- Interpreting the Mengzi
Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations, edited by Alan K. L. Chan, is an important collection of essays from a scholarly conference held at the National University of Singapore in 1999. It begins with a concise yet incisive introduction to Mengzi, his work, and the various contributions to the volume. The essays engage the Mengzi from a wide range of perspectives and employ a variety of different approaches. One of its many virtues is the inclusion of articles that explore the relationship of the text to recently excavated Guodian material. The primary audience of these essays is other scholars. However, several contributions could be understood and appreciated by nonspecialists as well.
In the lead essay, Ning Chen criticizes a wide range of current accounts concerning the background of Mengzi's theory of human nature and argues that because of these mistaken impressions about Mengzi's intellectual context contemporary scholars fail to appreciate important features of Mengzi's own theory. Chen argues that in order to understand Mengzi's theory it is necessary to appreciate that he was responding to a heretofore unnoticed Mohist theory of human nature and to views that we find in certain Guodian texts. Both of these sources describe "inegalitarian" theories of human nature, and such theories served as a central focus of not only Mengzi's but Xunzi's theory of human nature as well.
Some may find Chen's claims about the Mohist theory of human nature in need of further support. His evidence is a single passage from the later, dialectical chapters and the reading of this passage remains highly controversial. Given the importance of this issue for Mengzi and the significant debates Mengzi has with Mohists in various places in the Mengzi, it is quite strange that we see no direct reference to this theory in the text, nor do we find evidence of it in the core chapters of the Mozi. Chen argues that his interpretation is superior to that of Wu Yujing, who argues that the Mohists advocated the view that human nature was ethically neutral. However, Chen does not mention that others have produced quite impressive arguments in support of this same conclusion, for example David S. Nivison.
Chen presents interesting and impressive textual work on Guodian texts and no one can deny that this material adds to our understanding of early Chinese philosophy. However, it is not yet clear how, if at all, these texts change our interpretation of Mengzi's theory itself. Even on the issue of what motivated thinkers like Mengzi [End Page 249] and Xunzi to argue for more "egalitarian" theories, it is not clear that Chen has identified anything strikingly new. While the Guodian texts do describe new and interesting theories concerning the character of human nature, these are not the first "inegalitarian" theories. Perhaps more important, one need not see thinkers like Mengzi as responding only or even primarily to explicit theories about human nature; there was ample motivation to argue for a fundamental moral equality among human beings in order to resist the inertia of hereditary rule. As Donald Munro argued in his classic work, The Concept of Man in Early China, this is a distinctive feature of early Chinese thought. It seems reasonable to believe that on some not-too-deep level, all these theories about human nature were responding to the political and social realities of the times.
I have some concern about Chen's tendency, which is common among those working on Guodian material, to infer direct causal influence between these texts and later philosophical writings. As all philosophers know, inference is a tricky affair. If we find an earlier culture A, whose members wore trousers with two legs, and a later culture B, whose members also wore trousers with two legs, we might be led to infer that B picked up this practice from A. This would be rash. Both may have adopted the practice from a third culture C or each may have come upon the idea independently—after all, they...