A Journal of Comparative Philosophy
“Benevolence-Righteousness” as Strategic
Terminology: Reading Mengzi’s “Ren-Yi”
through Strategic Manuals
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“Benevolence-Righteousness”as Strategic Terminology:
Reading Mengzi’s“Ren-Yi”through Strategic Manuals
#Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016
Abstract This essay offers an experimental interpretation for Mengzi’s孟子 ren-yi 仁義
discourses, reading them as strategic prescriptions akin to those presented in classical
strategic manuals. However, rather than arguing that it is the correct interpretation of
Mengzi, I use it to highlight the ambiguity of Mengzi’s discourses. This ambiguity, I
argue, motivated Zhuangzi’s莊子criticisms of moral language abuse and rationalizes
some early narratives about Mengzi.
Keywords Mengzi 孟子 .Zhuangzi 莊子.Strategic manuals .Ren-Yi 仁義
The terms ren 仁and yi 義in early Chinese texts (from the pre-Han 漢and Han periods)
are traditionally translated as “benevolence”(or “humanity”)and“righteousness”(or
“appropriateness”and “propriety”) respectively. They are believed to be referring to the
ethical values or qualities ascribed by early Ruists and Mohists to good governance or
virtuous rulers. The compound ren-yi 仁義, therefore, is often understood as a catch-all
phrase for the important political-ethical principles associated with Ruist or Mohist
philosophy. In contrast with early Ruist or Mohist texts, the trademark of the Zhuangzi
莊子is a strong antagonism to ren-yi.AstheZhuangzi also famously attacks ru-mo 儒墨
(traditionally understood as “Ruists and Mohists”), its harsh criticisms of ren-yi might
appear to be criticisms of the Ruist and Mohist theories of ren and yi.
An analysis of the meaning of ru-mo, however, may yield a different interpretive
framework for Zhuangzi’scriticismsofren-yi and ultimately for early understandings
of the ren-yi in the Mengzi 孟子. I have argued that the compound ru-mo in the
Department of Philosophy, Tunghai University, Office H408, No. 1727, Sec. 4, Taiwan Boulevard,
Xitun District, Taichung 40704, Taiwan
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Zhuangzi and other early texts is occasionally used as a pejorative term, which does not
necessarily or exclusively refer to the ru and the mo.Itmeans“advocates of mainstream
values,”carrying the connotation of “hypocrites”or “abusers of moral language.”The
pejorative ru-mo was applied by early authors to political advisors or strategists who,
believed by the authors, ostentatiously propagated ren and yi to seek their own
prominence or manipulating such ethical terms to glorify or denote certain types of
power-struggle tactics (Lee 2014). This interpretation of ru-mo can explain why the
Zhuangzi rebukes the ru-mo’spropagatingren-yi as shameless behavior (Zhuangzi 11/
and why the Shiji 史記(Records of the Grand Historian) calls some
hypocritical advisors at the Han court ru-mo (Sima 1969: 2963). It can also explain
why the ru-mo are depicted in the Huainanzi 淮南子and Yantie Lu n 鹽鐵論(Discus-
sions on Salt and Iron) as being solicitous of fame and wealth (N. He 1998:138–139;
L. Wang 1992: 231), and also why the term ru-mo is frequently used in contexts where
ren-yi is mentioned in a negative tone.
The pejorative use of ru-mo has implications for the research of early interpretations
of the ethical statements in the Mengzi.AstheZhuangzi’scriticismsofru-mo and ren-
yi might be directed at strategists’deceptive use of moral language, its critical allusions
to the Mengzi suggest that the Zhuangzi author(s) considered Mengzi (or whoever made
those statements as they are presented in the received Mengzi)aru-mo. In other words,
Mengzi’s ethical statements might have been (mis)understood as strategic prescriptions
that manipulated ethical terms such as ren-yi. This hypothesis squares with SIMA Qian’s
司馬遷(145–90 BCE) narratives about Zhuangzi and Mengzi. According to SIMA Qian,
Zhuangzi intended his writing to criticise the ru-mo of his days, and Mengzi was
contemporaneous to Zhuangzi.
Believing that Mengzi had been wrongly regarded as a
IMA Qian stressed that although Mengzi utilized ru-mo’s discourses, his motive
was not to seek his own prominence but rather to clarify the right principles—that is,
for SIMA Qian, Mengzi was neither a hypocrite nor a strategist who abused moral
language (Sima 1969:3314).
While SIMA Qian found it unfair to consider Mengzi a ru-mo,headmittedthe
resemblance between Mengzi’s and the ru-mo’s moralistic discourses. This gives rise to
the question of why Mengzi’s moralistic discourses could be (mis)read as strategic
prescriptions and susceptible to the criticism of moral language abuse. To answer this
question, I propose to read the ren or ren-yi discourses in the Mengzi alongside those
preserved in strategic manuals. I first argue that the terms ren and ren-yi might have
been used by early strategists to denote certain power-struggle tactics. Next, I offer an
experimental interpretation that reads the strategic use of ren and ren-yi into some of
Mengzi’s ethical discourses. This experimental interpretation casts light on the peculiar
resonance between Mengzi’s and strategists’discourses, and uncovers the reason why
In this essay, quotes from the Zhuangzi refer to Lau et al. 2000. The chapter number is given first, followed
by page and line numbers.
Ru-mo is mentioned and repudiated together with “ren-yi”in several early texts such as the Zhuangzi 11/27/3
–11/27/12, the Han Feizi (X. Wang 2003:446),andtheHuainanzi (N. He 1998: 1297).
“He [Zhuangzi] composed writings that contained more than one hundred thousand words, which primarily
consisted of parables. […] Nonetheless, he was good at organizing writings and formulating expressions and
at alluding to events and comparing realities, by means of which he attacked and exposed the ru-mo”(Sima
See Lee 2014 for more discussions.
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some early Chinese audiences were tempted to adopt a strategic reading of Mengzi’s
moralistic discourses and even suspected that Mengzi was disguising his strategic
counsel as ethical statements. This can also explain the Zhuangzi’scriticalallusions
to the Mengzi as well as its skepticism of the use of ethical terms.
2Ren and Ren-Yi Tact i c s in the Liu Tao
To apprehend why the ren and ren-yi discourses in the Mengzi might have been
(mis)understood as strategic advice, an examination of how these ethical terms were
deployed by early strategists is needed. This section presents a case study of the Liu Tao
六韜(Six Bow Cases), indicating that its ren and ren-yi
often refer to the tactic of
displaying mercy through less killing or the tactic of using material benefits to make
allies and recruit assistants. These ren and ren-yi discourses, as will be shown, do not
instruct one to practice ren or ren-yi as an ethical end but rather as a means to increase
power or to seize the throne of the Son of Heaven.
Early strategic manuals, also known as military texts (bing shu 兵書), are concerned
both with civil and martial measures. They sometimes pay higher regard to civil
measures, to which the term ren and the compound ren-yi are more often applied.
