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The Art of Chinese PhilosophyEight Classical Texts and How to Read Them$

Paul Goldin

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780691200798

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: September 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691200798.001.0001

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(p.169) Chapter Eight Xunzi
The Art of Chinese Philosophy

Paul R. Goldin

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter turns to Xunzi, one of the most popular philosophers throughout East Asia. He has been the subject of more books published in English over the past two decades than any other Chinese philosopher, vastly outstripping Mencius. His body of work has always been one of the best preserved, and with the commonplace scholastic objection to his philosophy—namely, that he was wrong to say human nature is evil (xing e)—having lost most of its cogency, it is only to be expected that philosophical readers should be attracted to his creative but rigorous arguments. In practice, Xunzi's claim that xing is evil means that following the impulses of one's xing, without reflecting on them and moderating them, will lead one to evil acts. It should be emphasized that e, the Chinese word translated here as “evil,” is not to be understood in the Christian sense of “diabolical” or “antithetical to God.”

Keywords:   Xunzi, xing e, human nature, evil, Mencius, Xunzhi's philosophy

With Xunzi, we come to a thinker unlike any that we have encountered before. Most apparently to Western readers, Xunzi, unlike the first two great Confucians, has no Latinized name—a direct reflection of the fact that when the Jesuits arrived in China and began to study Confucianism, Xunzi had already been repudiated by Chinese scholasticism as at best an imperfect Confucian, and certainly not a member of the daotong 道統‎ (genealogy of the Way), the term for the orthodox tradition stretching back to the sages.

Xunzi’s prestige has, correspondingly, reached extreme highs and lows over the centuries. In his own day, he was revered as “the most senior of the masters” (zui wei lao shi 最爲老師‎)1 and numbered among his students some of the most influential men in the Chinese world. He was still widely celebrated in the Western Han dynasty, when Dong Zhongshu 董仲舒‎ (fl. 152–119 BC),2 one of the leading intellectual figures, is reported to have written a paean to him (now lost).3 But by Eastern Han times, Mencius—construed throughout Chinese history as Xunzi’s nemesis—had eclipsed him in the minds of most literati.4

Thus the first three or four centuries after Xunzi’s death witnessed a slow but continuous decline in his reputation. Thereafter the pace of this decline quickened. By the Tang dynasty (618–906), even literati who admired Xunzi—such as Han Yu 韓愈‎ (768–824)5—were careful to add that his works contain grave mistakes. In the Song, there were still some voices that praised him, but the opinion with the greatest long-term consequences was that of Zhu Xi 朱熹‎ (1130–1200), who declared that Xunzi’s philosophy resembled those of non-Confucians such as Shen Buhai 申不害‎ (fl. 354–340 BC) and Shang Yang 商鞅‎ (d. 338 BC), and that he was indirectly responsible for the notorious disasters of the Qin dynasty (221–210 BC).6 For the rest of imperial history,7 Xunzi was rejected by the cultural mainstream; into the twentieth century, he was criticized by intellectuals such as Kang Youwei 康有爲‎ (1858–1927),8 Tan Sitong 譚嗣同‎ (p.170) (1865–98),9 and Liang Qichao 梁啟超‎ (1873–1929)10 as the progenitor of the Confucian scriptural legacy, which, in their view, had derailed the original Confucian mission and plunged China into a cycle of authoritarianism and corruption that lasted for more than two thousand years.

Today the tide has turned almost completely. Xunzi is one of the most popular philosophers throughout East Asia11 and has been the subject of more books published in English over the past two decades than any other Chinese philosopher, vastly outstripping Mencius.12 From a twenty-first-century perspective, this revival of interest in Xunzi is not hard to explain: his body of work has always been one of the best preserved, and with the commonplace scholastic objection to his philosophy—namely, that he was wrong to say human nature is evil (xing e 性惡‎)—having lost most of its cogency, it is only to be expected that philosophical readers should be attracted to his creative but rigorous arguments. In this sense one could say that Xunzi has finally been restored, more than two millennia after his death, to his erstwhile position as “the most senior of the masters.”

Another conspicuous difference: whereas the texts in the first two parts of this book cannot have been written by single individuals, I believe the bulk of Xunzi consists of essays by Xunzi himself (see p. 9). Xunzi did not envision himself as a teacher whose sphere was limited to direct contact with his disciples; rather, he was a new breed of thinker, one who aimed, through writing, to influence diverse classes of readers across the land.13 In Xunzi’s book, the synthetic format and presentation of ideas reflect, like the ideas themselves, the revolutionary intellectual developments of the third century BC.

The most crucial difference of all, finally, is that whereas earlier Confucians had made only the barest statements about the nature of the cosmos and did not by any means consider the study of cosmology to be indispensable to moral self-cultivation, Xunzi had a robust theory of the universe and its relation to moral philosophy. Indeed, Xunzi considered morality impossible without an understanding of the patterns of the cosmos. But before we can appreciate this aspect of Xunzi’s philosophy, we must visit the intellectual cul-de-sac that sadly dominated most discussions of Xunzi in imperial China: his theory that xing is evil.

