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Reviewed by:
  • Mencius on Becoming Human
  • Franklin Perkins
Mencius on Becoming Human. By James Behuniak Jr.Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Pp. xxviii + 186. $40.00.

In Mencius on Becoming Human, James Behuniak provides a comprehensive reading of the Mencius, ranging from cosmology and metaphysics to familial relations and human ethical development. This reading is frequently enlightening, sometimes surprising, and consistently interesting. Behuniak displays a thorough knowledge of Warring States texts and a remarkable ability to draw these together into a coherent perspective on the Mencius. The basic claim of the book is that the early Chinese worldview was oriented by processes rather than substances and that the language we use to discuss it should reflect this difference. While this basic claim is fairly common, connecting to claims that the early Chinese worldview is nondualistic and organic, Behuniak is particularly thorough in reconstructing its details and applying it to the Mencius. This work is done primarily in chapter 1, which argues for a common worldview that explicates the structure of the world through transformations and patterns of qi 氣, which Behuniak, following Manfred Porkert, translates as "configurative energy." This configurative energy takes on various arrangements or shapes, which in their particularity influence but do not determine subsequent changes:

Given the fact that no shape is immutable in this cosmology, shape must be considered not as the fixed 'nature' of a thing but rather as the momentary consummation of an ongoing process—one that is, in itself, the dynamic starting point for the next phase of transformation. Shape, then, is something that indicates a 'disposition' rather than a fixed 'nature.' By virtue of causal propensity (shi 勢), the 'disposition' of any configuration issues spontaneously into features that both define and reconfigure the trajectory of its discursive formation.

(p. 9)

In establishing this worldview, Behuniak draws on a number of early texts, including the Zhuangzi, Daodejing, and Yijing, as well as the recently unearthed Guodian bamboo strips. He ties these together nicely with a discussion of Tang Junyi's "Exposition on the Unique Kind of Basic Spirit in Chinese Culture."

This placement of the Mencius in a broader context is one of the strengths of this book, and reflects one of Behuniak's greatest skills as an interpreter: his insistence on context and continuity, emphasizing that the Mencius should make sense in the broader context of Warring States thought and that its ethical and political views cannot be isolated from its (and our) metaphysical assumptions. The difficulty, as he admits, lies in discovering what these metaphysical assumptions were, particularly in Confucian texts that rarely discuss ontology. Some readers may object to reading the Mencius in the context of the Zhuangzi and the Yijing, but Behuniak's interpretation is strengthened by placing Mencius in a narrower context as well, that of Si-Meng thought, which refers to the line of Confucian thought running through Zisi to Mencius. Mencius has long been associated with the Great Learning (Daxue) and Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong), but most Chinese scholars have [End Page 596] taken the Guodian texts as supporting this linkage and filling out one line of Confucian thought. Behuniak is the first person writing in English to use these materials extensively to inform the Mencius, and this is one of the great values of his book. Although the reconstruction of Mencius' own cosmological and metaphysical views necessarily remains speculative, Behuniak rightly concludes that the burden of proof lies with those who want to read the Mencius as discontinuous with this broader context. He nicely summarizes the place of his own interpretation:

To those accustomed to a more generic reading of human development in the Mencius, the argument ahead might be anticipated as radical. I feel, however, that what follows is the more conservative reading. To read the notion of human development as end-driven in the Mencius is to present Mencius as a truly revolutionary theorist of 'human nature' in classical China. I am not prepared or inclined to argue such a radical interpretation. The following assessment is more modest. I maintain that Mencius is working within the parameters of certain commonly held assumptions: assumptions about botanical growth, transformation, development, and about the...


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