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Xún Zǐ (Wade-Giles: Hsün Tzu) (Chinese: 荀子) (c.310– 237 B.C.E.) was a Chinese philosopher whose notoriety is derived mainly from his contentious thesis that human nature is evil, and, resultantly, that people require the positive influence of teachers and ritual praxis to become functioning and productive members of society. Despite this pessimistic conjecture, he is still a resoundingly Confucian scholar, stressing the importance of education, ritually-appropriate action, and conservative reliance of past texts and models as normative sources for lifestyles and ethics. Some scholars suggest that his synthesis of Confucian humanism with a cynically pragmatic outlook was likely a product of the intensive political and social turmoil that characterized China during the Warring States Period (fifth century B.C.E.-221 B.C.E.).[1]

Little is known of the historical Xunzi, save that he was born in the state of Zhao, studied in Qi, and held three successive terms as the headmaster of the prestigious Ji Xia Academy.[2] He is perhaps best known through his two famous pupils: Li Si, prime minister to the first Qin emperor, and the philosopher Han Fei Zi, who developed the quasi-authoritarian aspects of his teacher's thought into the doctrine called Legalism. While Xunzi's thought was influential during Han times (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), his influence waned from the Tang dynasty (618-907 C.E.) onwards (especially when compared to the idealistic Confucianism of Mencius).[3]

The Xunzi

Unlike the aphoristic style of the Analects and Mencius, Xunzi wrote elaborately argued essays that were collected into the book bearing his name. Emerging as it did in the end of the philosophically florescent Hundred Schools of Thought period, Xunzi was in the unique position of being able to both critique and adapt elements of all rival philosophers and theorists - leading to a text that is both argumentatively dense and notably syncretistic. Some of the more significant chapters (with their primary theses) include:[4]:

  • A Discussion of Heaven (Tian), which rejects the Mencian notion that heaven has a moral will. Instead, Xunzi asserts that heaven is simply the natural world, that natural disasters have no connection to human action, and that people must focus their energies on the social realm, rather than waste them on soothsaying, astrology or metaphysical speculation.
  • Discussion of Rites (li), which rehabilitates the role of li from its near omission in the Mencius, and argues that ritual action is key to developing a moral consciousness.
  • Dispelling Obsessions, which argues for the necessity of remaining flexible in one's outlook and describes the disasters that can befall an individual who loses this perspective.
  • Proper Use of Terms (Zhengming), which uses names as a means of assessing roles and determining the propriety of actions (a theme that is addressed in even more detail by Han Fei Zi).
  • Man's Nature is Evil, which overtly rejects the Mencian claim that people have a natural inclination toward goodness. This chapter argues that humans are naturally inclined towards selfishness and evil, and that if these inclinations are not curbed, human societies would devolve into anarchy. Thus, he argues for morality as a social construct, inculcated through exemplary teachers, study of the classics, punitive law, and following ritual precepts.

These issues and themes will be addressed in greater detail below.

Chapters of the Xunzi

Discussion of music

Mozi, another philosopher of the Warring States era (pre-unification of China), discouraged the use of music and other forms of culture as being unhelpful for moral cultivation and wasteful of resources needed to keep the state healthy and prosperous.[5] Xunzi's chapter, written as an explicit counter to Master Mo, criticizes this stance through a number of queries: why should music be renounced if it was created by the sage kings to create order in expression? Why should it be condemned if it brings people into unity and harmony, and soldiers into order (for example, via war dances), and if it has the ability to reform people? Following the conservative bent of classical Confucian thought, Xunzi argues that music, as defined and ordered by the ancient sage kings, acts like ritual in that it moderates and restrains the person listening and the person performing. It also positively inspires people and is thus an effective adjunct to proper governance. However, and again agreeing with Confucius, Xunzi does admit that there are types of music which can lead one into licentiousness, but notes that the gentleman knows to be wary of his environment and of the sounds that he hears. Xunzi writes:

Music embodies an unchanging harmony, while rites represent unalterable reason. Music unites that which is the same; rites distinguish that which is different; and through the combination of rites and music the human heart is governed…. Because he criticized music, one would expect Mozi to have met with some punishmento And yet in his lifetime the enlightened kings had all passed away and there was no one to correct his errors, so that stupid men continue to study his doctrines and bring jeopardy to themselves.[6]

Dispelling Obsession

The core ideas presented in Xunzi's chapter on dispelling obsession are encapsulated in a quotation that he selects from the Book of Odes (one of the Five Classics that constituted the core of the Confucian curriculum):

I pick and pick the burr-weed
But it does not fill my slanting basket.
I sigh for my loved one;
I would be in the ranks of Zhou.[7]

