Study Guide

Xunzi

Xunzi Biography

Biography (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Life

Xunzi (SHEWN-tsih) was born in the state of Zhou and may have studied in Lu. He visited Qin, became senior resident at the Jixia establishment in Qi in his fifties, and left in 254 b.c.e. to become director of territory, including former Lu, newly conquered by Chu. This position, combining administrative authority with a secure intellectual base, he held until 238 b.c.e., when the death of the Chu king destroyed his patron and ended his tenure. The writings gathered under his name, Xunzi (compiled c. 285-c. 255 b.c.e.; The Works of Hsuntze, 1928; commonly known as Xunzi), were produced over his long career by himself or close associates.

Unlike Mencius, Xunzi is a text-based rather than a tradition-based Confucian; he contributed to fixing the classical text canon. He attacked the Mencian view of human nature as tending inherently toward good and relied on education and ritual to overcome its evil tendencies. He rejected the Mencian rulership models drawn from remote and simple antiquity, preferring more relevant “later kings.”

Influence

Xunzi is the bridge between early Confucianism and imperial Legalism. Li Si, the chief architect of Qin totalitarianism, was his student.

Further Reading:

Cua, A. S. Ethical Argumentation: A Study in Hsün Tzu’s Moral Epistemology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985. Contains a detailed and stimulating analysis of Xunzi’s ethical theory and the rationale and argumentative discourse in his philosophy. An in-depth study of an important but rarely touched area of Xunzi’s thought. With a bibliography, notes, and an index.

Goldin, Paul...

(The entire section is 705 words.)

Xunzi Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chinese philosopher{$I[g]China;Xunzi} 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.

Early Life

Although Xunzi (shewn-dzur) is undoubtedly a great figure in Chinese philosophy, the basic facts of his life are still controversial among scholars. According to most Chinese scholars, he was born in the northern state of Zhao (Chao), 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 Shiji (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 (Ch’i) and joined a distinguished group of scholars from various philosophical schools at the Jixia (Chi-hsia) Academy. This lack of information about his early life prompts some modern scholars to doubt the accuracy of the Records of the Grand Historian 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 Records of the Grand Historian text was corrupted, and that his true date of birth is closer to 307 b.c.e. rather than the traditional c. 313.

Life’s Work

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 (Kong Qiu; 551-479 b.c.e.) and Mencius (Mengzi; c. 372-c. 289 b.c.e.) specifically, Xunzi traveled from state to state, trying to persuade the rulers of Qi, Qu (Ch’u), 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 (Ch’un-shen) of Qu 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, Hanfeizi (Han-fei; c. 280-233 b.c.e.) and Li Si (Li Ssu; 280?-208 b.c.e.). Both men deviated from his teachings of Confucian benevolence and turned his emphasis on pragmatic sociopolitical programming into realpolitik. Hanfeizi became a synthesizer of Legalist thought, and Li Si became a prime minister who helped Shu Huangdi (Shih Huang-ti; c. 259-210/209 b.c.e.) 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 (Liu Hsiang; c. 77-c. 6 b.c.e.), who collated and edited the available sources into thirty-two chapters. Since 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...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)

Xunzi Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

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.).

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 2064 words.)

Xunzi Biography (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Author Profile

Xunzi’s philosophy was primarily humanistic and realistic, being focused on humanity and the investigation of things. He rejected human dependence on any transcendental power or spirit, such as heaven (tian). Instead, he recommended that people depend on their own proper actions as spelled out by the rules of right conduct (li), especially in the Li ji (The Book of Rites), and by justice (yi), combined with their own experience. Although people are born evil—that is, “uncivilized”—and are moved by desire, like other animals, they have intelligence and sympathy, which are beyond the abilities of other animals, and can learn to act righteously...

(The entire section is 721 words.)