Xunzi, the Man

The ideas of Xunzi (Xun Zi, Xun Qing, or Xun Kuang: c. 310 - c. 219 B.C.), another Confucian follower, were diametrically opposed to those of Mencius. Xunzi preached that man is innately selfish and evil and that goodness is attainable only through education and conduct befitting one's status. He also argued that the best government is one based on authoritarian control, not ethical or moral persuasion. [Source: The Library of Congress *]

Xunzi's unsentimental and authoritarian inclinations were developed into the doctrine embodied in the School of Law (fa), or Legalism. The doctrine was formulated by Han Fei Zi (d. 233 B.C.) and Li Si (d. 208 B.C.), who maintained that human nature was incorrigibly selfish and therefore the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline from above and to enforce laws strictly. The Legalists exalted the state and sought its prosperity and martial prowess above the welfare of the common people. *

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Xunzi lived at the very end of the Zhou dynasty. Like Mencius, he was an advocate and interpreter of the teachings of Confucius. Living a generation after Mencius, Xunzi lived through the final, brutal wars which ended with the state of Qin absorbing and unifying all the Chinese feudal states. Xunzi was a widely traveled scholar, teacher, and official. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Good Websites and Sources on Classical Chinese Thought: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Religion Facts Religion Facts ; Classical Chinese Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Wikipedia article on Chinese Philosophy religion Wikipedia Academic Info on Chinese religion academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de lots of dead links, but maybe helpful

Xunzi, Mencius and Confucius

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Xunzi, unlike previous Confucians, allowed that laws and punishments could play a legitimate role in the state, but only as adjunct tools for rulers who had demonstrated moral self-perfection, and only as a means of motivating the people towards ethical self-improvement. His pupil Li Si, perhaps observing that Confucians who stressed to rulers the priority of moral excellence were never granted positions of governmental significance, discarded the ethical dimensions of Xunzi’s teachings and retained only the Legalistically inclined pragmatic elements. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“Unlike Confucius and Mencius, who were private teachers, the last of the great Classical Confucians was a state-sponsored academic. Xunzi, who lived from the late fourth to the late third century, traveled east from his native state of Zhao to the Shandong peninsula as a young man, and studied with the masters of the Jixia Academy, which had been established by the rulers of Qi. Jixia was the intellectual center of China during the early third century. “Wise men” of every persuasion came to it to peddle their ideas and benefit from the largess of the Qi government. Xunzi gradually rose from the ranks of promising students. He became the leading Confucian spokesman at the academy, and ultimately the senior master among all the thinkers there. It was during his years at Jixia that he and his followers compiled the essays that comprise the “Xunzi”, his collected works. In the end, the academy was dissolved in the wake of invasions of Qi by the state of Yan and encroachments by the state of Chu. Xunzi landed on his feet, however. When Chu captured the old state of Lu, Confucius's homeland, the Chu prime minister appointed Xunzi to be magistrate of a major town there, thus winning good will by patronizing Lu's “native” philosophy.” /+/

“Mencius (c. 372-289 B.C.) and Xunzi (c. 298-238 B.C.) were contemporaries and both were followers of Confucianism. They belonged to the so-called "scholars", and both lived in the present Shandong in eastern China. Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Both elaborated the ideas of Confucius, but neither of them achieved personal success. Mencius recognized that the removal of the ruling house of the Zhou no longer presented any difficulty. The difficult question for him was when a change of ruler would be justified. And how could it be ascertained whom Heaven had destined as successor if the existing dynasty was brought down? Mencius replied that the voice of the "people", that is to say of the upper class and its following, would declare the right man, and that this man would then be Heaven's nominee. This theory persisted throughout the history of China. Xunzi's chief importance lies in the fact that he recognized that the "laws" of nature are unchanging but that man's fate is determined not by nature alone but, in addition, by his own activities. Man's nature is basically bad, but by working on himself within the framework of society, he can change his nature and can develop. Thus, Xunzi's philosophy contains a dynamic element, fit for a dynamic period of history. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Xunzi: the Book

“The “Xunzi” is a large book, covering a wide range of topics and issues. Dr. Eno wrote: “Given the large size and broad intellectual scope of the “Xunzi”, and the rigor of its argumentation, it is surprising that it has not widely studied in the West. The likely reason is that the great Neo-Confucian movement that was synthesized by Zhu Xi (1130-1200) during the Song Dynasty, and which dominated orthodox Confucian thought thereafter, largely rejected Xunzi in favor of the Mencian tradition, and this retarded the study of Xunzi’s thought in both China and the West until the 20th century (although the “Xunzi” was never ignored to the degree that Mozi was). [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/]