Because the mind of the ode's narrator is divided her work and her love for a man in the ranks of Zhou, she is unable to complete even this undemanding task. Avoiding this type of fixation, with its possibly devastating consequences, forms the basis for this chapter. Openly addressing the philosophical milieu that he was participating in, Xunzi used this chapter to contrast his own pragmatic viewpoint with those of other philosophers, which he claimed fell victim to various obsessions (i.e., that Mozi focused too much on utility, Zhuangzi fixated on Nature, and Huizi (an early logician) "was obsessed by words and did not understand the truth that lies behind them").[8] When thus distracted, he argues that an individual's mind will not be able to absorb any new information from outside of the realm of their obsession, making them both confused and ineffectual. This is contrasted with the Way of the Sage, who learns to refrain from obsession and to keep his(/her) mind open. When this happens, the mind is free to accurately perceive and respond to the world, such that "there are none of the myriad beings of creation that have form and yet are not perceived by it, none that are perceived and yet not comprehended, none that are comprehended and yet not assigned to their proper places."[9] Once one achieves this perspective, the world can be properly understood, responded to, and regulated.

Rectifying names

Seizing upon a philosophical issue debated by thinkers before him, such as Mozi and Confucius, Xunzi argues for the rectification of names. The most important reason for this process is that it would allow a ruler to accurately command his people in accordance with the Way, without being misunderstood. Indeed, promotion of effective government seems to be the primary goal of this chapter: "When the ruler's accomplishments are long lasting and his undertakings are brought to completion, this is the height of a good government. All of this is the result of being careful to see that men stick to the names which have been agreed upon."[10]

Xunzi also uses the rectification of names to refute previous philosophers, such as the writer(s) of the Dao De Jing. For example, he uses this chapter to question the Daoist approach to "desire" - specifically, to the manner in which the Daodejing argues that desires should simply be renounced.[11] In contrast, Xunzi argues that "those who maintain that desires must be gotten rid of before there can be orderly government fail to consider whether desires can be guided… "[12] Here, Xunzi asserts that if someone truly understood desires, they would not make such a contradictory statement (as desires, in Xunzi's mind, can only be guided through appropriate instruction and ritual praxis). In response to the Daoist view, Xunzi focuses on the mind's ability to reform actions: if one's mind is trained, although there are many desires they will not be acted upon. Conversely, if the mind is untrained, although there are few desires they will be acted upon. In this way, Xunzi uses classification and understanding to assert his point: it is the mind which has control over desires, desires cannot simply be forgotten because they are part of human nature and are from Heaven. Also, if a man is truly in accordance with the Way, he will not allow mere desires to change his course of direction.[13]

The rectification of names is an important concept, especially considering the course of Chinese philosophy in this era. Philosophers such as Confucius and Laozi, for example, used the same terms (Dao, wu-wei, sage, etc.) with divergent meanings. Thus, one of the aims behind rectifying names would have been the creation of a consistent language that would allow each word to have a consistent and universal meaning.

Man's nature is evil

Xunzi believed that all people are born with natural tendencies toward "evil": that is, a taste for profit and beauty and a susceptibility to jealousy and hate, all of which, if indulged in, would lead to disorder and criminality. In order to correctly follow the Way, Xunzi argued that it was necessary to have the guidance of a proper teacher (who would, in turn, have an intimate knowledge of the rites), as only this active effort would allow one to become morally upright. More specifically, teachers, classical texts and ritual practice are seen to provide the means of transcending one's innately selfish nature:

Now it is the nature of man that when he is hungry, he will desire satisfaction, when he is cold he will desire warmth, and when he is weary he will desire rest. This is his emotional nature. And yet a man, although he is hungry, will not dare to be the first to eat in the presence of his elders, because he knows that he should yield to them, and although he is weary, he will not dare to demand rest because he knows he should relieve others of the burden of labor. For a son to yield top his father or a younger brother yield to his elder brother – acts such as these are all contrary to man’s nature and run counter to his emotions. And yet they represent the way of filial piety and the proper forms enjoined by ritual principles. Hence, if men follow their emotional nature, there will be no courtesy or humility; courtesy and humility in fact run counter to man’s emotional nature.[14]

The role of rites in this process of human betterment is considered below.

