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The book Xunzi 荀子 "Master Xun", also called Sunqingzi 孫卿子 or Xunqingzi 荀卿子, is a philosophical book of the late Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent-221 BCE). It belongs to the Confucian treatises but is not rated as a Confucian Classic because it contains a lot of propositions that were for a long time classified as unorthodox.
The author of the book Xunzi was Xun Kuang 荀況 (trad. 313 -238 BCE) or Xun Qing 荀卿 (sometimes also called Sun Qing 孫卿), called Xunzi "Master Xun", a scholar from the state of Zhao 趙 who dwelled at the court of the kings of Qi 齊 where he was an eminent scholar at the Jixia state academy 稷下. When the state of Qi was conquered by the armies of Yan 燕 the scholars at the Academy were scattered into the four winds, and Xunzi went to the southern state of Chu 楚 to become a follower of Lord Chunshen 春申君. In 279 he returned to Qi, where he was at that time the most prominent professor. After the death of King Xiang 齊襄王 (r. 283-265) he left Qi and served King Zhaoxiang of Qin 秦昭襄王 (r. 306-251). He admired the results of the administrative reform in that state, but also stressed that Qin was lacking the advice of experts in ritual matters, and therefore only used a combination of codified bureaucracy with an expansive militarism which would in the eyes of Xunzi not good in the long run. It seems that he had not seen his disciple Li Si 李斯 becoming counsellor-in-chief of Qin. The legalist philosopher Han Fei 韓非 is also believed to have been his disciple. Around 247 Xun Kuang must have left Qin and traveled to Zhao, where he discussed military matters with the Lord of Linwu 臨武君, a native of Chu, at the court of King Xiaocheng 趙孝成王 (r. 266-245) of Zhao. Xun Kuang said that victory or defeat were not a question of weapons or tactics, but the general relationship between a ruler and his people. A ruler who was not sure of the support by his own people would lose any war. He also stressed that the object of war was not to conquer, but to defend a people against the tyranny of others. Xunzi later moved to Chu, where he became magistrate (ling 令) of Lanling 蘭陵 (modern Cangshan 蒼山, Shandong) in the fief of Lord Chunshen. He spent his remaining years in Chu as a teacher.
Xun Kuang's biography can be found in the history Shiji 史記 (together with Mengzi 孟子). Other biographies have been written by the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Wang Zhong 汪中 (Xunqingzi nianbiao 荀卿子年表), and by Yu Guo'en 于國恩 (Xunzi nianbiao 荀子年表 and Xun Qing kao 荀卿考).
The book Xunzi
The book Xunzi has 32 (in some old versions 33) chapters which were rearranged into 20 chapters by the Tang period 唐 (618-907) scholar Yang Jing 楊倞, based on Liu Xiang's 劉向 arrangement from the Han period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE). Yang Jing was of the opinion that the parts Dalüe 大略 to Yao wen 堯問 (ch. 27-32) were compiled by later persons and not by Xun Kuang himself. Later scholars rated the following chapters as genuinely written by Xun Qing: Wangba 王霸, Xing'e 性惡, Tianlun 天論, Jiebi 解蔽, Zhengming 正名, Lilun 禮論, and Yuelun 樂論.
The oldest commentaries to the Xunzi are Yang Liang's Xunzi zhu 荀子注 from the Tang period, the Song period 宋 (960-1279) commentaries Xunzi jiaokan 荀子校勘 by Li Chun 黎錞 and Xunzi kaoyi 荀子考異 by Li Dian 錢佃, Wang Xianqian's 王先謙 Xunzi jijie 荀子集解 from the Qing period, and the modern commentaries Xunzi jiaobu 荀子校補 by Liu Shipei 劉師培 and Xunzi jianshi 荀子簡釋 by Liang Qixiong 梁啟雄. Wang Xianqian had made use of some earlier studies on Xunzi, especially those of Hao Yixing 郝懿行, Liu Taigong 劉臺拱, Wu Rulun 吳汝綸, Sun Yirang 孫詒讓 and Wang Renjun 王仁俊. A modern edition of his book has been published in 1988 by the Zhonghua shuju 中華書局.
