In This Article Xunzi

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Concordances and Critical Editions
  • Authorship and Textual Issues
  • English Translations
  • Bibliographies
  • Monographs
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Key Issues in Xunzi’s Philosophy: Ritual
  • Xing (Human Nature)
  • Tian (Heaven)
  • Xunzi and Mencius
  • Ethics
  • Moral Motivation
  • Political Philosophy
  • Language
  • Xunzi and Daoist Traditions
  • Xunzi and Non-Chinese Philosophical Traditions
  • New Directions of Research

Chinese Studies Xunzi
Winnie Sung
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0124


Xunzi (ca. 310 BCEca. 215 BCE), also known by the personal name Xun Kuang 荀況 or the epithet Xun Qing 荀卿, is generally considered one of the three great Confucian thinkers of the Chinese classical period, along with Confucius and Mencius. Little is known for certain about the biography of Xunzi. What scholars can gather from surviving materials is that Xunzi was born in the state of Zhao 趙 during China’s Warring States period (479–221 BCE), which began with the disintegration of the Zhou dynasty and ended with the unification of the empire under the Qin (221–206 BCE). Xunzi is said to have pursued his studies at the Jixia Academy in the state of Qi 齊, where Xunzi was exposed to rigorous intellectual exchanges between thinkers from different persuasions. Nonetheless, it is not clear if Xunzi had ever directly debated with any of the major figures at the Jixia Academy as there are no records of any actual debate between Xunzi and other contemporary Jixia scholars. There are records that Xunzi traveled to the states of Zhao 趙, Qin 秦, and Chu 楚, and he probably died shortly after the unification of China by Qin. The text that scholars attribute to Xunzi is the Xunzi. Although Xunzi proclaims himself a follower of Confucius and defends key elements of the Confucian tradition in his work, he harshly criticizes Mencius’s teachings on human nature. Xunzi’s thought continued to be exalted for a while after his death. In the Han dynasty, the imperial librarian Liu Xiang 劉向 collected the corpus of Xunzi’s own writings and interpolations by his followers and produced a collection of thirty-two books called the Sunqing xinshu (孫卿新書). But it was not until the Tang dynasty, in 818 CE, that the first commentary on the Xunzi appeared. Yang Liang 楊倞 collated the text, reorganized the thirty-two books into the sequential order we now have, provided thorough commentaries on Xunzi’s works, and named the text Xunzi. The following bibliography introduces the major literature on the key aspects of Xunzi’s thought. The titles listed include primary works, secondary works, journals, and online resources. The scope is restricted to English-language and Chinese-language studies on Xunzi only. Readers interested in other languages—in particular, important work in Japanese, French, German and Korean—may refer to the bibliography lists in Knoblock 1988–1994 (cited under Bibliographies), Goldin 1999 (cited under Monographs), and Sato 2003 (cited under Authorship and Textual Issues, Bibliographies, Monographs, Key Issues in Xunzi’s Philosophy: Ritual, and Political Philosophy). This bibliography is not meant to be exhaustive of works on Xunzi but a representative sample of different approaches from different perspectives. The headings are indicative of the major areas that have attracted most scholarly attention, namely, Authorship and Textual Issues of the Xunzi, Xunzi’s view on Key Issues in Xunzi’s Philosophy: Ritual, Xing (Human Nature), Tian (Heaven), Ethics, Moral Motivation, Political Philosophy, Language, and his debate with Xunzi and Mencius. There also seems to be a growing interest in comparing Xunzi with other traditions, especially in the area of ethics and political philosophy. Many comparative works with other non-Confucian Chinese traditions tend to engage Xunzi’s thought with the Daoist tradition. Comparisons have been made with non-Chinese traditions, including the ancient Greek, Augustinian, Kantian, and Hobbesian traditions.