An explanation of this strategic tendency is that the kind of warfare being dealt with is
not necessarily battles against barbarians or invaders. Rather, what is pondered is often
inter-state military competition and rebellion, namely the warfare of vanquishing all
other states and/or overcoming the Son of Heaven. Since the presumed enemies, when
put together, were much more powerful than an individual state, early strategic manuals
(presumably composed for a single state’s application) place emphases on civil means.
The most typical example is the Liu Tao, also called Taigong Bingfa 太公兵法
(Taigong’s Military Strategy), which is believed to have been composed during the
Warring States period (Sawyer 1993:35–37; Johnston 1998:43;Yang2002). The kind
of warfare the Liu Tao deals with is evidently rebellion, or to use its own expression,
“qu tian xia 取天下”(obtaining the world). It features fictitious dialogues between
Taigong and King Wen 文and King Wu 武, wherein Taigong advises them on how to
overthrow the Son of Heaven of the Shang 商dynasty (ca. 1600–1046 BCE). Since the
target is the ultimate power, pre-emptive and immediate military confrontation is
considered disastrous. Civil operations, such as infiltrating the domain of the Son of
Heaven and expanding one’s basis of internal and external support, are therefore
considered more efficacious. The basic idea of these civil operations is this: to maintain
the service of one’s own people, to win the target’s people over, and to ensure that one
The presence of the compound ren-yi , however, may perhaps indicate a relatively later dating of the
discourses (Pines 2002: 697). It may be possible that the Liu Tao in its present form does not predate the
Mengzi and the Zhuangzi, and (some of) the ren-yi discourses preserved in the received Liu Tao might have
been adapted by later editors. Yet, I assume that this type of discourse was not uncommon in the pre-Han and
early Han periods, when the anti-ren-yi statements of the Zhuangzi were composed. They might have
originally used the term ren or yi instead of the compound ren-yi.
Due to these features, some characterize Chinese strategic culture as advocating the principle of subjugating
enemies by virtue, or the principle of limited use of violence. For a brief overview and reflections on this
characterization, see Johnston 1998:1–31 and Sawyer 2004:1–9.
The “civil”strategies are not devised for armed conflicts between two comparable forces, but for the weak to
defeat the strong, or for the inferior to subvert the superior (Sawyer 1993:23–27).
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will meet little resistance along the way, one should show willingness to share benefits
and mercy to spare innocent lives. The “sharing benefits”and “displaying mercy”
tactics are often termed or described as ren or ren-yi.
2.1 Ren-Yi as “Sharing Benefits”Tact ic s
Two m ajor “sharing benefits”tactics in the Liu Tao areabout,first,consolidating
internal support (dominating and exercising the authority to reward the subjects) and,
second, winning others’people over or making allies (promising them abundant
benefits after the success). According to the Liu Tao, to bring one’ssubjectstogether
and get them to further one’s own cause, one should follow the principle of ren-yi,
namely rewarding and punishing them properly:
King Wen said, “What do you mean by ren-yi?”Ta i g ong sai d , “Respect your
multitude and unite your confidants. If you respect your multitude, your multi-
tude will be harmonious; if you unite your confidants, your confidants will be
delighted. This is what I mean by the principle of ren-yi. Do not allow others to
snatch away your awe. Conform to the conspicuous (ming 明) and follow the
regular. The compliant, you employ with virtue; the defiant, you thwart with
Taigong in this passage teaches King Wen to use ren-yi to maintain domestic support.
While this ren-yi is depicted as cultivating one’s relationship with the subjects, its actual
content is about rewarding and punishing subjects in the right way. The right way is to
hold power tightly in hand and let the subjects clearly see that their ruler is constantly
rewarding the obedient and punishing the disobedient. Once the subjects are instilled
with the belief that they will obtain incentives through obedience and receive disin-
centives due to disobedience, they will behave in accordance with the ruler’s wishes; or
to use Taigong’s words, they will be “harmonious”and “delighted.”
Therefore, in order to “practice ren”(wei ren 為仁)—namely, using incentives and
disincentives to unite subjects—one has to be rich:
For this reason a ruler must engage in the undertaking of wealth. If he is not
wealthy, he cannot practice ren, if he does not bestow favors, he cannot unite his
confidants. (Xu 1976: 64; cf. Sawyer 1993:47)
Similar to the re n-yi tactic we just saw, this phrase “practicing ren”means employing
subjects by offering benefits. It does not suggest that one practices ren (be generous to
others) for its own sake but rather for consolidating one’s internal support.
My translation of ming 明differs from Sawyer 1993: 51, which ren ders ming as “wisdom.”The rendering of
“conspicuous,”though, is supported by “Shang Fa 賞罰”(“Rewards and Punishments”) chapter: “Rewards and
punishments must be made heard and seen by ears and eyes, so that even those who do not hear and see [in
person] will be transformed unconsciously.”
This Liu Tao statement may seem to be a description of the consequence of bestowing favors to others—if
one does so, one will naturally win over others’hearts. Yet the statement is made in a context of explaining
why the ren tactic can work. Since bestowing favors will lead to this consequence, Taigong stresses, a ruler
should not allow others to obtain the prerogative to reward the people.
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The same tactic of ren is also applied to attracting “all under Heaven,”namely, the
people under the rule of the Son of Heaven. To win over these people, one should be
ren, that is, one should share benefits with them:
Tai gong s aid, “The world is not a world for one man, the world is for the world.
One who shares the benefits of the world can obtain the world; one who
monopolizes the benefits of the world will lose the world. Heaven has its seasons
and earth has its resources. One who shares is ren; whoever manifests ren can
have the world turn to him.”(Xu 1976: 41; cf. Sawyer 1993:41)
The sentence “The world is not a world for one man, the world is for the world”
appears almost verbatim in the Lüshi Chunqiu 呂氏春秋(Mr. Lü’s Spring and Autumn
Annals). While the Lüshi Chunqiu uses this sentence to articulate the notion of gong 公
(“impartiality”or “public mind”)(Zhang1987:21),
the Liu Tao uses it to glorify the
tactic of winning the Son of Heaven’s people over by sharing benefits with them. This
ren tactic is mocked in the Zhuangzi, which says that the ren of a robber (a thief of the
throne) means fair distribution of stolen goods.
The tactic of “distributing stolen
goods”is also explained in another passage of the Liu Tao:
Great benefit is/does not benefit. The world will open for one who benefits the
world; the world will close to one who harms the world. The world is not the
world for one man, it is the world for the world. To acquire the world is analogous
to chasing a wild animal; all in the world have the mind to split and take pieces of
the meat. (Xu 1976: 81; cf. Sawyer 1993:54)
Similar sentences of “Great benefit is/does not benefit”(da li bu li 大利不利)appearin
several early texts. In these texts, such sentences can be rendered as “great benefit is not
beneficial,”or “great benefit is not self-benefiting”(Defoort 2008). They may express
the wisdom that the real benefit is not material benefit or the moral principle that one
should benefit others without taking benefits from them. Yet the Liu Tao uses this
sentence to make this strategic point: to acquire the world, one should not grudge
sharing minuscule benefits with others. In other words, its “great benefit”means “the
utmost power”and its “does not benefit”refers to the tactic of sharing petty benefits
with others. As the chasing-animal analogy suggests, an aspirant to the throne is like a
hunter of a wild animal in that his helpers desire to have a share afterward.
should not be parsimonious to those who are to help him.
