Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Is it Possible to be Too Yi 義?


Passage 3B10 in the Mengzi stood out during my last read through the text. In 3B10 Mengzi tells the story of Chen Zhongzi, who in seeking purity (lian 廉) refused to eat his mother’s food or live in his brother’s house (believing that his brother had not rightly [buyi 不義] attained his salary and home). Mengzi’s critique of Chen Zhongzi is that “only an earthworm could fill out [the values] he holds to” 蚓而後充其操, which I take to mean that living in the human world (i.e., a world of complex relationships) entails living a life where one cannot live to such a degree of purity and at the same time realize other (often more important) values. Mengzi seems to have similar sentiments about figures such as Bo Yi in passage 5B1. While he praises Bo Yi (and Chen Zhongzi in 3B10), being too lian 廉 or qing 清 is problematic for Mengzi.

In other passages in the text, Bo Yi and Chen Zhongzi are connected with the notion of yi 義 (see 7A34, for instance), yet I haven’t found any instances of Mengzi making similar critiques of being too yi 義. As a matter of fact, he stresses in 6A10 that yi 義 is more valuable than life (an interesting point of contrast with Bo Yi who valued qing 清 more than his own life); and in 4B11 Mengzi states, “In being a great person [one’s] words do not need to be trustworthy, and [one’s] actions do not need to bring results, as long as there is yi 義 within [oneself]” 大人者,言不必信,行不必果,惟義所在. A possible exception might be 4B6’s notion of a feiyizhiyi 非義之義, a kind of counterfeit yi 義 (is this then just a matter of 非廉之廉 and 非清之清? Something similar might also be going on in 4B19).

Contemporary scholars such as Kwong-loi Shun explain it this way: “Another difference between yi 義 and li 禮 is that whereas the latter can be overridden by other considerations, the former cannot…. Mencius would not find a breach of yi 義 acceptable in any circumstances” (Mencius and Early Chinese Thought, 57). In this view, breaches of li 禮 (and we might add lian 廉 and qing 清) are permissible, but breaches of yi 義 are not permissible.

So, I have two questions that I need some help thinking through. First, is this view correct; would Mengzi not find a breach of yi 義 acceptable in any circumstance? Second, if it is the case that Mengzi does not find a breach of yi 義 acceptable in any circumstance then how is yi 義 different from concepts such as lian 廉 and qing 清? Said somewhat differently, in what sense might we say that rightness is disjointed from purity (or is this all simply about counterfeit virtues)?

I’m speaking about the Mengzi specifically, but I welcome thoughts about other early Confucian texts as well.


Hannah Pang detail


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