thoughts on politics

September 12, 2008

Mencius on the right of revolution/how to make kings uncomfortable

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matt @ 12:10 am
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I am in a history class right now called “Introduction to Chinese Civilization.” It’s, as my professor says, a “great books” course, so we pretty much read (translations of) classic Chinese texts going back to the earliest recorded times and talk about what they mean, and what we can know from them. Since we have fifteen weeks to talk about three thousand years of the poetry, philosophy, and history of a tradition completely foreign to us, we basically only get to hit on major authors with one, maybe two, day each. Kind of like trying to summarize Bob Dylan’s career on one CD, like this album tries and fails to do.

Anyhow, it’s still great to go back and study the political history of a civilization that was basically identifiably continuous through all history. Today we read from a scholar named Mencius (or Mengzi), one of the first interpreters of Confucianism, about the fourth century BC. The reading was extremely dense (I honestly only read about 15 pages of the assigned 70, but besides that I’ve actually kept up with the readings so far, which is amazing for me), yet one scene stuck out to me and even made me laugh. The book consists of dialogues between several kings and the philosopher Mencius. In this particular exchange, Mencius asks the king a series of questions, bringing him to an uncomfortable admission:

1B:6 Mencius said to King Xuan of Qi, “Suppose that one of the king’s subjects entrusted his wife and children to his friend and journeyed to Chu. On returning he found that he had allowed his wife and children to be hungry and cold. What should he do?”

The king said, “Renounce him.”

“Suppose the chief criminal judge could not control the officers. What should he do?”

The king said, “Get rid of him.”

“Suppose that within the four borders of the state there is no proper government?”

The king looked left and right and spoke of other things.

Reminds me of the foot massage dialogue in Pulp Fiction, about half way through here:

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