Mencius generally seems to have an "ignorance interpretation" of evil; people are evil only because they are ignorant of their true nature or the best means to satisfy their desires. If this reading of 4A10 is correct, however, Mencius admits that some people ("those who destroy themselves") manifest willful malice (malitia), they are opposed to the good per se. (2) Another possible reading, though, is "Those whose doctrines do not have to do with ritual and righteousness are called those who destroy themselves." This would mean that some doctrines are simply amoral. They do not discuss ritual and righteousness, but are not necessarily opposed to them. (3) Both of the previous interpretations agree in rendering the word yen as "doctrines." Ivanhoe, however, defends James Legge's translation: "To disown in his conversation propriety and righteousness, is what we mean by doing violence to one's self" (cf. Ethics in the Confucian Tradition, op. cit., p.79). On this interpretation, those who do violence to themselves do not have systematic doctrines that are either amoral or oppose morality. Rather, they simply deny that they themselves have a capacity to manifest virtue. Such people differ from the next group ("those who discard themselves") in that the later admit that they are sporadically capable of virtue, but deny that they can become genuinely (i.e., consistently) virtuous.

"...the latter says, 'I do not think I am capable of abiding by benevolence or of following rightness." More literally, "Those who [say], 'I, myself, am not able to dwell in benevolence and [act] from righteousness' are called those who discard themselves." All three of the above interpretations are consistent with taking those who discard themselves to be those who are victims of akrasia (weakness of will) or acedia (spiritual apathy). Mencius seems to think that one of the principle causes of moral failure is the (false) belief that one is incapable of being virtuous.


(p.123): The Chinese word here translated as "true to himself" (ch'eng) is a technical philosophic term in certain wings of Confucianism Now, consider the following facts. (1) This word occurs with this sense in only two passages in the Mencius: 4A12 and 7A4. (2) 4A12 is found, not attributed to Mencius, in Centrality and Commonality (Chung-yung) and in Sayings of the School (Chia-yu), works of different Confucian schools. (3) The "chain of argument" style of 4A12 is common to other early Confucian texts, but not to the Mencius. (4) 7A4 expresses a view of mystical unity not explicit elsewhere in the Mencius. (5) 7A4 contains the only occurrence in the Mencius of the term shu ("treat others as you would wish to be treated"), which is also a key term for the Confucian school associated with Centrality and Commonality. (6) 7A4 contains the only occurrence in the Mencius of the phrase wan wu ("the ten thousand things"). The phrase wan wu pei ("the ten thousand things are brought to completion") is, however, found in later philosophic texts such as the Chuang-tzu and the Hsun-tzu. Conclusion: 4A12 and 7A4 are interpolations in the Mencius


(p.127): "...the content of the rites is the regulation and adornment of them...." 4A27 is important because it give us Mencius's most detailed statement of the relationship among his cardinal virtues. Interestingly, though, when he comes to li (ritual propriety) he tells us not about that virtue (which would be a kind of disposition) but about a social practice (the ritual acts), for surely it is the ritual acts which "regulate and adorn" benevolence and righteousness. This is important because it is never clear discussion of jen (benevolence) in 2A6, yi (righteousness) in 6A10, and chih (wisdom) here in 4A27. But Mencius never really explains what li is as a virtue.

Incidentally, I suspect that the word rendered "content" (shih) really means something like "core" (here and in 7B31, where Lau mistranslates it as "actual"). Serving one's parents is not the complete content of benevolence, it is just the core of the disposition that, when fully developed, is true benevolence.

"When joy arises how can one stop it?" This is a serious error in translation. The correct translation is, "When one takes joy in them [i.e., benevolence and righteousness] they grow, and when they grow how can they be stopped?" This is a central point in Mencius's philosophic psychology: we are happiest when we act virtuously, and the joy which we feel in so acting strengthens our virtuous dispositions.

(General): Good secondary sources to consult on 4A27 include:


(p.131): "He followed the path of morality. He did not just put morality into practice." Lau's translation is not wrong, but perhaps the following brings out the flavor of the Chinese better: "He acted out of benevolence and righteousness. He didn't [just] act out benevolence and righteousness." The point is that Shun acted out of benevolent and righteous motives. He didn't just feign virtue by going through the motions. Mencius holds that "counterfeits" of virtues will inevitably be detected eventually (cf. 2A3, 7B11). On the notion of "counterfeits" of virtues, see Lee Yearley, Mencius and Aquinas (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990).