While Xunzi is a Confucian scholar, he challenged the currently prevailing consensus on human nature. Specifically, he addressed this chapter as an overt criticism of Mencius, who believed that all people were inherently good and that it was negative environmental influences that caused immorality. Xunzi debates this point, arguing that Mencius (who he refers to by name) does not understand the difference between nature and conscious practice:

Mencius states that man's nature is good, but I say that this view is wrong. All men in the world, past and present, agree in defining goodness as that which is upright, reasonable, and orderly and evil as that which is prejudiced, irresponsible, and chaotic. This is the distinction between good and evil. Now suppose that man's nature was in fact intrinsically upright, reasonable and orderly - then what need would there be for sage kings and ritual principles? The existence of sage kings and ritual principles could certainly add nothing to the situation. But because man's nature is in fact evil, this is not so. Therefore, in ancient times the sages, realizing that man's nature is evil, that is prejudiced and not upright, irresponsible and lacking in order, for this reason established the authority of the ruler to control it, elucidated ritual principles to transform it, set up laws and standards to correct it, and meted out strict punishments to restrain it.

If the nature of man were good, we could dispense with sage kings and forget about ritual principles. But if it is evil, then we must go along with the sage kings and honor ritual principles. The straightening board is made because of the warped wood; the plumb line is set up because things are crooked; rulers are set up and ritual principles elucidated because the nature of man is evil.[15]

However, in keeping with his universalized thesis, Xunzi did not attribute a certain innate moral excellence to the sages. Instead, he argued that great kings like Yu were born no different from thieves like Robber Zhi or the tyrant Jie - that is, that all four possessed the same nature at birth:

The man in the street can become a Yu. What does this mean? What made the sage emperor Yu a Yu, I would reply, was the fact that he practiced benevolence and righteousness and abided by the proper rules and standards. If this is so, then benevolence, righteousness, and proper standards must be based upon principles which can be known and practiced. Any man in the street [can become a Yu].[16]

Due to this emphasis, the role of instruction and environment become crucial in determining an individual's moral "destiny":

In the same way a man, no matter how fine his nature or how keen his mind, must seek a worthy teacher to study under and good companions to associate with…. Then, although he is not aware of it, he will day by day progress in the practice of benevolence and righteousness, for the environment he is subjected to will cause him to progress. But if a man associates with men who are not good, then he will hear only deceit and lies and will see only conduct that is marked by wantonness, evil, and greed. Then, although he is not aware of it, he himself will soon be in danger of sever punishment, for the environment he is subject to will cause him to be in danger. An old text says, ‘If you do not know a man, look at his friends; if you do not know a ruler, look at his attendants.’ Environment is the important thing! Environment is the important thing![17]

A discussion of rites

Given the pessimistic view of human nature introduced above, it is unsurprising that the Xunzian corpus provides a means of regulating selfish desires - namely, the adoption of rites (and other ritualized forms of behavior). In this framework, ritual teaches the appropriate responses to given situations – a propriety which depends on control over emotions (including desires) and on making one's actions accord with one’s social roles/stations. Regarding the role of li in disciplining emotions, Xunzi states:

The beginnings of [joy and sorrow] are present in man from the first. If he can trim or stretch them, broaden or narrow them, add to or take from them, express them completely and properly, fully and beautifully, seeing to it that root and branch, beginning and end are in their proper place, so that he may serve as a model to ten thousand generations, then he has achieved true ritual. But only a gentleman of thorough moral training and practice is capable of understanding how to do this.[18]

Likewise, these ritual practices are understood to provide a universally appropriate standard of proper behavior:

If the plumb line is properly stretched, then there can be no doubt about crooked and straight; if the scales are properly hung, there can be no doubt about heavy and light; … and if the gentleman is well versed in ritual, then he cannot be fooled by deceit and artifice. The line is the acme of straightness, the scale is the acme of fairness, … and rites are the highest achievement of the Way (dao) of man. Therefore, those who do not follow and find satisfaction in rites may be called people without direction, but those who do follow and find satisfaction in them are called men of direction.[19]

Despite this universality, one's ritual actions are understood as varying based upon one's social role(s):

The Son of Heaven alone performs the suburban sacrifice to Heaven; altars of soil may not be established by anyone lower than a feudal lord; but sacrifices such as the t’an may be carried out by the officials and high ministers as well. In this way rites distinguish and make clear that the exalted should serve the exalted and the humble serve the humble, that great corresponds to great and small to small.[20]

Just as one's ritual responsibilities vary based on social position, so too does one's understanding of the nature and purpose of the rites: "The sage understands [the rites], the gentleman finds comfort in carrying them out, the officials are careful to maintain them, and the common people accept them as custom. To the gentleman they are part of the way of man; to the common people they are something pertaining to spirits."[21]

An interesting element of Xunzi's presentation of ritual is his acknowledgment of a non-human referent (or origin point) for ritual practices (which seems to contradict the aggressively humanistic focus of A Discussion of Heaven):