“Two complete translations exist; the superior of these by far is John Knoblock’s, “Xunzi” (Stanford: 1988-1994, 3 vols.), which includes careful scholarly introductions and annotations for each chapter. A more literary partial translation has been published by Burton Watson, "Xunzi: Basic Writings" (NY: 1963, 2003). Several studies of Xunzi’s thought have been published in English during the past two decades. A very interesting study of Xunzi’s ethics interpreted through comparison with a major thinker in Western tradition is Aaron Stalnaker’s, "Overcoming Our Evil: Human Nature and Spiritual Exercises in Xunzi and Augustine" (Washington, D.C., 2006.

Background Behind Xunzi’s Philosophy

Dr. Eno wrote: “By Xunzi's time, philosophical discourse had reached a high level of sophistication, and Confucianism's faith in the personal and political efficacy of Zhou “li” was under heavy attack from a variety of schools. Xunzi was perfectly placed to understand the nature of these threats to his faith. He was also a brilliant thinker and analyst, and the book which bears his name is a tour de force defense of Confucianism from a wide variety of attacks. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“The most dangerous of these threats came from the variety of emerging schools that looked to Nature in order to establish a value standard for the human world. Naturalists were particularly effective in challenging the Confucian notion that patterns of behavior designed by rulers over many centuries represented in some way mankind's ultimate destiny. For the Naturalists, “li” were non-natural, artificial forms. What people needed to guide them out of the morass of Warring States amorality were values rooted in the non-human world of Nature; eternal values that were not the products of the arbitrary movements of history. /+/

“Xunzi recognized the force of the belief that in Nature one could find constant values. He knew that Mencius had responded to this idea by building the Confucian virtues into man's natural endowment at birth, hoping to anchor ritual in moral senses as spontaneous and natural as our physical sense organs. But Xunzi believed that Mencius's strategy was an inadequate line of defense against the Naturalists. In trying to justify “li” and standards of righteousness by claiming that they were natural, Mencius implied that ultimate value lay in Nature rather than in achievements of mankind. This was, for Xunzi, far too great a concession to offer the Naturalists, who could deny the “naturalness” of ritual far more persuasively than Mencius could prove it. /+/

“Xunzi instead chose to argue that the products of Nature possessed no ethical value whatever: that Heaven's product, the natural world, could be turned towards good or evil depending upon the choices that human beings made...Because Xunzi's position on human nature created a sharp contrast with Mencius, it became usual in traditional China to picture the two as adversarial approaches to the Confucian message (they are sometimes pictured as the Chinese equivalent of Plato and Aristotle). In fact, their two approaches simply reflect the differences in the intellectual environments in which they lived. Mencius came to intellectual maturity at a time when Mohism was the greatest challenge to Confucianism. Mohism attacked Confucian ethical values as too limited and demanded, in the doctrine of “Universal Love,” that people discard the graded relationships that governed the Confucian social vision in favor of an equal affective regard for all people. Mencius's portrait of human nature was designed to defeat the Mohists by showing how the Confucian ethical categories were endowed in us by Nature and could not be unnaturally stretched in the way the Mohists demanded. /+/

“Xunzi's concern was to respond to Daoism and Naturalism, which were the dominant schools at the Jixia Academy. Mencius's doctrines were poorly suited to this purpose because his picture of the innate moral senses was certainly no more compelling than the Daoist claim that our simplest biological urges, being the imperatives that Nature most clearly endows in us, should be our guide. What Xunzi needed to do was to grant the position that what Nature gives us is little more than our biological endowment, but “ refute “the claim that simply because it is natural to us it is therefore good. To achieve this goal, Xunzi devised many arguments to demonstrate that Nature, in fact, was extremely limited as a source of value and could provide no ethical guidelines whatever. For Xunzi, ethics and values are man.made, though Nature may serve as an inspirational model. The Confucian categories of goodness and right behavior are not grounded in Nature at all, they are grounded in history – the forging of ethical society over the centuries by generations of sage leaders. /+/

