The Pragmatic Confucianism of Xun-zi

An excerpt from The Six Patriarchs of Chinese Humanism by Peter M.K. Chan

An abridged and systematic reconstitution of their worlds


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                        The Pragmatic Confucianism of Xun-zi


6.1 Heaven and Man

6.2 The Human Mind and Its Problems

6.3 On the Inborn Nature of Man

6.4 Learning to Become a Kingly Person

6.5 On Society and the Economy

6.6 The Ruler and the State

                                                           6.7 Methods of Government



The third patriarch of Confucianism is Xun-zi (c298 - 238bc). He was generally considered to be the most comprehensive and eminent thinker of his generation. However, he is remembered by posterity mostly for only one thing: his opposition to Mencius on the nature of man. According to him, the inborn nature of man is not really good, but detestable. It is intelligence that has allowed man to become good by learning from the ancient Sage-kings. 


   What is generally not appreciated is that in the Book of Xun-zi, a number of other big themes are also worthy of note. First and foremost is his challenge to the traditional anthropomorphic view of Heaven. According to him, Heaven is nothing but Nature itself. It is something to be regulated rather than worshipped or feared. Another is his foray into the epistemological and problematic aspects of the human mind. According to him, even though the mind is the cognitive ruler of the body, it is yet prone to perceptual illusions, delusions of desires, and intellectual blindness. Furthermore, the historical significance of his theory on society and government, including the organizational aspects of public administration, is also something that should not be overlooked. In short, the contribution of Xun-zi to Chinese philosophy in general, and the development of Confucianism in particular, are actually much more than traditional understanding has given him credit for.


6.1 Heaven and Man


     According to Xun-zi, Heaven operates with constant regularity. It exists neither for Yao (one of the ancient sage kings) nor desist because of Jieh (the most infamous of wicked kings). Respond to it in an orderly manner, good fortune will ensue. Respond to it in a chaotic fashion, disaster will follow. If resources are frugally deployed, Heaven is not able to make one poor. If people are well nourished and keep abreast with the seasons, Heaven cannot make them sick. If the Way (of humanity) is conscientiously cultivated, Heaven is not able to cause calamities. (天行有常,不為堯存,不為桀亡。應之以治則吉,應之以亂則凶。彊本而節用,則天不能貧。養備而動時,則天不能病。脩道而不貳,則天不能禍。Book of Xun-zi, Chapter 17) On the other hand, if land is not cultivated and consumption extravagant, Heaven is not able to make people rich. If people are under nourished and lazy, Heaven is not able to make them whole. If people violate the Way and act foolishly, Heaven is not able to make them lucky. This is why famine can occur without floods and droughts, sickness can occur without severe cold and heat, and calamities in the absence of evil spirits. (本荒而用侈,則天不能使之富。養略而動罕,則天不能使之全。倍道而妄行,則天不能使之吉。故水旱未至而飢,寒暑未薄而疾,祅怪未至而凶。Ibid.)


     For what is known, all things grow in harmony and obtain nourishment for their development. We do not see their activities, but we can see their accomplishments. This is what some take to be the work of spiritual beings. (萬物各得其和以生,各得其養以成,不見其事而見其功,夫是之謂神。Ibid.) For what is also known, stars rotate in succession, the sun and moon shine alternately, the four seasons follow one another, yin and yin transforms each other, and the wind and rain are generous to all things. We know how they operate, but not see their invisible processes. This is what people refer to as Heaven. (列星隨旋,日月遞炤,四時代御,陰陽大化,風雨博施,皆知其所以成,莫知其無形,夫是之謂天。Ibid.) This is also why people are afraid of falling stars and whistling trees. They do not understand that these are but changes in Nature (or Heaven and earth), the transformation of yin and yang, and other most rare of processes. It is all right to marvel at them, but wrong to fear them. There has been no age without eclipses of the sun and moon, untimely rain and wind, and occasional appearances of strange stars. (星隊木鳴,國人皆恐。….是天地之變,陰陽之化,物之罕至者也。 怪之可也,而畏之非也。夫日月之有蝕,風雨之不時,怪星之黨見,是無世而不常有之。Ibid. ) 


     As to why it rains when people pray for rain, Xun-zi’s answer is that there is no need to ask why. It also rains when no one is praying for it. (雩而雨,何也?曰:無何也。猶不雩而雨也。Ibid. ) All religious ceremonies that purport to save the sun and moon from eclipse, to pray for clouds in a drought, or to divine before deciding on important affairs are cultural endeavors. A kingly person regards them as such, though folks in general would think of them as having to do with deities and spiritual beings. (日月食而救之,天旱而雩,卜筮然後決大事,非以為得求也以文之也。故君子以為文,而百姓以為神。Ibid.) It is to be kept in mind that the sun, the moon, stars, planets, and those auspicious periods of the year were the same in the time of Yu (a sage king) as well as Jieh (the most wicked of kings). Yet, there was order in the reign of Yu and chaos in the reign of Jieh. It all goes to show that order and chaos are not due to Heaven. (日月星辰瑞厤,是禹桀之所同也;禹以治,桀以亂;治亂非天也。Ibid.) Therefore, Heaven is not to be blamed, for this is how Nature works.. (不可以怨天,其道然也。Ibid.) 


