Lessons from Mencius for Warring States

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Antigone1984.com                                                                             Paris, 1 January 2012





We begin the year 2012 with wars ending, wars continuing and wars about to start. The Iraq War has ended after nearly nine years – the length of the Trojan War – with the US army retreating ignominiously to Kuwait, its request to continue to use Iraq as a base for further military operations being rejected by the very puppet dictatorship it put in place. The US leaves behind an Iraq torn apart by sectarian and resource-linked strife and under the sway of an Iran that is currently Washington’s public enemy number one. The war saw 4500 US soldiers killed and 32 000 wounded.  Up to 600 000 Iraqis died, while an estimated 3.5 million Iraqis were displaced. Highlights of the conflict included the alleged war crimes committed at the siege of Fallujah in November 2004, the US torture factory at Abu Ghraib, the dehumanization of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, alleged British torture in Basra, etc.

The war in Iraq confirmed widespread predictions that it would be a replay of the 1964-75 Vietnam War (the US massacre of civilians at My Lai, the carpet bombing of Hué, etc).  The Americans, like the Bourbons, had learned nothing.

On 15 December 2011, at a departure ceremony in Baghdad, the US furled its flag. According to the Guardian newspaper (16 December), “The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the president, Jalal Talabani, did not turn up to the ceremony, with uniformed US soldiers belatedly moved into seats carrying the two Iraqi leaders’ names.” It was the ultimate humiliation for a nation which had spent an estimated one trillion dollars on the war. At a ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on 14 December 2011, US President Barack Obama told a military audience that the country they were now leaving represented “an extraordinary achievement” and said that “everything that American troops have done in Iraq – all the fighting, all the dying, the bleeding and the building and the training and the partnering, all of it has landed to this moment of success”, adding that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” (Guardian, 15 December). The next day, 15 December, at the US leaving ceremony in Baghdad, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta told the departing soldiers: “You will leave with great pride, lasting pride, secure in knowing that your sacrifice has helped the Iraqi people to cast tyranny aside.”

A few days later Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi fled from Baghdad to semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan after Prime Minister al-Maliki had branded him a terrorist. At the same time, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq was warned by Maliki to stay away from the Iraqi Parliament. Finally, on 22 December 16 bombs exploded in Baghdad. By the end of the day, 63 people had been killed and 185 injured (Guardian, 23 December).

This was the “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” that America was leaving after nearly nine years of war.

Meanwhile, the US war in Afghanistan grinds on, US drone attacks on villagers being revenged by insurgent bombs in Kabul. As the year 2012 begins, the question is where the US war machine will strike next. Iran? Pakistan? All bets are off.


According to tradition, Mencius (Mengzi) lived from 372 to 289 BC. He was a peripatetic political philosopher who moved from state to state advocating ethical government during the chaotic and brutal Warring States period (403-221 BC) when seven states battled it out in China for supremacy. Mencius is usually considered a follower of Confucius (Kongzi), who is said to have lived from 551 to 479 BC.  But his relation to Confucius could be compared to that between Plato and Socrates. Just as it can be argued that Plato was the more significant of the two Greek philosophers, so, when one compares the meagre, cryptic, conservative views attributed to Confucius in the surviving texts, it can also be argued that Mencius, with his Keynesian economics (see paragraph 3 in the citations below) and his innovatory plea for morality in politics, was the real founder of Confucianism, the political ideology to which governments in China paid lip service for much of the last two millennia while paying scant heed to it in practice. China today, a dictatorship whose free-market economy is policed by the so-called Communist Party, has set up “Confucius Institutes” to spin-doctor the country’s image in western public opinion.  Plus ça change…..

However, we are launching this blog with a few quotations from Mencius not  in order to assess his contribution to Confucianism but rather in order to ask our readers whether they think he may have anything of value to say to our current warlords.

The passages, italicised and with a slight modification of the layout, are taken from Book I, Part A, of the 2003 revised translation of Mencius by D.C Lau published in Penguin Classics in 2004.

Liang, sometimes referred to as Chin, was one of the seven Warring States.

“1. Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. ‘You, Sir,’ said the King, ‘have come all this distance, thinking nothing of a thousand li [a li is a little over 400 metres]. You must surely have some way of profiting my state?’


‘Your Majesty,’ answered Mencius. ‘What is the point of mentioning the world “profit”? All that matters is that there should be benevolence and rightness. If Your Majesty says, “How can I profit my state?” and the Counsellors say, “How can I profit my family?” and the Gentlemen and Commoners say, “How can I profit my person?”  then those above and those below will be vying with each other for profit and the state will be imperilled.


‘When regicide is committed in a state of ten thousand chariots, it is certain to be by a vassal with a thousand chariots, and when it is committed in a state of a thousand chariots, it is certain to be by a vassal with a hundred chariots. A share of a thousand in ten thousand or a hundred in a thousand is by no means insignificant, yet if profit is put before rightness, there is no satisfaction short of total usurpation. No benevolent man ever abandons his parents, and no dutiful man ever puts his prince last.