(p.171) In practice, Xunzi’s claim that xing is evil means that following the impulses of one’s xing, without reflecting on them and moderating them, will lead one to evil acts.14 It should be emphasized that e, the Chinese word translated here as “evil,” is not to be understood in the Christian sense of “diabolical” or “antithetical to God.” The basic meaning of e is “detestable” (its verbal cognate, wu 惡‎, means “to hate”), but in classical Chinese it is the ordinary antonym of shan 善‎, the word used by Mencius for “good.” In Xunzi, e refers to human nature in its unremediated—and hence obnoxious—state.

Mencius, we remember, had argued that xing is good, but this did not mean that people are all necessarily good; rather, it meant that we all have the capacity to become good, but that some people develop this capacity and others do not. Xunzi arrived at a similar point of view, but with diametrically opposed rhetoric:

孟子曰:「人之學者,其性善。」曰:是不然。是不及知人之性,而不察乎人之性、偽之分者也。凡性者,天之就也,不可學,不可事;禮義者,聖人之所生也,人之所學而能,所事而成者也。不可學、不可事而在人者謂之性,可學而能、可事而成之在人者謂之偽。是性、偽之分也。‎ (Xunzi 23.1c)15

Mencius said: “Since one can learn, one’s xing is good.” This is not so. This [point of view] does not attain to knowledge of human xing and does not investigate the distinction between xing and artifice. Xing is what is spontaneous from Heaven, what cannot be learned, what cannot be acquired. Ritual and morality arise from the sages. People become capable of them through learning; they perfect themselves by acquiring them. What cannot be learned, what cannot be acquired, in human beings is called xing. What they can become capable of through learning, and can acquire in order to perfect themselves, is called “artifice.” This is the distinction between xing and artifice.


(Xunzi 23.3a)16

Mencius said: “Human xing is good.” I say: This is not so. From ancient times until the present, all that has been called “good” in the world is (p.172) rectitude, principle, peace, and order. What is called “evil” is partiality, malice, rebelliousness, and disorder. This is the distinction between good and evil. Now can one sincerely believe that human xing is originally upright, principled, peaceful, and orderly? Then what use for the sage kings, what use for ritual and morality?

The major difference between Mencius and Xunzi is not that they held incompatible theories of human nature, but that they used the term xing in fundamentally dissimilar senses. Whereas Mencius used xing to refer to the ideal state that an organism can be expected to attain given the right nurturing conditions, Xunzi operated with a more traditional definition: “What is so by birth is called xing” 生之所以然者謂之性‎ (Xunzi 22.1b).17 Since ritual and morality are manifestly not inborn, they cannot be reckoned as xing; rather, in Xunzi’s parlance, they are wei 僞‎, “artifice.”18 Thus xing refers to the basic faculties, capacities, and desires that we have from birth, “artifice” to all the traits that we acquire through our own conscious actions. And if we achieve any goodness, it must be because of our artifice:

人之性惡,其善者偽也。今人之性,生而有好利焉,順是,故爭奪生而辭讓亡焉;生而有疾惡焉,順是,故殘賊生而忠信亡焉;生而有耳目之欲,有好聲色焉,順是,故淫亂生而禮義文理亡焉。然則從人之性,順人之情,必出於爭奪,合於犯分亂理,而歸於曓。故必將有師法之化,禮義之道,然後出於辭讓,合於文理,而歸於治。用此觀之,然則人之性惡明矣,其善者偽也。‎ (Xunzi 23.1a)19

Human xing is evil; what is good is artifice. Now human xing is as follows. At birth there is fondness for profit in it. Following this, contention and robbery arise, and deference and courtesy are destroyed. At birth there is envy and hatred in it. Following this, violence and banditry arise, and loyalty and trust are destroyed. At birth there are the desires of the ear and eye: there is fondness for sound and color in them. Following this, perversion and disorder arise, and ritual, morality, refinement, and principles are destroyed. Thus obeying one’s xing and following one’s emotions must result in contention and robbery. This is in accordance with the violation of [social] division and disruption in the natural order, and return to turmoil. Thus there must be the transformation [brought about by] the methods (p.173) of a teacher and the Way of ritual and morality; then the result will be deference and courtesy, in accordance with refinement and principles, and return to order. Seen by these [considerations], human xing is clearly evil; what is good is artifice.

At the same time, since everyone is born with the same xing—we all have the same sense organs, and, as we shall see, the same mental faculties—it stands to reason that the path to moral perfection is open to anyone. And thus Xunzi repeats Mencius’s assertion that even a beggar in the street can become a sage, as long as he is willing to put forth the effort:

故聖人者,人之所積而致矣。曰:「聖可積而致,然而皆不可積,‎ 何也?」曰:可以而不可使也。故小人可以為君子而不肯為君子,‎ 君子可以為小人而不肯為小人。小人、君子者,未嘗不可以相為也,‎ 然而不相為者,可以而不可使也。故塗之人可以為禹。‎ (Xunzi 23.5b)20

A sage is a person who has attained [sagehood] by accumulating [learning]. It was asked: Sagehood can be achieved by accumulating [learning], but why is it that not all of us do this? I answered: We can, but we cannot be forced. Thus a petty man could become a noble man but is not willing to do so. A noble man could become a petty man but is not willing to do so. It is not the case that a petty man or a noble man could never become the other. The [reason why] the one does not become the other is not that he cannot, but that he cannot be forced. This is how a person in the street can become Yu.