Xunzi’s View of Human Beings

Dr. Eno wrote: “Xunzi pictured man's spontaneous nature as a bundle of brutish desires that in themselves led merely towards an animal existence. People were different from the rest of Nature, Xunzi said, only because they were capable of “ changing “themselves and becoming “ un”natural. Through effort, man could go beyond his nature and become ethical. The patterns of ritual behavior embroidered by the sages of the past were the guidelines to this purely human form of perfection: moral excellence. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Xunzi identified at least seven ways in which human beings were unique, each of the six forming a partial explanation of why mankind can create value out of its value-free natural endowment. 1) Human beings can acquire new abilities through repetitive practice. 2) Human beings are able to use tools. 3) The human mind is able to distinguish between sameness and difference. 4) Human beings have a natural ability to see how things “fit” into structures appropriately. 5) Human beings are able to learn the lesson of deferred gratification. 6) Human beings can appropriate the things of the world to change their environment and so nurture new species characteristics. 7) Only humans have desires that outstrip the resources of their environment, forcing man to invent social systems of resource allocation. /+/

“All of these abilities Xunzi labeled as “artifice,” a word which he selected for its tendentious challenge to Daoism and related schools of thought. The Daoists had exalted spontaneity and rejected all goal.directed action in their imperative of “non-action,” or “ wuwei”. The term for goal directed action, “ wei”, was written and pronounced identically with the word meaning “artifice,” which carried a negative connotation, just like the English “artificial.” By making artifice a “ positive “value, Xunzi was highlighting his low valuation of Nature and his belief that it could provide mankind with no ethical guidelines. /+/

Xunzi ’s Relevance to the Modern World

Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Possibilities, in and of themselves, are not enough. As the Chinese philosopher Xunzi would implore us to remember, what’s most important is what we do with them. Consider how many of today’s students were raised: Their talents were identified early. They were “athletic,” “good at math,” “a natural at the violin.” Soon enough, they were winnowed into a stream that would allow those talents to flourish. They learned to stick with what they were good at. Over the years, it became instinctive to sideline the interests for which they didn’t show a natural aptitude. [Source: Michael Puett and Christine Gross-loh, Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2016 ^]

“Xunzi argues that we should not think of the self as something to be accepted—gifts, flaws and all. He would argue instead that we should think of the self as a project. Through experiences, we can train ourselves to construct a self utterly different from—and better than—whatever self we thought we were. A man we know was diagnosed as dyslexic at a very young age. Because of this diagnosis, he became determined to train himself to understand the complexity of languages and sentence structure. He eventually mastered Sanskrit, one of the world’s most difficult languages.^

“As Xunzi reminds us, nothing is natural. The talents and weaknesses we are born with get in the way if we allow them to determine what we can and cannot do. The only thing you really need to be good at is the ability to train yourself to get better. We have seen the practical effect of Chinese philosophy among students who have opened themselves to these ideas. There’s the young man who excelled at math and came to Harvard expecting to major in economics, since it played to his strengths, until a semester of foreign language led to travel abroad and new interests; he ended up in a graduate program in East Asian studies instead. ^

“There’s the student who mapped out a career as a scholar in Asian philosophy until his work in music and computing allowed him to develop a new form of electronic instrument, so he founded a company to manufacture it. Then there’s the young woman who agonized over taking a job on Wall Street because she had planned since high school to work on maternal health issues. She accepted the offer and discovered that working in finance was exactly the “break” she needed. ^

Xunzi’s Treatise on Heaven

“Treatise on Heaven,” according to Dr. Eno, “is one of the most dramatic essays in the “Xunzi”. It highlights the very clear contrast that Xunzi makes between the world of Nature, which provides opportunities to man but no guidelines, and the patterns of "li", which represent the path towards a distinctively human form of perfection. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Annals of Creation