Through rites [li] Heaven and earth join in harmony, the sun and moon shine, the four seasons proceed in order, the stars and constellations march, the rivers flow, and all things flourish; men’s likes and dislikes are regulated and their joys and hates made appropriate. Those below are obedient, those above are enlightened; all things change but do not become disordered; only he who turns his back upon rites will be destroyed.[22]

However, he avoids contradiction by arguing that the ancient sage-kings found this orderliness in the cosmos and used it as the model for human laws and ritual practices: "the former kings looked up and took their model from heaven, looked down and took their model from the earth, look about and took their rules from mankind. Such rules represent the ultimate principle of community harmony and unity."[23] Commenting on this fruitful ambiguity, Benjamin Schwartz suggests: "We have already noted that the ‘objective’ order of society embodied in li and law is also on some level embedded in the order of Heaven and that in fashioning the human order the sages do not freely invent but actually make manifest a universal pattern somehow already rooted in the ultimate nature of things. Xunzi’s sage most definitely does not, like Nietzsche’s superman, freely ‘create values.’"[24] In this way, Xunzi adds a cosmic referent to the understanding of ritual, but does so without sacrificing his humanism or his Confucian concern with historical continuity.


The legacy of Xunzi has gone through tremendous changes through Chinese intellectual history. His concern with rectification of names and with expedient leadership were two of the primary arguments addressed by Han Fei Zi, which provided the ideological basis for the first Qin emperor's unification of China in 221 B.C.E.. Likewise, his stress on education, classical study, and ritual propriety (plus his recognition of social hierarchies and syncretistic bent) were key to the development of Han Confucianism. While this initially led to tremendous promotion of the ideology, it also had a negative side-effect for as it became co-opted by the political elite, it became tied to the fortunes of the empire. Thus, "when that order began to break up, Confucianism was weakened; when the Han Dynasty fell, Confucianism was utterly discredited."[25] For these political reasons, Xunzi's thought has remained relatively obscure (especially when compared to his near-contemporary, Mencius). It is likely for these reasons (plus his lack of speculation on metaphysical issues) that Xunzi was passed over, in favor of Mencius, in Zhu Xi's canonization of the Four Books that defined the Confucian tradition.[26]

Despite these points, many modern scholars (including Yao (2000), Graham (1993), and Watson (2003)) note that Xunzi provides one of the most systematic and philosophically-reasoned expositions in early Chinese thought. Thus, his writings provide a window into both the philosophical climate of the later Warring States period (fifth century B.C.E.-221 B.C.E.) and the earliest apex of Confucian reasoning.


  1. Wm. Theodore de Bary. Sources of Chinese Tradition, v.1 (Columbia University Press, 1960)
  2. Xinzhong Yao. An Introduction to Confucianism. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 76.
  3. de Bary.
  4. A.C. Graham. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. (Open Court 1993 ISBN 0812690877)
  5. Graham, 40.
  6. Xunzi, translated by Burton Watson, 120.
  7. Xunzi, translated by Watson, 133.
  8. Burton Watson. Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0231129653125).
  9. Watson. Basic Writings, 2003, 128-129.
  10. Xunzi, translated in Watson, 145.
  11. See, for example, chapter three of the text, which argues that "He [the sage] constantly (tries to) keep them without knowledge and without desire…. When there is this abstinence from action, good order is universal." DDJ (3), translated by James Legge and accessed online at sacred-texts.com.
  12. Xunzi, translated by Watson, 154.
  13. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 151.
  14. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 159-160.
  15. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 162, 163-164.
  16. Xunzi, translated by Watson, 170.
  17. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 170-171.
  18. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 102.
  19. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 95.
  20. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 91.
  21. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 110.
  22. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 94.
  23. Watson, Basic Writings, 2003, 94.
  24. Benjamin I. Schwartz. The World of Thought in Ancient China. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), 316.
  25. Arthur F. Wright. Buddhism in Chinese History. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959). 17.
  26. See John Berthrong. Transformations of the Confucian Way, Volume 1. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960) for some discussion of this.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • de Bary, William Theodore. Sources of Chinese Tradition, Volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. ISBN 0231022557.
  • Berthrong, John. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. ISBN 0813328047.
  • Graham, A.C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1993. ISBN 0812690877
  • Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985. ISBN 0674961900.
  • Searle, J.R. and D. Vanderveken. Foundations of Illocutionary Logic. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Watson, Burton. Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967.
  • Watson, Burton. Xunzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0231129653.
  • Wright, Arthur F. Buddhism in Chinese History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959. ISBN 0804705488.
  • Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0521644305.

External links

All links retrieved May 20, 2023.


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