XUNZI ("Master Xun") was, after Confucius and Mencius (Mengzi), the third great Ru or "Confucian" of the classical period of Chinese thought. Despite conflicting and fragmentary evidence regarding his exact dates, Xunzi appears to have lived from approximately 310 to 220 bce, through the climax of the Warring States period of Chinese history. This was a time of social turmoil and terrible interstate warfare, culminating in 221 bce with the annexation of all the original "central states" of China by the western state of Qin. Xunzi rose to a position of intellectual and cultural eminence during his own lifetime, three times serving as head libationer among the assembled scholars in the state of Qi, traveling widely to different states, and even briefly holding a significant administrative post in the state of Chu.
Xunzi saw himself as defending the true Confucian heritage from threats both internal and external to the tradition. He appears familiar with all the known currents of thought of the period, and often aggressively attacks some central point of a previous thinker while quietly borrowing other elements of their thought that seem valuable to him when properly assimilated into his Confucianism. He wrote focused, well-constructed essays in a pugnacious and frequently colorful style, which taken as a group present a remarkably coherent and powerful religious philosophy. His intellectual goal was to rearticulate Confucianism on a more sophisticated and realistic anthropological, political, and cosmological basis, while preserving the hopeful humaneness of the Confucian Way.
In contrast to Mencius, who retains the Zhou dynasty idea of a purposive tian or "Heaven" that lifts up worthy leaders at regular intervals to put the Confucian Way into practice, Xunzi argues that Heaven is not humanlike and is unconcerned with human affairs. It follows its own path, does not reward goodness or punish evil, and does not send meaningful omens or respond favorably to appropriate sacrifices. To view the arts of sacrifice and divination as techniques to manipulate spiritual or material realities, Xunzi thinks, is a profound error; such ceremonies, as well as other rituals, are done to bring order to human life and thereby give it beauty and proper form. For Xunzi, Heaven does occupy the supreme position in the cosmos, and along with Earth deserves ritualized respect as one of the "three roots" of human existence; this is so because Heaven and Earth through their interactions mysteriously generate all life, including human life. But humans have a crucial role to play, governing themselves and indeed ordering the whole world, on the basis of steady cycles of change within the cosmos. Heaven, like a ruler, occupies the central position of the cosmos; but human beings, like ministers of state, actively order the natural and social worlds according to the Way. This Confucian Way is for Xunzi the human Way, in explicit contrast with the Heavenly Way, and it is crucial for us "not to compete with Heaven over responsibilities."
For Xunzi the Way is the ultimate human tradition, created over time by the ancient sages in response to human nature and the environment, and yet still universally binding on all human beings. This Way is both necessary and suitable for us, Xunzi argues (notoriously in the view of later Chinese commentators), because humanity's innate impulses are e, "bad," in the sense of "ugly" or "foul." This is a direct attack on Mencius, who taught that people all possess four "sprouts" or "beginnings" of virtue within their hearts, which we must attend to and follow if we are to become good (in Mencian terms, we will "cultivate" our "sprouts" until they are fully grown). Xunzi adamantly rejects these agricultural metaphors for self-cultivation, and the whole anthropological edifice they are meant to symbolize. Following our uncultivated intuitions and impulses will lead only to strife, Xunzi thinks, as people struggle with each other for social dominance and limited material resources. We have no reliable inborn moral intuitions; we must learn the Way from others, and only over time will its fittingness and power become apparent to us.
Xunzi speaks of the formation of virtuous people as a long, initially difficult and unpleasant process akin to crafting beautiful and useful implements out of less than ideal raw materials. Mere indoctrination or coercion will be insufficient, however; people must be exposed to the gracious humaneness of the Confucian Way, and judge for themselves that it is more desirable than their current anxious, dangerous, and painful lives, even from an ignorant starting point.
A beginning Confucian student needs above all to find and follow a wise teacher, and congregate with fellow students of the Way. Xunzi describes in some detail the practices of self-cultivation he recommends, the most prominent of which are textual study of the Confucian classics, the practice of ritual, and musical performance and appreciation.
Xunzi's treatment of ritual is particularly noteworthy. His use of the term is very broad, encompassing not only sacrifices and discrete ceremonies, but also deportment, etiquette, speech, and even dress; such matters of interpersonal "style" are crucial elements of Xunzian ethics. According to Xunzi, ritual works at personal, social, and even cosmic levels, properly ordering all things into harmonious wholes. Over time, by means of diligent ritual practice, the Xunzian student will "cut and stretch" his dispositions to feel, judge, and act so that they come to perfectly accord with the rites; by doing this he will come to follow and "enact" the Way. For Xunzi, Confucian learning is a sham unless it is grounded in a bodily appropriation of the Way, so that a person's every movement and word is appropriate; this sort of self-mastery can only be attained by practicing ritual and music. Fully cultivated leaders will both exemplify and implement the Way in society at large, ushering in a humane society where the poor, weak, and infirm never lack for basic necessities, the strong are restrained from predation and redirected to more public service, and the surplus bounty of a harmonious state will be used to elevate and enrich the lives of all, according to their virtue and social standing (which ought, in a Xunzian world, to coincide). Even the natural world will share in greater fecundity and order when brought under Confucian stewardship, as people's needs are met in harmony with natural processes. This ideal state of affairs, which Xunzi calls "forming a triad with Heaven and Earth," is the fullest flowering of the human Way.
Xunzi's ideas had a significant impact on the formation of later Confucian imperial bureaucracy and methods of education. Moreover, his students preserved texts (such as the Odes ) that proved indispensable to later Chinese tradition. Nevertheless, his two most famous students were viewed by later Confucians as apostates from the Way who brought disgrace upon their teacher by aiding Qin's ruthless drive to unify China. And later, during the Confucian revival of the Song dynasty (960–1279 ce), Mencius's views on human nature became canonical, with Xunzi's thereafter considered heterodox. He was thus occasionally disparaged but largely ignored until modern times. He is the subject of considerable current scholarly interest in the West because of his philosophically complex and sophisticated version of Con-fucianism.
John Knoblock's three-volume Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works (Stanford, Calif., 1988–1994) is invaluable, particularly in its voluminous notes to the commentarial tradition, even if particular translations are sometimes debatable or excessive; Knoblock includes ample introductory material on Xunzi's context, and the fullest collected bibliography of Xunzi studies available. Burton Watson's partial translation is also very good (Hsün-Tzu: Basic Writings, New York, 1963), as are the precisely rendered but brief selections translated by Eric Hutton in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden (New York, 2001). The best collections of secondary works are Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi, edited by T. C. Kline III and Philip J. Ivanhoe (Indianapolis, Ind., 2000), and Ritual and Religion in the Xunzi, edited by T. C. Kline III (New York, 2004). Other helpful works concerning Xunzi's understanding of ritual include A. R. Radcliffe-Brown's classic and insightful "Religion and Society," in Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses (1952), pp. 153–177 (New York, 1968), and Robert F. Campany, "Xunzi and Durkheim as Theorists of Ritual Practice," in Discourse and Practice, edited by Frank Reynolds and David Tracy, pp. 197–231 (Albany, N.Y., 1992). Edward Machle's Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi: A Study of the Tian Lun (Albany, N.Y., 1993) is a searching treatment of Xunzi's views of tian or "Heaven" that argues Xunzi should be seen as a religious thinker, and that his tian is better understood as a Chinese sort of high god than as an amoral, law-governed "Nature."
Aaron Stalnaker (2005)