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Xunzi, the Unorthodox Confucian Philosopher

If there is no dull or determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement.
– Xunzi

Xunzi is known as one of the three great classical Confucian philosophers of ancient China after Confucius and Mencius. He is a Confucian who created his own version of the philosophy while still retaining its core values and teachings. 

He expanded and systematized Confucianism that both the great philosophers before him developed. It eventually strengthened the practice and application of Confucianism in the daily lives of the ancient Chinese that it became a living tradition throughout China, extending to the rest of the world, centuries later.



For Xun Kuang, also widely known as “Xunzi” which means “Master Xun,” nothing much is known about his lineage, but it is believed that he has lived in a time of conflict during the Warring States period but decided to rise above it.

At the age of 50, he went to Qi, which was a state during the Zhou dynasty in ancient China, to study and teach at the Jixia Academy. Eventually, he also became a member there. Afterward, he moved to Qin, another Zhou dynasty state, praising its governance and debating with military affairs with Lord Linwu in the court of Kung Xiaocheng of Zhao. After being slandered in court, he went to the south to the Chu state. There, its prime minister invited him to take a position as a Magistrate of Lanling.



The Warring States period is regarded as the era of later Chinese philosophy when different schools of thought were exchanged and were even comparable to classical Greece. Xunzi was exposed to all of this. He even witnessed the chaos surrounding the fall of the Zhou dynasty and the rise of the Qin state which created state control by means of law and penalties.

Because of this, he started to compare the studies to Confucianism, bringing a systemic and comprehensive version of the philosophy that spoke to the ancient Chinese people during that time. He focused on humanity’s part in creating specific roles and rituals to create an orderly and systematic society, instead of Heaven and Nature playing a significant role or as the source of stability or morality.

Due to this and his rejection of Mencian convictions, a lot of Chinese thinkers that were loyal to the teachings of the philosophers before him did not agree with Xunzi. 

Xunzi’s version of Confucianism had a darker tone compared to the optimistic version of Confucius and Mencius who viewed humans as innately good and can be refined through education and ritual. Xunzi believed that humans carry with them their inborn tendencies, which are evil, and they have to work hard to do good to rectify them.

Xunzi felt that their belief can only be applicable to the elite that can easily accomplish both education and ritual, thus he adapted their ideas for Mohists and Legalists. Xunzi stressed the importance of ritual to reform one’s original nature and create a stable society since education cannot be attained by all. 

Only in the last few decades was Xunzi recognized as one of China’s greatest thinkers. Although his teachings were disfavored at the time, his teachings have become a very influential philosophy in China and the world. 


Want to know more Chinese philosophers? Get to know Ban Zhao, the first female Chinese historian and philosopher.

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