The most important ancient editions of the Xunzi are the Song period print of the collectanea Guyi congshu 古逸叢書 (a facsimile version of which is included in the Sibu congkan 四部叢刊), the print of the Liuzi quanshu 六子全書 from 1530 by the Shide Hall 世德堂, the Siku quanshu 四庫全書version, the print of Wang Xianqian's Xunzi jijie by the Sixian Academy 思賢講舍 in Changsha from the Guangxu reign (included in the Zhuzi jicheng 諸子集成), the version from 1897 in the Zishu ershier zhong 子書二十二種 (a facsimile of the Jifu congshu 畿輔叢書 edition), and the Xunzi jianshi from 1956.
Xun Kuang's philosophy
Xunzi observed that at his time "a hundred" different philosophical schools (baijia 百家) were contending, each presenting different interpretations of the universe, state and society. This multitude of various teachings was in his eyes a "public evil" (gonghuan 公患) which could only be abolished by critically investigating the shortcoming of these schools of thought.
Xun Kuang adopted correct statements of other schools in his teachings, but discarded their shortcomings. In his chapter Fei shier zi 非十二子 Xunzi brings forward arguments against various teachings of twelve different philosophical schools.
He took over the Daoists' concepts of nature (ziran 自然) and non-activity (wuwei 無為) which he interpreted as a primordial, objective status was not allowed to be questioned or changed by human interference. The "acting of Heaven is constant" (tianxing you chang 天行有常) and has therefore to be observed by all humans. Yet unlike the Daoists, he was of the opinion that man was to actively use the Heavenly way to bring order into state and society. Xun Kuang also vehemently contradicted the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi's agnosticist approach who said that man is not able to discern between good and bad, and even that good and bad are, absolutely seen, irrelevant.
Yet Xun Kuang was also adverse to Mengzi's proposition of man's innate cognition of good and bad (liang zhi 良知 "congenital knowledge"). He doubted that man would be able to discern by himself objectively between good and bad, and argued that only personal, subjective experience would lead to the awareness of goodness in a Confucian sense. In the process of this awareness man had to make use of the "Heavenly officials" (tianguan 天官, the sense organs) and the "Heavenly lord" (tianjun 天君, intellectual power). With the help of his intellectual power man is also able to produce incorrect and wrong objects and situations that created a wholly unjust subjective world. Character (xing 性), he says, is given to man by nature, but it can be changed and transformed. Affects (qing 情) are not natural, but they can be created. By a transformation with the help of cultivation and learning (xue bu neng yi 學不能已 "one must not cease learning"), man can become what the Confucians called a saint (shengren 聖人), a morally superior man. Virtues are not naturally part of man's character, but they can be learnt and cultivated (hua xing qi wei 化性起僞 "to change the character to that it is un-natural") with the help of the standards of the teachers (shi fa 師法), and the Way of ritual and etiquette (li yi zhi dao 禮義之道).
Human society. Active learning and self-cultivation are therefore an integral part of Xunzi's view of mankind. This does not mean that all attempts of cultivation will be successful, but without it, harm would be the result.
Unlike the early Confucians, Xunzi was not of the opinion that Heaven has an influence on the creation of societies and states. Instead, Xunzi argued that man by himself has created objects and structures that enable him to live in and to need societies based on division of labour. The mutual need of human groups automatically results in aggregate dwellings in villages and cities. Communities make men more wealthy and strong, but also lead to conflicts that make a common sense of rules necessary, to which all members of the community have to adhere to. Such a community will not only be more peaceful, but will also automatically show different levels of wealth, status and function. Division into social layers is a natural result of man's attempt to become stronger in a coherent society, in other words, "harmony comes out of division" (fen ze he 分則和), or "division is the primary profit of the world" (you fen zhe, tianxia zhi ben li ye 有分者，天下之本利也). Peace and strength will not be achieved in an egalitarian society or in an anarchic society.