Not much of Xunzi’s essay on xing, it should be emphasized, can be said to refute Mencius’s position. The two thinkers arrived, in fact, at remarkably similar points of view. Both would have agreed that people can perfect themselves and that such an achievement requires great exertion and self-motivation. And both would have agreed that without lifelong practice of self-cultivation, people are evil. These similarities have led some commentators to suggest that Xunzi’s objections “are not quite to the point.”21 What prompted Xunzi to dissent from Mencius’s characterization of xing as good if his own theory was to be so difficult to distinguish from the one that he criticized?

(p.174) The question is crucial, for as long as Xunzi’s philosophy is reduced to the tenet that xing is evil, one cannot appreciate how he went beyond his predecessors, and how readers of later centuries, who seemed not to peruse much of the text beyond Xunzi 23, were able to dismiss him all too easily. While it is impossible for us today to be sure of Xunzi’s argumentative motivations, my sense is that Xunzi wished to highlight his conviction that the proper models for moral behavior lie outside the self, which is fundamentally opposed to a Mencian notion of Four Beginnings lodged within the human heart. Whereas Mencians have always emphasized looking inward for moral direction—sometimes complicated by their acknowledgment that the heart can be corrupted—self-cultivation in the Xunzian style is inconceivable without looking outward.

Xunzi held that for most ordinary people, the best guide is the set of rituals handed down by the sages. (“Ritual and morality arise from the sages,” we remember.) And what are these rituals? Western scholarship has lavished attention on Xunzian statements about ritual that would seem to invite a comparison with modern contractarianism, but the inadequacy of this line of analysis will soon become clear. In the most famous of these passages, Xunzi attributes, in a manner reminiscent of Hobbes or Rousseau, the genesis of the rituals to the sages’ recognition that unbridled competition produces an unsustainable situation for all, as in the opening of “Discourse on Ritual” (“Lilun” 禮論‎):

禮起於何也?曰:人生而有欲,欲而不得,則不能無求;求而無度量分界,則不能不爭;爭則亂,亂則窮。先王惡其亂也,故制禮義以分之,以養人之欲,給人之求,使欲必不窮乎物,物必不屈於欲,‎ 兩者相持而長,是禮之所起也。‎ (Xunzi 19.1a)22

Whence did rituals arise? I say: People are born with desires; if we desire [something] and do not obtain it, we cannot but seek it. If, in seeking, we have no measures or limits, then there cannot but be contention. Contention makes disorder, and disorder privation. The Former Kings hated such disorder and established ritual and morality in order to divide [the people into classes], in order to nourish people’s desires and grant what they seek. They brought it about that desires need not be deprived of objects, that objects need not be depleted by desires; the two support each other and grow. This is where rituals arise from.

(p.175) Similar statements are found in other chapters:

夫貴為天子,富有天下,是人情之所同欲也。然則從人之欲則埶不能容,物不能贍也。故先王案為之制禮義以分之。‎ (Xunzi 4.12)23

To be honored as the Son of Heaven and richly to possess the world—this is the common desire of humans [by virtue of their] disposition. But if people follow their desires, boundaries cannot contain them, and objects cannot satisfy them. Thus the Former Kings restrained them and established for them ritual and morality in order to divide them [into classes].

To judge from such pronouncements, “ritual” might seem like no more than a shorthand name for the nexus of regulations that allow humankind to enjoy nature’s bounty harmoniously.24 With rituals in place, “desires need not be deprived of objects, that objects need not be depleted by desires.” Replace “rituals” with “contracts” (or the like), and Xunzi would seem to emerge as a shining contractarian. We all have desires, and were we to go about satisfying them in a lawless world, the result would only be unrequited desire. The prospect of such chaos is resolved through ritual: with the establishment of a few ground rules, we can fulfill our desires, at least to a level of self-sufficiency, without being unduly impeded by others in our midst.

But there is more to Xunzi’s theory of ritual than this. The necessary rituals, in his view, must institute ranks and distinctions in society, for without them harmony cannot be achieved (Xunzi 9.3). All people have their place, like hairs in a fur collar (Xunzi 1.11). Social organization—which, for Xunzi, always means social stratification—is the method by which human beings, despite their paltry physical gifts, are able to dominate all other forms of life:

水火有氣而無生,草木有生而無知,禽獸有知而無義,人有氣、有生、有知,亦且有義,故最為天下貴也。力不若牛,走不若馬,而牛馬為用,何也?曰:人能羣,彼不能羣也。人何以能羣?曰:分。分何以能行?曰:義。故義以分則和。‎ (Xunzi 9.16a)25

Water and fire have qi but no life; grasses and trees have life but no awareness; birds and beasts have awareness but no morality. Human beings have breath and life and awareness, and they have morality in addition. Thus (p.176) they are the most noble [beings] in the world. They do not have the strength of an ox, nor do they run like a horse, but oxen and horses are used by them. Why is this? I say: People can form societies; [animals] cannot form societies. How can people form societies? Through division [of labor]. How can division proceed? I say: morality. Thus division with morality brings about harmony.