     Neither should it be assumed that order and chaos are due to the Earth. It is to be observed that Heaven does not skip winter because people dislike cold, and the Earth does not shrink because people dislike distance. (天不為人之惡寒也輟冬,地不為人之惡遼遠也輟廣,Ibid.) As the way of Heaven is constant, so is the dimension of the earth. (天有常道矣,地有常數矣,Ibid.) Although Heaven can produce things, it is not able to differentiate them. Similarly, Earth can only support man, but is not able to govern him. (天能生物不能辨物也,地能載人,不能治人也,Ibid. Chapter 19) For what is also known, those who cultivate the earth will live. Those who desert the earth will die. This is the same for both Yu and Jieh It all goes to show that order and chaos are not due to the Earth. (得地則生,失地則死,是又禹桀之所同也;治亂非地也。Ibid. Chapter 17


Comment: As readers can see, the traditional idea of Heaven as having decreed, will or intention, and the superstitious belief in the retributive justice of deities and spiritual beings, are no longer ideas that Xun-zi was prepared to entertain. For him, to talk about Heaven and Earth is but to talk about the invisible processes of Nature of which man is not really in the position to fully understand. For this reason, it was also his view that the sage does not seek to know Heaven. (唯聖人為不求知天。Ibid.


     Now, according to Xun-zi, of extreme events that have occurred, human abnormalities are to be feared. (物之已至者,人祅則可畏也。Ibid.) To plough and injure the crops, to hoe but miss the seasons, to govern recklessly and lose the support of the people -- resulting in unattended fields and bad harvests, high price of grain, hungry people, and corpses lying on roads. These are human abnormalities. (楛耕傷稼,耘耨失歲,政險失民,田歲稼惡,糴貴民飢,道路有死人,夫是之謂人祅Ibid.) Similarly, when propriety and righteousness are not cultivated, when distinction between inner and outer chamber is not kept, when men and women become promiscuous, when father and son distrust each other, when superiors and subordinates become estranged, and when bandits and difficulties arrive simultaneously, these are also known to be human abnormalities. (禮義不脩,內外無別,男女淫亂,則父子相疑,上下乖離,寇難並至,夫是之謂人祅。Ibid.) Last but not least, when administrative measures are not clear, handling of affairs is not timely, and the fundamental business of government is not attended to, these too are also to be recognized as human abnormalities. (政令不明,舉錯不時,本事不理,夫是之謂門祅。Ibid.) 


     It should also be observed that when these three types of abnoralities occur, order and peace will not be able to prevail in a state. (三者錯,無安國。Ibid.) In particular, if those above (rulers, ministers and officials) are unenlightened and govern in a reckless way, nothing beneficial is going to happen, even when none of these abnormalities occur. (上闇而政險,則是雖無一至者,無益也。Ibid.) On the other hand, if those above are enlightened and govern appropriately, these abnormalities will do no harm -- even if they were to happen at the same time. (上明而政平,則是雖並起,無傷也。Ibid.)


     The conclusion that Xun-zi finally came to is therefore this. Instead of regarding Heaven to be great, why not foster and regulate it as a thing? Instead of obeying Heaven and sing praises to it, why not control the decree of Heaven and use it? Instead of waiting for the seasons, why not respond and make use of them? Instead of letting things develop in and of themselves, why not understand how they work so as not to lose control? Instead of wondering how things come to be, why not do something to bring them about? To blame man and long for the help of Heaven is to neglect the nature of things. (大天而思之,孰與物畜而制之;從天而頌之,孰與制天命而用之;望時而待之,孰與應時而使之;因物而多之,孰與理物而勿失之;願於物之所以生,孰與有物之所以成。故錯人而思天,則失萬物之情。Ibid.) 


     What this means is that those who are concerned about Heaven should anticipate events on the basis of natural phenomena. Those who are concerned about the Earth should find comfort in terms of what he sees to be suitable. Those who are concerned with the four seasons should manage by way of calculations. And those who are concerned about yin and yang should regulate things on the basis of what he sees and knows. (所志於天者,已其見象之可以期者矣。所志於地者,已其見宜之可以息者矣。所志於四時者,已其見數之可以事者矣。所志於陰陽者,已其見知之可以治者矣。Ibid.)


     It is also to be kept in mind that Heaven has its seasons, earth has its wealth, and man has his government. These three are able to interact with one another. To neglect man’s part in this tripartite relation as well as to long for their interaction is incoherent indeed. (天有其時,地有其財,人有其治,夫是之謂能參。舍其所以參,而願其所參,則惑矣!Ibid. 17.2) This is why a kingly person is serious about what lies within himself and does not long for what comes from Heaven…. For this reason, he progresses everyday. (故君子敬其在己者,而不慕其在天者….是以日進也;Ibid.) On the other hand, for reason that the inferior man neglects what is in himself, and long for what comes from Heaven, he retrogresses everyday…. This is what differentiates a kingly person from an inferior man. (小人錯其在己者,而慕其在天者,是以日退也。…. 君子小人之所以相縣者在此耳!Ibid.) 


     Thus, for purpose of bringing the work of Heaven to completion, the sage would purify his natural ruler (mind), rectify and provide his natural organs with nourishments, follow the governance of Nature, and foster his natural feelings. It is by doing so that he knows what to do and what not to do. In this way, he becomes an official of Heaven and earth, with the ten thousand things at his service. His actions are regulated, his nourishments are appropriate, and his life is not injured. This is what is meant by knowing Heaven. (聖人清其天君,正其天官備其天養,順其天政,養其天情,以全其天功;如是則知其所為,知其所不為矣;則天地官而萬物役矣。其行曲治,其養曲適,其生不傷,夫是之謂知天。Ibid. ) In short, he who understands the respective functions of Heaven and Man may be called a perfect man. (故明於天人之分,則可謂至人矣。Ibid.)



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