The “Treatise on Heaven” in the “Xunzi” begins: “The constancy of Heaven, Heaven's ways are constant. It did not prevail due to the Emperor Yao; it does not perish due to the Emperor Jie. Respond to it with order and good fortune follows; respond to it with disorder and ill fortune follows. “Strengthen the root and regulate expenditures, and Heaven cannot impoverish. Bring nurturance to completion and act only when the time is ripe, and Heaven cannot sicken. Cultivate the Dao without irresolution, and Heaven cannot devastate. Flood and drought cannot bring starvation; extremes of cold and heat cannot bring sickness; prodigies and freaks cannot bring ill fortune. Let the roots shrivel and spend extravagantly, and Heaven cannot enrich. Skimp nurturance and act contrary to the times, and Heaven cannot complete. Abandon the way and act wantonly, and Heaven cannot bring good fortune. There is starvation without flood or drought; there is sickness without extremes of cold and heat; there is ill fortune without prodigies and freaks. Though the seasons revolve as they do in ordered times, disaster and devastation arise unlike in ordered times. Heaven cannot be blamed: it is a consequence of the way chosen by man. He who understands the distinct roles of Heaven and man may be called a perfect man. [Source: “Treatise on Heaven”, the “Xunzi”; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Keeping man and Heaven distinct: That which is accomplished without action, obtained without pursuit, that belongs to the office of Heaven. Though it be profound, man adds no thought to it; though it be great, man adds no ability to it; though it be keen, man adds no insight to it. This is called “not contesting office with Heaven.” The heavens have their seasons, earth has its riches, man has his rule: this is what is meant by “forming a trinity.” To discard the means for joining with the other two and instead to aspire to their likeness: this is delusion. /+/

“The ranks of stars revolve in procession, the sun and moon shine in turn, the seasons succeed one another, the forces of and alternate in great transformation; the winds and rains give broad nourishment, the things of the world each obtain a harmony of forces whereby they come to life; each obtains nurturance to grow to completion: the process unseen but the finished work manifest – this is called “spirit.” All know it by that which it brings to completion, but none know its formless being – that is called “Heaven.” Only the Sage does not seek to know Heaven. /+/

Xunzi on the Relations Between Human Beings and Heaven

According to the “Treatise on Heaven” in the “Xunzi”: “The relation of the human person to Heaven: With the office of Heaven settled and the work of Heaven accomplished, the physical form is intact and the spirit is born. Love, hate, pleasure, anger, grief, and joy are assembled therein: these are called the “Heavenly dispositions.” The ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and body have their realms of sensual encounter without duplicative ability: these are called the “Heavenly faculties.” The heart dwells in the vacant center and thereby governs the five faculties: it is called the “Heavenly ruler.” It molds things not of its species in order to nurture its species: this is called “Heavenly nurturance.” It judges things which accord with their species to be fortunate and judges things which discord with their species to be ill fortuned: this is called “Heavenly rule.” [Source: “Treatise on Heaven”, the “Xunzi”; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Chiang Tzu-ya dfeats Wen Chung

“To darken one's Heavenly ruler, bring disorder to one's Heavenly faculties, forsake one's Heavenly nurturance, discord with one's Heavenly rule, contravene one's Heavenly dispositions, and so dissipate Heaven's work: this is called “greatest evil.” The Sage clears his Heavenly ruler, rectifies his Heavenly faculties, fulfills his Heavenly nurturance, follows his Heavenly rule, nurtures his Heavenly dispositions, and so brings completion to Heaven's work. /+/

“Thus if one understands what he is to do and is not to do, then heaven and earth will fulfill their proper functions and the things of the world will serve him. Acts fully ruled, nurturance fully realized, in life suffering no injury: this is called “knowing Heaven.” Thus the greatest craft lies in acts not taken, the greatest wisdom in thoughts not pondered. What man seeks from Nature, What man seeks from the heavens should merely be their manifest images by which time may be marked. What man seeks from earth should merely be that which may be appropriated from it, which may be husbanded. What man seeks from the four seasons should merely be their regular sequence, to which he can act in response. What man seeks from the forces of and should merely be their harmonies, which he may employ to create order. Functionaries keep track of Heaven; you must keep to the Dao.” /+/

Dr. Eno wrote: “This is, perhaps, the most critical passage in this essay. In the course of it, Xunzi seems to suggest that human beings go beyond Nature, or Heaven, precisely because of the positive faculties that Nature endows in humans as a species. The key idea is that the human heart (or, more properly, the “heart-mind,” since ancient Chinese used a single term to bridge these two concepts) operates in a unique way, allowing members of the species to appropriate their environment in order to “nurture” their species and in this way define and alter it. In other essays of his book, Xunzi explains that humans are unique in that they have developed the tool of ritual "li", which permits people to “nurture” and so "transform" their habits, skills, and tastes. Hence the heart-minds of the human community are able to transcend “natural” human limits through a process whereby humanity basically creates its own species norms. This is “Heavenly nurturance.” The subsequent power of the mind to determine when species members are according with these refined norms, Heavenly rule, represents the source of normative human judgments. /+/