The reference at the end to morality suggests two reasons why a contractarian reading of Xunzi fails to capture all the nuances of his theory. First, Xunzi elsewhere explicitly denies that an arbitrarily chosen set of rituals would be effective. Rather, the rituals of the sage kings are legitimate because they accord with human nature; by implication, any competing ritual code would necessarily fail:

人之所以為人者,何已也?曰:以其有辨也。飢而欲食,寒而欲煖,‎ 勞而欲息,好利而惡害,是人之所生而有也,是無待而然者也,是禹、桀之所同也。然則人之所以為人者,非特以二足而無毛也,以其有辨也。今夫狌狌形笑‎ [=狀‎]26,亦二足而無毛也,然而君子啜其羹,食其胾。故人之所以為人者,非特以其二足而無毛也,以其有辨也。夫禽獸有父子而無父子之親,有牝牡而無男女之別,故人道莫不有辨。辨莫大於分,分莫大於禮,禮莫大於聖王。‎ (Xunzi 5.4)27

What is it that makes humans human? I say: their making of distinctions. Desiring food when hungry, desiring warmth when cold, desiring respite when toiling, liking profit and disliking harm—these [characteristics] are all possessed by people from birth. They are what is immediately so. In this respect, [the sage] Yu and [the tyrant] Jie were identical. This being the case, what makes humans human is not specifically that they have two feet and no pelt (or plumage—i.e., that humans are featherless bipeds). It is their making of distinctions. Now the xingxing (a legendary ape with no hair) resembles us and also has two feet and no pelt. But the noble man sips his soup and eats his food cooked. Thus what makes humans human is not specifically that they have two feet and no pelt. It is their making of distinctions. Birds and beasts have fathers and sons, but no intimacy between fathers and sons. They have males and females, but no separation between man and woman. Thus the Way of Humans is nothing other than to make distinctions. There are no greater distinctions than social distinctions. (p.177) There are no greater social distinctions than the rituals. There are no greater rituals than those of the Sage Kings.

Xunzi’s argument here brings us to territory that Mencius never broached. He claims that human beings, unlike any other species of animal, make certain distinctions and live by them—male is distinguished from female, old from young, and so on—and it is altogether natural that we do so. That is the Way. The rituals of the sage kings identify the natural order and augment it by confirming the distinctions that we are bound to make by nature. The sage kings apprehended this order, and their rituals embody it. Modern contractarians do not, as a rule, postulate that workable social rules must have this kind of cosmological underpinning.

The second reason why Xunzi cannot be adequately understood as a contractarian is that rituals, in his conception, not only facilitate social cohesion but also foster psychological development.28 Indeed, if they did not, they would be mere instruments of expedience, not rituals. These dimensions become clear when Xunzi begins to discuss specific rituals and their purposes:

故事生不忠厚、不敬文謂之野,送死不忠厚、不敬文謂之瘠。君子賤野而羞瘠,故天子棺槨七重,諸侯五重,大夫三重,士再重。然後皆有衣衾多少厚薄之數,皆有翣菨文章之等以敬飾之,使生死終始‎ 若一,一足以為人願,是先王之道,忠臣孝子之極也。‎ (Xunzi 19.4a–b)29

Thus, serving the living without loyal generosity or reverent formality is called uncivil; sending off the dead without loyal generosity or reverent formality is called miserly. The noble man condemns incivility and is ashamed of miserliness; thus the inner and outer coffins consist of seven layers for the Son of Heaven, five layers for a feudal lord, three layers for a grandee, and two layers for a man-of-service. Thereafter, in order to revere and adorn them, there are, for each [rank], protocols regarding the quantity and richness of [mortuary] robes and foodstuffs, and grades for the [corresponding] flabellum and décor. This causes life and death, ending and beginning, to be [treated] as one, and people’s yearnings to be satiated. This is the Way of the Former Kings, the ridgepole of the loyal minister and filial son.

(p.178) We observe sumptuary regulations, in other words, in order to learn how to avoid incivility and miserliness. Later in the same chapter, Xunzi discusses the purpose of the mandatory three-year mourning period for deceased rulers and parents (which, in practice, lasted only until the twenty-fifth month—that is, the first month of the third year) and explains that, here too, the rituals have a moral purpose: they help us conduct ourselves properly by providing suitable forms for us to express emotions that are so deep as to be potentially debilitating.

