In front of a pair of hefty fortress gates at the state of Wei, billowing dust obscured the silhouette of an old man. The visitor’s reputation preceded him. He requested an audience with the king. This man was Mencius, from the 300s BCE. By way of excerpts from King Hui of Liang, recording Mencius’ dialogue with the third ruler of Wei during the Warring States period, this article offers a taste of Mencius’ political philosophy for the present day.

Reading classical Chinese philosophy is a distinctive experience from reading “Western” philosophy. Chinese philosophical texts from the Warring States period are often short, pithy and filled with stories. With few convoluted arguments, the punchy analogies wield a persuasiveness that is supposed to be instinctively apparent and not calling for the assumption of a set of prerequisite beliefs. 

Mencius may seem a surprising thinker to continue from previous articles on Rousseau, especially as the two thinkers are about two millennia apart. However, despite the temporal and geographic gulf between them, both thinkers depart from many of the same premises. 

Both philosophers believe humans are naturally good, and that their virtue comes from a natural capacity for empathy and pity. Both actively de-emphasize the importance of practicing the arts. For example, Confucius, whose tradition Mencius is steeped in, famously states in the Analects, “Only when there is excess energy from practicing virtue, then practice the arts.” 

Rousseau would also approve of Mencius’ accessible philosophical style, since he himself despised being overly intellectual. In Rousseau’s words, “In this way, one is not obliged to make a philosopher of man before making a man of him.”

Despite significant systematic convergence in their thinking, Mencius and Rousseau will arrive at different endpoints. While Rousseau wrote on political organization, Mencius – as the following example reveals – focused on economic development.

King Hui of Liang asked Mencius, “With regard to my state, I have put all my heart into it… Nobody in nearby states is as thoughtful as I am in governance. Why don’t more people come to my state?”

Mencius replied, “Your Majesty, since you love war, please let me use war as an analogy. In the heat of war, some soldiers were fleeing. Some soldiers ran fifty steps before stopping, while other soldiers ran a hundred steps. If one uses having run only fifty steps to mock those who have run a hundred steps, how is that?”

King Hui of Liang replied, “He cannot do that! While not to a hundred steps, they were fleeing all the same.”

Mencius answered, “If Your Majesty understands this, then do not dream of having more people than the neighboring state.”

Mencius distinguishes between being better in degree and better in kind. In his critique of the king’s governance, Mencius thinks the king may claim to be marginally better than the rulers of neighboring states while not being fundamentally different in his self-serving rule.

The change required to mark an improvement in kind is to focus on economic development (rather than waging wars, in the king’s case). Mencius thinks the ruler can never shirk the economic responsibility of taking care of their people. 

Mencius said to the king, “When the dogs eat the food for humans, [you] do not know to stop them. When there are people dying of starvation on the streets, [you] do not know to distribute food. The people die, and you say ‘It is not me, it is the [bad] harvest.’ How is this different from a person who killed someone by stabbing, and said, ‘It is not me, it is the dagger?’”

For Mencius, the economic instrument is one which the ruler necessarily wields, and the economic problem cannot be construed as a given and helpless scarcity. He thinks that the fact that some families are unable to put food on the table is a hypocrisy in distribution that is within the ruler’s control – like not stopping the “dogs” from eating human food.

Mencius focuses on the economy because he sees it as the basis for human virtue, which in turn leads to political order. Humans are good by nature. However, their nature is fickle, and their goodness is often unrealized due to economic circumstances and lack of cultivation. “She’s nice because she’s rich,” said Chung-sook in the film Parasite. In the same vein, Mencius believes it is through providing people with the means of livelihood that human flourishing and political stability can be achieved. 

Mencius said, “To be without constant livelihood (i.e. financial security) but have a constant heart, only men of learning can be so. As for the common people, if they are without constant livelihood, then they will not have a constant heart.

If the common people are without a constant heart, then – being unrestrained by law, evil and wasteful – there is nothing they will not do.”

Remarkably, Mencius does not think the people are at fault if they participate in crime out of economic desperation – no, the ruler is culpable. The ruler is responsible for having made the citizens stuck in a vicious environment and toxic cycle of poverty and incarceration. 

In Mencius’ words, “When [the people] have fallen into crime and then are prosecuted for it, that is [you] entrapping the people.”

The weight of Mencius’ words is heavy, especially as an indictment for the present day. As we reflect on society’s underserved groups in low-income communities and high-crime neighborhoods, Mencius forces us to consider their systemic economic disenfranchisement. Is our society essentially a snare for less fortunate individuals? The persistence of their impoverishment and the political uncaringness towards them – is our society’s sense of progress perhaps akin to running fifty steps and laughing at another who has run a hundred steps?

The accent for Mencius’ thought on economic development is not on growth, but on distribution. On growth, Mencius will likely disapprove of today’s economy. With a sage prescience for our ecological crisis today, Mencius argues for a balanced and harmonious development with the living world. 

In what is one of his most famous passages, stated twice almost word for word in King Hui of Liang, Mencius argues for not violating the agricultural seasons, not overfishing the water bodies, and not foraging the forests outside of the proper hours. Consequently, Mencius says, “The grains, fish and turtles will be so abundant that we cannot finish eating them, the timber wood will be so abundant that we cannot finish using them – all this allowing the people to nurture the living and mourn the dead without regrets.”

Why privilege the economic over the political? Perhaps because the everyday person does not actually care about politics. They care about the food on the table or feeding their hungry family members – not the precise wording for convoluted statutes, which is the battleground for power for the elites. Supporting Mencius’ views, this study by Pew Research showed people’s belief that life is good has a strong correlation (+0.68) to the economic mood. 

When life is good, perhaps that is good enough.

Mencius told the king, “Allowing the people to nurture the living and mourn the dead without regrets – [this] is the beginning of the way to rule.”

Translations of Mencius from literary Chinese are by the writer.