Xunzi on Human Action and Nature

According to the “Treatise on Heaven” in the “Xunzi”: “The separation of human action and Nature: Are order and disorder determined by the action of the heavens? I say: the regularities of the sun and moon, stars, planets, and constellations were identical for both Yu and Jie. Yu created order thereby; Jie created disorder. Thus, order and disorder are not determined by the heavens. Are they determined by the action of the seasons? Proliferation and growth in spring and summer, harvest and storage in autumn and winter, this too was identical for Yu and for Jie. Yu created order thereby; Jie created disorder. Thus, order and disorder are not determined by the seasons. Are they determined by the land? He who acquires land is able to live; he who loses his land will die: this too was identical for Yu and for Jie. Yu created order thereby, Jie created disorder. The puts it thus: “Heaven created the mountain tall, King Tai brought cultivation to it; he having done so, King Wen brought peace to it.” [Yu and Jie were, respectively, the founding sage ruler of the Xia Dynasty and its last ruler, whose evil conduct caused the dynasty’s downfall. Although it is possible that the Xia Dynasty itself was historical, dominating central China during the approximate period 2000-1600 B.C., and a list of its kings is preserved in the “Shiji”, these two royal figures were clearly legendary creations] [Source: “Treatise on Heaven”, the “Xunzi”; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Cjia Tzu-ling finds the stone

“The takes Heaven's constancy as his model: Heaven does not suspend winter because people dislike cold; earth does not contract its breadth because people dislike traveling great distances; the does not curtail his actions because of the clamor of petty people. Heaven has a constant way; earth has constant progressions; the has constancy of person. The takes what is constant as his way; the petty person calculates his credits. The says: “Undeviating in ritual and right, why be concerned what others may say?” “Fate” is not determined by Heaven but by chance, That the king of Chu may have a retinue of a thousand chariots does not mean that he is wise. That a may have only beans to eat and water to drink does not mean that he is stupid. These are due to the rhythms of circumstance. To be refined in purpose, rich in virtue, and clear in thought; to live in the present but be devoted to the past – these things are within one's own power. The attends to what is within his power and does not aspire to that which is within the power of Heaven alone. The petty person defaults on what is within his power and aspires to that which is within the power of Heaven alone. Because the attends to what is within his power and does not aspire to that which is within the power of Heaven alone, he goes forward day by day. Because the petty person defaults on what is within his power and aspires to that which is within the power of Heaven alone, he goes backward day by day. Thus the pivots of the 's daily progress and the petty person's daily regress are at root one. The difference between the two lies in this. /+/

“Strange events in Nature have no significance: When stars fall or trees sing, the people of the state all ask in terror, “What does this mean?” I say it means nothing. These are the changes of the heavens and the earth, the transformations of and, rare events in the world of things. It is proper to wonder at them; it is wrong to fear them. Eclipses of the sun or moon, unseasonable rain or snow, the occasional appearance of strange stars: there has never been an age without them. If the ruler is enlightened and his government stable, then though these appear in series during his rule, no harm will be done. If the ruler is benighted and his government reckless, then though none of these things occur, it will be of no use. The falling of the stars, the singing of the trees, these are the changes of the heavens and the earth, the transformations of and, rare events in the world of things. It is proper to wonder at them; it is wrong to fear them. /+/

“Among events which may occur, those which should be feared are human portents. When careless ploughing causes crops to suffer and those who weed leave weeds behind, when government is reckless and loses the support of the people – the fields unkempt, the crops meager, grain sold dear and people starving, corpses lying in the road: these are what I mean by human portents. When government directives are unenlightened, the populace summoned to labor out of season, agriculture left in disorder: these are what I mean by human portents. When ritual and propriety are not cultivated, public and private affairs not properly distinguished, when male and female mix wantonly and father and son doubt one another, when superior and inferior become estranged, when banditry and invasion appear in tandem: these are what I mean by human portents. Such portents are born of chaos; if all three types occur at once, there can be no peace for the state. The reasons are so near at hand; the catastrophe so tragic! When labors are unseasonable, cows and horses give birth to one another's progeny and prodigies appear among the six types of livestock. It is proper to wonder at this; it is wrong to fear it. The teachings say: The prodigies of the world of things should be recorded but not explained. Analyses which have no application, investigations which do not proceed from urgency: these should be discarded and not cultivated. As for the proprieties governing ruler and minister, the affinities governing father and son, and the role distinctions governing husband and wife, these should be unceasingly refined. /+/