創巨者其日久,痛甚者其愈遲,三年之喪,稱情而立文,所以為至痛極也;齊衰、苴杖、居廬、食粥、席薪、枕塊,所以為至痛飾也。三年之喪,二十五月而畢,哀痛未盡,思慕未忘,然而禮以是斷之者,豈不以送死有已,復生有節也哉!‎ . …

將由夫愚陋淫邪之人與?則彼朝死而夕忘之,然而縱之,則是‎ 曾鳥獸之不若也,彼安能相與羣居而無亂乎?將由夫脩飾之君子與?則三年之喪,二十五月而畢,若駟之過隙,然而遂之,則是無窮也。故先王聖人安為之立中制節,一使足以成文理,則舍之矣。‎ (Xunzi 19.9a and9c)30

When a wound is colossal, its duration is long; when pain is profound, the recovery is slow. The three-year mourning period is a form established with reference to emotions; it is the means by which one conveys the acme of one’s pain. The untrimmed sackcloth garment, the [hatband and waistband] of the female nettle plant, the staff,31 the hut where one dwells, the gruel that one eats, the brushwood that one uses as a mat and clod of earth that one uses as a pillow—by these means, one conveys the acme of one’s pain. The three-year mourning period ends with the twenty-fifth month; one’s pain of grief is not yet exhausted, nor have pining and longing yet departed from one’s heart, but the rituals discontinue [the mourning period] here because there is an endpoint to sending off the dead and a period [after which] one must return to the living. …

Shall we follow those foolish, rude, licentious, and perverse people who forget by the evening those who have died in the morning? If we were to allow this, we would not even be the equals of birds and beasts. How could we dwell without disorder in the same society as such people? Or shall we follow cultivated and refined gentlemen, for whom the three-year mourning period, ending with the twenty-fifth month, passes as swiftly as a team of four horses [glimpsed through] a crack in a wall? If (p.179) we were to go along with them, [the mourning period] would be interminable. Thus the Former Kings and Sages accordingly determined the [right] period by establishing the midpoint. Once [mourning] has become sufficient to attain a due form and pattern, it is set aside.

Xunzi’s discussion of the village wine-drinking ceremony (xiang 鄉‎), similarly, reviews the rite in extenso, showing how each element bespeaks an underlying moral principle. The fact that the host fetches the guest of honor himself, but expects the other guests to arrive on their own, underscores the distinctions that need to be drawn between noble and base. And the detail that each participant toasts the next, serially and according to their ages, demonstrates that one can align society according to seniority without excluding anyone. (Everyone eventually drinks; some just have to wait longer than others.) When the guest of honor retires, the host bows and escorts him out, and the formal occasion comes to an end: this is to make it known that one can feast at leisure without becoming disorderly. The clear implication is that by taking part in the rite, we can gradually comprehend the moral principles that the sages wished us to embody (Xunzi 20.5).

Xunzi’s rituals have such an important role to play in our emotional and moral development that he spends an entire chapter limning what are essentially rituals of artistic expression. The term he uses is “music” (yue 樂‎), which is not identical to ritual, but Xunzi’s conception of their origin and purpose is so similar that one can scarcely speak of one without the other. Thus “ritual and music” (liyue 禮樂‎) are to be understood as two aspects of human artifice: “ritual” refers to forms that affect social cohesion, “music” to those involving the orderly expression of human emotions. The crucial point is that the sages created both.

夫樂者,樂也,人情之所必不免也,故人不能無樂。樂則必發於聲音,形於動靜,而人之道,聲音、動靜、性術之變盡是矣。故人不能不樂,樂則不能無形,形而不為道,則不能無亂。先王惡其亂也,‎ 故制雅、頌之聲以道之,使其聲足以樂而不流,使其文足以辨而不諰,使其曲直、繁省、廉肉、節奏足以感動人之善心,使夫邪汙之氣無由得接焉。‎ (Xunzi 20.1)32

Music is joy; it is what human emotions cannot avoid. Thus humans cannot be without music. If we are joyous, then we must express [our joy] in (p.180) sounds and tones and give form to it in movement and quietude. And the Way of Humanity is fulfilled in sounds and tones, in movement and quietude, and in the changes in the progression of the xing.33 Thus humans cannot be without joy, and joy cannot be without form, but if that form is not [in line with] the Way, then there cannot but be disorder. The Former Kings hated this disorder; thus they instituted the sounds of the Odes and Hymns in order to make them accord with the Way. They brought it about that their sounds were sufficient [to give form] to joy but were not dissipated; they brought it about that their patterned [compositions] were sufficient to make distinctions but were not timorous;34 they brought it about that the directness, complexity, richness, and rhythm were sufficient to move people’s good minds; they brought it about that heterodox and impure qi would have no opportunity to attach itself.

Like all Confucians, Xunzi accepts that human beings have certain irrepressible impulses, which are not objectionable in themselves. The problem is that unreflective outbursts driven solely by our emotional responses may cause harm, and thus we are enjoined to be mindful of our impulses, rather than to extinguish them.35 To aid us in this process, the sages left behind appropriate musical forms that we can use to channel our need to express ourselves. That is to say, everyone feels a need to sing or dance at some point, and it would be folly to suppress these urges, but the danger is that we might begin to sing disruptive songs such as “Let’s Plant in the Autumn and Harvest in the Spring,”36 whose influence could be harmful to an agrarian society. In order to keep us from spontaneously intoning such destructive songs, the sages gave us wholesome songs to sing instead—such as, to continue the example, the “Let’s Plant in the Spring and Harvest in the Autumn” song. What Xunzi meant by this corpus of songs is the canonical collection of Odes that all Confucians seem to have regarded as an unrivaled repository of edifying literature.