General Overviews

Xunzi’s status in the Confucian tradition suffered from the Tang to Qing periods. Han Yu 韩愈, an important literary writer of the Tang dynasty, suggests that Mencius is the last transmitter of the Confucian way and that Xunzi’s understanding of the Confucian way is not thorough. In the Song dynasty, Xunzi’s status suffered a further, more rapid decline. The prominent neo-Confucians of the Song and Ming dynasties revered Mencius and regarded Xunzi’s thought as impure. When Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200), a major Song philosopher, compiled the Four Books and excluded the Xunzi, it became obvious that Xunzi’s teaching was marginalized. It was not until Qing dynasty that a revival in the studies of Xunzi occurred. From the early 20th century to the present day, there has been a consistent increase in the studies of Xunzi. While there is a significant increase in Chinese and Japanese works on Xunzi (for a bibliography of Japanese works, see Sato 2003, cited under Authorship and Textual Issues, Bibliographies, Monographs, Key Issues in Xunzi’s Philosophy: Ritual, and Political Philosophy), English-language studies of Xunzi still cannot be considered prolific. Compared with studies on Confucius and Mencius, there are significantly fewer systematic studies and analyses of the Xunzi in English scholarship. Cua 2003, Robins 2007, and Elstein 2004 are helpful encyclopedia entries that serve as good introductory points to the main ideas and issues in studying Xunzi’s thought. Fung 1952, Creel 1953 (cited under Language), Munro 1969, Schwartz 1985, and Graham 1989 are important book chapters that not only provide concise overviews of Xunzi’s thought but also identify key aspects and potential tensions in Xunzi’s thought and therefore shaped subsequent discussions. Fung 1952 is among the first that outlines and presents the various aspects of Xunzi’s thought in a systematic way. Munro 1969 argues against the standard view that Xunzi’s claim about human nature is central to Xunzi’s thought. Schwartz 1985 identifies what the author takes to be the realist, rationalist, and authoritarian elements in Xunzi’s thought. Such an interpretation and methodology had considerable impact on later studies. Tang 1986 provides a concise and illuminating discussion of the key aspects of Xunzi’s thought. Graham 1989 contains five main sections: heaven, human nature, the heart, ceremony and music, and theory of naming. These five sections in broad strokes summarize the key concepts and aspects in Xunzi’s thought, on which later Xunzi studies also tend to concentrate. To date, there are only two multi-author anthologies on Xunzi in English-language literature. Kline and Ivanhoe 2000 (cited under Moral Motivation) focuses on the moral aspect, and Kline and Tiwald 2014 (cited under Bibliographies) focuses on the religious aspect of Xunzi’s thought.

  • Cua, Antonio A. S. “Xunzi.” In Encyclopedia of Chinese Philosophy. Edited by Antonio S. Cua, 821–829. New York: Routledge, 2003.

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    A helpful overview of the key aspects of Xunzi’s thought, including discussion of human nature, ritual, Dao (Way), and moral knowledge.

  • Elstein, David. “Xunzi.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, 2004.

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    An overview of Xunzi’s thought. Many sections overlap with those in Robins 2007. In addition, it has sections on logic and language and social and political thought in Xunzi.

  • Fung, Yu-lan. A History of Chinese Philosophy. Vol. 1, The Period of the Philosophers. Translated by Derk Bodde. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.

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    Originally published in Chinese in 1919, the chapter “Hsün Tzǔ and His School of Confucianism” (pp 279–311) stresses the importance of heaven, human nature, and ritual in Xunzi’s thought. It also argues that Xunzi is a “materialistic” thinker who advocates a cosmological argument for naturalism. Fung also explores the Daoist and Mohist influences on Xunzi’s thought.

  • Graham, Angus C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Chicago: Open Court, 1989.

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    In the chapter “Hsün-tzu’s Confucianism: Morality as Man’s Invention to Control His Nature” (pp. 235–266), Graham highlights key passages that are pertinent to Xunzi’s view on heaven, human nature, the heart/mind, ritual, and naming. It insightfully points out a difference between possibility (ke) and capability (neng) in Xunzi’s understanding of human nature, a point that generates discussion in later studies on Xunzi.

  • Munro, Donald J. The Concept of Man in Early China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1969.

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    Argues that Xunzi’s view on human nature is not as negative as it was traditionally understood. Rather, Xunzi’s view on unique human social organization implies his view that moral potentiality is built into human nature.

  • Robins, Dan. “Xunzi.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2007.

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    Highlights the important themes and concepts in Xunzi’s philosophy, including the Confucian way, fa (models/law), education, tian (heaven), human nature, ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of language.

  • Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

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    In the chapter “Hsün-tzu: The Defense of the Faith” (pp. 290–320), Schwartz compares and contrasts Xunzi with other Chinese thinkers such as Laozi and Zhuangzi and also with non-Chinese philosophers such as Plato and Hobbes. He also presents insightful discussions on the relation between ritual (li) and righteousness (yi) as well as Xunzi’s understanding of “xin” as the rational mind.

  • Tang, Junyi 唐君毅. Zhongguo zhexue yuanlun: yuandao pian (中国哲学原道篇). Hong Kong: Xuesheng shuju, 1986.

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    Chapters 13 to 15 provide a comprehensive overview of key concepts and issues in the Xunzi. The book also discusses Xunzi’s thought in relation to that of Mencius, Mozi, and Zhaungzi.

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