The Mother of Mencius

Mencius was a great Confucian thinker in the Warring-States Period. He was famous for his people-based thoughts. His excellent thoughts likely benefited from the enlightening of his mother. “Biographies of Women” (列女傳), a book written by Liu Xiang in the Western Han Dynasty, records four stories about Mencius’ mother.

Mencius was born in the Zou State which was a very little country in modern-day Shandong Province. When Mencius was a very little child, he lost his father. His mother devoted herself to educate her son. The home of Mencius was near a graveyard. Little Mencius and his friends watched many funerals and sacrificial rituals. Young children like to imitate others. Mencius and his friends often performed these actions. Mencius’ mother thought this environment was not helpful for the growth of his son. So she took Mencius to the city, and lived near a market. Of course, energetic Mencius started to imitate traders with his new friends. Mencius’ mother was worried about the future of his son, and she had to move her home to a new place. She chose a house near a school. Mencius was attracted by the rites of students, and he liked to follow them. Mencius’ mother was very satisfied.

Every day Mencius went to the school and studied. One day, his mother was weaving, and saw her son returned home. She asked Mencius, “How about your study?” Mencius said, “Same as always.” The mother then cut off the cloth she wove. Mencius felt scared and asked why. His mother said, “You neglect your study as I cut the cloth off.” She encouraged Mencius to have great curiosity to study and ask, and be a knowledgeable gentleman.

After the wedding of Mencius, one day he was going to enter his bedroom, and saw his wife stayed in the room with loosed clothing and naked upper body. Mencius felt annoyed, and left. The young woman said to Mencius’ mother, “I heard the principles between a husband and a wife are not applied in a bedroom. Mencius regards me as a guest. A woman can’t stay at a man’s home as a guest. Please permit me to return to my parents’ home.” Mencius’ mother then said to her son, “Before entering a room, a person should bow the head in order to avoid seeing others’ fault. Now you forgot the ritual, but blamed others under the name of a ritual. Isn’t it far from your ideal?” Mencius apologized to her mother, and persuaded his wife not to leave.

Many years later, Mencius became an enthusiastic Confucian scholar. He migrated to the Qi State with his family, in order to spread his thoughts. He said that, how people treated a monarch depended on how a monarch treated people, and if a monarch was despotic, people should overthrow and punish him. The king of the Qi State didn’t appreciate the advice from Mencius. Mencius felt disappointed, and hoped to went to other countries. But he was worried about his old mother, so he frowned and sighed sometimes. His mother asked why, and Mencius told the reason. His mother said, “You are an adult, and I am old. You should go ahead on the righteous way you believe, and I just follow the rituals I respect.”

Mencius inherited the Confucianism, and developed it with prominent humanistic thoughts. Mencius had a famous word, “People are important, and a country is subordinate, and a monarch is insignificant.” This is why many rulers seemingly respected Mencius but disliked him in fact.

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