A Ku Indeed!

Shun: That Kind of Guy

Posted in Chinese Philosophy, Mencius by Chris on July 22, 2008

Last week there was considerable discussion of Mencius 7A35 in the seminar. It seemed to me that just about everyone agreed on a general interpretation of the passage. Much as the conversation was interesting (as the reading brought up important issues about Mencius), I just couldn’t convince myself that they were reading the passage right.

Here’s the passage:

T’ao Ying said: “When Shun was emperor and Kao Yao was the judge, if the Blind Man killed a man, what was to be done?”

“The only thing to do was to apprehend him.”

“In that case, would Shun not try to stop it?”

“How could Shun stop it? Kao Yao had the authority from which he received the law.”

“Then what would Shun have done?”

“Shun looked upon casting away the Empire as no more than discarding an old shoe. He would have secretly carried away the old man on his back and fled to the edge of the sea, and lived there happily, never giving thought to the Empire.”

For those of you who don’t know the Mencius, “the Blind Man” is Shun’s dad (who is a real creep, by the way). So the question seems to be whether Shun, as Emperor, would allow his dad to be apprehended and likely executed, given his filial obligations to his dad (this passage finds some analogue in the famous “straight body” passage in the Analects).

The class read 7A35 as an odd passage, given that they saw this as a conflict between Shun’s filial duties and his duties as an emperor. So, in deciding to cast aside the Empire, they saw this as an odd case where Shun — rather “happily” the passage implies — simply throws aside his duties as ruler to save his dad. Surely, the class argued, Shun should be tortured about this, given that he’s the best emperor around (so that his abdication would lead to likely bad consequences for his people). Wouldn’t this clash of duties leave him in a bit of a tragic dilemma? How can he be happy? Can he really so flippantly “give no further thoughts” to the Empire? How un-Shun like (who is pictured as a sage)!

I don’t doubt that these are relevant and important issues in general to talk about in Mencius. But my reading of the “target” of the passage is different. I don’t read it as Shun weighing out “duty as ruler” and “duty as son” but rather “duty as son” versus being a ruler, or having the Empire as a kind of possession (the passage doesn’t say “give up his duties as Emperor”, just “give up the Empire”). So, in my gloss, it is Shun’s desires that are put to the test, not his bond to his people. Think about it: to be the ruler of the Empire is, pretty much, to be the ruler of the world. That’s no small change. Could you give this up to save your dad (from what was likely a righteous prosecution, no doubt, given the Blind Man’s less than exemplary character)?

The way I read it was: the answer is “yes” because Shun is “that kind of a guy.” If he has any personal desires, he will not allow them to be given any play if Yi demands otherwise. And here, to remain ruler in such a circumstance would force him to either do something not-Yi (interfere) or stand by and let his dad be prosecuted (which would be not-Yi as well). Instead, he bolts with his dad (hypothetically). As a matter of fact, his abdication could actually be seen as a way of avoiding a tragic dilemma (where either path is not Yi), as opposed to the playing out of one.

I also saw 7A20 and 7A21 as providing some possible support for this reading, where it is stressed that the junzi may “delight” in many things, but “being ruler over the Empire is not amongst them.” As a matter of fact, in 7A20, the junzi is said to delight in the fact that “his parents are alive and his brothers are well” — so this is put in contrast with the desire to “rule the Empire.” Some justification for this distinction is perhaps given in 7A21, where Mencius says that “that which a gentleman follows as his nature is not added to when he holds sway over the Empire…”

Any thoughts?


2 Responses

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  1. Manyul Im said, on July 22, 2008 at 6:52 am


    That’s intriguing. We could see “being a king,” or rather in Shun’s case “remaining a king,” as something that IS “optional” as opposed to “being a son,” which is not at all optional (if you are one, that is). Take the contrast with Buddhism, which at least officially regards remaining a son to be “optional” in an important sense–you can join a monastery, change your name, and renounce your family ties. At least that is how the Confucian-revival types later on saw it; but for your purposes, that would be enough to establish the point that (retroactively) Mencius conceived of the son-identity as in some way more of a “root” identity than being a ruler.

    I would think that this has important implications for anyone, say Rosemont or Ames, who thinks the early Confucians should be construed as promoting some form of “role-ethics,” where one’s identity and duties are based fundamentally on the various sets of roles that one occupies throughout one’s life. I’m sure Rosemont or Ames addresses this sort of difference between being a ruler and being a son, but I’m not familiar enough with their role-ethics writings. Anyone?

  2. Chris said, on July 22, 2008 at 7:11 pm


    I’ve been meaning to email Henry for a few reasons, one of which is to ask him for the central piece that he takes as the core of his role-ethic position. I’ll see what he says (I commented critically on a draft of a piece by him and Roger arguing for role ethics and have been slowly developing a paper from it, but so far I’ve been working with this draft piece, but it unfortunately doesn’t have the argument for role ethics at its core). When I get a reply from him, I’ll post here.

    I like your way of putting the differences in role-relationships. There seems to me to be something right about drawing a kind-difference between family and (at least some) other relations. As Mencius himself seems to put it, my family relations flow from my nature; my relation to the state does not. This may be grounds to suggest that in certain situations some of the latter relations can be severed, whereas the former cannot (without severing a part of my own nature).

    Regarding Henry’s piece, I do not recall him talking about all role-relations as permanent, but it could be that I have a faulty memory. Surely, at the least, this would be counterintuitive and seems easily falsified. I can take a job and serve as a manager, and then be fired. Once fired, I no longer stand in a relation towards my former workers. On the other hand, I can’t “exit” my family relationships given that I am born into them. Some relations, such as father (perhaps even husband, depending on how seriously you see the bond), are chosen but one cannot exit them.

    In any event, I’ll see what Henry says about where to look to get to the heart of it.

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