The great philosopher Xunzi-大思想家荀子


During the Warring States period of ancient China, there emerged a prominent figure among the Hundred Schools of Thought of the pre-Qin era. He was one of the representatives of Confucianism, not only inheriting and developing Confucian thought, but also proposing the governance principle of “promoting ritual and valuing law” and the learning viewpoint of “never stopping learning.” He is our renowned philosopher and educator, Xunzi.

Xunzi, whose given name was Xun Kuang and style name was Qing, was born around 313 BCE in the state of Zhao. He lived during a time of power struggles among the seven states of Qi, Chu, Yan, Zhao, Qin, Han, and Wei. During this period, the state of Qi wielded considerable influence. The King of Qi ordered the establishment of the Jixia Academy in its capital, Linzi, inviting eminent scholars from various states to lecture there, thereby attracting numerous intellectuals to expand Qi’s influence. Among these scholars were notable figures such as Mencius and Zou Yan. Xunzi acquainted himself with the ideologies of various schools of thought at the academy. Subsequently, he criticized the ideologies of various schools but esteemed Confucius alone, considering Confucius’s philosophy as the most ideal governance concept and regarding himself as Confucius’s successor. In fact, based on Confucianism, he critically absorbed the theoretical propositions of various schools of thought, forming his unique perspectives on nature and society.

Xunzi’s ideology was distinctive. Rather than continuing the emphasis on “benevolence” and “righteousness” as Confucius and Mencius did, he advocated behavioral norms centered around “ritual” and “law.”

Regarding “ritual,” in contrast to Mencius’s “doctrine of innate goodness,” he proposed the “doctrine of innate evil,” asserting that human nature is inherently wicked. Xunzi believed that upon birth, individuals possess various desires, such as hunger or fatigue, which constitute their inherent nature. Moreover, all individuals seek what benefits them and avoid what harms them. Consequently, he argued that human nature is inherently evil. Despite this inherent evil, individuals can achieve “goodness” through environmental influences and learning. To achieve “goodness,” individuals must study “rituals,” which serve to restrain their desires. By learning etiquette and righteousness, individuals can conceal their inherently evil nature. When a person’s inherent nature and rituals are well-integrated, such an individual can become a sage.

Regarding “law,” Xunzi inclined towards establishing specific behavioral regulations for individuals. Unlike Confucius’s emphasis on “benevolence” and “self-discipline” or Mencius’s emphasis on “sympathetic compassion” and “the sense of right and wrong,” Xunzi focused more on “law.” He believed that through the punishment of political and legal systems, the ideal of “benevolent governance” could be achieved. While he emphasized rituals, he also considered the importance of combining political and legal systems with rituals. However, in governance, Xunzi placed greater emphasis on “ritual.”

After maturing his ideology of “promoting ritual and valuing law,” Xunzi began to travel to various states to promote his political ideas. Initially intending to expound his political views to the King of Qi, he was hindered by slanderous remarks, leading him to leave Qi. He subsequently arrived in the state of Chu and was appointed as the magistrate of Lanling. Once again, slanderous remarks circulated, causing him to depart from Chu. Shortly afterward, he was appointed as a senior official by the King of Zhao. At this time, someone advised Lord Chunshen to invite him back to Chu. Consequently, Lord Chunshen invited Xunzi back to Chu and appointed him as the magistrate of Lanling. In 238 BCE, Lord Chunshen was killed, prompting Xunzi to resign from his official position. In his later years, he mainly engaged in teaching and writing.

Initially, during his time at the Jixia Academy in Qi, Xunzi specifically investigated the state of Qin. He believed that Qin had the most potential to unify the realm in the future and hoped that the monarch of Qin would realize the grand goal of unification. Furthermore, he proposed specific measures. However, Xunzi’s ideological propositions were incongruent with the political climate of Qin at the time, and he failed to gain the favor of the King of Qin. Several decades later, his student Li Si, based on his ideology, proposed the concepts of “rule of law” and “the way of the king,” which were appreciated by the King of Qin, leading to his appointment as prime minister.

Xunzi valued learning, considering it crucial for individuals. This viewpoint is elaborated in his work “Encouraging Learning.” He advocated the idea that “learning should never cease,” conveying the notion of endless learning, and emphasized the attitude of “perseverance leads to success; giving up leads to failure.” He also stressed the importance of accumulating virtues over time, likening it to the accumulation of soil forming mountains and water forming abysses. Xunzi also emphasized the significance of educators in teaching. Therefore, he urged students to ensure that teachers serve as role models. Through his teaching practice, Xunzi derived numerous educational experiences and learning methods, proposing many illuminating educational concepts and making significant contributions to the field of education. He nurtured many talented students, including the renowned figures Li Si and Han Fei.

Xunzi’s writings are characterized by clear themes, structured organization, profound reasoning, and rich and varied language. He employed metaphors, parallelisms, and antitheses, integrating the strengths of various schools of thought into his writing style, earning praise as the culmination of the various schools of thought. From a literary perspective, Xunzi was also an outstanding literary figure.

Xunzi’s ideology has influenced numerous individuals, and his works continue to be influential today. Undoubtedly, he is a great philosopher, literary figure, and educator.