The Nature of Xunzi: Comparison between Mencius and Xunzi on the nature of human essence

Xunzi, as a prominent Confucianist thinker in the period of Warring States, has a very distinct point of view on how to interpret and practice Confucianism from that of Menzi. The core difference in their philosophies is the different understanding of human nature. Mencius argues that human nature is good; Xunzi holds an opposite point that human nature is bad. This divergence leads to the distinct interpretations of functions and practices of ritual which are emphasized by Kongzi. According to Mengzi, the ritual and standard of being righteousness originate from the good nature of people, and Xunzi does not believe that people could follow what is virtuous, “deliberate effort” which is the teaching and learning of rituals and standards of righteousness set up by sages is required to educate a person to become a gentleman.

This divergence between Mengzi and Xunzi leads to different ways of applying their philosophies to real politics. Xunzi’s theory, in the later time, contributes to the development of Legalism which is the fundamental ideology of the rulership in Qin. Comparing to Mengzi’s doctrine of good human nature, Xunzi’s theory seems to be more practical and welcomed by the ruling class, since it leaves more space for an external agency to intervene in people’s life. Soles differentiates these two by defining that Mengzi’s virtue-based theory is agent-centred and Xunzi’s theory is rule-based which makes it consequentialist. People do not have to have a good intention or motivation while practising good and righteous behaviours, if they follow certain rules, the result will be good. This good result is the harmonious social order.1 It seems that Mengzi holds a more idealistic philosophy, and Xunzi is more practical, since the effort of a government is valued, and the outcome of this external effort is a stable society longed for by every ruler.

Despite Mengzi and Xunzi hold opposite opinions on the nature of human essence, and practices based on their philosophies differ in real life. They are not naturally in opposition to each other. Though Xunzi denies that human nature is good, he admits that there is an internal motivation of people to become good. In Chapter 23 of Xunzi: “People desire to become good because their nature is bad.” ((Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy 2nd Edition, pp298-310.)) He does not deny people’s instinct toward virtue, he only thinks that a normal person cannot learn the right concept of virtue without external help. So, Mengzi and Xunzi have the consensus that people possess the incipient power toward virtue. Instead of only mentioning the importance of external intervention, the system of Xunzi is consist of both people’s longing for becoming good and the teaching of sages.

Another similarity between Xunzi and Mengzi is that they are both Confucianists. Though Xunzi’s philosophy gives many inspirations to Hanfeizi and Lisi who are important figures in Legalism. The reason why Xunzi is still considered to be a Confucianist, like Mengzi and Kongzi, is that he believes that society operates in a harmonious way when people behave virtuously and morally which differentiate from Legalism that a prosperous country is based on laws and creeds. From this perspective, Xunzi and Mengzi’s theories are very similar to each other, people’s virtue can be improved by practising ritual and righteous behaviours to ultimately form a harmonious society. Even the core of their philosophies is ambiguously similar. It is sometimes hard to distinguish whether an action is out of good human nature or the intention of being good.

The subject described by their theory has nuance. The good nature possessed by people in the description made by Mengzi is towards the self-cultivation of a person, a person here is viewed as an independent individual. For Xunzi, the bad result of the society being chaotic and unstable is created by many people choosing to follow their instinct of self-profiting. If a person does not live in a society that requires them to live collaboratively, then human nature described by Xunzi is not evil. It is evil because it can cause social chaos, but when the concept of society is no longer included in the discussion, the judgement on people’s nature cannot be simply categorized as “bad”.

