Ancient Chinese Philosophy

Part Seven

Two-thirds of the way through this book, the example of moxa (4A9.5) is so helpful for me as an opening into Mengzi and his project. “Those today who desire to become King are like people who have been ill for seven years and seek three-year moxa. If they don’t start preparing it, they won’t get it before the end of their lives. If one does not set one’s will upon benevolence, to the end of one’s life one will have worries and shame, until one sinks into death and destruction.” 

I absolutely love moxa, which you probably already know. It’s true that if you have someone present with a seven-year illness, you can’t start curing and refining a three-year moxa for that patient now. And if you don’t have any already prepared, then you need to find other, perhaps less effective ways to mitigate the illness or slow it or bring comfort to that person who may not live to find the cure. Maybe some of what Mengzi advised was more about mitigation than about cure. Maybe he didn’t even realize or articulate that difference himself. And so we see this vacillation between putting bandages on a society beyond reform while yearning for something truly better. 
As he points out in 3A4.18, there are important differences in value between things made with skill and time, and things thrown together. “Things are inherently unequal. One thing is twice or five times more than another, another ten or a hundred times more, another a thousand or ten thousand times more. If you line them up and treat them as identical, this will bring chaos to the world. If a fine shoe and a shoddy shoe are the same price, will anyone make the former?” 

The same is true with relationships and social structures. Unfortunately, not all of Mengzi’s advice is of the quality to build a society where everyone flourishes, but of a palliative quality, helping to introduce some comfort into a system that is built for only a few to truly thrive. 

This is how I understand his unfavorable characterization of Shen Nong and Xu Xing in comparison to a Confucian teacher, Chen Liang. Shen Nong was a legendary emperor known also as the Divine Farmer, who is considered to be the father of classical Chinese medicine. He tested and introduced hundreds of substances into the materia medica. And he also discovered tea! Seriously, with that history, how can I agree with anyone who would argue with a follower of Shen Nong. Xu Xing promoted his teachings, which sound more in line with Daoism, saying a ruler shouldn’t store up treasures and food that the people might need, and that “the worthy plow with their subjects and then eat, having breakfast and dinner with them, and then ruling.” (3A4.3)
Mengzi’s response to Chen Xiang, who has chosen Xu Xing’s way over his Confucian father, Chen Ling, is to say, “Some labor with their hearts; some labor with their strength. Those who labor with their hearts rule others; those who labor with their strength are governed by others. Those who are governed by others feed others; those who govern others are fed by others. This is the righteousness common to the world.” (3A4.6) He goes on to describe the work of Yu under emperor Shun, channeling the Nine Rivers over the course of eight years. “Even if he wanted to farm, would he have been able to?” (3A4.7) With these changes and the cultivation of grain, “the people were nourished. The Way of the people is this: if they are full of food, have warm clothes, and live in comfort but are without instruction, then they come close to being animals.” (3A4.8) Later, Van Norden points out the paternalism rampant in Confucian thought, and this is a prime example.  

It is true that visionary leaders and planners have a place in society. It is possible that when people have been deprived not only of basic needs but also access to education and self-actualizing support, they might initially respond to comfort in antisocial ways. But rather than addressing the root causes of that behavior – namely poverty and unequal access to both education and leisure time – Mengzi’s solution is to slap on a surface-level treatment, and teach benevolence within an unequal system. His Way is very different from the Way of Daoism. It’s about maintaining outdated social norms and stratifications, rather than releasing those things in favor of a more natural social order.  

He never stops to answer why the work of an agricultural minister is more valuable than that of a farmer. Among clothing makers, we can see the difference in time and skill between garments made from silk vs hemp. One has more value than the other by weight perhaps, but if both types of clothing have their place in society, then both kinds of weavers are equally valuable. My main issue with Mengzi is that he really believes that some people possess more inherent value than others. His bigotry is laid bare as he couples the Central States of the north with genuine Chinese culture, and calls Chen Xiang, who is from the south, a “twittering southern uncivilized person.” (3A4.14)
At the same time, he’s right that in his society (and in ours), there are people at all levels who can’t be trusted with the wellbeing of others. And since there are more people in the lower classes, there are more lower class people who can’t be trusted (even if the percentages of representation among classes aren’t equal). We cannot live with absolute idealistic purity in such a society. His example of this is Chen Zhongzi, who, “in order to avoid eating anything obtained illicitly, he did not eat for three days, until his ears did not hear, and his eyes did not see… To fill out what Zhongzi is trying to maintain, one would have to be an earthworm.” (3B10.1,6)  

So maybe we tolerate a classist society with benevolent reforms temporarily, as in the poetic (and also condescending) line: “People turn toward benevolence like water flowing downward or animals running toward the wilds.” (4A9.3) Perhaps it’s the first step in a multi-generational project, but it shouldn’t be presented as the curative answer. 

Mengzi believes that “there is a Way for making oneself Genuine. If one is not enlightened about goodness, one will not make oneself Genuine. For this reason, Genuineness is Heaven’s Way. Reflecting upon Genuineness is the human Way.” (4A12.1) It’s a start toward the refinement of the three-year moxa, but just barely. I’m not sure exactly what that more curative medicine is – I think it’s a project that requires our collective education and imagination and, somehow, nonaction. 

Fancying nothing, learning not to know, electing not to interfere, [the sage] helps all beings become themselves.
Daodejing, Chapter 64

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