Xunzi on Rituals

According to the “Treatise on Heaven” in the “Xunzi”: “Rituals have no magic: When performance of the great rain dance is followed by rain, what does this mean? I say it means nothing. It is as though the rain dance had not been performed and it had rained. The rituals of “saving” the sun and moon when they are eclipsed, of performing the rain dance in times of drought, of divining with bone and milfoil before deciding a great matter, these are not performed as means of gaining an end; they are means of ornamenting action. The understands them as ornamental, the populace understands them as spiritual. Understanding them as ornamental leads to good fortune; understanding them as spiritual leads to ill fortune. [Source: “Treatise on Heaven”, the “Xunzi”; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

“Ritual is the jewel of human culture: In the heavens, nothing is more brilliant than the sun and the moon. On earth, nothing is more brilliant than water and fire. Among things, nothing is more brilliant than pearls and jade. Amidst mankind, nothing is more brilliant than ritual and propriety. If the sun and moon were not high, their brilliance would not shine. If water and fire do not collect into masses, their powers to brighten and moisten will not be spread abroad. If pearl and jade are not polished then kings and dukes will not regard them as treasures. If ritual and propriety are not applied to the state, then the fame of its accomplishments will not become known. Thus it is said: The life span of a man resides with Heaven; the life span of a state lies in. If he who rules men exalts and honors the worthy, he will rule as king; if he lays stress on laws and values the people, he will rule as hegemon; if he loves profit and proliferates deceit, he will rule in danger; if he relies on calculating schemes, subversion and perilous secrecy, he will be totally destroyed. /+/

“Rituals are the guides for human success: That which abided unchanged through the reigns of the hundred kings of antiquity may serve as the linking thread of the Way. Respond to the transience of affairs with this thread; all principles will be linked without disorder. If you do not know how to link things in this way, you will not know how to respond to change. The essence of this linking thread has never ceased to be. Disorder is born of deviating from it; order exhausts its every aspect. /+/

“Hence in pursuing the goodness of the Way: follow what fully accords with it; what distorts it one must not do; to mistake it is the greatest confusion. When men wade across rivers, they mark the deep pits. If the markers are not clear, others will drown. Those who rule people must mark the Way. If the markers are not clear, there is chaos. The are the markers. To reject is to darken the world, and a darkened world is in greatest chaos. Thus if the Way is made thoroughly clear, if inner and outer are distinctly marked, if there is regularity in the hidden and the manifest, then the pits which drown the people will be removed. /+/

“Ritual inequality is the basis of a fair and prosperous society: The world of things is but a corner of the Way; one species of thing is but a corner of the world of things. A foolish man is but a corner of one species of thing, yet he believes he knows the Way. He is without wisdom. The philosopher Shenzi could see the advantages of being last, but could not see the advantages of being first. The Daoist Laozi could see the advantages of being bent, but could not see the advantages of holding straight. The founder of Mohism, Mozi, saw the advantages of equality, but could not see the advantages of inequality. The philosopher Songzi saw the advantages of few desires, but could not see the advantages of many. If all are last and none first, then there can be no gateway for the masses. If all are bent and none hold straight, then the eminent and the humble cannot be distinguished. If all are equal without inequalities then commands of government cannot be carried out. If all have few desires and none have many, then there is no means of transforming the masses. The puts it this way: “Do not love doing any one thing; only follow the Way of the king. Do not hate doing any one thing; only follow the path of the king.”“ /+/

Zhou-era sacrificial horsepit

Xunzi on the Origin of Rites

Xunzi wrote: “What is the origin of rites? I reply, human beings are born with desires, and when they do not achieve their desires, they cannot but seek the means to do so. If their seeking knows no limit or degree, they cannot but contend with one another. With contention comes chaos, and with chaos comes exhaustion. The ancient kings hated chaos and therefore established rites and rightness in order to limit it, to nurture people’s desires, and to give them a means of satisfaction. They saw to it that desires did not exhaust material things and that material things did not fall short of desires. Thus both desires and things were supported and satisfied, and this was the origin of rites.

“Rites have three roots. Heaven and Earth are the root of life, the ancestors are the root of the human species, and rulers and teachers are the root of order. If there were no Heaven and Earth, how could there be life? If there were no ancestors, how could there be begetting? If there were no rulers and teachers, how could there be order? If even one of these were lacking human beings would have no peace. Thus rites serve Heaven above and Earth below; they honor ancestors; they exalt rulers and teachers. These are the three roots of rites. Rites always begin in coarseness, are completed in forms, and end in joy. Thus in their most perfected state both emotion and the forms are fully realized; in the next state, emotions and forms prevail by turns; and in the lowest state, everything returns to emotion and reverts to a great unity.

