In This Article Mencius

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Historical Context
  • Principal Commentaries
  • Concordances and Databases
  • Principal Translations
  • Mencius in Light of the Guodian Manuscripts
  • Virtue
  • Moral Language
  • Vital Force (Qi 氣)
  • Political Thought
  • Heaven/Nature (Tian 天) and Religion
  • History and Hermeneutics
  • Neo-Confucianism

Chinese Studies Mencius
Thomas Radice
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0096


Mengzi 孟子 (“Master Meng”) was born Meng Ke 孟軻 in the state of Zou 鄒 (in present-day Shandong 山東 Province) during the 4th century BCE. According to tradition, he was a student of Zisi 子思, the grandson of Kongzi (better known as “Confucius”). His eponymous text contains his quotations and conversations with rulers and intellectual rivals, though he wrote none of it. It was compiled by his followers later, and like many other texts from the Warring States period (c. 480–221 BCE), it contains material composed over a long period of time. During the Song 宋 dynasty (960–1279), this text became one of the foundational “Four Books”(Si shu 四書) of the Confucian canon. “Mengzi” became known to Westerners as “Mencius” in the late 16th century, when Jesuit missionaries translated the “Four Books” into Latin. His Latin name remained common in Western scholarship, even as the text was eventually translated into vernacular European languages (though the return to “Mengzi” has become increasingly popular in recent years). As a self-styled promoter and protector of the Way of Confucius, Mencius discussed the importance of moral government. He is most famous for his view that human nature tends toward goodness, and he is often contrasted with the late Warring States thinker Xunzi 荀子, who sharply criticized his view. Nevertheless, the Mencius is a rich text that also discusses emotions, politics, and religion—all of which are connected to Mencius’s theory of self-cultivation. Though his thought reflects a time period very different from the present, philosophers continue to find his ideas relevant to current issues. Moreover, recent discoveries of new manuscripts are revolutionizing the field of early Chinese thought, and research on these texts is sure to reveal new insights into Mencius’s ideas for years to come.

General Overviews and Historical Context

Of the general overviews, Shun 1997 is the most comprehensive and covers not only Mencius’s historical context but also most significant topics of his thought. Behuniak 2004 is more centered on the notion of human nature, but it also situates the Mencius within a larger set of early Chinese texts (including recently excavated manuscripts unavailable to Kwong-loi Shun) and uses his unique interpretation to discuss Mencian thought in general. It should be read in context of the works in Human Nature (XING 性), especially Ames 1991 and Ames 2002 (cited under the Mencian View). Ding 2008 and Radice 2011 deal with Mencius’s conflict with the Yangists and Mohists. Weixiang Ding sees both the Yangists and Mohists as having a significant influence on the Mencian view of self-cultivation, incorporating them as different stages. Thomas Radice, by contrast, sees Mencius’s discussion of the Yangists and Mohists more skeptically, especially the Mencian criticism of Mohist “universal love” (jian’ai 兼愛), and suggests that these discussions are more about promoting the superiority of Mencian thought than expressing a historically accurate account of the views of Mencius’s opponents. Brooks and Brooks 2002 promotes a novel thesis about the composition of the Mencius, which differentiates two different schools of Mencian thought within the text.

  • Behuniak, James, Jr. Mencius on Becoming Human. SUNY Series in Chinese Philosophy and Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Overview of Mencian philosophy that characterizes it within a process ontology. Beginning with an explanation of Warring States cosmology that centers on qi 氣 (“configurative energy” in his translation), Behuniak argues for a dynamic conception of xing 性 (“disposition” in his translation). He goes on to argue that Mencius sees our ethical dispositions as conditions through social relationships, rather than being strictly biological.

  • Brooks, E. Bruce, and A. Taeko Brooks. “The Nature and Historical Context of the Mencius.” In Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations. Edited by Alan K. L. Chan, 242–281. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues against the view that the text of the Mencius is a “diverse but ultimately consistent” unity. The authors believe that the views of the historical Mencius can be found in the interviews of Books 1 and 2A2, and that the rest of the text was put together over time by two different Mencian schools. They believe this understanding sheds light on apparent inconsistencies in the text.

  • Ding, Weixiang. “Mengzi’s Inheritance, Criticism, and Overcoming of Moist Thought.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 35.3 (2008): 403–419.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6253.2008.00488.xE-mail Citation »

    Analysis of the oppositions of the Confucians and Mohists, arguing that Mencius both opposed and incorporated aspects of Mohist thought. Sees the views of Yang Zhu and Mozi as stages in the process of Confucian self-cultivation.

  • Radice, Thomas. “Manufacturing Mohism in the Mencius.” Asian Philosophy: An International Journal of the Philosophical Traditions of the East 21.2 (2011): 139–152.

    DOI: 10.1080/09552367.2011.563991E-mail Citation »

    Challenges the views promoted within the Mencius that Mencian Confucianism was really a moderate position between Yangism and Mohism, and that the Mohists were against filial piety. Mencius and Mozi actually promote two different ideas about what constitutes filial piety, and Mencius argues against a view that is far easier for him to refute than what is presented in the Mozi.

  • Shun, Kwong-loi. Mencius and Early Chinese Thought. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    The most comprehensive treatment of Mencius in English, making extensive and felicitous use of commentarial literature. In addition to providing a detailed background on the text and Mencius’s historical context, the bulk of Shun’s analysis is devoted to what he calls the “ethical attributes” (ren 仁 [“benevolence, humaneness”], li 禮 [“rites, observance of rites”], yi 義 [“propriety, righteousness”], and zhi 智 [“wisdom”]), Mencius’s debates with Gaozi, self-cultivation, and human nature.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.