Reflections on a sentence in the works of Mencius

This morning, browsing the news published on the internet, I found an article on Xi Jinping’s policy in which Confucius was mentioned. It was not the first time, and certainly not the last, that Confucius or Confucianism are used either to criticize a policy or to glorify it! I remember very well the anti-Confucius action “Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius” started in China in the early 1970s.

It started at the initiative of Mao Zedong in 1973 and lasted until the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976. It was, at that time, not clear to me why one should criticise Lin Biao, China’s Defense Minister, who died in September 1971 when his plane crashed in Mongolia, and Confucius who lived some 2500 years ago! It seems that Lin Biao was involved in complot against Mao Zedong and through criticizing him all those involved were warned. But why Confucius?  The action was not against the historical Confucius but against the so-called “Contemporary Confucius”, as mentioned on the poster. The target of the expression “Contemporary Confucius” was nobody else than Zhou En Lai the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, serving from October 1949 until his death in January 1976.

The article was in itself not very interesting but by clicking on a reference I found a publication on the political principles of Mencius written by Francis C. M. Wei and published in 1916[1].

This publication was originally a thesis written for a master’s degree at Boone University, Wuchang (China). In the preface, it is mentioned that the quotations from the Mencius text as well as other Chinese classics are taken from Dr. Legge’s translation. It reminded me that 50 years ago, in 1974, I submitted a thesis on the political ideas of Confucianism as part of my law studies at Leiden University and used the same Chinese classics translated by James Legge. In addition I also used “Doctrine de Confucius Les quatre livres Philosophie morale et politique de la chine M.G. Pauthier”[2]

Reading Francis Wei’s thesis, I wondered what I had written 50 years ago, I remember certain passages but not in detail. I know that somewhere in the works of Mencius there was a phrase that puzzled me for a long time. I didn’t remember the exact meaning of the sentence but what I remember is that it was referring to being always on the road not in the sense of never settling down but rather in the spiritual, intellectual sense of always wanting to explore new paths without specialising in a single subject or, at least, in a very limited number of subjects. I fear however that over the years, I unconsciously modified the formulation of the sentence so that it corresponds to what I felt when I read it for the first time.

[1] Incredible what is available on the internet, I would have loved to consult this document during my studies at the University of Leyden in the 1970s!

[2] Editions Garnier 1900

Out of curiosity, I looked in the attic for the box containing the supporting documents for my thesis and took the books off the shelves in my library, and started looking for that phrase. I made annotations in the books and I was sure that one of them had to be for the sentence I was looking for. It turned out to be rather difficult given that I made hundreds of annotations. After a while I finally found the section with the “famous” phrase, I was a bit disappointed reading it. It confirmed that the phrase etched in my mind had evolved into something more explicit to what I wished it would be.

Chinese classics such as Confucius, Mencius, and Lao Tzu are written extremely concisely. The reader is expected to understand what is implied. At the time these works were written, scholars were trained to explain their meaning. Confucius, for example, had a large number of disciples who travelled around in China to explain his writings. But today, after 2500 years, only specialists can understand the texts.This image shows the section I was looking for written in traditional Chinese[1]. The second image the translation given in Legge’s book on the works of Mencius. Color texts, formulas, etc. helps me remember them.

If one would paste this text in a “Google translate” the outcome will be a disaster exactly for the reasons I mentioned earlier.

The legge translation reads as follows:

“6. Mencius resumed, Then, is it the government of the kingdom which alone can be carried on along with the practice of husbandry[2]? Great men have their proper business, and little men have their proper business. Moreover, in the case of any single individual, whatever articles he can require[3] are ready to his hand, being produced by the various handicraftsmen: —if he must first make them for his own use, this way of doing would keep all the people running about the roads[4]. Hence, there is the saying, “Some labour with minds, and some labour with their strength. Those who labour with their minds govern others; those who labour with their strength are governed by others. Those who are governed by others support them; those who govern others are supported by them.” This is a principle universally recognised.”

Now I come to the point!

My initial reading of the text was that each individual must remain focused on their work in which they excel and not get carried away with other activities which could alter the effectiveness of their actions.

This reading has over time changed slightly in my mind in the sense that it has become “that individuals must specialize in what they are good at”. This now brings me to why I regularly think of the Mencius phrase. I often made the decision to focus my efforts on a single area of knowledge, but the next day or sometimes even the next hour, I was drawn to something new that I wanted to explore. Consequently, I feel that I am not an expert in anything; does this mean that I have failed in the mission prescribed by Mencius or is there another road to follow?

After some reflection, I realize that some non-experts may fall under the doctrine of Mencius.  A typical example is that of (space) system engineers. Space systems engineers are responsible for making sure that all of the subsystems in a spacecraft work together so that the spacecraft meets its objectives. They are part of the spacecraft program lifecycle from start to finish, including designing, building, testing, and, sometimes, deploying the spacecraft. Space systems engineers have a technical understanding (i.e. sufficient knowledge but not specialised expertise) of all of the subsystems involved in a spacecraft, including the structural and electrical systems, thermal control, power, and communication.[1] Their role is crucial for the success of the mission and is therefore, in my opinion, compatible with the ideas of Mencius.

Writing this short article comforts me and constitutes a kind of therapy.  Life is beautiful, but I’m still afraid that I’ll wake up from time to time thinking about this non-specialist business.

To conclude if I had to do it all over again, I would follow exactly the same path, while being grateful that there are specialists to deepen ideas and advance our knowledge.

[1] Good defintion given in

[1] 然則治天下獨可耕且爲與?有大人之事,有小人之事。且一人之身,而百工之所爲備。如必自爲而後用之,是率天下而路也。故曰:或勞心,或勞力;勞心者治人,勞力者治於人;治於人者食人,治人者食於人:天下之通義也.

[2] Means agriculture in this context.

[3] Legge’s footnote:  In 一人之身,而百工之所爲備 the construction is not easy. The correct meaning seems to be that given in the translation. Some take 備 in the sense of “are all required” which would make the construction simpler :— for a single person even, all the productions of the handicraftsmen are necessary? So, in the paraphrase of日講:” Reckoning in the case  of a single individual, his clothes, his food, and his dwelling-place,” the productions of the various workers must all be completed in sufficiency, and then he has abundantly everything for profitable employment, and can without anxiety support his children and parents” This gives a good enough meaning in the connexion, but the signification attached to 備 is hardly otherwise authorised 而路“and  road them,” 奔走道路. Clarification by RO according to Legge: “而路” (and the road) must understood as meaning “奔走道路” run on the road

[4] Emphasis added