The most important factor of human fate is man himself. The Heavenly mandate can be produced and made useful by man (zhi tian ming er yong zhi 制天命而用之), as Xunzi says, and the human character is able to be formed. Accordingly, there is no stable political system whose institutions and processes are valid in eternity, as believed by Confucius and Mengzi. The political system has to be adapted to the needs of the times, and a return to the putative golden age of the Western Zhou kings (xianwang 先王 "the earlier kings") is not possible any more. On the other hand, there is the eternal way (dao 道) that constitutes a link between the sage rulers of oldest times (Yao 堯 and Shun 舜) and the historical kings (houwang 後王 "later kings"). Heaven's way is eternal, and Heaven does not influence history in such a way that virtuous rulers like Yao are preserved, while bad kings like Jie 桀 are punished with the end of their dynasty. Heaven and the human world are clearly separated (tian ren xiang fen 天人相分). In human society the eternal link between the past and the present is nothing else than the Confucian social rituals (li 禮) and proper behaviour in society (yi 義).
Badness of human character. Xunzi's proposition towards the human character goes even so far that he says that "man’s character is bad by nature" (ren zhi xing e 人之性惡) and must be educated with the help of rituals and etiquette. These serve as a kind of measuring tool, or a standard to which humans have to adapt their conduct. All good aspects in human behaviour are therefore artificial (qi shan zhe wei ye 其善者僞也). Born by nature, man is only able to strive to appease his basic instincts, like hunger and searching for protection against cold. Man is therefore egoistic, envious and rapacious. The only means to control these instincts in a complex society is to establish generally valid rules of "virtues". These virtues are, following Confucius, kindheartedness (ren 仁) and appropriate behaviour according to one’s social position (yi), but both have to be enshrined in rules of ritual (li). The term li had been used for the ancient state rituals and the rules of etiquette used during court audiences of the king with his vassals, the feudal lords. Xunzi used this term to describe patterns of conduct in a society. This conduct depends on the own position in society, as ruler and minister, father and son, older and younger brother, or man and woman. These "human relationships" (renlun 人倫) are valid for all members of a community, and are not restricted by time, place or social groups. In this way, man would be able to pursue both his duty (yi), and his own profit (li 利), always in combination, but the latter only to a lesser extent. Inequality of status is an essential feature of human societies. It is a matter of reality, to which all human behaviour has to be adapted. The best way to achieve this goal is education, with the help of which the naturally bad character of man can be transformed into virtuous behaviour. The observance of the environment is of particular importance, because these would have a great influence on the success of education. Continuous study will contribute to undo obstacles (jie bi 解蔽) to the understanding of the world. Luckily enough the strive for analysis is part of the human character, just like mensurability is the nature of all objects.
Rectification of names and the theory of understanding. The importance of ritual and proper behaviour in a social context makes it necessary to "rectify names" (zhengming 正名). The correct use of designations is extremely important in politics and administration, where a correct use of orders, commands and instructions is influencing a whole country and its society. The correct use of designations includes the use of general terms (gongming 共名) and of specialized terms (bieming 別名). Names and designations are, in Xunzi's eyes, the result of social convention (sucheng 俗成), because there is no natural way of designation. This circumstance makes it necessary to adapt designations to the changing conditions of time and environment. Xunzi highly stressed how important it is that designation (ming 名) and fact (shi 實) are in accordance with each other. Different designations for one thing are strictly to be avoided. The dialectician Song Xing 宋銒, for instance, had used the expression jian wu bu ru 見侮不辱 "being insulted without feeling dishonoured", which is nonsense in Xunzi's eyes. It is also to be avoided that facts contradict designations, as it can be seen in the dialectician Hui Shi's 惠施 ascertainment that mountains and wells were leveled (shan yuan ping 山淵平), or that designations contradicted facts, as evident in the sophistic statement that "horse and oxen is not oxen" (niu ma fei niu 牛馬非牛, better known as bai ma fei ma 白馬非馬 "white horse is not horse"). Yet Xunzi admitted that in the end, man's life and individual experience is far too restricted to have a competent perception of all things on earth. It is therefore necessary to operate with "assumed things" (jia wu 假物) and the "skill to grasp things" (cao shu 操術), and to "measure things with similar things" (yi lei du lei 以類度類), a method that presupposes that at least one thing is wholly known and is similar to the object to be assessed (zhi lei 知類).
