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A Question of Faith: A New Interpretation of Mencius 2B.13

  • Philip J. Ivanhoe (a1)


This paper discusses some of the difficulties surrounding the interpretation of Mencius 2B. 13. After considering the most important traditional Chinese commentaries, the author discusses the interpretations of a number of modern scholars, from both the East and the West. He then offers two new interpretations and concludes that the second is the most appropriate.



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I would like to thank Professors David S. Nivison, Kwong-loi Shun, and David N. Keightley for their comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper. They have helped me to see important aspects of this problem and to avoid certain clear errors. In particular, Professor Shun convinced me that Chao Ch'i's interpretation is much closer to my interpretation than I had originally realized. I alone am responsible for any errors that remain in this work. This article was submitted in final form on 23 November 1987.

1. Ch'ung Yü also appears in Mencius 2B.7. From this passage, we learn he was entrusted with overseeing the arrangements for making the coffin for Mencius's mother.

2. According to Ch'ien Mu , Mencius must have left in the eighth year of King Hsüan's reign. See Mu, Ch'ien, Hsien Ch'in chutzu hsi-nien (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1956), pp. 371374. Ch'ien Mu also argues (pp. 365–367) that Ch'i began its invasion of Yen in 315 and completed it in 314. This agrees with Mencius1s final remark in 2B.14; he alludes to the .invasion of Ch'i and perhaps to the ensuing rebellion mentioned in 2B.9. He says he never intended to stay in Ch'i for very long, but because of the war he was forced to change his original plans.

3. In particular it would seem to contradict his claim, in 2A.2, that he had attained an “unmoved mind.” For a discussion of this notion and its locus classicus, see Riegel, Jeffrey, “Reflections on an Unmoved Mind: An Analysis of Mencius 2A2,“ Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Thematic Issue 47.3S (1979):433458.

4. David S. Nivison has shown how 2B.13 has lured many of the very best translators into error, and his comments on this passage, as well as the rest of the Mencius, are extremely helpful. See his On Translating Mencius,” Philosophy East and West 30.1 (1980): 107108.

5. The classical sources I have consulted are: Chao Ch'i , Meng-tzu chu (SPPY); Sun Shih , Meng-tzu chu-shu , (SPPY); Chu Hsi , Meng-tzu in Ssu-shu cheng-i (SPPY). and Chiao Hsün , Meng-tzu cheng-i (SPPY) . Among English translators, I have examined Legge, James, The Works of Mencius, vol. 2 of The Chinese Classics (1895; reprint, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1970); Dobson, W. A. C. H., Mencius: A New Translation Arranged and Annotated for the General Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963); and Lau, D. C., Meneius (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970). I have also consulted the German translation of Wilhelm, Richard, Mong Dsi (Mong Ko) (Jena: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1921); the facing French and Latin translations of Couvreur, Séraphin, Oeuvres de Meng Tzeu, in Les Quatre Livres (Ho Kien Fou, 1895); the modern Chinese translation of Yung, YangMeng-tzu i-chieh (Hong Kong: Ta-chung shu-chu, 1970); the modern Japanese translation by Kumaichirō, Uchino, Mōshi , vol. 4 of Shinshaku Kambun taikei (Tokyo: Meiji Shōin, 1962); and the modern Korean translation of Chǒng-ki, Yu, Maeng-cha , in Sa-sǒ sam-kyǒng (Seoul: Tong-A to-sǒ, 1980).

6. Ssu-shu chi-chu 2.24a. Chu Hsi says, “These two lines are actually the words of Confucius.“ He does not seem to have believed that Ch'ung Yü knew Mencius was quoting the Analects. I find this difficult to accept, for the reasons I discuss below.

7. See Ch'uan-hsi lu 3.145b. in Wang Wen-ch'eng kung ch'uan-shu (SPTK). For a translation, see Chan, Wingtsit, Instructions for Practical Living and other Neo-Confucian Writings of Wang Yang-ming (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), p. 227. For another example in the Ch'uan-hsi lu, see 2.122a; Chan, , Instructions, p. 171.

8. As Nivison points out and as I discuss below, western-language translators have had particular difficulty with the final remark.

9. As evidence for Chao Ch'i's interpretation of tz'u yi shih as “the present age,” consider Mencius 2A.1, which also discusses how long overdue a true king is: “Moreover, never has there been a time more removed from the workings of a true king than is tz'u shih (the present age).“

10. Quoting Analects 12.4.

11. Ch'i, Chao, Meng-tzu chu, 4.16b.

12. Shih, Sun, Meng-tzu chu-shu, 48.6b7a.

13. In his study of virtue in the thought of Aquinas and Mencius, Lee H. Yearley relates this and other passages in the Mencius, which show an enduring trust in Heaven, to Aquinas's notion of patience. See Lee H. Yearley, Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtues and Concepts of Courage (manuscript).