2.2 Ren-Yi as “Displaying Mercy”Tac t i c s
The “displaying mercy”tactics aim to transform the target’s common people or soldiers
into silent sympathisers or bystanders when the ultimate moment arrives. To achieve
this, one should show his moral superiority by sparing innocent lives or presenting the
For the ethical concept of gong in early texts, see Svarverud 1998: 243–244. For the pragmatics of gong,
see Goldin 2005:58–65.
Zhuangzi 10/24/30: “Dividing evenly is ren.”
A similar analogy is found in the Lüshi Chunqiu (Zhang 1987:581).
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target as a lonely tyrant, who can be justifiably killed.
Such tactics, according to
histories, were often abetted by the lonely tyrant himself through self-destructive
behavior—such as slaughtering worthy ministers and maltreating the populace. Still,
one can actively contribute to this by sending out a clear message that one will kill only
this lonely tyrant and those who try to defend him. The tactic of displaying mercy and
isolating the target is also termed ren-yi:
Do not set fire to what the people have accumulated and stored; do not destroy the
people’s palaces and houses, nor cut down the trees at gravesites and altars. Do
not kill those who surrender nor slay captives. Display ren-yi to them; bestow
generous virtue to them. Cause his soldiers and commoners to say: “The guilt lies
with one man.”In this way the world will become harmonious and submissive.
While the ren-yi behavior described in this passage exemplifies mercy and restricted
use of violence,
it does not necessarily involve a moral commitment—as it is declared,
the goal of these ren-yi practices is to make all under Heaven “harmonious and
submissive.”Moreover, this Liu Tao passage explicitly instructs the aggressor to have
the people of the besieged territory spread this message: their ruler, not the aggressor, is
responsible for the invasion.
In other words, this ren-yi practice is intended to make
the people of the besieged territory give up fighting, stay out of the way, turn against
their ruler, or even feel grateful to the aggressor.
As we have seen, the terms ren and ren-yi might have been used by early strategists
to describe the tactics of consolidating internal alliance with rewards, enlarging external
bases of support through sharing benefits, and dissolving resistance by exhibiting
mercy or presenting the target as a tyrant. This usage of ren and ren-yi subtly exploit
the evaluative connotations of the ethical terms. The performance of those tactics,
indeed, could be called ren-yi in a sense because it resembles the behavior of being
generous or kind to others. Yet, it does not imply one’s possession of the virtues of ren
and yi or devotion to the values of ren and yi—it might simply be an execution of the
tactics designed for employing or overcoming others. Thus early Chinese might have
perhaps found this usage of the term ren-yi deceptive—if they held that being generous
to others only in order to make use of them, or being merciful to others after
intimidating them with force, was neither ren nor yi. As a result, when early Chinese
encountered a ren-yi discourse, they might probably wonder whether it was an ethical
statement or a strategic advice. This, I believe, was the backdrop against which strategic
readings of Mengzi’s ethical discourses emerged.
It may be interesting to compare this tactic of “isolating the target”with Mengzi’s“amerefellow”(yi fu 一
夫) and Xunzi’s荀子“lonely fellow”(du fu 獨夫) discourses (cf. Graham 2003:116–117; Van Norden 2007:
My translation follows Sawyer 1993:87.
The same tactic is prescribed in the Wuzi 吳子(Sawyer 1993: 223) and Weiliaozi 尉繚子(Sawyer 1993:54–
Similar tactics are found in the Wuzi (Sawyer 1993: 209), Weiliaozi (Sawyer 1993:54–55), and Lüshi
Chunqiu (Zhang 1987: 201).
I believe th at Mengzi’s words might have been read strategically because they are ambiguous and akin to
early strategic manuals—not because I assume anything regarding Mengzi’s intentions and motives, or the
consequences resulted from his advice. Readers interested in such issues may consult Sato 2003: 71, 106–108.
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3 Strategic Reading of the Mengzi’sRen-Yi Discourses
Early Chinese audiences who were aware of the use of ren and ren-yi as strategic terms
might have been tempted to read it into Mengzi’s ethical discourses. Part of the reason,
as will be demonstrated in the following experimental interpretation, is that many
ethical discourses in the Mengzi are ambiguous and reminiscent of strategic
Many Mengzi passages do not seem to cast Mengzi as a moral philosopher but rather
as a strategic consultant—or to use Mengzi’s own expression, a wang zhe shi 王者師(a
consultant of wang-would-be). The expression is ambiguous. It could mean “ateacher
of the true king,”namely someone who teaches the ruler to become a virtuous king. It
could also be taken to mean “aconsultantoftheSonofHeaven-would-be,”
implies assisting a territorial ruler to overthrow and replace the Son of Heaven on the
throne. The former interpretation attributes an ethical enterprise to the Mengzi,whereas
the latter suggests a rebellious agenda—although, one can argue, the Mengzi holds that
overthrowing and replacing a bad Son of Heaven is a virtuous deed. While current
interpretations tend to consider Mengzi’swang zhe shi exclusively as an ethical
enterprise, I try to interpret some ethical discourses in the Mengzi as advice for a
territorial ruler to conquer other states and seize the ultimate throne. In order to show
why this strategic reading would undermine Mengzi’s reputation, making him suscep-
tible to the Zhuangzi’s criticism of the ru-mo, I will offer for each Mengzi citation an
“unnecessarily cynical”paraphrase in brackets. These paraphrases serve not as trans-
lations but as a heuristic tool for highlighting the ambiguity of Mengzi’s ethical
A moralistic reading of Mengzi’swang zhe shi is based on a moralistic interpretation
of the dichotomy of wang and ba 霸(often rendered as “hegemon”). According to the
Mengzi, Mengzi was more interested in tutoring a ruler to become a wang instead of a
King Xuan of Qi [Qi Xuan Wang 齊宣王]asked,“May I hear stories about Duke
Huan of Qi [Qi Huan Gong 齊桓公] and Duke Wen of Jin [Jin Wen Gong 晉文
公]?”Mengzi replied, “The followers of Zhongni did not speak of the stories
about Huan and Wen, therefore the stories were not transmitted to later genera-
tions. [Thus,] your servant [I] have not heard of them. If you will have me to
speak, how about I speak of wang?”(Mengzi 1A7)
(King Xuan of Qi asked, “Can you teach me how to become a hegemon?”
Mengzi replied: “Forget about hegemony. If you aspire to accomplish great
things, let us talk about becoming the Son of Heaven.”)
A moralistic reading may hold that Mengzi favored wang over ba because he consid-
ered the former morally superior to the latter, since the notion of ba implies subjugating
other states solely with force (Loewe and Shaughnessy 1999: 989; Van Norden 2007:
For a brief discussion of wang zhe 王者, see Pines 2009: 26. For the implications of wang 王, see Allan
2009: 19, 229 n5. For a close survey on the usage of tian zi 天子and wang, see Ishii 1999:125–158.
