Saturday, October 03, 2009

The mother of Mencius

While Confucians follow the doctrines of both Confucius and Mencius, Chinese mothers down the ages try to closely follow the example of Madam Chang, the mother of Mencius.

“According to Chao Chi, it was the misfortune of Mencius to lose his father at an early period; but in his youthful years he enjoyed the lessons of his kind mother, who thrice changed her residence on his account.

At first they lived near a cemetery, and Mencius amused himself with acting the various scenes which he witnessed at the tombs. ‘This,’ said the lady ‘is no place for my son;’ and she removed to a house in the market place. But the change was no improvement. The boy took to playing the part of a salesman, vaunting his wares, and chaffering with customers. His mother sought a new house, and found one at last close by a public school. There her child’s attention was taken with the various exercises of politeness which the scholars were taught, and he endeavored to imitate them. ‘This,’ she said, ‘is the proper place for my son.’

Han Ying relates another story of this period. Near their house was pig-butcher’s. One day Mencius asked his mother what they were killing the pigs for, and was told that it was to feed him. Her conscience immediately reproved her for the answer. She said to herself, ‘While I was carrying this boy in my womb, I would not sit down if the mat was not placed square, and I ate no meat which was not cut properly; - so I taught him when he was yet unborn. And now when his intelligence is opening, I am deceiving him; - this is to teach him untruthfulness!’ With this she went and bought a piece of pork in order to make good her words.

As Mencius grew up, he was sent to school. When he returned home one day, his mother looked up from the web which she was weaving, and asked him how far he had got on. He answered her with an air of indifference that he was doing well enough, on which she took a knife and cut through the thread of her shuttle. The idler was alarmed, and asked what she meant, when she gave him a long lecture, showing that she had done what he was doing, - that her cutting through the thread was like his neglecting his learning. The admonition, it is said, had its proper effect; the lecture did not need to be repeated.

His wife was squatting down one day in her own room, when Mencius went in. He was so much offended at finding her in that position, that he told his mother, and expressed his intention to put her away, because of ‘her want of propriety.’

‘It is you who have no propriety,’ said his mother, ‘and not your wife. Do not ‘The Rules of Propriety’ say, ‘When you are about to ascend a hall, raise your voice; when you enter a door, keep your eyes low?’ The reason of the rules is that people may not be taken unprepared; but you entered the door of your private apartment without raising your voice, and so caused your wife to be caught squatting on the ground. The impropriety is with you and not her.’ On this Mencius fell to reproving himself, and did not dare to put away his wife.

One day, when he was living with his mother in Chi, she was struck with the sorrowfulness of his aspect as he stood leaning against a pillar, and asked him the cause of it. He replied, ‘I have heard that the superior man occupies the place for which he is adapted, accepting no reward to which he does not feel entitled, and not covetous of honour and emolument. Now my doctrines are not practised in Chi: - I wish to leave it, but I think of your old age, and am anxious.’

His mother said, ‘It does not belong to a woman to determine anything of herself, but she is subject to the rule of the three obediences. When young, she has to obey her parents; when married, she has to obey her husband; when a widow, she has to obey her son. You are a man in your full maturity, and I am old. Do you act as your conviction of righteousness tells you you ought to do, and I will act according to the rule which belongs to me. Why should you be anxious about me?’

Such are the accounts which I have found of the mother of Mencius. Possibly some of them are inventions, but they are devoutly believed by the people of China; - and it must be to their profit. We may well believe that she was a woman of very superior character, and that her son’s subsequent distinction was in a great degree owing to her influence and training.”
[Pages 16 to 18, The Works of Mencius – James Legge]

Perhaps with the above stories, Yi students understand why the mother plays an important role in the family. (Refer to Hexagram 37 Jia Ren / The Family)

A good wife and a kind mother is all a man (whether he is an emperor, sage, or pauper) need. Whether your wife is good, beautiful, or not, friends do not mention her. Neither would the ancients. It forms part of Chinese culture down the ages.

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