Xunzi (in the older Wade-Giles, Hsun Tzu), the third most important Confucian after Confucius and Mencius, studied and taught at a university in the state of Chi.  Like Confucius and Mencius, he briefly held a government position until his patron was assassinated, then returned to teaching.  He had many followers in his day, some of whom are said to have used his teachings in the service of Legalism, which strangely sought to have Confucianism banned when supported by the Chin and then was banned by the Confucian supporting Han in turn.  Unlike Confucius and Mencius, he did not travel widely.  Also, unlike the Analects and Mencius, his text is his own, not a set of anecdotes and sayings collected by followers.  Thus it is more systematic and contains entire arguments at length.


Xunzi argued that human nature is evil because human nature is desire.  Common to human thought across all cultures is the frame of desire and hate as the lower selfish part of our nature and reason and love as the higher compassionate part of our nature.  While Mencius argues that we naturally are the upper and it is merely obstructed by the lower when we are evil, Xunzi argues that we naturally are the lower and it is only through cultivation that we develop compassion.  Are either singularly human nature?  Regardless, there is a common theme that we only come to be fulfilled in the way desire tries through developing reason and love, which truly satisfy.

confucius temple qufu

Like Mencius, Xunzi argued that anyone in the street can become a sage, but it depends on environment and effort.  If one hangs out with foolish people, one will be foolish, and likewise if you stick to the wise and read the wisdom of great books you will become wise.  While we are not originally good according to Xunzi, we have the capacity to become good even when it does not yet exist.  Much like Mencius’ barley sewing analogy but distinct, Xunzi would see the seed sowed not as the original heart and nature but as external education and civilization, while the original nature would be the soil, devoid of the seed but capable of sustaining growth.


Xunzi argues that without society and laws people would grab for themselves and do nothing for others.  Like Hobbes, the English political philosopher, Xunzi argues that this justifies the king acting any way the king sees fit, including killing his subjects, in the name of the good and safety of the entire people.  He was also a pragmatist, arguing that laws, morals and rulers are tools to be used for the cultivation and happiness of people.  It is this part of his philosophy which may well have been supported by the Legalists.

xunzi statue

In Improving Yourself (Section 2 of the Xunzi), he argues that if we stick to the rituals and laws our behavior will be good and if we abandon the rituals and laws it will be bad.  He draws openly on the behavior of civilized nobles versus the behavior of poor country folk to back this up.  He will draw a similar distinction between children and adults.  Clearly, Xunzi is a city dweller.  While Daoists saw the common country people as exemplary of virtue, Xunzi sees them as course and uncultured.  As an aside, this is strangely like the civilized versus barbarian view many Chinese had for thousands of years of Southeast Asian people, as well as Cantonese Chinese from Hong Kong have of the Mandarin Chinese from mainland China.  Clearly this is a very human problem.

Confucius teaching students

Xunzi argues that one’s temperament and intelligence need to be in balance and if they get overgrown they will cause ruin.  This is very much in line with the Doctrine of the Mean or Middle Way found in the Analects and the Xunzi text.  Human abilities need to be reined in by society and customs, or they will cause problems.  Xunzi argues that only by following laws can one be liberal and compassionate.  Compassion is the goal that is possible, but it cannot be achieved without laws and principles.  Following one’s parents and teachers is necessary for human development.  Confucius says in the Analects that learning without thinking is bad, but thinking without learning is dangerous.  Xunzi is likely thinking of this very passage.


In Man’s Nature is Evil (Section 23 of the Xunzi), he opens with this thesis and states that all goodness is the result of growth and effort.  People naturally desire.  They must work and change to understand that they only get what they desire when they put their desires in check, and they only learn this through involvement with society and its laws.  Freud argued very similarly about sexual impulse, and that all technology is sexuality denied and deferred into work.  The first paragraph lays this out succinctly.

large confucius statue

Xunzi openly refers to Mencius by name and his theory that human nature is good and says that Mencius is wrong.  Xunzi argues that Mencius is confusing human nature with the results of conscious human activity and development.  Xunzi believes that the early legendary sage kings created society because they realized that human nature is corrupt and they created a method for us to grow from our nature and become excellent in spite of it.  Some argued against this by asking how the great sage kings could have created a just society if one did not yet exist, to which Xunzi replied that they had reached a level of cultivation such that they could then transform society profoundly.


While Mencius teaches to look inside ourselves to find morality, Xunzi teaches to look outside ourselves, to both society and the cosmos.  The sage kings looked outside of themselves not only to great texts and social arrangements, but to the order of the universe to develop themselves.  Xunzi is more cosmological than both Confucius and Mencius, speaking of the orders of nature and base but can potentially develop to be great like a society or the cosmos.  In one passage, Xunzi argues that fire and water have energy but no awareness, and that animals have energy and awareness but no morality, but humans have energy, awareness and the capacity to develop discrimination of right from wrong and morality.  They develop this by looking outward and learning, not by looking inward which will only stunt growth and keep us in an immature and desirous state.  It is making distinctions that makes us greater than beasts, and the rituals and traditions that are the greatest distinctions passed down from the sage kings.

crying child

Xunzi argues that the example of childlike love Mencius employs is misleading.  Children do not know enough, are not developed enough, to refrain from grabbing for themselves.  Good people restrain their own desires to be good to others, unlike the child.  Note that we tell people to be like a little child (when happy & loving) and we also tell people to NOT be like a little child (when angry & upset).  While children are innocent, and when happy adorable, it is true that they do not have the ability to care for others and support others that the developed adult has, and if a desire or negativity gets in their way they quickly lose all focus.

tiger painting

Xunzi argues that greatness IS an object of desire, and the great person desires to overcome desire and discipline desire to truly fulfill desire.  This seems paradoxical, but true to life.  Modern psychology experiments have shown that children who learn to control their desires and defer pleasure with patience are more successful later in life in their achievements.  The achievements satisfy the person more than the initial lesser things desired.

Frog with Zhuangzi

If Mencius is right, Xunzi argues, we could dispense with society and be good in the state of nature.  Both the Daoists and Rousseau the European political philosopher hold this to be true.  Xunzi is arguing that, if we believe Mencius, we may as well all become Daoists.  If we honor the sages and the good over the stupid and the evil, we do so because of how much each has developed and not because of their universal nature.  Xunzi is arguing that, if we believe Mencius, we may as well all become Moists.

Daoist painting mountain

Xunzi argues that all human beings are equal in their capacity to become good and develop, but they do not start out good.  The sage is one who has developed, not the one who remains the same as they were in the beginning.  Xunzi argues that because one has two feet, one can theoretically walk to the ends of the earth but no one has so far managed to do so.  The famous bows (for arrows), leaders and horses all became famous for how they were cultivated and developed and were not excellent without conscious effort and process.  He ends by saying twice: “Environment is the important thing!”  Remember Mencius agrees in speaking of sowing barley.  For Confucians, society is essential.  The debate is on whether the environment compliments or contradicts human nature.

blue mountain range painting

In one last passage I want to site, particularly to fight against the view that ancient Greek and modern European thought is distinctly scientific or rational, Xunzi says:

Those who are good at discussing antiquity must demonstrate the validity of what they say in modern times; those who are good at discussing Heaven (the way of things) must show proofs from the human world.  In discussions of all kinds, men value what is in accord with the facts and what can be proved to be valid.  Hence if a man sits on his mat propounding some theory, he should be able to stand right up and put it into practice, and show that it can be extended over a wide area with equal validity.  Now Mencius states that man’s nature is good, but this is neither in accord with the facts, nor can it be proved to be valid.

Song Chinese Hydraulic Mill