Friday, May 20, 2011


by Scott Bradley

I've begun reading the Mencius (translated by D. C. Lau). I can tell I am going to enjoy him a lot more than the Confucius of the Analects. More than any other, Mencius (fl. 320 BCE) was the true inheritor and refiner of Confucian thought. This book became one of the Four studied by every student in China for more than a millennium.

In his introduction Lau has touched upon the most important themes of both his philosophy and that of his time in general. Among these are 'original heart' (human nature) and ch'i (qi), the stuff of the Universe. These are important themes in philosophical Taoism as well and I have wanted to write about them for some time. Fortunately, for you, however, these posts really don't provide adequate space to do so, and thus you are spared involved explanations of complicated ideas by someone not qualified to provide them.

But on second thought...maybe I could just touch upon them? Mencius is perhaps best known for his belief in the innate goodness of the human ‘heart’. Heaven is moral and has made man so, as well. But this ‘original heart’ is easily overcome by selfish desires which become a ‘second nature’. The ‘work’ is thus to restore the original goodness. One does this through diligent ‘learning’, exposing oneself to the moral teachings of the ancients. From what I have read so far, Mencius’ hat was as white as snow.

Zhuangzi’s Heaven is essentially Nature and is not moral, nor does it purposively ‘make’ anything. I say ‘essentially’ because he does not presume to describe what he does not and cannot know.

For Mencius, qi is the stuff of the Universe. It manifests as dense and becomes matter, and rarified and becomes breath — and the moral and rational mind (heart) of man. Developing the latter, one achieves ‘oneness’ with Heaven. (How very Gnostic-like this is.)

Zhuangzi, on the other hand, tells us that “qi is a kind of emptiness waiting for the presence of beings.” And he also directs us to our hearts to find it as a means to realizing ‘oneness’ with the Universe. Only his qi is devoid of content, explanatory or moral. It is, more than anything else, a kind of organic openness to Mystery.

You can check out Scott's writings on Zhuangzi here.

1 comment:

  1. Re: 'original heart' (human nature)

    My Chinese interpreter on my recent trip frequently observed when commenting on people's frustrating foibles, "That's just human beings." She had a very long view of things, and was very kind and forgiving. A young woman (35) of "New China" she taught us as much as some of the masters.

    I am sure she is familiar with Mencius.


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