Xunzi: “Discussion of Rites

Xunzi wrote: “Rites are most strict in the ordering of birth and death. Birth is the beginning of a human being; death is his end. When both beginning and end are good, the human way is complete. Therefore the noble person is reverential toward the beginning and watchful over the end, so that beginning and end are as one. This is the way of the noble person; this is the refinement of rites and rightness. To be generous in the treatment of the living but miserly in the treatment of the dead is to show reverence for a being who has consciousness and contempt for one who lacks consciousness. This is the way of an evil person and an offense against the heart. The noble person would be ashamed to treat a bondservant in a way that offends the heart; how much more ashamed would he be to treat those whom he honors and loves in such a way! Because the rites of the dead can be performed only once for each individual, and never again they provide the final occasion at which the subject may express the utmost respect for his ruler and the son may express the utmost respect for his parents. Therefore to serve the living without loyalty and generosity, or without reverence and good form, is called rudeness, and to send off the dead without loyalty and generosity, or without reverence and good form, is called miserliness. The noble person disdains rudeness and is ashamed of miserliness.

“Rites contract what is too long and expand what is too short, reducing excesses and repairing deficiencies, pervading the forms of love and reverence and enlivening the beauties of right conduct. Therefore, while refined beauty and coarse ugliness, joyful music and mournful weeping, calm contentment and anxious grief are opposites, rites bring them together and make use of them, eliciting and employing each in due course. Therefore, refined beauty, joyful music, and calm contentment serve to induce an attitude of tranquility and are employed on auspicious occasions. Coarse ugliness, mournful weeping, and anxious grief induce an attitude of inquietude and are employed on inauspicious occasions. Therefore when refined beauty is utilized, it should never reach the point of shallowness or sensuality, and when coarse ugliness is utilized, it should never lead to the point of starvation or self-abandonment. When joyful music and calm contentment are utilized, they should never lead to profligacy or indolence, and though mournful weeping and anxious grief are utilized, they should never lead to faintheartedness or injury to life. If this is done, then rites will achieve the middle state.

Xunzi: “Human Nature Is Evil”

Zhou-era ritual wine vessel

Xunzi wrote: “Human nature is evil; its good derives from conscious activity. Now it is human nature to be born with a fondness for profit. Indulging this leads to contention and strife, and the sense of modesty and yielding with which one was born disappears. One is born with feelings of envy and hate, and, by indulging these, one is led into banditry and theft, so that the sense of loyalty and good faith with which he was born disappears. One is born with the desires of the ears and eyes and with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds, and, by indulging these, one is led to licentiousness and chaos, so that the sense of ritual, rightness, refinement, and principle with which one was born is lost. Hence, following human nature and indulging human emotions will inevitably lead to contention and strife, causing one to rebel against one’s proper duty reduce principle to chaos, and revert to violence. Therefore one must be transformed by the example of a teacher and guided by the way of ritual and rightness before one will attain modesty and yielding, accord with refinement and ritual, and return to order. From this perspective it is apparent that human nature is evil and that its goodness is the result of conscious activity.

“Thus warped wood must be laid against a straightening board, steamed, and bent into shape before it can become straight; blunt metal must be ground on a whetstone before it can become sharp. And in that human nature is evil, it must wait for the example of a teacher before it can become upright, and for ritual and rightness before it can become orderly. Now, if people lack the example of teachers they will be partial and narrow rather than upright; if they lack ritual and rightness they will be rebellious and chaotic rather than orderly. In ancient times the sage kings, recognizing that the nature of human beings is evil.. that they incline toward evil and are not upright, that they are disposed toward chaos and are not orderly.. created ritual and rightness and established models and limits in order to reform and improve the human emotional nature and make it upright, in order to train and transform the human emotional nature and provide it with a guide. They caused them to attain order and to conform to the Way. And so today a person who is transformed by the instructions of a teacher, devotes himself to study, and abides by ritual and rightness may become a noble person, while one who follows his nature and emotions, is content to give free play to his passions, and abandons ritual and rightness is a lesser person. It is obvious from this, therefore, that human nature is evil, and that its goodness results from conscious activity.

