Article abstract: Through his development and modification of Confucian teachings, Xunzi built a synthesized and more realistic foundation for Confucian ideology that was influential throughout China during the Han Dynasty (207 b.c.e.-220 c.e.).
Although Xunzi is a great figure in Chinese philosophy, the basic facts of his life are controversial. According to most Chinese scholars, he was born in the northern state of Zhao around 313 b.c.e., and the period of his activities as a philosopher and politician covers sixty years, from 298 to 238 b.c.e. The most reliable sources about his life are his own writings, published posthumously, and Sima Qian’s Shi-ji (first century b.c.e.; Records of the Grand Historian of China, 1960; rev. ed. 1993). Yet almost no information about his early life, his education, or even his family background can be found in these early sources, which provide an account of his life beginning at the age of fifty, when he first visited the state of Qi and joined a distinguished group of scholars from various philosophical schools at the Jixia Academy. This lack of information about his early life prompts some modern scholars to doubt the accuracy of Sima Qian’s account and suggest that Xunzi first visited the Jixia Academy at the age of fifteen, not fifty. These scholars contend that either Xunzi’s age was erroneously recorded in the first place or the text was corrupted.
Whether Xunzi first appeared on the stage of history at fifty or fifteen does not change much of his historical role, for he did not really affect his contemporaries or his immediate environment during his lifetime. Like his predecessors in the Confucian school, Confucius and Mencius specifically, Xunzi traveled from state to state, trying to persuade the rulers of Qi, Chu, Zhao, and even the Legalist Qin to adopt his brand of Confucian statecraft. The dating of his various visits to these states is again an area of endless academic debate.
There are, however, two reliable historical dates in Xunzi’s public career. In 255 b.c.e., he was invited by Lord Chunshen of Chu to serve as the magistrate of Lanling. He was soon forced to resign the post when Lord Chunshen gave credence to some slanderous rumors about the potential danger of the benevolent Confucian policy. Xunzi then left for his native Zhao. He stayed as an honored guest in the Zhao court until Lord Chunshen apologized for his suspicion and invited him to resume the magistrateship. Xunzi remained in the position until 238 b.c.e., the year Lord Chunshen was assassinated. Xunzi was immediately dismissed from office, and he died in Lanling, probably soon after the coup.
The most immediate impact of Xunzi on the political situation of the ancient Chinese world came, ironically, from his two best students, Han Feizi and Li Si. Both men deviated from Xunzi’s teachings of Confucian benevolence and turned his emphasis on pragmatic sociopolitical programming into realpolitik. Han Feizi became a synthesizer of Legalist thought, and Li Si became a prime minister who helped Emperor Zheng (also known as Shi Huangdi, or “first emperor”) set up a totalitarian state after China was unified.
Xunzi’s greatest contribution to Chinese civilization lies in the field of philosophy, or, more generally, in the intellectual formation of Chinese sociopolitical behavior. His writings were perhaps compiled by himself in his later years but were definitely supplemented with a few chapters from his disciples. The standard edition of Xunzi’s works is the end product of a Han scholar, Liu Xiang, who collated and edited the available sources into thirty-two chapters. Because Xunzi lived through a period of fierce political strife, constant warfare, and tremendous social change on the eve of China’s unification (also the golden age of Chinese philosophy known as the period of the Hundred Schools), his approach to the social and ethical issues of Confucian philosophy was markedly more realistic than those of Confucius and Mencius. In his defense of Confucian doctrine, he not only refuted the arguments and programs of other schools but also criticized the idealistic strain of thinking within his own camp, particularly in Mencius’s philosophy. With an admirable command of scholarship and a powerful mind for critical analysis, Xunzi demonstrated the Confucian way of thinking in a most systematic and pragmatic manner.
In opposition to Mencius’s contention that human nature is innately good and people need only go back to their original psychological urges to achieve goodness and righteousness, Xunzi states that human nature is evil and that only through education can people distinguish themselves from animals. Despondent as it appears, Xunzi’s conception of human nature is quite complex and far removed from pessimism. For him, human nature, though evil, does not determine human destiny, for people have a capacity for reasoning and learning and for...