Sprouts of Confucius

by Mengzi edited by O Society

Gongsun Chou said, “May I presume to inquire how you, Sir, excel?”

“I can interpret what speech means,” replied Mencius, “and I nurture well my flood-like qi.”

Gongsun Chou asked, “What do you mean by ‘flood-like qi?’”

“It is hard to describe,” said Mencius. “This is a qi that is as vast and firm as can be. If one nurtures it by means of straightforward action and never impairs it, then it will fill all between heaven and earth. It is a qi that is a companion to righteousness and the Dao. Without these, it will starve away. It is generated through the long accumulation of acts of right. It is not something that can be seized through a single righteous act. If in your actions there is any sense of inadequacy in your heart, it will
starve away.

“This is why I say Gaozi never really understood righteousness. He looked for it in external standards other than the heart. But your task must always be before you and you must not go making small adjustments. The task of nurturing this qi must never be forgotten by the heart, but you must not meddle and try to help it grow. Don’t be like the simpleton from the state of Song:

“There was a man of Song who was concerned the sprouts in his field were not growing well, so he went and tugged at each one. He went home utterly exhausted and said, ‘Oh, I’ve made myself ill today! I’ve been out helping the sprouts to grow.’

“His sons rushed out to look and found the stalks all shriveled up. There are few in the world who do not ‘help their sprouts grow.’ There are those who do not ‘weed’ – they have simply given the whole task up as useless. But the ones who tug on the sprouts to
help them grow, they are worse than useless, for they do harm!”

Gongsun Chou asked, “What do you mean when you say you can interpret what speech means?”

“When I hear biased speech, I can tell what obscured the man’s understanding. When I hear excessive speech, I can tell what trap the man has fallen into. When I hear deviant speech, I can tell where the man strayed. When I hear evasive speech, I can tell at what point the man exhausted his reasons.

“When these defects are born in the mind, they bring harm to self-governance, and when proclaimed as policies of state, they bring harm to its affairs. If a sage were to arise again, he would surely affirm what I say…”

~ Mengzi (孟子)

2A.2 (p 39-40 translation Eno)


Translator’s Notes:

Qi 氣.

Qi is a pervasive concern in Chinese thought, In the Mencius it plays a significant role in this passage alone, but in so elaborate a way as to signal its importance to Mencius’ teachings.

In general, qi sometimes denotes a rarified substrate that pervades or constitutes all things in the cosmos. In Warring States thought, it was most often discussed as an animating life force that provides both sustenance and energy to living things, including people.

There appear to have been widespread and various practices for harnessing qi through breathing exercises, physical training, skill cultivation, and forms of focused meditation, to promote health, longevity, and success in action (practices contemporary Chinese medical hygiene continues to rely on).

The most detailed textual description from the era appears in the generally Daoist “Inner Enterprise” (Neiye) chapter of the text Guanzi, where self-cultivation practices focusing on control of the qi are linked to goals of both settling the mind and building the qi into a “floodlike” force, resonant with this Mencius passage.

Qi, conceived as a bodily force, substance, or energy, remains a key concept today in Chinese society today, particularly in medicine and martial arts.
Will (zhi 志; also ambition, integrity).

Here, the will serves as a link between the mind and action, while the initiation and strength of action is connected to the qi.“Will” renders the word zhi, a term which is closely linked to action, as its role as “leader of the heart” in 2A.2 implies.

Elsewhere, zhi seems best translated as “ambition” (7B.34). Moral ambition is associated with the character of a person worthy of being called a gentleman, or shi, the written graph for which appears in some orthographic forms of zhi (including modern forms), added to the graph for xin (heart). It is in the sense of “ambition” zhi is used in key passages of the Analects, where Confucius asks his disciples to “tell me your zhi” (5.26, 11.26).

At some points, however, zhi seems best rendered as “integrity” (7A.31) denoting a strength of purpose that can be relied upon not to be swayed (see Analects 9.26: “One can seize the general in charge of the three army divisions, but one cannot seize the zhi of a peasant”).

The description of self-cultivation here engages physical, intentional, and moral dimensions.

“The man from Song” was a proverbial way of referring to a simpleton or bumpkin.

Sage (sheng 聖).

The term “sage” denotes an ideal of the highest order, combining wisdom, virtue, and their demonstration in action.The term “sage” (sheng 聖) denotes a supreme level of both moral perfection and wisdom in a hierarchy of terms that includes “gentleman” (shi 士), “worthy man” (xian 賢), and junzi 君子.

The term “sage,” when applied to individuals, generally denotes an exemplary person of historical importance. Yao and Shun are models of sages: they pair moral perfection with the highest levels of political accomplishment. Men famous for living lives dedicated to extremes of moral will, such as Bo Yi and Liuxia Hui, are also called sages in the Mencius. A discussion of such men in 5B.1 makes clear for Mencius, Confucius was the greatest of sages.

All these figures might also be termed “worthies” or junzis; “sage” denotes their inclusion in the most exclusive group of moral exemplars.

Sprouts (miao苗).

Mencius’ take is humans all have “sprouts” of virtue.

A famous metaphor for the need to cultivate these sprouts gradually (never outrunning the current ethical capacity of the individual) is the story of the foolish farmer from Song( Mencius 2A2), who pulled on his plants (miao 苗) to make them grow faster, thereby uprooting and killing them.

Some translators identify the plant as “corn.” Others as “rice.” Both are wrong. Rice was not a staple crop in Mencius’ China, and corn is a New World grain, unknown even to ZHU Xi. Mencius probably imagined his farmer pulling up something like millet.

Even more importantly, miao is not any plant name. It means “sprout,” as in an echo of Mencius 2A6.

Virtue (de 德).

“Virtue” translates the term de, which denotes a global quality of personality which generally suggests both a commitment to morality and an ability to attract and influence others.

In earlier periods, the de of a power holder was connected with his ability and willingness to provide benefits of rank and wealth to others, making him an object of loyalty in, say, a manner comparable to a European feudal lord or contemporary Mafia don.

In Confucianism and other philosophical schools of the time, de was an ethical term.

Nevertheless, as the Tang Dynasty figure Han Yu 韓愈 argued, de is basically an ethically neutral term. One can speak of a person’s “bad de,” and a horse could be valued for its de (though even here, the Confucians tended to moralize de, as in Analects 14.33: “The Master said, ‘A fine horse is not praised for its strength, but for its virtue’”).



Further Reading:

Confucianism: Chinese Text Project

Mengzi: translated by Robert Eno (PDF)

Mengzi: Stanford Encyclopedia Philosophy

Mengzi: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Mengzi: Wikipedia

The Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition (review by Bryan Norton)

Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy



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