Xunzi’s Dismissal of Mencius’s View That “Human Nature Is Good”

One of the Ten Kings of Hell

Xunzi wrote: “Mencius said, The fact that human beings learn shows that their nature is good. I say this is not so; this comes of his having neither understood human nature nor perceived the distinction between the nature and conscious activity. The nature is what is given by Heaven: one cannot learn it; one cannot acquire it by effort. Ritual and rightness are created by sages: people learn them and are capable, through effort, of bringing them to completion. What cannot be learned or acquired by effort but is within us is called the nature. What can be learned and, through effort, brought to completion is called conscious activity. This is the distinction between the nature and conscious activity. That the eyes can see and the ears can hear is human nature. But the faculty of clear sight does not exist apart from the eye, nor does the faculty of keen hearing exist apart from the ear. It is apparent that the eye’s clear vision and the ear’s acute hearing cannot be learned.

“Mencius said, Now, human nature is good, and [when it is not] this is always a result of having lost or destroyed one’s nature. I say that he was mistaken to take such a view. Now, it is human nature that, as soon as a person is born, he departs from his original substance1 and from his natural disposition, so that he must inevitably lose and destroy them. Seen in this way, it is apparent that human nature is evil. Those who say that the nature is good find beauty in what does not depart from the original substance and value in what does not diverge from the natural disposition. They consider that the beauty of the natural disposition and the original substance and the goodness of the mind’s intentions are [inseparable from the nature] in the same way that clear sight is inseparable from the eye and keen hearing is inseparable from the ear. Hence they maintain that [the nature possesses goodness] in the same way that the eye possesses clear vision or the ear possesses keenness of hearing. [1, The word Xunzi uses here is pu, a term that occurs frequently in the Daodejing and is often translated in that context as “the uncarved block.”]

“Now, it is human nature that when one 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 the emotional nature of human beings. Yet, even if a person is hungry, he will not dare to be the first to eat if he is in the presence of his elders because he knows that he should yield to them. Although he is weary, he will not dare to seek rest because he knows that he should work on behalf of others. For a son to yield to his father and a younger brother to yield to his elder brother, or for a son to work on behalf of his father and a younger brother to work on behalf of his elder brother.. these two acts are contrary to the nature and counter to the emotions, and yet they represent the way of filial devotion and the refinement and principle that are associated with ritual and rightness.

Xunzi on Openness in Government and Fate


“Removing Blinders” reads: “Be secretive and succeed; disclose and fail.” Never has an enlightened ruler followed such a motto. Be open and succeed; conceal and fail.” Never has a benighted ruler followed such a motto. “In ruling, when one is secretive, slanderers flock to the court and honest ministers are turned away; the petty man will draw close, but the “junzi” will keep a distance. The “Poetry” says: Take black for light, And night predators will fill the day. This means that when the ruler is benighted, the people will be in danger. But if the ruler is open, then those who speak straightforwardly will come to court and the slanderers will be turned away; the “junzi” will draw close and the petty man will keep a distance. The “Poetry” says: When those below shine brilliant, Glorious is the one above! This speaks of how those below are transformed when their ruler is enlightened/ [Source: Chapter 21: Removing Blinders from the “Xunzi”; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

In the “Treatise on Tian”, Xunzi wrote: “That the king of Chu may have a retinue of a thousand chariots does not mean that he is wise. That a “junzi” may have only beans to eat and water to drink does not mean that he is stupid. These are due to the rhythms of circumstance. To be refined in purpose, rich in virtue, and clear in thought; to live in the present but be devoted to the past – these things are within one’s own power. The “junzi” attends to what is within his power and does not aspire to that which is within the power of Tian alone. The petty person defaults on what is within his power and aspires to that which is within the power of Tian alone. Because the “junzi” attends to what is within his power and does not aspire to that which is within the power of Tian alone, he goes forward day by day. Because the petty person defaults on what is within his power and aspires to that which is within the power of Tian alone, he goes backward day by day. Thus the pivots of the “junzi”’s daily progress and the petty person’s daily regress are at root one. The difference between the two lies in this. [Source: “The Xunzi”: Chapter 17: “Treatise on Tian”; Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “Although this section does not employ the term “fate” (“ ming”), its ideas are in the tradition of the “Mencius”’s doctrines concerning fate/destiny, distinguishing clearly between realms that are and are not under the control of the moral individual, and acknowledging that outcomes that do not reward his ethical effort are due to a pattern that operates independent of people, the “rhythms of circumstance.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University, Chinatxt chinatxt /+/; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu ; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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