In this essay, quotes from the Mengzi follow the numbering of Legge 1970.
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121). However, early strategists too thought resorting solely to force was less recom-
mendable. Their reason was not that using force was unethical but that it was not
feasible as far as interstate competition or rebellion was considered. This might be the
reason Mengzi found the approach of ba problematic. It might also be that Mengzi
despised the enterprise of ba because a ba was still subject to the sovereignty of the Son
Thus, Mengzi belittled ba and was more passionate about the business of
wang (helping a territorial ruler become the next Son of Heaven).
Under the foregoing interpretation, the Mengzi portrayed in the Mengzi looks akin to
the Taigong depicted in the Liu Tao: both offer counsel for territorial rulers to seize the
utmost power. Beyond the similar portrayals of Mengzi and Taigong, as we will
continue to see, the ren-yi in the Mengzi could also be interpreted as denoting the
tactics presented in the Liu Tao. An example is the opening section of the Mengzi:
Mengzi met King Hui of Liang [Liang Hui Wang 梁惠王]. The king said:
“Venerable sir, the fact that you have not counted it far to come here from a
thousand li 里afar, does that not mean you have counsels that can benefit my
state?”Mengzi replied, “Why must your Majesty say ‘benefit?’It is nothing but
ren-yi [more lit., there is also ren-yi and that is it].”(Mengzi 1A1)
(Mengzi met King Hui of Liang. The king said: “Have you come down the long
way here because you have advices to advance my benefits?”Mengzi said: “Let
us not say ‘benefit,’it is wiser to use the term ren-yi.”)
Remember that ren-yi in the Liu Tao refers to such tactics as accumulating, sharing, and
distributing benefits. If Mengzi employed ren-yi in a similar way, he might be
recommending King Hui of Liang (r. 369–319 BCE) to replace li 利(benefit) with
the strategic term ren-yi.
This reading is confirmed by Mengzi’sspeechthatimme-
If Your Majesty says “with what can my state be benefited”; the high-ranking
ministers say “with what can my house be benefited”; the low-ranking officers
and the common people say “with what can I be benefited.”The superior and
for benefits, and the state will be endangered. One who
assassinates the ruler of a state of ten thousand chariots must be [the chief of] a
Duke Huan of Qi (r. 685–643 BCE) and Duke Wen of Jin (r. 636–628 BCE) were ba of the Spring and
Autumn period (722–476 BCE). They were once powerful enough to lead other states, but they never rose to
be the Son of Heaven.
Therefore, Mengzi took it as an insult when his disciple compared him to GUAN Zhong 管仲(683–642
BCE), the chief advisor of Duke Huan of Qi (Mengzi 2A1). Mengzi claimed that Kongzi 孔子 (551–479 BCE)
had shared the same attitude toward the business of ba. Interestingly, the Shiji has a similar comment about
Kongzi. It states that Kongzi belittled GUAN Zhong because GUAN Zhong failed to persuade Duke Huan to
strive to become a wang: the best GUAN Zhong could do was to assist Duke Huan to behave as a ba (Sima
For an alternative translation, see Graham 2003: 114 and Van Norden 2007: 302.
For the rendering of jiao 交(often rendered as “mutually”)as“all,”see Jiao 1987:37.
Many translate this zheng 征as zheng 爭(“compete”or “seize”)(e.g.,Graham2003: 104; Van Norden
2007: 302). This translation goes back to ZHAO Qi 趙岐(108–201) (Jiao 1987: 37). Not intending to reject this
common translation, I render the term as “campaign/maneuver/conquer”(the frequent sense of zheng 征)
because the term occurs also in the same chapter (Mengzi 1A5), where it means “attack.”
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house of a thousand chariots. One who assassinates the ruler of a house of a
thousand chariots must be [the chief of] a house of a hundred chariots. To have a
thousand in ten thousand, and a hundred in a thousand, cannot be said to be not
many. But if [your subjects] put yi last and put benefit first, they will not be
satisfied without snatching more. There has never been a man who is ren but
abandons his parents; there has never been a man who is yi but put last his lord.
What Your Majesty is saying is nothing but “ren-yi,”why must you say “bene-
(Speaking of “benefit,”you make clear that you are seeking benefits. Your
assistants will then want to share more, even if they have already received a lot
of rewards from you. If you speak of ren-yi instead, they will be instilled with the
proper values and behave right accordingly. What you are saying is also ren-yi
and you do not have to use the term “benefit.”)
Mengzi’s statements can be understood as a stress on the value of ren and yi over
benefits, but it might also be possible that Mengzi was reminding the king of the
interchangeability of “benefit”and ren-yi as a strategic term. As we have seen, ren-yi as
a strategic term refers to consolidating allegiance by offering benefits. To do this, one
should accumulate wealth, that is, more benefits. Accumulating wealth to reward others
is considered crucial for obtaining the “great benefit,”namely, the utmost power. Thus,
by the phrase ren-yi, King Hui could refer to the various kinds of “benefit”he desired,
such as allegiance, wealth, and power; he did not have to use the word “benefit.”By
using the term ren-yi, he can keep his desires unstated and prevent his subordinates
from thinking in directions that could be harmful to him.
It should be noted that ren is also applied in the Liu Tao to good generals. It says that
ageneralisren if he does not act against the ruler who has made him rich (Sawyer
1993: 46). Mengzi made a similar point. He implied that if the subjects were not taught
to be ren-yi, they would think and behave rebelliously. As Mengzi subtly put it,
rewarding a subject with one-tenth of the ruler’s benefits (wealth and power) was very
generous already. Yet if this subject was not indoctrinated with ren-yi, he would still
feel unsatisfied: he would not see the reward as his ruler’sren- yi (generosity), but as a
small share of the benefits he had helped his ruler accumulate. For this reason, a wise
ruler should derail his subjects’attention from his benefits to the “proper norms”—he
should speak of ren-yi rather than “benefit.”Mengzi therefore reiterated, “What Your
Majesty is saying is nothing but ren-yi, why must you say ‘benefit’.”
Mengzi then moved on to talk about ordinary soldiers and other rulers’people.
