Mencius 孟軻, ‘On Boyi, Paragon of Withdrawal’

Mencius said, ‘Boyi would not allow his eyes to look on a bad sight, nor his ears to listen to a bad sound. He would not serve a prince whom he did not approve, nor command a people whom he did not esteem. In a time of good government he took office, and on the occurrence of confusion he retired. He could not bear to dwell either in a court from which a lawless government emanated, or among lawless people. He considered his being in the same place with a villager, as if he were to sit amid mud and coals with his court robes and court cap. In the time of Zhou he dwelt on the shores of the North sea, waiting the purification of the kingdom. Therefore when men now hear the character of Boyi, the corrupt become pure, and the weak acquire determination.


Yiyin said, ‘Whom may I not serve? My serving him makes him my sovereign. What people may I not command? My commanding them makes them my people.’ In a time of good government he took office, and when confusion prevailed, he also took office. He said, ‘Heaven’s plan in the production of mankind is this: that they who are first informed should instruct those who are later in being informed, and they who first apprehend principles should instruct those who are slower in doing so. I am the one of Heaven’s people who has first apprehended; I will take these principles and instruct the people in them.’ He thought that among all the people of the kingdom, even the common men and women, if there were any who did not share in the enjoyment of such benefits as Yao and Shun conferred, it was as if he himself pushed them into a ditch — for he took upon himself the heavy charge of the kingdom.


Hui of Liuxia was not ashamed to serve an impure prince, nor did he think it low to be an inferior officer. When advanced to employment, he did not conceal his virtue, but made it a point to carry out his principles. When dismissed and left without office, he did not murmur. When straitened by poverty, he did not grieve. When thrown into the company of village people, he was quite at ease and could not bear to leave them. He had a saying, ‘You are you, and I am I. Although you stand by my side with breast and arms bare, or with your body naked, how can you defile me?’ Therefore when men now hear the character of Hui of Liu Xia, the mean become generous, and the niggardly become liberal.


When Confucius was leaving Qi, he strained off with his hand the water in which his rice was being rinsed, took the rice, and went away. When he left Lu, he said, ‘I will set out by-and-by’ — it was right he should leave the country of his parents in this way. When it was proper to go away quickly, he did so; when it was proper to delay, he did so; when it was proper to keep in retirement, he did so; when it was proper to go into office, he did so — this was Confucius.’


Mencius said, ‘Boyi among the sages was the pure one; Yiyin was the one most inclined to take office; Hui of Liuxia was the accommodating one; and Confucius was the timeous one. In Confucius we have what is called a complete concert. A complete concert is when the large bell proclaims the commencement of the music, and the ringing stone proclaims its close. The metal sound commences the blended harmony of all the instruments, and the winding up with the stone terminates that blended harmony. The commencing that harmony is the work of wisdom. The terminating it is the work of sageness. As a comparison for wisdom, we may liken it to skill, and as a comparison for sageness, we may liken it to strength — as in the case of shooting at a mark a hundred paces distant. That you reach it is owing to your strength, but that you hit the mark is not owing to your strength.’



  • James Legge, The Works of Mencius, ‘Wanzhang II’, 《孟子 · 萬章下》, bilingual edition, online at: The names of people and places have been converted to Hanyu Pinyin