(p. 133): This passage was incomprehensible until A.C. Graham cracked the meaning of the technical philosophic terms employed in it. Following Graham, we may translate thus:

"As for what the world in general says about our nature, it is simply appealing to our characteristics at birth. Those who appeal to our characteristics at birth take profit as fundamental.

"What I dislike in clever people [on the other hand] is that they bore their way through. If clever people were like [sage-king] Yu guiding the waters [e.g., building dams, setting up irrigation systems] there would be nothing to dislike in their cleverness. The manner in which Yu guided the waters was by doing that which presented no difficult [e.g., made use of the natural tendency of water to flow downhill]. If clever people likewise guided [people] by doing that which presented no difficulty [i.e., made use of natural human appetites and emotions], then their cleverness would also be something great!

"Although the sky is so high and the stars so distant, if we seek out [their] original condition, we can calculate a solstice a thousand years ahead without rising from our seats."

Now, the first paragraph is an attack on philosophers like Yang Chu, who (mistakenly) take the largely selfish dispositions of the newborn baby as representative of the totality of human capacities. These philosophers err in taking human nature to be more "rigid" and static than it really is. The second paragraph is an attack on philosophers like Mo Tzu, who (mistakenly) disregard the limitations of human nature. These philosophers err in taking human nature to be infinitely malleable.

The relevance of the last paragraph is very unclear, but Graham says the point is that, in determining the solstice, we must neither merely rely on what the date of the solstice has been in the past, nor should we completely ignore the dates of previous solstices (because these help us to estimate the future date). And this is a metaphor for Mencius's own position on how best to determine what human nature is.

(General): Good secondary sources to consult on 4B26 include:


(p.143): "Heaven does not speak but reveals itself through its acts and deeds." Delete the pronoun "its"; there is nothing in the Chinese corresponding to "its." The acts and deeds of the people reveal Heaven's intent; there are not special miracles that reveal what Heaven intends.


(pp.147-148): As is often the case with Mencius, by paying careful attention to the details of a concrete case he discusses we can learn a lot about Mencius' theoretical views. In this passage, the story of Po-li Hsi tells us a great deal about what Mencius thinks about the virtue of chih (wisdom). Po-li Hsi's wisdom manifests itself in three ways. (1) Po-li hsi is wise because he recognizes what is "sordid" (wu): "If at that age he did not know that it was undignified (wu) to secure a chance to speak to Duke Mu of Ch'in through feeding cattle, could he be called wise?" (2) Po-li hsi was wise because he had an insight into the character of others; he knew whether they would accept criticism and advice: "He knew that the ruler of Yu was beyond advice...." "Again, can he be said to be unwise when, after being raised to office in Ch'in, he decided to help Duke Mu, seeing in him a man capable of great achievement?" (3) Po-li Hsi was wise because he knew what the consequences of various courses of actions would be; he understood, in other words, what means to use to achieve virtuous ends: "He certainly was not unwise when he left in advance, knowing the ruler of Yu to be heading for disaster." "When prime minister of Ch'in, he was responsible or the distinction his prince attained in the empire...."


(General): Book 6A is perhaps the most important (and vexing) in the Mencius. Good secondary sources to consult include:


(p.160): The English word "nature" (and its Greek and Latin ancestors physis and natura) is ambiguous between two meanings: (1) The nature of X can be the essence of X: the properties X has to have so long as it is the kind of thing that it is. In this sense, a thing cannot lack its nature (or essence). For example, we might say, "It is the nature of humans to be carbon-based." Any life form that was not organic would simply not be a human being. (2) The nature of X can be the properties that X will have if it is a flourishing instance of its kind. In this sense, X can fail to instantiate its nature. So we might say, "It is natural for humans to use language." A severely-abused child might not learn to use language. We would not say that such a child was not a human being, but we would say that the child's failure to use language was unnatural.

4th-century B.C. Chinese is more precise than English, Greek or Latin in this respect. Hsing (which Lau renders as "nature") only has sense (2) above. Sense (1) above is reserved for ch'ing (see entry on 6A6, below). In the 3rd-century B.C., ch'ing comes to have a different sense and hsing becomes ambiguous between the two senses above (just like "nature," ovoic and natura). (Hsun Tzu notes the ambiguity of hsing at the beginning of his "Essay on Rectifying names.")

"Surely, it will be these words of yours men in the world will follow in bringing disaster upon morality." The actual meaning of this sentence is a little different: "If anything leads the people of the world to reject morality as something bad for them, it surely will be your doctrine!"