Xunzi’s immediate purpose in this section was to counter the Mohist view that music is wasteful. We remember from Mencius’s discussion with King Xuan of Qi that the ruler’s lavish musical productions provoked resentment among the populace (because they were prevented from enjoying them), and Mohists expanded on what must have been widespread popular outrage to argue against such performances. Xunzi countered (p.181) that by focusing exclusively on the material costs, Mo Di and his followers failed to recognize the psychological utility of music as an instrument of moral suasion.37

夫聲樂之入人也深,其化人也速,故先王謹為之文。樂中平則民和而不流,樂肅莊則民齊而不亂。民和齊則兵勁城固,敵國不敢嬰也。如是,則百姓莫不安其處,樂其鄉,以至足其上矣。然後名聲於是白,光輝於是大,四海之民莫不願得以為師。是王者之始也。樂姚冶以險,則民流僈鄙賤矣。流僈則亂,鄙賤則爭。亂爭則兵弱城犯,‎ 敵國危之。如是,則百姓不安其處,不樂其鄉,不足其上矣。故禮樂廢而邪音起者,危削侮辱之本也。故先王貴禮樂而賤邪音。其在序官也,曰:「修憲命,審誅賞‎ [=詩章‎]38,禁淫聲,以時順修,使夷俗邪音不敢亂雅,太師之事也。」‎

(Xunzi 20.2)39

Sounds and music enter people deeply; they transform people quickly. Thus the Former Kings were careful to make [music] patterned. When music is centered and balanced, the people are harmonious and not dissipated. When music is stern and grave, the people are uniform and not disorderly. When the people are harmonious and uniform, the army is firm and the citadels impregnable; enemy states dare not invade. When this is the case, then the Hundred Surnames, without exception, are secure in their dwellings; all are joyous in the neighborhoods and fully satisfied with their superiors. Only then will the name and repute [of the ruler of such a state] be shining and his glory great; within the Four Seas, none among the people will be unwilling to accept him as their teacher. This is the beginning of true kingship. When music is overwrought and seduces us to malice, the people are dissipated, indolent, crude, and base. Dissipation and indolence lead to disorder, crudity and baseness to contention. When there is disorder and contention, the army is soft and the citadels plundered; enemies will threaten [such a state]. When this is the case, the Hundred Surnames are not secure in their dwellings; they are not joyous in their neighborhoods or satisfied with their superiors. Thus when rituals and music lapse, and heterodox tones arise, this is the root of territorial encroachment, humiliation, and disgrace. Thus the Former Kings took ritual and music to be noble and heterodox tones to be base. This [principle] appears in Procedures of the Officials:40 “The affairs of the Grand Music-Master are: to cultivate the edicts and commands; to investigate poetic stanzas; to proscribe licentious sounds—so that [the people] act in (p.182) accord with the seasons, and barbarous customs and heterodox tones dare not bring disorder on the ‘Elegantiae.’”41

Thus ritual-and-music is, for Xunzi as for Confucius, a mode of moral self-cultivation, but his underlying cosmology is radically different. Confucius had nothing to say about the origin of the rituals; they were but a cultural given, which one is required to attune and adjust, with sincere moral consciousness, as circumstances demand. And this practice, in Confucius’s view, trains us in the discipline of moral reasoning that is necessary to lead a respectable life. For Xunzi too, practicing the rituals propels our moral development, but not because we are supposed to alter them to suit varying conditions; rather, the rituals are the practicable code that the Sages, who penetrated the fundamental patterns of the cosmos, left behind for the benefit of their less talented posterity:

水行者表深,表不明則陷;治民者表道,表不明則亂。禮者,表也。非禮,昏世也。昏世,大亂也。故道無不明,外內異表,隱顯有常,‎ 民陷乃去。‎ (Xunzi 17.11)42

Those who have forded a river mark the deep spots; if the markers are not clear, one will stumble. Those who have brought order to the people mark the Way; if the markers are not clear, there will be disorder. The rituals are the markers; to oppose the rituals is to blind the world; to blind the world is a great disorder. Thus if nothing is left unclear about the Way, if there are different markers for the outer and inner, and a constancy pertaining to the hidden and the manifest, then the people will stumble no more.

What Xunzi meant by this “constancy” is the Way. Confucius and Mencius had used this term, but never with any necessary cosmological connotations; for earlier Confucians, dao simply referred to “the right path.” Xunzi, who lived after such texts as Laozi had gained currency, turned the Confucian Way into something more complex.