When facing these masses, he said, a ruler should “practice ren governance.”This “ren
governance”also covered a variety of tactics:
Mengzi replied: “With a territory which is only a hundred li square, it is possible
to become a wang. If Your Majesty apply a ren governance to the people, spare in
punishments, and reduce taxes and levies to make ploughing deep and weeding
prompt. The strong-bodied use their leisure days to cultivate their filial piety,
fraternal respectfulness, loyalty, and trustworthiness, with which they serve their
fathers and elder brothers inside and serve their elders and superiors outside. They
then can be employed to make clubs so as to beat the strong mails and sharp
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weapons of the troops of Qin 秦and Chu 楚. They [the rulers of those/other
states] rob their people of their time, so that the people cannot plough and weed
their fields to feed their parents. Their fathers and mothers freeze and starve;
brothers, wives, and children are parted and scattered. As they [the rulers of those/
other states] are sinking and drowning their peoples, Your Majesty go forth and
conquer them, who will be a match for you? Thus it is said: ‘The ren have no
match.’I beg your Majesty not to doubt it!”(Mengzi 1A5; translation adapted
from Graham 2003:113–114)
(Mengzi replied: “A ruler of a small state can still seize the world. If you reduce
punishments and taxation, develop agriculture, make the strong-bodied learn
proper values, they will follow the values in serving their parents as well as
you. You then can have them fight your enemies, however fierce. You will also
meet little resistance in other states when you attack them. Because compared to
your people’s living conditions, the peoples of other states suffer as if they are
drowning. If you attack those states, these peoples will think that you are rescuing
The term bai li 百里(a hundred li square) alludes to the story that King Wen of Zhou
(Zhou Wen Wang 周文王) successfully undermined the Shang 商dynasty on the basis
of a small territory (Sawyer 1993:23–27). Mengzi’s first statement thus could be
interpreted as: through “ren governance,”even a ruler of a small state can still rise to
Mengzi’s“ren governance”refers to reduced punishments and taxations, state
devotion to agriculture, and moral education. The first two policies could ensure that
the people’s basic needs are met and that the state becomes wealthy. Regarding the third
policy, Mengzi mentioned moral qualities such as filial piety and loyalty. As in the Liu
Tao, these qualities are supposedly to be possessed by the subjects, not by the ruler.
Mengzi stressed that, having these nice qualities, the people will fight the enemies for
their ruler no matter how fierce these enemies are. As Mengzi suggested, this “ren
governance”would make the poorly armed people combat those armed to the teeth.
The above reading leads to this interpretation. Mengzi’s“ren governance”implies at
best reduced suffering of the people, and it is intended to make one’s own subjects go to
war and others’subjects give up resistance. Under this governance, the people are to be
exploited less and have time to farm to feed their families. It is true that treating the
people well captures an ethical dimension of “ren governance.”Yet, at the same time, it
has strategic goals. For one thing, this relatively benign governance will strengthen the
ruler’s internal support and increase his wealth.
Another thing is, as Mengzi sug-
gested, being nice to your own people is important when other rulers are maltreating
their people. If you can establish a good reputation, you can present your war as a
crusade. The people of other states will not resist, and perhaps even perceive your army
as a savior, welcoming you when the day comes.
This point is also made by the Lüshi
Compare this reading with Birdwhistell 2007:67–68 and Denecke 2010: 170.
A similar prescription is given in the Liu Tao (Sawyer 1993: 43). Graham thinks that this Mengzi passage
shows that Mengzi sees “the support of the people as the source of legitimacy”(Graham 2003: 115).
This tactic may rely on a common psyche of the oppressed (Sharp 2012:8–13).
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Chunqiu, which states: “The more massively the people have suffered from poverty
and distress, the more easily [one can] become a wang”(Zhang 1987: 581). The same
point, as we will see, appears in other passages of the Mengzi.
Another ruler to whom Mengzi provided counsel was King Xuan of Qi (r. 319–310
BCE). Mengzi at that time believed that the King of Qi could easily become a wang,
because the territory of Qi (a thousand li square) was far larger than that of King Wen of
Zhou (a hundred li square), and more importantly, the people of Qi’s rivals were more
seriously abused than the people of the Shang (King Wen’s rival). If King Wen of Zhou
could undermine the Shang, King Xuan of Qi should have a much better chance to
become the next Son of Heaven. The suffering of the people of other states was again
considered by Mengzi as advantageous because the more they suffered, the better
chance one had to overthrow their rulers. As Mengzi put it, the starved would not be
picky about food (Mengzi 2A1). People who are severely tortured were like the
starving: they would welcome any foreign savior. For this reason, Mengzi believed,
the King of Qi had a good chance to become the wang.
Mengzi’s counsels for Qi also mention “ren governance.”It appears in the famous
story of the abdication of King Kuai of Yan (Yan Wang Kuai 燕王噲). While the exact
details of this story vary in different texts (Qian 2000:399–401), the core of the plot is
that Mengzi initially encouraged Qi to attack Yan while underestimating Qi’sstrategic
illiteracy—Qi failed to “practice ren governance”in Yan. According to the Mengzi,
SHEN Tong 沈同, a Qi minister, asked Mengzi whether the abdication of the King of
Yan would render attacking Yan approvable (ke 可). Mengzi’sresponsewas:ke (an
answer that can conveniently incur confusion between “morally approvable”and
“practically feasible”). Mengzi told SHEN Tong a pretext under which Qi could
justifiably attack Yan—Yan did not transmit the throne under the decree from the
Son of Heaven (Mengzi 2B17). It might be possible that Mengzi was just expressing his
opinions regarding the issue of abdication (Pines 2005; Defoort 2006). Yet early
Chinese interpreters might not have thought so. The Zhanguo Ce 戰國策(Stratagems
of the Warring States), for example, insinuates that Mengzi was encouraging the King
of Qi to grasp the precious opportunity of becoming the wang. It paraphrases Mengzi’s
MENG Ke 孟軻said to King Xuan of Qi, “Now, attacking Yan is grabbing the
moment of Wen and Wu, you should not miss it.”(He 1990: 1105)
(MENG Ke said to King Xuan of Qi, “You should attack Yan to seize the
opportunity to further your power.”)
“Wen a n d Wu”refers to the founding rulers of Zhou 周(1122 –211 BCE), namely
King Wen 文and his son King Wu 武.
In contexts about military struggle, it stands for
the exemplar of presenting one’s war as virtuous: King Wen and King Wu made the
best use of various tactics to attract the populaces of Shang to their side, to overthrow
the Son of Heaven of the Shang, and to build a new dynasty. Additionally, the tactic of
capturing the right moment/opportunity (shi 時), or judging whether a military act is
The phrase wen wu 文武may also refer to civil and martial attainment (Goldin 2005:6;McNeal2012:5,9,
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feasible/approvable (ke), is elaborated in early strategic manuals as well as in the Lüshi
Chunqiu (Zhang 1987: 69). This tactic is mocked in the Zhuangzi: a robber’szhi 知
(wisdom) is the capacity of knowing whether a house can be broken into.
attributing this “Wen Wu”speech to Mengzi, the Zhanguo Ce insinuates that Mengzi
was plotting for Qi to grab the precious opportunity to invade Yan and increase its
The King of Qi adopted Mengzi’s advice. Yet he got into trouble before long: other
states then planned to attack Qi for its invasion of Yan. Someone asked Mengzi about
this, perhaps suggesting that Mengzi’s strategic advice was terrible. Mengzi empha-
sized that it was not his advice, and that he had not even had a chance to present
substantive tactics for Qi (Mengzi 2B17). Mengzi complained that SHEN Tong, t he Qi
minister, did not correctly put the question. If SHEN To ng had a sked “who”could attack
Yan, Mengzi would have told him that Qi should attack Yan “as a tian li 天吏,”meaning
presenting the Qi army as a representative of Heaven.