14. Ssu-shu chi-chu, 2.24b.

15. It is possible to read Chu Hsi's interpretation of Mencius's initial response as saying, “What I said the other day applies equally well today.” But in light of the rest of his interpretation, it seems more natural to take him as saying, “That was one day; this is another.” This is how later commentators have understood him. See, for example, the comprehensive work of Tu Ting-chi (see note 20). This is also how Chiao Hsün understood the line (see below) and how every contemporary translator I have seen, East and West, has understood it.

16. Meng-tzu cheng-i, 9.18b. The Lun-heng is a work by Wang Ch'ung (27?–100). In commenting on this passage from the Mencius, Wang criticizes Mencius for his lack of grace and for his belief in a five-hundred-year cycle of true kings. See Lun-heng, 10.11b13a (SPPY). For a translation, see Forke, Alfred, Lun-Heng: Philosophical Essays of Wang Ch'ung (1907; reprint, New York: Paragon Book Gallery, 1962), vol. 1, pp. 423425. The Nen-hsüan chu is Li Shan's (d. 689) commentary on the Nen-hsüan. Li Shan quotes these fines from the Mencius in order to explain identical “lines in a text he is explicating. See Nen-hsüan chu, 45.2b (SPPY). The presence of the additional yeh changes the original grammar of the line in favor of Chiao Hsün's interpretation.

17. Uchino Kumaichirō incorporates this emendation into the original Chinese text. See Moshi, p. 154.

18. For example, Dobson (p. 52) renders the line, “How can I not be distressed?” I put “insert” in quotation marks because none of the translators who make this move alert the reader that they have amended the text. It seems they may have simply misread it.

19. However, Lau's translation of Mencius's initial response, “This is one time; that was another time” reverses the positions of pi and tz'u. It should read, “That was one time; this is another time.”

20. Couvreur, , Les Quatre Livres, p. 404. Couvreur notes in his preface that these lines are from a work by Tu Ting-chi called the Ssu-shu pu-chu fu-k'ao pei-chih published in 1779. This is a revised edition of the Ssu-shu pei-chih , originally written by the Ming scholar Teng Lin (chü-jen 1396) and augmented by the Ch'ing scholar Ch'iu Fei-ao (chin-shih 1685). Tu's work has passed through several later editions. The edition I examined is called the Hsin-tseng ssu-shu pu-chu fu-k'ao pei-chih (1848). Like the edition Couvreur describes in his preface, it contains: (1) Chu Hsi's commentary from the Ssu-shu chang-chü , (2) a paraphrase of Chu Hsi's commentary, (3) an analysis of chapters and sections, and (4) philological, historical, and geographical notes. The 1ines I have translated are part of the paraphrase of Chu Hsi's commentary.

21. See note 16.

22. There was a firmly established belief concerning Heaven's mandate and the fate of a ruling line, but Mencius's claim concerning how a commoner receives the mandate is, I believe, something new. It allows for something quite revolutionary, the disruption of hereditary rule, but in a tempered manner; one must be recommended by the ruler himself. This possibility was historically sanctioned by the precedents of Shun and Yü.

23. See Mencius 7B.38 for another passage that confirms the chronology foretelling Confucius's arrival.

24. Perhaps the reason the interpretation I offer seemed less likely to later commentators was because a belief in the five-hundred-year cycle of true kings became less tenable as time went on. This belief began to be questioned seriously as early as the Han, as is evident from Wang Ch'ung's criticisms of this passage in the Lun-heng. But Mencius believed in this cycle. It explained perfectly history as he understood it, and it precisely predicted the emergence of Confucius. It was still believed by Chao Ch'i (d. 201) but became more and more difficult to believe as time went on.

25. Mencius 7A.1. See also Mencius 7B.33, “The gentleman simply follows the norm and awaits his destiny.”

26. Analects 9.5. In this passage, Confucius claims that Heaven has “located” culture in him. This notion, that Confucius was Heaven's chosen representatave, is very similar to something we see in Mencius 2B.13. Mencius rhetorically asks. “If Heaven desired to bring peace and order to the world, in the present generation who is there other than me?” For other examples of Confucius1s faith in Heaven, see Analects 7.22 and 14.38.

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Early China
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