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  • An Exegetic Study of the So-Called Proposition of Confucian Aesthetics
  • Wang Yi (bio) and Xiaowei Fu

Since Wang Guowei and Cai Yuanpei introduced the concepts of aesthetics and aesthetic education, respectively, to China in the early twentieth century, there has been a strong tendency in many of the aesthetic discussions to examine ancient texts and materials using modern concepts of aesthetics. In particular, sentences with the character-word mei1 are often sought in classical works and interpreted as speeches on or about beauty, which has led to frequent misunderstandings of the classical texts and of the ancient Confucian aesthetic theory.

The most typical among these misunderstandings, we think, is the misinterpretation of one of Mencius's remarks on the goodness of human nature-"To possess these qualities of goodness fully is beautiful" (Chongshi zhiwei mei)2-as a representative statement of the Confucian aesthetic theory of "the union of the beautiful and good." Although it is not clear who was the first to put this interpretation forward, it is now widely accepted and almost unquestioned that the statement "Chongshi zhiwei mei" is the classical proposition of the Confucian aesthetic theory after countless repetitions by aestheticians and educationalists. And extended from this is the claim that "the union of the beautiful and good," or the union of the moral and beauty, is the traditional theory of Confucian aesthetic education.3 Finding it coincidentally in accordance with the idea of "the union of the beautiful and good" in both the Soviet and Greek philosophies, aesthetic educators are apt to admit that aesthetic education is included in moral education or aesthetic education is but one of the means of moral education; thus, aesthetic education cannot be an independent subject. [End Page 80]

It is rather surprising that in spite of the wide interest in quoting this sentence, very little in the textual research and criticism has offered convincing proof that it is really Mencius's opinion about beauty or aesthetic theory and therefore-since he is the most influential Confucian educator and philosopher after Confucius-representative of the aesthetic theory of Confucianism.

Actually, the proper analysis of the meaning of the word mei in this statement by Mencius has long been a controversial issue in Chinese history. There have been two main approaches: mei as an equivalent of shan (good/ goodness) and mei as a synonym with its modern Chinese counterpart. The former is taken by Zhao Qi,4 according to whom mei in this statement is a term used to explain a level of shan. This analysis is further developed by Sun Shi,5 who argues that mei is the third level of the six shan. Likewise, Yang Bojun,6 among other modern scholars, also considers mei an equivalent of shan. The latter approach, on the other hand, is pursued by Zhang Zai, Zhu Xi, Jiao Xun,7 and many modern aestheticians, who all interpret mei as "beauty" or "beautiful" in the aesthetic sense.

The main interest of the present analysis is an attempt to decode the genuine meaning of the statement. With references to ancient dictionaries like Origin of Chinese Characters8 and exegetic works (from 206 bc to the modern times) of Mencius, this article attempts to contextualize mei in the original text and historical context in order to interpret the meaning of the sentence and the real intention of Mencius. In this way we hope to determine whether it can be regarded as the proposition of Mencius or the Confucian aesthetic theory of "the union of the beautiful and good."


In the first part of this article we shall offer a contextual study of the sentence with reference to two of the ancient interpretations of the theme of the passage and the meaning of the character mei. By investigating the context of the sentence "Chongshi zhiwei mei" we argue that the theme of the passage is a discussion of the six levels of shan (goodness).

The context of the sentence comes from a passage in Mencius (Jinxin part 2), which begins with Mencius talking with Haosheng Buhai about one of his disciples, Yue Zhengzi, who was reported to embark in a political career in the State...


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pp. 80-89
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