Mengzi did not think that Qi
should not have invaded Yan. Instead, he believed that Qi could have justifiably smitten
Yan if it had adopted the right strategy. Yet Qi did not present its war as glorious
liberation but as a battle of one power-hungry competitor attacking another. Thus, what
devastated Mengzi might be Qi’s sheer ignorance in strategy: Qi failed to turn its war
into a crusade. This interpretation squares with what Mengzi said to King Xuan of Qi:
The people of Qi, having attacking Yan, took possession of it. The rulers of
various other states were planning to rescue Yan. King Xuan said [to Mengzi]:
“The rulers of other states formed many plans to attack me, how shall I prepare
myself against them?”
Mengzi replied: “I have heard, there was a man who, with seventy li,dispensed
the governance over the world; this man was Tang 湯. I have never heard of one,
having a thousand li, who still fears others. (Mengzi 1B11)
(Mengzi replied: “King Tang had a small territory, but he still took over the
world. You have a large territory, so you should have no reason to fear other
Mengzi’s immediate reaction was not, as ZHU Xi 朱熹(1130–1200) implied,
reproaching the king for his using brutal force against the ruthless Yan army (Li
1986:1303;Zhu1999: 343). Rather, Mengzi said, King Tang, as a ruler of a state of
seventy li square, could still overthrow a dynasty, so the King of Qi, as a ruler of a state
of a thousand li square, should not fear anyone. A ruler of a large state should not fear
because he could easily regain the upper hand. Mengzi continued to analyze the
Zhuangzi 10/24/30: “Knowing whether it is ke or not is wisdom”(zhi ke fou, zhi ye 知可否,知也).
JIAO Xun 焦循believed that Mengzi had the mind to plot for Qi to attack Yan (Jiao 1987:290).
ZHAO Qi gave an intriguing remark: “Atian li is someone who is employed by Heaven, which means, a
wang who acquires the will of Heaven”(Tian li, Tian suo shi, wei wang zhe de Tianyi zhe ye 天吏,天所使,謂王
者得天意者也). The latter half may mean “the wang who is supported by/claims to follow the will of Heaven”
or “awang-would-be who is supported by/claims to follow the will of Heaven.”To see which reading fits the
Mengzi better, we may turn to another occurrence of tian li in Mengzi 2A5, which implies that a tian li is a
wang-would-be who has won over others’people (Jiao 1987:289;Zhu1999:328).
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mistakes Qi had made in the war, and taught the king how to lift the crisis without
jeopardizing his own benefits:
Now the ruler of Yan has been maltreating his people, and Your Majesty went and
punished him. The people supposed that you were going to rescue them from
water and fire; with baskets of foods and pots of drinks, they welcomed Your
Majesty’s army. If you kill their fathers and elder brothers, tie up their sons and
younger brothers, destroy their ancestral temple, and move their heavy vessels,
how would it be approvable? The world has been fearing Qi’s strength. Now you
compounded it by expanding your territory without practicing ren governance;
this is activating the armies of the world. Your Majesty should hastily issue an
ordinance to release the old and young, stop moving the heavy vessels, consult
with the multitude of Yan to install a ruler, and then withdraw from it. In this way
you may still stop it in time. (Mengzi 2B18)
(The ruler of Yan had been maltreating his people. Thus when you attacked it, his
people thought that you were to rescue them. However, you killed and captured
their families, and exterminated Yan by destroying the ancestral temple and
snatching away the ritual vessels. This can hardly be considered as approvable.
Rulers of other states have long been being afraid of Qi’s power. Now your
behavior gave them a justified reason to attack you. You should immediately have
the captives released and vessels returned. Negotiate with the elites from Yan to
install a new ruler, and then withdraw your army. Other states will then find no
pretext to declare war on you.)
Mengzi’sdescriptionof“ren governance”is reminiscent, in content and expression, of
the transmitted strategic manuals as well as the Zhongshan 中山bronze inscriptions and
the Lüshi Chunqiu (Lin 2003:336–338).
We read in these texts that a “ren”or “yi”
tactic is calming the populace and isolating the ruler of the besieged state. A “ren-yi”
army is able to make the populace believe that it is here only to eradicate a specific
target, and not to kill or destroy all around. However, Qi failed to follow these tactics.
This was why other states could easily find a justification to attack Qi.
Again, Mengzi’s“ren governance”does not necessarily imply a moral commitment.
He did not say that Qi’sfailurein“practicing ren governance”in Yan was morally wrong.
Instead, he thought it was strategically erroneous—or to use his own words, “this is
activating the armies of the world”against Qi. Thus, what concerned Mengzi was the
undesirable consequence of Qi’s strategic mistakes. Mengzi therefore went on: the King
of Qi did not need to panic. Since Qi was powerful, other states would not act recklessly
without a solid reason. So, what the King of Qi had to do was to release captives and
return stolen goods. Next, he had to negotiate a new ruler with the “multitude of Yan”(an
expression which seems to be deliberately vague) before withdrawing his troops. Mengzi
did not need to make explicit that the new ruler to be installed in Yan must be someone
For the symbolic meaning of moving heavy vessels, see Wu 2004: 130.
Similar opinions are found in the Wuzi and the Weiliaozi (Sawyer 1993: 223, 54-5).
Early Chinese might have accepted the normative idea of “punitive war.”However, this does not entail that
they would think Qi had the authority to punish Yan or to “practice ren governance”in Yan.
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who would secure the interests of Qi and advance its influence—that is, someone who
would serve as a puppet of Qi. If the King of Qi put an end to the war in this way, other
states could do nothing but pretend that nothing had happened.
The preceding interpretation might have been accepted by some of Mengzi’s
contemporaries. This is suggested by a Mengzi passage. According to it, Mengzi,
perhaps realizing that he had made a bad bet on the king of Qi, decided to leave Qi.
Someone therefore ridiculed Mengzi:
When Mengzi left Qi, YIN Shi 尹士spoke to others, saying, “If he did not
recognize that the king [of Qi] could not be made into a Tang or a Wu, he was
not enlightened. If he recognized that the king could not [be made into a Tang or a
Wu], but still came notwithstanding, he was seeking his fortune.”(Mengzi 2B21)
(When Mengzi left Qi, YIN Shi spoke about him to others, saying, “If he did not
know that the King of Qi could not become the Son of Heaven, he was a fool. If
he knew this but still came, he was only seeking profit.”)
This YIN Shi ridiculed Mengzi, saying that if Mengzi did not know that the King of Qi
had no potential to be “Tan g Wu”湯武(the new Son of Heaven), then he was not that
clever; if he knew but still came to serve the king, then he was but after profits.
Early Chinese who adopted a strategic reading for those discourses by Mengzi might
think that Mengzi’s moralistic speeches were more deceptive and his strategic counsels
more subtle—they preserved heavier tinges of ren-yi as a moral principle and incorpo-
rated the tactics of spin doctoring and occupying moral high ground. We may perhaps
surmise that Mengzi, intending to win over his audience and persuade the rulers to
practice real ren governance, disguised and polished his words so as to catch their
attention. This is indeed possible. At least we have SIMA Qian, who considered this
possibility two millennia ago. He indicated that some of Mengzi’s suggestions were not
approved by the rulers and Mengzi barely received favors from them (Sima 1969:2345).