  1. Soles, David E. ‘The Nature and Grounds of Xunzi’s Disagreement with Mencius’. Asian Philosophy 9, no. 2 (1 July 1999), pp. 130-31. []

Human Nature: How Perception of Human Tendencies Alters the Definition of Confucianism

The influence of Confucianism in Chinese culture and throughout the world is undeniable, but Confucianism itself is difficult to define, both because it is rooted in deeply philosophical, existential questions, but also because it has been interpreted and redefined by so many generations of thinkers.  One critical aspect which differentiates different schools of Confucianism is how one answers the question of whether human nature is inherently good or inherently evil.  Even just a hundred years after the death of Confucius, his disciple Mencius redefined his teachings by basing Confucian philosophy on the principle that human nature is inherently good.  This so changed the foundation of Confucian belief that the new school came to be known as Neo-Confucianism.  On the opposite side of the spectrum are thinkers like Xunzi and Ogyu Sorai, who base their philosophical interpretations on the idea that humans are naturally inclined towards evil.  Although they all claim to be following and expanding on the teachings of Confucius, their approaches to Confucian teachings lead them in entirely different directions.

Daniel Gardner in his book, Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, argues that the Neo-Confucian views of Mencius had a greater impact on Chinese education from 1300 to 1900 than almost any other figure, apart from Confucius himself.[1]  Mencius famously argues that “all men have a mind-and-heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others: Today, no matter the person, if he suddenly comes upon a young child about to fall into a well, his mind-and-heart fills with alarm and is moved to compassion.”[2]  This belief in an innate sense of compassion influences his entire philosophy and it is the foundation of his belief that it is our duty to cultivate this compassion through self-reflection.  Gardner argues that it was required of anyone wishing to enter government service to internalise this philosophy of self-cultivation.  As a result, Confucianism, and its practice by those in official government positions, was a highly individualistic philosophy which recommended that the best way to serve others was by turning inward and through the perfection of oneself one could become an example for others.

Ogyu Sorai argued for the opposite approach.  He agrees with Xunzi that  humans are predisposed towards evil, claiming that “men are not sages, and that evil inevitably abounds while good is scarcely to be seen.”[3]  This pessimistic view of human nature leads him to the conclusion that humans cannot attain moral perfection on their own.  Arthur Tiedemann’s analysis of Sorai’s writings in Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600-2000 argues that Sorai was convinced that traditional schools of Confucianism like Zhu Xi and Ito Jinsai, “had failed to fufill the basic aim of scholarship: to provide for the needs of the people and the general social welfare. The NeoConfucians were too preoccupied with metaphysics, philosophical idealism, and personal cultivation.”[4]  Other schools relied on the inner good nature of the individual to eventually lead them towards goodness and virtue, but Sorai thought this perspective was unrealistic because it placed too much pressure on the individual.  He argues that without established social and political structures to guide and support people, their material welfare would be neglected and as a result, the evil tendencies of human nature would be manifested.

The real opposition in these views lies in the contrasting ideas the true nature of human beings.  If, as Mencius claims, humans must look within themselves to find good, then Confucianism is a philosophy which focuses predominantly on the individual and encourages an almost religious approach to personal perfection through self-reflection and self-cultivation.  In this form of Confucianism, laws and government authority have little effect because one is expected to govern oneself and set an example for others.  But, if one takes Sorai’s view that humans possess a natural evil which they must overcome, it is necessary to look outside oneself, to social and political institutions to correct this inherent flaw.  In this sense, Confucianism is a philosophy which stresses the importance of community and advocates for the structure and support which rituals and laws provide to keep individuals in check.  These contradictory views both claim to be “fulfilling the Confucian teaching, not breaking with it,” but their social and political implications are vastly different.[5]  The way in which Confucianism is interpreted in this case determines whether it is defined as a religion or as a political ideology.

[1] Gardner, Daniel K., Four Books: The Basic Teachings of the Later Confucian Tradition, (Hackett Publishing Company, 2007), ProQuest Ebook Central,, p. xv.

[2] Ibid., p. 65.

[3] Tiedemann, Arthur, Sources of Japanese Tradition: 1600 to 2000, edited by Wm. Theodore De Bary, et al., (Columbia University Press, 2005), ProQuest Ebook Central,, p. 220.

[4] Ibid., p. 218.

[5] Ibid., p. 219.