Mencius and his Mother: A Lesson Drawn from Weaving
This illustration depicts a scene from the Traditions of Exemplary Women (Lienü zhuan) of Liu Xiang (ca. 77-6 BCE), one of China's first didactic texts on feminine morality. The text to this story is provided below the illustration. The story recounts the upbringing of Mencius (ca. 371-289 BCE), one of the greatest Confucian philosophers of early China. Mencius, or Mengzi, as he is known in China), is the only other early Chinese philosopher, who in addition to Confucius (Kongzi in Chinese), is known in the west by his Latinized name. These names were devised by the first westerners to study Chinese thought intensively, namely, the Jesuit priests who traveled to China in the 16th century and who translated Chinese texts into Latin.
This story brings up two important aspects of child-rearing in early China. First is the idea that because children are gradually imbued with the values and behaviors of those around them, a parent cannot be too careful about what a child sees and hears on a daily basis. Second is the notion that because moral development is a slow and gradual process, it is essential to train the malleable nature of the child in the ways of virtue and diligence before bad habits and behaviors become ingrained in the personality. The story also indicates that in preparation for useful lives as adults, boys were to occupy themselves with book-learning while girls were to master weaving.
This source is a part of the Children in Ancient China teaching module.
Mencius' mother lived near a cemetery when Mencius was small and he enjoyed going out to play as if he were working among the graves. Mencius enthusiastically made tombs and performed burials. His mother said, "This is no place to raise my son!" So they moved and dwelt next to the city market. But when her son began amusing himself by pretending to be a merchant, Mencius' mother once again said, "This is no place to raise my son." 1 Once again they moved, settling this time, beside a school. Here, the boy played at arranging sacrificial vessels and the rituals of bowing, yielding, entering and withdrawing. Mencius's mother said, "Here indeed is a place to raise my son." And that is where they stayed. When Mencius grew up he studied the Six Arts. 2 In the end he became a famous scholar. The gentleman says, "Mencius' mother understood enculturation by immersion." 3. . . .
When Mencius was young, after finishing his studies he returned home. At that moment, Mencius' mother was weaving. She asked him, saying, "How far did you get in your studies today?" Mencius replied, "About the same as usual." Mencius' mother then took up her knife and cut the cloth she was weaving. Mencius became alarmed and asked her to explain her actions. She said, "Your neglecting your studies is like my cutting the cloth I wove. Now a gentleman studies in order to establish his reputation, he asks questions to broaden his knowledge. This is the means by which he obtains peace and happiness at home and avoids harm when he goes abroad. If now, you neglect your studies, you will be unable to avoid a life of menial service and will lack the means to distance yourself from trouble and strife. How is it different from weaving and spinning to make a living? If midway I give up and abandon my weaving, how would I be able to clothe my husband and child and go for long without grain to eat? If a woman who abandons her livelihood and a man who neglects cultivating his virtue do not become burglars or thieves, then they will end their days as slaves." Mencius was frightened by his mother's words. Day and night he studied tirelessly. He then studied with the great master Zisi until he became one of the leading scholars of his generation. 4
1. Merchants were the most despised social class in early China because they produced nothing but made a living by simply buying and selling what others had labored to produce.
2. The Six Arts are variously defined as the six canonical texts of early China ((Odes, Rites, Poetry, Documents, Spring and Autumn Annals, and the Book of Changes) or the six polite arts studied by aristocratic men: ritual, music, archery, charioteering, writing and mathematics.
3. The "gentleman," refers to the author of the text, Liu Xiang, who used this format to insert his more subjective appraisals of his biographical subjects.
4. Zisi was a famous Confucian philosopher.
Kinney, Anne Behnke, trans. Traditions of Exemplary Women: An Annotated Translation of Liu Xiang’s Lienü zhuan. Illustration from: Rectors and Visitors of the University of Virginia, "Mencius and his Mother: A Lesson Drawn from Weaving," Lienu zhuan, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/chinese/lienu/browse/Lienu.html (accessed July 1, 2008). Annotated by Anne Kinney.