SIMA Qian accordingly speculated that Mengzi was perhaps not a fawning advisor after
all. While SIMA Qian might reject a cynical interpretation of Mengzi, his speculation
implies an existing suspicion about Mengzi, which he hereby calls into question. This
suspicion can be sensed in Zhanguo Ce’s paraphrase of Mengzi’swords,inY
ridicule about Mengzi, and in the Zhuangzi’s critical allusions to the Mengzi.
4TheZhuangzi’s Critical Allusions to and Strategic Reading of the Mengzi
The Zhuangzi has a “missing sons”parody that alludes to Mengzi’s claim about human
nature and represents it in terms of ren-yi strategy. The parody devises fictional
dialogues between LAO Dan 老聃 and Kongzi 孔子; here, Kongzi might stand for Mengzi
or the ru-mo strategists. LAO Dan asks Kongzi in these dialogues whether ren-yi is part
of human nature, a question reminding us of Mengzi’s thesis. Kongzi replies yes. LAO
Dan then asks, “What do you mean by ren-yi”? Kongzi gives an intriguing answer:
“caring for all without selfishness”(jian ai wu si 兼愛無私). It is enigmatic why Kongzi
defines ren-yi, in what we might consider the Mohist terms, as “caring for all.”This
puzzle, however, could be solved by reading this parody against strategic manuals.
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This Zhuangzi parody contains abundant references to strategic manuals. For exam-
ple, LAO Dan’squestion,“What do you mean by ren-yi,”echoes the Liu Tao passage
where King Wen asks Taigong what he means by “ren-yi.”Tai gong ex plai n s that ren-yi
means to unite one’s subjects by rewarding them. He also applies ren to a tactic of
winning the Son of Heaven’s people over: benefiting all under Heaven without
benefiting oneself, a type of conduct that could be put as “caring for all without
selfishness.”Thus, Kongzi’sren-yi in this parody might refer to tactics of forging
allegiance through rewarding one’s own and benefiting others’people. This reading
could explain why LAO Dan mocks Kongzi, saying:
Ah! The latter words [i.e., “caring for all without selfishness”] are tricky! “Caring
for all!”Is it not circumlocutory? “Without selfishness!”That is selfishness. If
you, Master, want the world not to lose its shepherd, then [you should think of
these points:] Heaven and Earth already have their constancy; the sun and moon
already have their brightness; the stars and galaxies already have their sequences;
birds and beasts already have their groups; trees and woods already have their
roots. Master, [in that case,] you could walk toeing the line of virtue, trot along
the line of the way, and you would already be there. Why must you vehemently
lift ren-yi, as if you were beating a drum and searching for a missing son? Ah!
Master, you are disturbing human nature! (Zhuangzi 13/36/15–18)
Without considering strategic manuals, one might find it cryptic that LAO Dan thinks
Kongzi’s words are tricky and circumlocutory, and that he mentions things such as the
constancy of Heaven and Earth and a missing son in the context. Kongzi’sdefinitionof
ren-yi as ai 愛(caring for) is tricky because it is correct in a sense. It is correct in that
both the terms ren-yi and ai could refer to the tactic of using rewards to maintain
allegiance and to encourage the people to go to war. This usage of ai is found in the
Weilia o z i 尉繚子(Master Wei Liao), which states that in order to motivate the people to
go to war, a ruler should ai (meaning “reward”) his people (Sawyer 1993:251).
Kongzi’s definition, therefore, is right about the interchangeability of ren-yi and ai as
strategic terms. Thus, LAO Dan does not accuse Kongzi’s definition of being wrong.
Instead, he says that it is tricky. Kongzi’s answer is also circumlocutory because he
avoids saying straightforwardly that “ren-yi”means using rewards to get the people to
fight for one’sbattles—he puts it rather as “caring for all without selfishness.”Kongzi’s
statement, “ren-yi is caring for all without selfishness,”therefore might refer to the ren-
yi or ai tactic that to obtain the utmost power, one has to benefit all without benefiting
oneself. This is the reason why LAO Dan thinks Kongzi dishonestly uses the expression
“without selfishness”—because it conceals the selfish agenda of seizing power.
Dan thus asks Kongzi, “Are you concerned that the people would have no shepherd?”
This concern, LAO Dan insinuates, is ridiculous because the people already have a
shepherd, namely, the established Son of Heaven.
LAO Dan’s statements about the constancy of Heaven and Earth and a missing son
can also be interpreted along this line. After saying that Kongzi is concerned that the
people would live without the Son of Heaven, LAO Dan continues to describe some
A similar usage of ai is found in the Liu Tao (Sawyer 1993: 59).
This interpretation of the relation between ren-yi,ai,and“benefit”is supported by Zhuangzi 24/71/21–25.
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kinds of natural order. These descriptions remind us of the Liu Tao’s passage about
Heaven and Earth. As the Liu Tao says “Heaven has its seasons and earth has its
resources”in order to advise one to share benefits with allies so as to utilize them to
overthrow the Son of Heaven, LAO Dan says “Heaven and earth already have their
constancy”in order to suggest that the people do not need a new Son of Heaven. He
thus addresses this taunting question—“Why must you vehemently lift ren-yi,asifyou
were beating a drum and searching for a missing son?”—to ridicule the ai tactic of the
Weiliaozi.TheWeiliaozi states that once the people are motivated by their ruler’s
generous ai (rewards), they will anxiously hunt down enemies as if they were seeking
their own “missing sons”(wangzi 亡子).
In sum, this Zhuangzi parody alludes to Mengzi’s claim about human nature, the
ren-yi tactics as presented in the Liu Tao, and the ai tactic and the “missing son”
analogy in the Weilia oz i.
It conflates and adapts those ren-yi and ai discourses to
reveal their disingenuous uses of ethical terms. The central question it addresses could
therefore be understood as: if “human nature”is disposed to favor this kind of ren-yi,
why do those strategists strive so hard to promote ren-yi, to create war hysteria,
indoctrinate the people with “proper values,”and beat drums ordering the people to
search for their missing sons (chasing and killing enemies)? The Zhuangzi’sanswerto
this question is obvious. This kind of ren-yi is but disturbing human nature. Seeking a
missing son anxiously may be part of human nature, but killing strangers anxiously
when hearing a drum beat is not.
As the Zhuangzi finds Mengzi’s and other strategists’use of ren-yi disingenuous, it
invites the reader to reflect on this question: is ren-yi really part of human nature? Also,
what do those people mean by ren-yi really? Apparently, the Zhuangzi believes that
humans were not born with this kind of ren-yi and that such a deceptive use of ren-yi
could never be clarified. As ren-yi was exploited to refer to something it was suppos-
edly not to refer to, it gradually took on various irreconcilable connotations. The “Qi
Wu Lun 齊物論”(“Discourse on Making All Things Equal”)thuscomplains:
The sprouts of ren-yi, the routes of shi-fei 是非[“right and wrong”], are inextri-
cably messy, how could I possibly know their distinctions! (Zhuangzi 2/6/15)
This complaint again reminds us of the Mengzi, which states that everyone has the
sprouts (duan 端)ofren and yi and that everyone has the innate capacity to distinguish
shi 是(the right) from fei 非(the wrong).
