Xunzi (Hsun Tzu)

Xunzi (Hsun Tzu)
Xunzi (Hsun Tzu)
Xunzi means "Master Xun" in Chinese; his personal name was Qing (Ch’ing). He was a heterodox Confucian philosopher, and his collected writings of 32 chapters are named the Xunzi. Each well-argued chapter is devoted to a single topic, such as self-cultivation, proper kingly rule, the recruitment of officials, military affairs, and music.

Xunzi’s great mind ranked him third in importance among Confucian philosophers, after Confucius and Mencius. He spent most of his life studying and teaching, with a brief interlude as a magistrate. Living at a time of intense interstate warfare as China struggled toward unification, he despaired of a restoration of the old order that Confucius and Mencius had hoped for.

This may explain Xunzi’s hardheaded realism and opposition to excessive idealization of the past. He also looked to more recent role models from Chinese history, going back to the founders of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty rather than the remote legendary sage rulers such as Yao, Shun, and Yu.

He also rejected traditional concepts that heaven rewarded virtuous rulers and punished wicked ones; instead he postulated a mechanical universe that operated independent of the doings of humans.

Xunzi’s interpretation of Confucian teachings on human nature was opposite of that of Mencius. Whereas Mencius taught that human nature was innately good and became corrupted because of poor environment and lack of moral education, Xunzi believed human nature was evil and selfish.

However, he also believed in the crucial role of education and trusted that a good moral education could make sages of all men. Therefore, Xunzi made the role of a wise and strong teacher key to moral progress. He also concluded that humans had a choice, a key element that made them superior to animals.

He said: "The nature of man is evil; his goodness is only acquired by training. The original nature of man today is to seek for gain, if this desire is followed, strife and rapacity results and courtesy dies ... therefore the civilizing infl uence of teachers and laws, the guidance of the 'li' [proper good conduct] and justice is absolutely necessary .... Hence they [ancient kings] established the authority of the prince to govern man; they set forth clearly the 'li' and justice to reform him; they established laws and government to rule him; they made punishments severe to warn him, and so they caused the whole country to come to a state of good government and prosperity".

However, Xunzi agreed with Mencius’s social and economic welfare plans and agreed that unworthy rulers should be overthrown, saying, "Heaven does not create people for the sake of the sovereign. Heaven made the sovereign for the sake of the people".

While Xunzi’s interpretation of Confucianism had great influence during his lifetime, it waned during the Han dynasty (202 b.c.e.–220 c.e.) and thereafter, and the more altruistic interpretations of Mencius were accepted as the Confucian orthodoxy.

Two of his students, Han Fei and Li Si (Li Ssu), would become leaders of the Legalist school, gained great power under the Qin (Ch’in) state, and engineered the unifi cation of China under the Qin (Ch’in) dynasty.