This post sketches part of the argument in my paper “The Warring States Concept of Xing,” which is just out in Dao 10.1 (Spring 2011). “Xing” is commonly translated as “nature,” though “spontaneous character” would be better.
There’s this idea that (in Warring States terms) it can be your xing 性 to do something even though you have no tendency to actually do it. This idea is badly wrong. And no one would take it seriously if they weren’t misreading the Mencius.
The big problem is that the Mencius seems to say that it is our xing to be good, and that people who study the Mencius are mostly trained to think that that claim somehow stands for or summarises everything else the collection has to say about human nature. And trying to interpret the claim so that it does stand for all that leads to some major interpretive troubles.
Two sorts of trouble are especially common in recent English-language scholarship. One draws on some of the Mencius‘s occasional emphasis on the human/animal distinction and associates a thing’s xing with characteristics that are distinctive of its species. It can thus be your xing to be (say) compassionate not because you actually are compassionate but because compassion is distinctive of human beings.
Another sort of trouble comes with the cultivationist or developmental readings of the Mencius we were talking about a while back. This has helped motivate the idea that it can be your xing to do something given only that you will acquire a tendency to do it if you develop in some appropriate way.
These two ideas actually tend to work best together: it is your xing to do whatever you will do if you mature in a way that is distinctive for members of your species. This is close to Graham’s interpretation, and Graham’s interpretation has been very influential.
But on these two points it is also wrong. In fact Warring States texts routinely assume that in the absence of interference a thing will do whatever is its xing to do—and assume that their audience will share the assumption. What the thing might do in the future or what other members of the thing’s species do is entirely irrelevant.
For my full argument you’ll have to check the paper, of course. But I’ll mention three important texts here.
Mencius 6A/6 has Gongduzi presents Mencius with three rival views about xing, as well as arguments in favour of two of them. These are the view that people’s xing can be either good or bad, depending on the influence of their rulers, and the view that some people’s xing is good while other people’s is bad. Both views contradict the first idea mentioned above, that xing is essentially tied to species. And the arguments in favour of these views plainly assume that the way to tell what it is a person’s xing to do is by checking what the person actually does. (One argument is that there are bad people even during the reign of a sage king, so it must be the xing of those people to be bad.)
It’s a bit tricky to figure out what exactly is going on in Mencius’s reply. He doesn’t mention xing at all, talking instead of capacity and the heart. Clearly the view he defends isn’t the view that it is people’s xing to be good, as Gongduzi would interpret that view. What he seems to be saying is that we are good in some less substantive sense. In any case, nothing he says challenges the assumptions Gongduzi makes about xing.
And Mencius is depicted as relying on the very same assumptions in 6A/2. He says that it is people’s xing to be good just as water tends to go down. Just as you can interfere with water (by splashing or with hydraulic technology), and make it go up, you can interfere with people so that they do bad things. In both cases, their xing remains unaffected. Note that it is hardly distinctive of water that it tends to go down, but the passage happily attributes that tendency to its xing—the issue is not any kind of species nature (I’m stealing this point from Graham).
One more passage, this one from the Zhuangzi. A swimmer astounds Confucius with his ability to survive the treacherous waters at Lüliang. The swimmer explains: “I was born on dry land and feel secure on dry land, this is initial conditions (gu 故). I grew up in water and am secure in water, this is xing. Not knowing why I am so I am so, this is fate (ming 命).” The statement about xing provides Graham with his main evidence outside the Mencius for saying that it can be a thing’s xing now to do things that it will only do after future developments have taken place. But the swimmer does not say that. He does indicate that his xing has changed, and context makes it clear that it has changed as a result of the swimmer’s success in spontaneously adapting to the ways of the water, without interference. But at any particular time it is his xing to do only those things he spontaneously does at that time.
And we find the same assumption throughout the late Warring States literature, including in the Mencius. Warring States thinkers just seem to have taken the assumption for granted, and expected their audiences to take it for granted also. If there are ways of reading the Mencius that fit poorly with that fact, this is a reason to doubt those readings of the Mencius, not to try to reinterpret the concept of xing so that it is really about species nature or about ways we can develop.
Of course there are lots of other things to say about xing; the link that Graham finds between xing and health is especially significant. But I think this is enough for one post.