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。故水旱不能使之飢,寒暑不能使之疾,祅怪不能使之凶。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。受時與治世同,而殃禍與治世異,不可以怨天,其道然也。‎ (p.183) (Xunzi 17.1)43

There is a constancy to Heaven’s processes. It is not preserved by Yao, and it does not perish because of Jie. To respond to it with the right order is auspicious; to respond to it with disorder is inauspicious. If you strengthen the base and spend in moderation, Heaven cannot impoverish you. If the nourishment [of the people] is achieved and your movements are in accordance with the seasons, Heaven cannot cause you to be ill. If you cultivate the Way and are not of two [minds], Heaven cannot ruin you. Thus floods and drought cannot bring about famine; cold and heat cannot bring about disease; portents and wonders cannot bring about inauspiciousness. But if the base is neglected and expenditures are extravagant, Heaven cannot enrich you. If the nourishment [of the people] is desultory and your movements are irregular, Heaven cannot cause you to be hale. If you turn your back on the Way and act thoughtlessly, Heaven cannot bring about auspiciousness. Thus there will be famine even without floods or drought, disease even without cold or heat, inauspiciousness even without portents and wonders. The seasons will be received just as in an orderly age, but your calamities and ruination will be unlike [the bounty of] an orderly age. You cannot complain to Heaven, for its Way is such.44

Heaven’s processes (tianxing 天行‎) do not change from one epoch to the next;45 thus one must learn how to respond to them with “the right order” (zhi 治‎), whereafter it would be either ignorant or hypocritical to blame Heaven for one’s misfortune. When a ruler governs a state well, there are bound to be good results; when a ruler governs a state badly, there are bound to be bad results. Disasters can have no long-term consequences because a well-governed state will prosper even in the face of disasters, and a poorly governed state will be vanquished even if it avoids disasters altogether. (Xunzi’s opinion of foreseeable natural disasters such as hurricanes would undoubtedly have been that they strike all states, but a well-governed state will be prepared for such an event, whereas a poorly governed state will be in no position to respond to it.) Consequently, Heaven plays a sure but indirect role in determining our fortune or misfortune. Heaven never intercedes directly in human affairs, but human affairs are certain to succeed or fail according to a timeless pattern that Heaven determined before human beings existed.

(p.184) 治亂天邪?曰:日月、星辰、瑞曆,是禹、桀之所同也,禹以治,‎ 桀以亂,治亂非天也。時邪?曰:繁啟蕃長於春夏,畜積收臧於秋冬,是禹、桀之所同也,禹以治,桀以亂,治亂非時也。‎ (Xunzi 17.4)46

Are order and disorder due to Heaven? I say: The revolutions of the sun, moon, and stars, and the cyclical calendar—these were the same under Yu and Jie. Since Yu brought about order and Jie disorder, order and disorder are not in Heaven. Or the seasons? I say: Luxuriantly, [vegetation] begins to bloom and grow in spring and summer; crops are harvested and stored in autumn and winter. This, too, was the same under Yu and Jie. Since Yu brought about order and Jie disorder, order and disorder are not in the seasons.

If we attempt to conduct ourselves or our society in a manner that is incompatible with “the constancy,” we will suffer—and have only ourselves to blame.

天不為人之惡寒也輟冬,地不為人之惡遼遠也輟廣,君子不為小人‎ 之匈匈也輟行。天有常道矣,地有常數矣,君子有常體矣。‎ (Xunzi 17.5)47

Heaven does not stop winter because people dislike cold; Earth does not stop its expansiveness because people dislike great distances; the noble man does not stop his right conduct because petty men rant and rave. Heaven has a constant Way; Earth has its constant dimensions; the noble man has a constant bearing.

Next, Xunzi makes a crucial distinction between knowing Heaven and knowing its Way. The former is impossible, and therefore a waste of time to attempt, but the latter is open to all who try. To cite a modern parallel, it is not difficult to understand how the force of gravity works by carefully observing its effects in the phenomenal world, but to understand why gravity works is a different matter altogether. Xunzi would say that one should constrain one’s inquiries to learning how gravity works, and then think about how to apply this irresistible force of nature to improve the lives of humankind. His attitude was not scientific in our sense.48

故明於天人之分,則可謂至人矣。不為而成,不求而得,夫是之謂天職。如是者,雖深,其人不加慮焉;雖大,不加能焉;雖精,不加察焉;夫是之謂不與天爭職。‎ (p.185) …… 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,已其見和之可以治者矣。‎ (Xunzi 17.2a–3b)49

Thus one who is enlightened about the distinction between Heaven and man can be called an Ultimate Person.50 What is completed without any action, what is attained without being sought—this is called the agency of Heaven. Therefore, however profound they may be, such people do not add their reasoning to it; however great they may be, they do not add their abilities to it; however perceptive they may be, they do not add their investigations to it. This is what is called not competing with the agency of Heaven. … Their aspiration with respect to Heaven is no more than to observe the phenomena that can be taken as regular periods (e.g., the progression of the seasons or stars). Their aspiration with respect to Earth is no more than to observe the matters that yield [crops]. Their aspiration with respect to the four seasons is no more than to observe the data that can be made to serve [humanity]. Their aspiration with respect to yin and yang is no more than to observe their harmonious [interactions] that can bring about order.

In a moment of poetic exuberance, Xunzi concludes with a fusillade of rhymed couplets:

  • 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,孰與騁能而化之?‎
  • 思物而物之,孰與理物而勿失之也?‎
  • 願於物之所以生,孰與有物之所以成?‎(Xunzi 17.10)51
  • To extol Heaven and long for it—how does that compare to domesticating its creatures and controlling them?
  • To follow Heaven and sing paeans to it—how does that compare to administering Heaven’s Mandate and making use of it?
  • To gaze at the seasons and await them—how does that compare to responding to the seasons and employing them?
  • (p.186) To accord with things and let them reproduce [at their own pace]—how does that compare to unleashing one’s ability and transforming them?
  • To long for things and regard them as [external] things—how does that compare to arranging things in patterns and never losing them?
  • To yearn for whatever gives birth to things—how does that compare to possessing what brings them to completion?

