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The Mind of Mencius

I’m going to turn away from pollyticks, fundies, and general inanity for a bit. I’m in a mellow mood this morning, what with the first-ever Carnival of the Elitist Bastards going off with no worse hitch than Sitemeter going down on the same day we launched. Heh. We killed Sitemeter. We rule.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wax philosophical for a bit. Specifically, Chinese philosophy.

One of the things I love the most about writing is the fact that it forces me to step outside of my comfort zones. It doesn’t have to. I know many an author who has achieved fame and fortune by staying firmly within Western culture for their ideas. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I realized early on that my world couldn’t be just another bunch of civilizations modeled on Western ideas. My universe demanded more, my wishes be damned. Something was missing. Something wasn’t right. It’s hard to explain that sense to a non-writer, but a writer can feel what a story wants. To many of us, they’re entities with a will of their own. And this entity was telling me, “Fuck you and your wretched Western civilization. This is different. Get cracking on the research.”

I can’t even begin to tell you how those demands have changed my life. Just about everything I never cared to know about, I care about and love now. Chinese philosophy is a case in point.

Way back when, I knew just enough about Confucius to think I knew I hated him. I was a Romantic. Those were the ideas I was drawn to – emotion, a mystical sense of the world, nature, culture not inherited but created, blah blah blah. I couldn’t stand all of the stupid, empty rituals of society, laughed at social norms, and so when somebody told me Confucius was all about order, social norms, law, ritual, and all that rot, I decided without reading him that I hated him. When I took Eastern Philosophy in college, I still hated him. He seemed so stifling. He seemed so stuffy. And then there was Mencius – somebody told me he had actually expanded on those ideas, which meant he was even worse. Oh, fuck, no. Fuck them both. I took to the Taoists like a fundie to creationism, and I never looked back.

Until.

Much later.

I was researching Eastern political systems to try to get some idea of what Xtalean government looked like, and I kept running into this Confucius guy. Confucius this, Confucius that, every damned thing was based on Confucius. Nothing for it, then. I’d have to read him. And, gag, Mencius as well, since he was also an important bugger.

I have a confession to make: I fucking adore Confucius now. I read the Analects. I loved the Analects. Confucius had been portrayed to me as some sort of empty-ritual adherent, but he’s not that at all. He’d actually thought about these matters very deeply. He talked about things like human-heartedness and ideal man. His ritual propriety stuff – that wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t blind dogma, it actually made sense in the context. Old Master Kung and I are on very good terms indeed. He and Taoism actually do go together like oil and vinegar: they compliment each other beautifully.

But.

We’re not here to talk about Kung Fu Tzu – or Confucius, if you prefer the Westernized version. No. We’re actually here to talk about Mencius, who blows Old Master Kung right out of the water.

Meng Tzu, you see, was an effing genius.

I’m reading his book right now, and I’m telling you, it puts the Analects to shame. Now, you have to have the Analects, because otherwise nothing Meng Tzu says makes sense: Old Master Kung built the edifice, and Master Meng came along later to decorate the place.

I’m just over a hundred pages in, and so far, I’ve discovered some very interesting things. For one thing, many major ideas of the American Revolution could have been taken right out of the pages of Mencius.

I shit you not.

We’re talking revolutionary ideas from the third century B.C.

Americans think they were the first to really perfect the notion of throwing out useless rulers, but it’s old hat to Meng Tzu:

Mencius said to Emperor Hsuan of Ch’i: “Suppose one of your ministers entrusts his family to the care of a friend and then leaves on a journey to Ch’u. When he returns, he finds that the friend abandoned his family to hunger and cold. What should be done?”

“End the friendship,” replied the emperor.

“And if a chief judge can’t govern his court – what should be done?”

“Turn him out,” pronounced the emperor.

“And if someone can’t govern this land stretching out to the four borderlands – what then?”

The emperor suddenly turned to his attendants and spoke of other things.


You bet he did. He knew that what Meng Tzu was saying was, “If you’re a total fuck-up, the people have every right to show you the door.”

Meng Tzu talks often and at length of a ruler’s duty to the people. “To guide the sovereign is to love the sovereign,” he says in one exchange. It isn’t rule by the people, for the people just yet, but it’s certainly the usual fare in an authoritarian society. There’s a lot of talk about sharing your pleasures with the people and sharing in their pleasures; of the ruler’s duty to make sure his people are fed, happy and safe; of setting a good example they’re willing to follow. And under it all, there’s that implied warning: if a ruler fails his people, they’ll be doing the right thing if they throw his sorry ass off the throne.

Let us to now to some of those “exclusive” claims on morality. You know, the ones you can only find in the Bible. Let me tell you something: if the Bible was written by God, God was a shameless plagarist. And He stole a lot of His material from the Chinese.

Take, for instance, Galatians 6:7, which reads in part, “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” What you do comes back on you, right? Idea unique to the Bible, ne c’est pas? You know what I’m about to say here, of course: not so much.

Let’s see what Meng Tzu says, quoting Master Tseng, an old disciple of Kung Fu Tzu: “Beware! Beware! Whatever you give out is given back.”

Has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? And let’s not forget God (through His son) lifted The Golden Rule nearly verbatum from Old Master Kung, who said, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.”

It’s interesting, the context in which Meng Tzu’s “reap what you sow” quote came up: a duke of Chou was complaining about how his soldiers had let a passel of his officers be killed in battle. Not only that, not even one of the lazy buggers bothered to die. “There are too many to punish,” the duke says. “But if I don’t punish them, I’ll be condoning what they did: watching their leaders die without lifting a finger to help. What can I do?”

Meng Tzu, instead of advising him how to punish those filthy traitors, proceeds to rip the duke a new one over his poor handling of government, reminding him that he let his people
starve in times of famine rather than share out food from his overstuffed grainaries. He then quotes Master Tseng, and then says, “It was only now that the people had a chance to give back what you’d given them. You musn’t blame them. If you governed with Humanity, the people would love your officers and die willingly to protect them.”

Shorter Meng Tzu: “It’s your own damned fault, you greedy bastard.”

So you can see why Master Meng and I are getting on quite well. He’s clever, can make a phrase turn on a dime, and is always ready with the inconvenient question. Much of Chinese and Japanese philosophy is like this: anecdotes, succinct sayings that contain a universe of meaning, and some damned fine ideas on how the world should be.

If you’d like to make Master Meng’s acquaintence, I’d suggest reading the Analects first, and then pick up David Hinton’s translation of Mencius. Then you can tell me if you get the same impression I do: that Meng Tzu wouldn’t have been ruffled by Liu Ling’s lack of pants.