(p.161): "The case of rightness is different from that of whiteness. 'Treating as white' is the same whether one is treating a horse as white [14] or a man as white. But I wonder if you would think that 'treating as old' is the same whether one is treating a horse as old or a man as elder?" This is a very difficult bit of text. Note that Lau thinks the text doesn't make sense as it stands and has to be amended (as indicated by his note [14]). D.S. Nivison thinks the text can be made sense of without amendation. He translates it, "[The predicate 'old'] is different from [the predicate] 'white' as in 'white horse,' which in no way differs from 'white' as in 'white man.' But you wouldn't suppose that the 'old' in 'old horse' differs in no way from the 'old' of 'old man,' would you?"

The basic point is this. Philosophers in Mencius's era were very sensitive to the fact that some words change their sense depending upon what words they are in composition with. Thus, while the word "white" has the same meaning whether we are talking about white people, white horses, white jade or whatever, the word "old" (in contrast) has very different connotations depending upon whether we are talking about an old horse (which is worthless because of its age) or an old human (who is to be revered because of his age). (Likewise, in 6A3, "white" is used as an example of a word whose meaning is the same regardless of what word it is in composition with, while "nature" refers to different things depending upon what context it is in: the nature of an ox is not the same as the nature of a human.)


(p.163): "As far as what is genuinely in him is concerned, a man is capable of becoming good." Literally, "As for one's essence [ch'ing], one can become good." The essence (ch'ing) of X is the set properties X must have in order to be the kind of thing that it is. So the essence of a human is what a human must have so long as it continues to be a human. Mencius is claiming here that one ceases to be a human being if one loses the capacity for virtue. In contrast, the nature (hsing) of X is the set of properties X will have if it is a flourishing instance of its kind. According to Mencius, a flourishing human being will manifest the Confucian virtues. So the nature of humans is to be virtuous, but it is essential to humans only that we have the capacity to be virtuous.

"Only this has never dawned on me." Lau has trivialized what Mencius said. The correct translation is, "I simply never concentrated upon them [sc., the four sprouts]." Mencius's point is that, although we all have the four sprouts, a psychological act, ssu (concentration), is needed in order to stimulate the sprouts and cause them to grow. (For more on ssu see the comment for 6A15.)


(p. 164): "What is common to all hearts? Reason and rightness." The word "reason" is misleading here. The Chinese word (li, good order, principle) does not mean anything like "reason" does for Aristotelians or Kantians. "Good order" is a better translation in this context. (Incidentally, this word gets a completely different meaning for Neo-Confucians like Wang Yang-ming, for whom it is a technical metaphysical term paired contrastively with ch'i. (See P.J. Ivanhoe, Ethics in the Confucian Tradition (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990). In translations from Neo-Confucians texts, the word in question is normally rendered "principle.")


(General): Good Secondary sources to consult on 6A10 include:


(p. 168): "The organ of the heart can think." Literally, "The function (kuan) of the heart is to concentrate (ssu)." Several things are worth noticing here. In this passage the word kuan (which Lau renders "organ") has a sense very close to that of the Greek ergon (function). While Greek thinkers often favor craft metaphors in illustrating what ergon means (e.g., Nicomachean Ethics 1.7), Mencius uses a bureaucratic metaphor (kuan is literally "office") to describe the proper function of some thing. 6A15 is thus a rare instance in which the notion of function (which is so central to Aristotelian virtue ethics) is employed by Mencius. Ivanhoe has suggested (in correspondence) that the use of yung we see later in Chinese thought (where it is contrasted with t'i) serves some of the functions of the Greek ergon. (On the t'i/yung distinction, see Ethics in the Confucian Tradition, op. cit.)

Ssu (which Lau renders "think") is important and easy to misunderstand. To ssu is not to engage in abstract, theoretical reasoning or ratiocination. To ssu is to concentrate upon, to think anxiously about, to long for. And for Mencius, the object of this concentration is the four sprouts. To ssu the sprouts is to recognize that we have them and to delight in their proper functioning. The result of delighting in the operation of the sprouts is that these dispositions grow (4A27). That is, we more consistently have benevolent and righteous reactions to more and more appropriate situations. Ssu, then, is a core concept in Mencius's moral psychology. This helps to make clear, for example, what Mencius is doing with King Hsuan in 1A7. The King manifested benevolence in sparing the ox, but it is not enough that the King occasionally manifest the sprouts. The King needs to concentrate upon his incipient benevolent reaction to make it grow, so Mencius draws the King's attention to it. Other passages in which ssu is uses in Mencius's technical sense include 6A6, 6A17 and possibly 4B20 (q.v.).