In the field of politics and economy, Xunzi advocated austerity and the attempt to make the best use of all available sources. A state, for instance, would have to refrain from extravagant spending, and to support the peasants who would then in turn produce a sufficient amount of grain and deliver taxes, and serve the state for official projects and in war. A ruler has to strengthen the basics and sparingly spend funds – this will make his country prospering. He has to care for sufficient food and use it in time – this will avert disaster and famine. He has to follow the Heavenly Way and not depart from it – this will keep misfortune at bay.
Xunzi's chapter Fu 賦篇 had an influence on the emergence of the literary genre of fu 賦 prose poetry (rhapsodies) during the Han period.
The philosophical positions of Xunzi had a deep impact on the political philosophy of the late Warring States and the Han perioda. Han Fei and the scepticist Wang Chong 王充 were deeply influenced by Xunzi's analysis of society, and therefore Xunzi can be seen as a link between the Confucians and the legalist philosophers. Later philosophers like Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元 and Liu Yuxi 劉禹錫 (both Tang period), and even the modern thinkers Yan Fu 嚴複 and Zhang Taiyan 章太炎 adapted his thoughts. His practical approach was deeply despised by the Song period Neo-Confucians with their metaphysical speculations. Yet rediscovered during the Qing period, Xun Kuang was highly praised for his wide range and realistic view of philosophical topics. Wang Zhong even said that the philosophy of Xun Kuang widely surpassed the narrow frame in which Confucius had lived and thought.
There is a complete translation by John Knoblock (transl. 1990), Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, 3 vols, Stanford: Stanford University Press; and a partial translation by Burton Watson (1963), Hsün Tzu: Basic Writings, New York: Columbia University Press.
Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Xunzi (Dao Companions to Chinese Philosophy)18. November 2016
von Eric L. Hutton
Hutton, Eric L. (2014), Xunzi: The Complete Text (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Hutton, Eric L., ed. (2016) Dao Companion to the Philosophy of Xunzi (Dordrecht: Springer).
1. 勸學篇 Quanxue An exhortation to learning
2. 脩身篇 Youshen On self-cultivation
3. 不苟篇 Bugou Nothing indecorous
4. 榮辱篇 Rongru Of honour and disgrace
5. 非相篇 Feixiang Contra physiognomy
6. 非十二子篇 Fei shierzi Contra twelve philosophers
7. 仲尼篇 Zhong Ni On Confucius
8. 儒效篇 Ruxiao The teachings of the Confucians
9. 王制篇 Wangzhi On the regulations of a king
10. 富國篇 Fuguo On enriching a state
11. 王霸篇 Wangba Of kings and lords-protector
12. 君道篇 Jundao On the way of a lord
13. 臣道篇 Chendao On the way of ministers
14. 致士篇 Zhishi On attracting scholars
15. 議兵篇 Yibing Debate on the principles of warfare
16. 彊國篇 Qiangguo On strengthening the state
17. 天論篇 Tianlun Discourse on nature
18. 正論篇 Zhenglun Rectifying theses
19. 禮論篇 Lilun Discourse on ritual principles
20. 樂論篇 Yuelun Discourse on music
21. 解蔽篇 Jiebi Dispelling blindness
22. 正名篇 Zhengming On the correct use of names
23. 性惡篇 Xing'e Man’s nature is evil
24. 君子篇 Junzi On the gentleman
25. 成相篇 Chengxiang Working songs
26. 賦篇 Fu Rhyme-prose poems
27. 大略篇 Dalüe The great compendium
28. 宥坐篇 Youzuo The warning vessel on the right
29. 子道篇 Zidao On the way of sons
30. 法行篇 Faxing On the model of conduct
31. 哀公篇 Aigong Duke Ai
32. 堯問篇 Yao wen The questions of Yao
Sources: Li Deyong 李德永, Chen Ying 陳瑛, Liu Peiyu 劉培育 (1987), "Xunzi 荀子", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhexue 哲學 (Beijing/Shanghai: : Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 2, p. 1050. ● Wu Rongceng 吳榮曾 (1992), "Xun Qing 荀卿", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, p. 1347. ● Xu Hongxing 徐洪興 (1992), "Xunzi 荀子", in Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Zhexue 哲學 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), p. 89. ● Pang Pu 龐樸 (ed. 1997), Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, p. 28.
September 16, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
Chinese Literature over time