The Mother of Mencius, One of the Four Virtuous Mothers

By Evan Mantyk

In the famous Chinese children’s education text The Three Character Classic, there is a well-known saying: “In ancient times, Meng's mother chose a place to live wisely. If the child does not learn, the cloth will be torn.” The mother mentioned here is the mother of the great Confucian sage Mencius, also known as Mengzi or Zhang Shi.

Mencius lived during the Warring States period, roughly a century after the time of Confucius. Mencius is often mentioned alongside Confucius with a position just below Confucius’s. Mencius lost his father at the age of three and was raised by his mother with great hardship. Eventually, he became an admired "virtuous sage" by later generations of Confucianists. Historical records tell how Mencius's mother taught her son, leaving behind timeless tales such as "Mother's Three Moves," "Cutting the Cloth  to Teach the Son," and "Buying Meat to Keep a Promise to the Son," which have been passed down through the ages, making her a renowned mother figure in history. Here are the stories retold.


Mother’s Three Moves

Mencius's childhood home was near a cemetery. Therefore, when Mencius was young, he often played games imitating funerals and burials with his peers, particularly enjoying learning how to build graves and bury the dead. Seeing this, his mother said, "This is not a place where I should raise my child." So she moved with Mencius to a new residence.

However, the new house was near a market, where Mencius started playing games imitating cunning merchants boasting about buying and selling. His mother said, "This is not a place where I should raise my child either." So they moved away from there again.

This time they moved to a place near a school. Here, Mencius imitated rituals, bows, and etiquette. Only then did his mother say with satisfaction, "This is truly a place where I can raise my child!" From then on, they lived there permanently. As Mencius grew up, he mastered the six arts, Etiquette, Music, Archery, Chariot Riding, Calligraphy and Literature, and Math, and eventually became a renowned scholar.

Wise men praised his mother, saying she knew how to utilize a good environment to educate her child. Mencius's mother, in choosing a good educational environment, spared no effort, moving three times, which showed her earnest care.


Cutting the Cloth to Teach the Son

When he was young, Mencius studied poetry and books. One day, while his mother was weaving cloth while listening to him recite, Mencius's voice suddenly stopped for a while before resuming.

His mother asked, "Why did you stop just now?" Mencius said he had lost concentration for a moment, which led his mind to wander off elsewhere and for him to forget his studies. It took a while for him to refocus, he said.

Upon hearing this, his mother took scissors and cut the cloth she had been weaving in half in front of Mencius, admonishing him, "If you don't study diligently and quit halfway, it's like this piece of cloth I was weaving. I worked hard on it for half a day, but it was ruined in an instant."

From then on, Mencius never lost focus while studying.


Buying Meat to Keep a Promise to the Son

When Mencius was young, he saw a neighbor slaughtering a pig and asked his mother, "What is the neighbor slaughtering the pig for?" 

His mother jokingly replied, "To feed you, of course."

But as soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted it. She said to herself, "When I was pregnant with this child, I wouldn't sit if the seat wasn't arranged properly, and I wouldn't eat if the meat wasn't cut properly. That's prenatal education. Now, as soon as the child has gained a little knowledge, I'm deceiving him. Isn't this teaching him to be dishonest?" So his mother reluctantly spent her hard-earned money to buy a piece of pork from the neighbor and cooked a delicious meal for Mencius to prove that she had not deceived her child.

Today, at the foot of Ma'an Mountain, twenty miles north of Zoucheng County, Shandong Province, there is still the solemn tomb of Mencius’s mother, with stone carvings praising her steadfastness and maternal virtues through the ages, along with a temple dedicated to her. In the Ming Dynasty, the Shandong Imperial Inspector Zhong Huamin praised her in his "Memorial to Mencius’s Mother": "The sanctity of the child is the sanctity of the mother," "Teaching a child is aiming for greatness. Educating a son is aspiring like Confucius. Throughout the ages, there is only one like her."

Later generations listed Mencius’s mother alongside the mothers of the Northern Song Dynasty literary figure Ouyang Xiu, the Northern Song Dynasty famous general Yue Fei, and the Jin Dynasty famous general Tao Kan, as exemplary mothers, acclaiming them as the "Four Great and Wise Mothers" of China. If you want to learn more about the stories of the  Four Virtuous Mothers, stay tuned for more blogs in the same series by Shen Yun Collections!

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