A Sage's Mother
Mencius was a legendary Confucian scholar, second only to Confucius. By the time Mencius was born in 372 BC, Confucius had already passed away for 107 years. How then, did Mencius become the second sage of China? The story of Mencius’s mother raising her son is a famous one in China.
Mencius’s father died when Mencius was very young, leaving his mother to raise him alone. They lived near a cemetery, so Mencius would go out and play in the graves as if he were a grave worker. Mencius enthusiastically made tombs, performed burials, and mimicked paid mourners in funeral processions. When Mencius’s mom saw this, she said, “This is no place to raise my son!”
She managed to move them to a residence near a market in the town. Mencius would go out and play in the marketplace, and he would pretend to be a merchant* and copy their coarse language. Again, his mother said, “This is no place to raise my son!”
(*For context, merchants were considered the lowest social class in ancient China because they produced nothing; all they did was buy and sell what others had worked hard to produce).
This time, she managed to move them to a residence near a school. Mencius would go out and learn from the scholars at the school. He learned manners and etiquette, such as bowing, yielding, entering, and withdrawing. When Mencius’s mother saw this, she said, “Here indeed is a place to raise my son.”
One day, when a young Mencius returned home from school, his mother asked, “How far did you get in your studies today?”
Mencius replied, “About the same as usual.”
Mencius’s mother was weaving a cloth in that moment, and she took up her scissors and swiftly cut the cloth she was weaving. This alarmed Mencius, and he asked his mother what’s wrong.
The mother replied, “You neglecting your studies is like me cutting the cloth I wove. A gentleman studies to establish his reputation, and he asks questions to broaden his knowledge. This is how he obtains peace and happiness at home and avoids harm when he goes out. If now, you neglect your studies, you will be unable to avoid a life of menial service and strife.
Similarly, if I give up midway during my weaving, how would I be able to clothe my child and earn a living for us so that we have food 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, and afterwards, he studied day and night tirelessly. Later on, he studied with one of Confucius’s descendants, Master Zisi, and eventually became a legendary sage.
""Mencius and his Mother: A Lesson Drawn from Weaving" [Literary Excerpt and Illustration]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #189, https://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/items/show/189 (accessed April 16, 2021). Annotated by Anne Kinney