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 numerous 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 regional 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 teacher. 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.
Around 247 Xun Kuang must have left Qin and travelled 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 territory 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, ch. 74). Other biographies were written by the Qing-period 清 (1644-1911) scholar Wang Zhong 汪中 (1745-1794, book Xunqingzi nianbiao 荀卿子年表), and by Yu Guo'en 于國恩 (1930-1951, Xunzi nianbiao 荀子年表 and Xun Qing kao 荀卿考).
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.
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 (1842-1918) 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 (1884-1919) and Xunzi jianshi 荀子簡釋 by Liang Qixiong 梁啟雄 (1900-1965). Wang Xianqian had made use of some earlier studies on Xunzi, especially those of Hao Yixing 郝懿行 (1757-1825), Liu Taigong 劉臺拱 (1751-1805), Wu Rulun 吳汝綸 (1840-1903), Sun Yirang 孫詒讓 (1848-1908) and Wang Renjun 王仁俊 (1866-1913). A modern edition of his book has been published in 1988 by the Zhonghua Book Company 中華書局.
The most important ancient editions of the Xunzi are the Song-period print of the series 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 長沙, Hunan, from the Guangxu reign-period 光緒 (1875-1908, 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.
Xunzi observed that at the 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 shortcomings of these schools of thought.
Xun Kuang adopted statements of other schools useful for his own teachings, but discarded foreign propositions not useful in his eyes. 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 Daoist concepts of nature (ziran 自然) and non-activity (wuwei 無為) which he interpreted as a primordial, objective status that was not allowed to be questioned or changed by human interference. The "acting of Heaven is constant" (tianxing you chang 天行有常), Xunzi believed, and had therefore to be observed by all humans. Yet unlike the Daoists, Xun Kuang was of the opinion that man was to actively use the Heavenly Way to bring order into state and society. He also vehemently contradicted the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi's agnosticist approach who had said that man was not able to discern between good and bad, and even that good and bad were, 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 was able discern 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 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 was also able to produce incorrect and wrong things and situations that would created a totally unjust and subjective/egoist world. Character (xing 性), he says, was given to man by nature, but it could be changed and transformed by learning and practice. Affects (qing 情) were not natural, but could be created and shaped. By a transformation with the help of cultivation and learning (xue bu neng yi 學不能已 "one must not cease learning"), man had the potential to become what the Confucians called "a saint" (shengren 聖人), a morally superior man. Virtues were not naturally part of man's character, but they could 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 given by teachers (shi fa 師法), and the by way of propriety and etiquette (li yi zhi dao 禮義之道).
Active learning and self-cultivation are therefore an integral part of Xunzi's view of mankind. This does not mean that all attempts at cultivation will be successful, but without it, harm would be the result.
Unlike the early Confucians, Xunzi was not of the opinion that Heaven had an influence on the creation of societies and states. Instead, Xunzi argued that man by himself created objects and structures that enabled and forced him to live in societies based on division of labour. The mutual need of human groups automatically resulted in aggregate dwellings in villages and cities.
Communities made men wealthier and stronger, but also led to conflicts that made a common sense of rules necessary, to which all members of the community had to adhere to. Such a community would not only be more peaceful, but also automatically show different levels of wealth, status and function. Division into social layers was a natural result of man's attempts 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 would not be achieved in an egalitarian society or in an anarchic society.
The most important factor of human fate was man himself. The Heavenly Mandate could 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 was mouldable. Accordingly, there was no stable political system whose institutions and processes were valid in eternity, as believed by Confucius and Mengzi. The political system, in Xunzi's eyes, had 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") was not possible.
On the other hand, there was the eternal way (dao 道) that constituted 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 was eternal, and Heaven did not influence history in such a way that virtuous rulers like Yao were preserved, while bad kings like Jie 桀 and Zhou 紂 were punished with the end of their dynasty. Heaven and the human world were clearly separated (tian ren xiang fen 天人相分). In human society the eternal link between the past and the present was nothing else than the social rituals (li 禮) as held high by Confucius. They included, as a central element, proper behaviour in society (yi 義).
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 served as a kind of measuring tool, or a standard to which humans had to adapt their conduct. All good aspects in human behaviour were therefore artificial (qi shan zhe wei ye 其善者僞也). Born by nature, man was only able to strive to appease his basic instincts, like hunger and searching for protection against cold. Man was therefore egoistic, envious and rapacious. The only means to control these instincts in a complex society was to establish generally valid rules of "virtues". These virtues were, following Confucius, kindheartedness (ren 仁) and appropriate behaviour according to one's social position (yi), but both had 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 regional rulers.
Xunzi used the term li "rites, social rules" to describe patterns of conduct in a society. This conduct depended 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) were valid for all members of a community, and were 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 with each other, but the latter to a lesser extent.
Inequality of status was an essential feature of human societies. It was a matter of reality, to which every human behaviour has to be adapted. The best way to achieve this goal was education, with the help of which the naturally bad character of man could be transformed into virtuous behaviour. The observance of the environment was of particular importance, because it would have a great influence on the success of education. Continuous study would contribute to remove obstacles (jie bi 解蔽) to the understanding of the world. Luckily enough, the strive for analysis was part of the human character, just like mensurability was the nature of all objects.
The importance of ritual and proper behaviour in a social context made it necessary to "rectify names" (zhengming 正名). The correct use of designations was 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 included the use of general terms (gongming 共名) and of specialized terms (bieming 別名). Names and designations were, in Xunzi's eyes, the result of social convention (sucheng 俗成), because there was no natural way of designation.
This circumstance made it necessary to adapt designations to the changing conditions of time and environment. Xunzi highly stressed how important it was that designation (ming 名) and fact (shi 實) were in accordance with each other. Different designations for one thing were 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 was nonsense in Xunzi's eyes. Man should also avoide that facts contradicted 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 ox' is not 'ox'" (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 was far too restricted to have a competent perception of all things on earth. It was therefore necessary to operate with "assumed things" (jia wu 假物), 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 was fully known and was 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 spendings, 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 had to strengthen the basics and sparingly spend money – this would make his country prospering. He had to care for sufficient food and use it in time – this would avert disaster and famine. He had to follow the Heavenly Way and not depart from it – this would 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 periods. Han Fei and the scepticist Wang Chong 王充 (27-97 CE) 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 (773-819) and Liu Yuxi 劉禹錫 (772-842), and even the modern thinkers Yan Fu 嚴複 (1854-1921) and Zhang Taiyan 章太炎 (Zhang Bingling 章炳麟, 1869-1936) adapted his thoughts.
Xunzi's 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 (1990), Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works (Stanford: Stanford University Press), an older complete one by Homer H. Dubs (1927), The Works of Hsüntze (London: Probsthain), and a partial translation by Burton Watson (1963), Hsün Tzu: Basic Writings (New York: Columbia University Press). Eric Hutton (2014) recently presented a new translation, Xunzi: The Complete Text (Princeton: Princeton University Press). A complete German translation was realized by Hermann Köster (1967), Hsün-tzu. Steyler Verlag (Kaldenkirchen: Steyler Verlag). A Spanish translation of the chapters Zhengming and Xing'e is being published by Nuño Alberto Valenzuela Alonso, Rectificar los nombres (2019), and La naturaleza del hombre es malvada (2020) (Madrid: Miraguano).
|1.||勸學篇||Quanxue||An exhortation to learning|
|4.||榮辱篇||Rongru||Of honour and disgrace|
|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|
|19.||禮論篇||Lilun||Discourse on ritual principles|
|20.||樂論篇||Yuelun||Discourse on music|
|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|
|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|
|32.||堯問篇||Yao wen||The questions of Yao|