The “Qi Wu Lun”author, however, said that
he could not know what “the sprouts of ren-yi”and “the routes of shi-fei”were supposed
to mean, as such ethical terms had been so often abused that they were unintelligible,
imbued with a range of incongruous senses that defied clear understanding. Consider the
Liu Tao:aren ruler should be rich so as to trade wealth for obedience, whereas a ren
general should be obedient to whoever first makes him rich. Aggression against a state
might be ren-yi or “ren governance”if the aggressor displays the mercy of killing less or
offers ample rewards. According to the Mengzi,theLüshi Chunqiu, and the Zhongshan
As for the expression “beating a drum,”it might be a figure of speech for “battle”—beating of drums was a
signal for the order to advance.
Denecke offers an alternative interpretation (Denecke 2010:264–265).
On the meaning of duan see Van Norden 2007:216–219.
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bronze inscriptions, abdicating the throne is wrong: it violates ren and yi and thus should
be met by force. Yet using force against abdication is right: it is ren or yi or honoring the
Heaven (Pines 2009:170–172). All of these tricky uses of ethical terms might be the
backdrop against which the “Qi Wu Lun”complains about the unintelligibility of ren-yi
and shi-fei. It therefore attacks the ru-mo saying: “Thus we have those ru-mo who
dispute over what is right or wrong, in which they, by claiming right what they claimed
to be wrong, claim wrong what they claimed to be right (shi qi suo fei er fei qi suo shi 是
That those ru-mo consultants shi what they
themselves fei means that they offer advice that they are supposed to rebuke according to
the ethical values they claim to cherish. They promote the values ofren and yi and advise
their rulers to practice the ren-yi that conflicts the values. They, with arbitrary criteria, shi
their rulers’invasions of others states by fei-ing the rulers of the invaded states.
A similar comment about ru-mo appears in the “Zhi Bei You 知北遊”(“Knowledge
Wanders North”) chapter, which says, “Those noble men (jun zi 君子)suchastheru-mo
consultants thus attack each other with their shi and fei.”
As the Mengzi uses the
phrase wang zhe shi (consultants of wang zhe) to mean great teachers of a virtuous
king, the Zhuangzi uses ru-mo zhe shi (consultants of ru mo zhe)toridiculethem—
namely, consultants who abuse moral language.
These clues together hint that the Zhuangzi may perhaps interpret Mengzi’sren-yi
discourses in a way that differs remarkably from modern interpreters. It probably reads
them strategically and regards them as abusing moral language. While SIMA Qian might
perhaps find this reading too “cynical,”he somehow admitted that it was not entirely
unreasonable; otherwise, he would not find it worthwhile to challenge it. A “cynical”
reading of Mengzi is reasonable in that it indeed captures the echoes between some of
Mengzi’sren and ren-yi discourses and those in strategic manuals.
A question facing modern scholars of early Chinese thought is why the Zhanguo Ce,
Zhuangzi,andShiji refer to Mengzi or the Mengzi’s discourses in ways that moralistic
interpretations of the Mengzi cannot fully explain. As moralistic interpretations of the
Mengzi suggest that Mengzi was an ethicist and that the Mengzi advocates the moral
The line “shi qi suo fei er fei qi suo shi 是其所非而非其所是”is traditionally rendered as “one shis what the
other feis and one feis what the other shis”(e.g., Raphals 1996:32;Goldin1999: 99; Graham 2003: 178;
Denecke 2010: 239; Hansen 2010: 46; Van Norden 2011: 145). In this rendering, “shiqisuofei是其所非”(and
“fei qi suo shi 非其所是”) contains two groups of agents: “one”and “the other.”Nonetheless, the qi 其in the
“verb* + qi suo 其所+verb”structure often refers to the subject(s) of both the verb and the verb*, that is, the
two verbs supposedly share the same subjects if no others are mentioned in the context. For example, “ren
dang ai qi suo you 人當愛其所有”supposedly means “one should cherish what he or she already has”instead of
“one should cherish what others have.”Thus I believe that this line refers to the same group of persons—
namely, the ru-mo, not the Ruists and the Mohists—who shi (claim right) what they themselves fei (claim
wrong) and fei what they themselves shi. My interpretation, however, does not exclude situations that some ru-
mo shi what other ru-mo fei. By saying that a group of people shi what they fei, one may mean that these
people shi what they themselves fei as well as that some people of this group shi what others of the same group
fei. Since those ru-mo do not only attack one another but also contradict themselves, the Zhuangzi thinks that
their shi-fei claims are a mess.
For an alternative interpretation, see Denecke 2010: 254–255. For a discussion on the translation of jun zi,
see Goldin 1999:vii–viii.
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principle of ren and yi,theZhanguo Ce presents Mengzi as a strategist who plotted for
the King of Qi to advance power through military aggression; the Zhuangzi alludes to
the Mengzi’s moralistic statements as strategic prescriptions; and the Shiji defends
Mengzi, implying that his advice was out of good will.
To explain these peculiar phenomena, this essay argues that some early Chinese
might have adopted a strategic, and even cynical, reading of Mengzi’s moralistic
speeches. They might have felt tempted to adopt such a reading because many of
Mengzi’s discourses are reminiscent of strategic counsels and disturbingly ambiguous:
they could be interpreted as elaborations of ren and yi as moral principles, but they
could also be interpreted as deploying the ethical terms ren and ren-yi to denote certain
power-struggle tactics. As a result, some might suspect that Mengzi was disguising his
strategic prescriptions as ethical statements. This suspicion is embodied in the moral-
language skepticism in the Zhuangzi, especially in its criticisms of ru-mo and ren-yi.
Being aware of this suspicion, SIMA Qian therefore defended Mengzi, emphasizing that
despite the resemblance between Mengzi’s and the ru-mo’s moralistic speeches,
Mengzi could hardly be seen as a hypocrite or abuser of moral language.
A moralistic interpretation may be more reasonable as it renders the Mengzi as a text
presenting a consistent moral philosophy. To make sense of some early accounts about
Mengzi and critical allusions to the Mengzi, however, the ambiguity of the Mengzi’s
words must be considered. A strategic reading might not be faithful to what Mengzi
really meant, but it can make better sense of the Zhanguo Ce’sandShiji’snarratives
about Mengzi as well as the Zhuangzi’sridiculeofMengzi’s claims about human
nature, ren-yi,andshi-fei. It is thus worthwhile for modern scholars of early Chinese
thought to distinguish between the two questions of what interpretations can be
reasonably assigned to Mengzi’sren-yi discourses and what interpretations Mengzi’s
contemporary thinkers would have assigned to his discourses. The answers to these two
questions do not necessarily coincide. Yet, being aware of the gap between these
answers is essential to an understanding of early disputes over ren-yi. The case study
presented in this essay suggests that early masters’criticisms of ren- yi might not always
be about moral theories or practices. Instead, their issues might sometimes pertain to
power-struggle strategy or strategists’manipulation of moral language.
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Yuri Pines, and the two anonymous reviewers for their incisive comments on earlier drafts. I also thank the
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