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Notes on Literary Chinese

Selections from Mencius

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Notes on Literary Chinese

Collection of Literary Chinese Prose

Selections from Mencius

Mencius 孟子 , also translated as Meng Zi, (c. 372-c. 289 BCE) was a Confucian philosopher regarded by many as second only to Confucius himself. Mencius also refers to the book of the same name. Mencius was born in the state of Zou 邹国, located in present day Shandong province.

Mencius was a pupil of Confucius' grandson, Zi Si 子思. He travelled throughout China and served as an official in the state of Qi. Mencius stressed the importance of the common people and a benevolent government. In this respect, Confusianism 儒家 was diametrically opposed to Legalist thought (法家).

The English text below is based on "The Works of Mencius" by James Legge (Mengzi, 1985), which is available in a bilingual version online at the Chinese Text Project.

Mengzi has had a profound and lasting influence on Chinese culture. Confucian thought was revived and re-interpreted a number of times throughout Chinese history. An example of this is Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824), in particular, his text Inquiry into the Way 原道. (Idema and Haft, 1997, p. 129, 132)

The English translation here is from Legge. (Mengzi and Legge, 1985) Both Chinese and English text can be found at the Chinese Text Project. See References.

Benevolent Government

This text is from King Hui of Liang Part I 梁惠王.


King Hui of Liang said, “There was not in the nation a stronger State than Jin, as you, venerable Sir, know. However, after it descended to me, on the east we have been defeated by Qi, where my eldest son perished. On the west we have lost seven hundred li of territory to Qin. On the south we have sustained disgrace at the hands of Chu. I have brought shame on my departed predecessors and wish to wipe that away once for all. What course is to be pursued to accomplish this?”


Mencius replied, “With a territory which is only a hundred li square, it is still possible to attain royal dignity. If the king will indeed implement a benevolent government for the people, being sparing in the use of punishments and fines, and making the taxes and levies light, so causing that the fields shall be ploughed deep, and the weeding of them be carefully attended to. Thus the strong-bodied, during their days of leisure, will cultivate their filial piety, fraternal respectfulness, sincerity, and truthfulness, serving thereby, at home, their fathers and elder brothers, and, abroad, their elders and superiors, you will then have a people who can be employed, with sticks which they have prepared, to oppose the strong armor and sharp weapons of the troops of Qin and Chu. The rulers of those States rob their people of their time, so that they cannot plough and weed their fields, in order to support their parents. Their parents suffer from cold and hunger. Brothers, wives, and children are separated and scattered abroad. Those rulers, as it were, drive their people into pit-falls, or drown them. Your Majesty will go to punish them. In such a case, who will oppose your Majesty? In accordance with this is the saying, 'The benevolent has no enemy.' I beg your Majesty not to doubt what I say.”


The king is “of Liang” because the capital city of the state of Wei was Da Liang 大梁. Fuller gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 144-148)

Bear Claws

This text is from the section Gaozi I 告子.



Mencius said, “I like fish. I also like bear claws. If I cannot have the two together, I will let the fish go, and take the bear's paws. I also like life. I also like right action. If I cannot keep the two together, I will let life go, and choose righteousness. I like life indeed, but there is that which I like more than life, and therefore, I will not seek to possess it by any improper ways. I dislike death indeed, but there is that which I dislike more than death, and therefore there are occasions when I will not avoid danger. If among the things which man likes there were nothing which he liked more than life, why should he not use every means by which he could preserve it? If among the things which man dislikes there were nothing which he disliked more than death, why should he not do everything by which he could avoid danger? There are cases when men by a certain course might preserve life, and they do not employ it; when by certain things they might avoid danger, and they will not do them. Therefore, men have that which they like more than life, and that which they dislike more than death. They are not men of distinguished talents and virtue only who have this mental nature. All men have it; what belongs to such men is simply that they do not lose it.” “Here are a small basket of rice and a platter of soup, and the case is one in which the getting them will preserve life, and the want of them will be death. If they are offered with an insulting voice, even a tramper will not accept them. If you first tread upon them, even a beggar will not stoop to take them. Yet a man will accept of ten thousand zhong, without any consideration of propriety or righteousness. How can the ten thousand zhong benefit him? When he takes them, is it not that he may obtain beautiful mansions, that he may secure the services of wives and concubines, or that the poor and needy of his acquaintance may be helped by him? In the former case the offered bounty was not received, though it would have saved from death, and now the compensation is taken for the sake of beautiful mansions. The bounty that would have preserved from death was not received, and the compensation is taken to get the service of wives and concubines. The bounty that would have saved from death was not received, and the compensation is taken that one's poor and needy acquaintance may be helped by him. Was it then not possible likewise to decline this? This is a case of what is called ‘Losing the proper nature of one's mind.’”


Ten thousand zhong refers to a very large income granted by their ruler. Fuller gives notes and vocabulary on this section of text. (Fuller, 2004, pp. 157-161)

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