See also


(General): This is an amusing incident. Ts'ao Chiao asks Mencius whether he can become a sage even though he is not as tall as the sages were. This is a stupid question. Ts'ao Chiao obviously has no idea what is really required in order to be virtuous. Note that at the end of the discussion, Mencius politely refuses to take the dullard Ts'ao Chiao on as a disciple.

(p. 172): "What difficulty is there? All you have to do is to make an effort." Literally, "What does this [i.e., your height] have to do with it? Just do it [i.e., be virtuous]!"

"If you wear the clothes of Yao, speak the words of Yao and behave the way Yao behaved, then you are a Yao. On the other hand, if you wear the clothes of Chieh, speak the words of Chieh and behave the way Chieh behaved, then you are a Chieh. That is all." Mencius seems to be claiming here that in order to become virtuous, all you have to do is to behave in a certain way. This is a surprising thing for Mencius to say, because normally he seems to think that one must not merely perform "virtuous" acts, we must also perform them out of virtuous motivations (cf. 4B19, 7B11). Perhaps Mencius is simplifying his own view, though, so that the dense Ts'ao Chiao can benefit from it. Or perhaps "behave" (hsing) is being used here in a broad sense, meaning not just proper external action but proper action performed out of a virtuous motive. On the other hand, 7A30 also supports the view that one can become virtuous by "feigning" virtue long enough.


(p. 182): (See the entry for 4A12 for evidence that his passage is an interpolation.) "All the ten thousand things are there in me." Lau's translation is syntactically possible, but what would it mean for "the ten thousand things" to be within a person? This would make sense for Neo-Confucians like Chu Hsi, who held that each human being is born with a complete, innate moral sense that is ultimately identical with the structure (li, see the note for 6A7) of the universe. However, Mencius held that humans are born only with a capacity to become virtuous (the "sprouts," see the note for 2A6). Consequently, this portion of 7A4 (whether it is an interpolation or not) probably is better translated as, "All the ten thousand things are brought to completion by me," meaning that sages, through their moral insight, are capable of caring for and organizing both humans and their natural environment so that everything realizes its potential in a harmonious fashion.


(p. 185): "Do not do what others do not choose to do; do not desire what others do not desire. That is all." This is a difficult passage. D.S. Nivison reads it in light of 7B31 and translates it, "Do not do what you do not do; do not desire what you do not desire. That is all." In other words, Mencius's point is that all that is needed in order to be a virtuous person is avoid doing and desiring those things that are relatively similar to those things you already cannot bring yourself to do.

For a more detailed discussion of this passage, see


(p. 190): "A man's surroundings transform his air just as the food he eats changes his body." Better is, "One's [social] position alters one's ch'i. One's cultivation alters one's body." Mencius seems to think that merely having a certain social rank transforms one's aura, while cultivation (including, perhaps, both physical and moral cultivation) beautifies one's physical appearance. As Yearley and Ivanhoe observe, this is another area of disagreement between Mencius and Chuang Tzu: "Chuang Tzu's 'perfected people' do not. . . accept conventional standards of physical beauty. They are the lowly, the deformed, and yet they have perfected their personal te (virtue). For examples, see chapter five of the Chuang Tzu: The Sign of Virtue Complete." (Ivanhoe, vide supra, p. 152, n. 31.)


(p. 192): Better than Lau's translation is the following: "Mencius said, 'Nobles, in relation to animals, care for them (ai) but do not show them benevolence. In relation to the people, [nobles] shows them benevolence but do not treat them as kin (ch'in). [Nobles] treat their kin as kin and show benevolence to the people. [Nobles] show benevolence to the people and care for animals.'"

This, in a nutshell, is Mencius's view of our responsibility to others as it moves outward from the individual (diminishing as it goes, like ripples in a pool). The passage may also include a subtle swipe at the Mohists, since chien ai ("universal love") was the attitude the Mohists said we should have toward all humans. Mencius, in contrast, claims that ai is an attitude humans should have only towards animals.


(p. 196): ". . . but reluctance would be written all over his face if he had to give away a basketful of rice and a bowl full of soup when no such purpose was served." The Chinese actually says, "[But] if he is not that sort of person [sc., who is really virtuous], it would show on his face over [giving away] a basketful of rice or a bowlful of soup." The point, of course, is that fake virtue will not succeed in the end, because others will eventually see through one's impostures.