‘Perhaps you will now endorse what I have said, “All that matters is that there should be benevolence and rightness. What is the point of mentioning the world ‘profit’?”’


2. Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. The King was standing over a pond. ‘Are such things enjoyed even by a good and wise man?’ said he, looking round at his wild geese and deer.


‘Only if a man is good and wise,’ answered Mencius, ‘is he able to enjoy them. Otherwise he would not, even if he had them.


‘The Odes say,


He surveyed and began the Sacred Terrace.

He surveyed it and measured it;

The people worked at it;

In less than no time they finished it.

He surveyed and began without haste;

The people came in ever increasing numbers.

The King was in the Sacred Park.

The doe lay down;

The doe were sleek;

The white birds glistened.

The King was at the Sacred Pond.

Oh! How full it was of leaping fish!


It was with the labour of the people that King Wen built his terrace and pond, yet so pleased and delighted were they that they named his terrace the “Sacred Terrace” and his pond the “Sacred Pond”, and rejoiced in his possession of deer, fish and turtles. It was by sharing their enjoyments with the people that men of antiquity were able to enjoy themselves……


3. King Hui of Liang said, ‘I have done my best for my state. When crops failed in Ho Nei I moved the population to Ho Tung and the grain to Ho Nei, and reversed the action when crops failed in Ho Tung. I have not noticed any of my neighbours taking as much pains over his government. Yet how is it the population of the neighbouring states has not decreased and mine has not increased?’

‘Your Majesty is fond of war,’ said Mencius. ‘May I use an analogy from it? After weapons were crossed to the rolling of drums, some soldiers fled, abandoning their armour and trailing their weapons. One stopped after a hundred paces, another after fifty paces. What would you think if the latter, as one who ran only fifty paces, were to laugh at the former who ran a hundred?


‘He had no right to,’ said the King. ‘He did not quite run a hundred paces. That is all. But all the same, he ran.’


‘If you can see that,’ said Mencius, ‘you will not expect your own state to be more populous than the neighbouring states.


‘If you do not interfere with the busy seasons in the fields, then there will be more grain than the people can eat; if you do not allow nets with too fine a mesh to be used in large ponds, then there will be more fish and turtles than they can eat; if hatchets and axes are permitted in the forests on the hills only in the proper seasons, then there will be more timber than they can use…..When those who are seventy wear silk and eat meat and the masses are neither cold nor hungry, it is impossible for their prince not to be a true King.


‘Now when food meant for human beings is so plentiful as to be thrown to dogs and pigs, you fail to realize that it is time for collection, and when men drop dead from starvation by the wayside, you fail to realise that it is time for distribution.


‘When people die, you simply say, “It is none of my doing. It is the fault of the harvest.” In what way is that different from killing a man by running him through, while saying all the time, “It is none of my doing. It is the fault of the weapon.” Stop putting the blame on the harvest and the people of the whole Empire will come to you.


4. King Hui of Liang said, ‘I shall listen willingly to what you have to say.’


‘Is there any difference,’ said Mencius, ‘between killing a man with a  staff and killing him with a knife?’


‘There is no difference.’


‘Is there any difference between killing him with a knife and killing him with misrule?’


‘There is no difference.’


‘There is fat meat in your kitchen and there are well-fed horses in your stables, yet the people look hungry and in the outskirts of cities men drop dead from starvation. This is to show animals the way to devour men…..If then, one who is father and mother to the people cannot, in ruling over them, avoid showing animals the way to devour men, wherein is he father and mother to the people?…


5. King Hui of Liang said, ‘As you know, the state of Chin [Liang] was second to none in power in the Empire. But when it came to my own time we suffered defeat in the east by Ch’i, when my eldest son died, and we lost territory to the extent of seven hundred li to Ch’in in the west, while to the south we were humiliated by Ch’u. I am deeply ashamed of this and wish, in what little time I have left in this life, to wash away all this shame. How can this be done?’


‘A territory of a hundred li square,’ answered Mencius, ‘is sufficient to enable its ruler to become a true King. If Your Majesty practises benevolent government towards the people, reduces punishments and taxation, gets the people to plough deeply and weed promptly, ….. then they can be made to inflict defeat on the strong armour and sharp weapons of Ch’in and Ch’u, armed with nothing but staves.


‘These other princes take the people away from their work during the busy seasons, making it impossible for them to till the land and so minister to the needs of their parents. Thus parents suffer cold and hunger while brothers, wives and children are separated and scattered. These princes push their people into pits and into water. If you should go and punish such princes, who is there to oppose you? Hence, it is said, “The benevolent man has no match.” I beg of you not to have any doubts.”




Our heartfelt thanks to the late Raymond Dawson (d. 2002), Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, who introduced us many moons ago to the Chinese Classics and to Mencius in particular, thereby inculcating a lifelong interest in the lessons of Chinese civilisation.

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, USA. Bookmark the permalink.

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