Portrait of Xunzi
|Born||c. 313 BC
State of Zhao
|Died||c. 238 BC (aged 74–75)
State of Chu
|Alternative Chinese name|
Xun Kuang ([ɕy̌n kʰwâŋ]; Chinese: 荀況; pinyin: Xún Kuàng, c. 310 – c. 235 BC, alt. c. 314 – c. 217 BC), also widely known as Xunzi (Chinese: 荀子; pinyin: Xúnzǐ, "Master Xun"), was a Chinese Confucian philosopher who lived during the Warring States period and contributed to the Hundred Schools of Thought. A book known as the Xunzi is traditionally attributed to him. Xunzi's doctrines were influential in forming the official state doctrines of the Han dynasty, but his influence waned during the Tang dynasty relative to that of Mencius. He discusses figures ranging from Confucius, Mencius, and Zhuangzhi, to Linguists Mozi, Hui Shi and Gongsun Long and "Legalists" Shen Buhai and Shen Dao. Xunzi mentions Laozi as a figure for the first time in early Chinese history, and makes use of Taoist terminology, though rejecting their doctrine.
Xunzi was born Xun Kuang (荀況). Some texts recorded his surname as Sun (孫) instead of Xun, either because the two surnames were homophones in antiquity or because Xun was a naming taboo during the reign of Emperor Xuan of Han (73–48 BC), whose given name was Xun. Herbert Giles and John Knoblock both consider the naming taboo theory more likely.
The early years of Xunzi's life are enshrouded in mystery. Nothing is known of his lineage. Sima Qian records that he was born in Zhao, and Anze County has erected a large memorial hall at his supposed birthplace. He was first known at the age of fifty, around 264 BC, when he went to the state of Qi to study and teach at the Jixia Academy. Xunzi was well respected in Qi; the King Xiang of Qi honoured him as a teacher and a libationer.
It was around this time that Xunzi visited the state of Qin and praised its governance, and debated military affairs with Lord Linwu (臨武君) in the court of King Xiaocheng of Zhao. Later, Xunzi was slandered in the Qi court, and he retreated south to the state of Chu. In 240 Lord Chunshen, the prime minister, invited him to take a position as Magistrate of Lanling (蘭陵令), which he initially refused, but Lord Chunshen was assassinated In 238 BC by a court rival and Xunzi subsequently lost his position. He retired, remained in Lanling, a region in what is today's southern Shandong province, for the rest of his life and was buried there. The year of his death is unknown.
Xunzi witnessed the chaos surrounding the fall of the Zhou dynasty and rise of the Qin state – which upheld "doctrines focusing on state control, by means of law and penalties ("Legalism"). Like Shang Yang, Xunzi believed that humanity's inborn tendencies were evil and that ethical norms had been invented to rectify people. Xunzi's variety of Confucianism therefore has a "darker", more pragmatic flavour than the optimistic Confucianism of Mencius, who tended to view humans as innately good, though like most Confucians he believed that people could be refined through education and ritual.
He only believed however that an elite could accomplish this. Adapting Confucianism to the ideas of the Mohists and "Legalists", unlike other Confucians, Xunzi therefore allowed that penal law could play a legitimate, though secondary role in the state. Educated in the state of Qi, he taught proponents of "Legalism", including the Qin Chancellor Li Si and Han Fei, and is sometimes considered a precursor to Han Fei or a Legalist himself.
He rejects the Book of Lord Shang and Zhuangzhi's claims that the way changes with the times, saying the way had been invented by the sages. To this end he seems to have taken up the Mohist's argumentive strategies and conception of models (Fa) (which the "Legalists" had also taken up), saying "the Ru model themselves after the former kings." Unlike the "Legalist" he places little emphasis general rules, advocating the use of particular examples as models.
Ultimately, he refused to admit theories of state and administration apart from ritual and self-cultivation, arguing for the gentleman, rather than the measurements promoted by the "Legalists", as the wellspring of objective criterion. His ideal, gentleman (junzi) king and government, aided by a class of erudites (Ru), are "very close to that of Mencius", without however the same tolerance of feudalism.
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