Legend says that the name of Mencius’ mother was Chang-shih and that she changed her residence three times on account of her concern for Mencius.
At first they lived near a cemetery, and the young Mencius amused himself with acting the various scenes which he witnessed at the tombs. “This”, said his mother, ” is no place for my son ;”—and she moved to a house in the marketplace. But the change was no improvement. The boy took to playing the part of a salesman, boasting about his wares, and exchanging light chaff and banter with customers.
His mother sought a new house, and found one at last close by a public school. There her child’s attention was caught by the various exercises in correct manners by which the scholars were taught, and he endeavored to imitate them. The mother was satisfied. “This,” she said, “is the proper place for my son.”
Another story of this period tells of a pig-butcher’s shop near their house. One day Mencius asked his mother what they were killing the pigs for, and was told that it was to feed him. Her conscience immediately reproved her for the answer for she had not been able to afford pork. She said to herself, “While I was carrying this boy in my womb, I would not sit down if the mat was not placed square, and I ate no meat which was not cut properly—thus I taught him before he was born. And now when his intelligence is opening, I am deceiving him: this is to teach him untruthfulness!” With this she went and bought a piece of pork in order to validate her words.
When Mencius returned home one day from school, his mother looked up from the web which she was weaving, and asked him how had got on. He answered her idly that he was doing well enough. On this, she took a knife and cut through the thread of her shuttle. The idler was alarmed, and asked what she meant. She gave him a long lecture, showing that she had done what he was doing—that her cutting through her thread was like his neglecting his learning. The admonition, it is said, had its proper effect; the lecture did not need to be repeated.
There are two other narratives concerning Chang-shih later in Mencius’s life.
His wife was squatting down one day in her own room, when Mencius went in. He was so much offended at finding her in that position, that he told his mother, and expressed his intention to put her away, because of “her want of propriety.”
“It is you who have no propriety,” said his mother, “and not your wife. Do not The Rules of Propriety say, “When you are about to ascend a hall, raise your voice; when you enter a door, keep your eyes low?” The reason for the rules is that people may not be taken unprepared. But you entered the door of your private apartment without raising your voice, and so caused your wife to be caught squatting on the ground. The impropriety is with you and not with her.” On this Mencius rebuked himself, and did not put away his wife.
One day, when he was living with his mother in Ch’i, she was struck with the sorrowfulness of his aspect as he stood leaning against a pillar, and asked him the cause of it. He replied, “I have heard that the superior man occupies the place for which he is adapted, accepting no reward to which he does not feel entitled, and not covetous of honor and emolument. Now my doctrines are not practiced in Ch’i—I wish to leave it, but I think of your old age, and am anxious.”
His mother said, “It does not belong to a woman to determine anything of herself, but she is subject to the rule of the three obediences. When young, she has to obey her parents; when married, she has to obey her husband; when a widow, she has to obey her son. You are a man in your full maturity, and I am old. Act as your understanding of righteousness tells you, and I will act according to the rule that applies to me. Why should you be anxious about me?”
Legge concludes “Such are the accounts which I have found of the mother of Mencius. Possibly some of them are inventions, but they are devoutly believed by the people of China—and it must be to their profit. We may well believe that she was a woman of very superior character, and that her son’s subsequent distinction was in a great decree owing to her influence and training”.
(Source: Adapted from The Chinese Classics, Volume II, The Works of Mencius, translated by James Legge. Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1895)