For Xunzi, then, rituals are not merely received practices, nor convenient social institutions; they are practicable forms in which the sages aimed to encapsulate the fundamental patterns of the universe. No human being, not even a sage, can know Heaven, but we can know Heaven’s Way, which is the surest path to a flourishing and blessed life. Because human beings have limited knowledge and abilities, it is difficult for us to attain this deep understanding, and therefore the sages handed down the rituals to help us follow in their footsteps.

There is a radically different understanding of Xunzi than the one advanced here; Kurtis Hagen,52 the most articulate exponent of this other view, contends that Xunzi’s Way is not an unchanging cosmological reality to which we must conform, but something constructed by human beings. There is one ambiguous passage that might be taken as support for Hagen’s interpretation:

道者,非天之道,非地之道,人之所以道也,君子之所道也。‎ (Xunzi 8.3)53

The Way is not the Way of Heaven, nor the Way of Earth; it is what people regard as the Way, what the noble man is guided by.

This seems to say, despite all the material in Xunzi 17 about apprehending the constancy of Heaven and then applying it profitably to daily life, that we are supposed to disregard the Way of Heaven, and create our own Way instead. The basic problem is that the surviving text of Xunzi is vague enough to permit various interpretations, but the repeated references to the importance of observing and appropriately “responding” (ying 應‎) to the seasons suggest that natural patterns are indeed to be taken as normative.

Yang Liang 楊倞‎ (fl. AD 818), the author of the oldest extant commentary to the Xunzi, evidently recognized this problem and tried to soften the impact of Xunzi 8.3 by making it fit with the rest of the text:

(p.187) 重說先王之道非陰陽、山川、怪異之事,是人所行之道。‎

This emphasizes that the Way of the Former Kings was not a matter of yin and yang, or mountains and rivers, or omens and prodigies, but the Way that people practice.

Yang Liang’s opinion is surely not decisive; he was but an interpreter of Xunzi, not Xunzi himself, and his glosses are not always regarded as the most compelling today. But in this case I think he was right that Xunzi meant to say no more than that the Way is to be found not in prodigies and other freakish occurrences, but in the “constancies” that people can put into practice. Indeed, the very notion that the Way of Heaven, the Way of Earth, and the Way of human beings are distinct entities would contradict a point that Xunzi makes more than once: there is only one Way.

天下無二道,聖人無兩心。‎ (Xunzi 21.1)54

There are no two Ways in the world, and the Sage is never of two minds.

This single and holistic Way, moreover, serves as the enduring standard for all times because all ramified truths of the universe are unified within it:

曰:精於道者也,精於物者也。精於物者以物物,精於道者兼物物。故君子壹於道而以贊稽物。壹於道則正,以贊稽物則察,以正志行察論,則萬物官矣。‎ (Xunzi 21.6b)55

It is said: There are those who have refined their skill at the Way, and those who have refined their skill at things. Those who have refined their skill at things treat each separate thing as a separate thing; those who have refined their skill at the Way treat each separate thing as part of an all-inclusive thing. Thus the noble man derives unity from the Way and uses it as an aid in canvassing things. Since he derives unity from the Way, he is rectified; since he uses it as an aid in canvassing things, he is perspicacious; and since he advances perspicacious theories with a rectified will, he is the officer of all the myriad things.

道者,古今之正權也,離道而內自擇,則不知禍福之所託。‎ (Xunzi 22.6b)56

(p.188) The Way is the correct scale for past and present; if one departs from the Way and chooses on the basis of one’s own innards, then one does not know whence ruination and fortune are sent.

What we need to understand, then, is the Way as it pertains to human beings. Unusual celestial phenomena such as shooting stars must, theoretically, be explainable by a comprehensive formulation of the Way—there can be no violations of the Way in the natural world—but this is exactly why we do not aim for a comprehensive formulation of the Way.57 We can safely ignore shooting stars as irrelevant to human beings because they do not provide replicable patterns for use in moral and social development. Responding to the seasons with timely planting and harvesting is, once again, a more productive model.

In accordance with his notion of the Way as the observable “constancies” that can be profitably applied to human conduct, Xunzi argued strongly against the old idea that weird occurrences on earth can be rationalized as monitory signs from Heaven.

星隊、木鳴,國人皆恐。曰:是何也?曰:無何也,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。上明而政平,則是雖竝世起,無傷也;上闇而政險,則是雖無一至者,無益也。‎ (Xunzi 17.7)58

When stars shoot down and trees squall, the denizens of the city are all terrified. They say, “What is this?” I say, “It is nothing.” These are the shifts in Heaven and Earth, transformations of yin and yang, material anomalies. It is acceptable to wonder at them, but it is not acceptable to fear them. No generation has been without eclipses of the sun and moon, untimely winds and rains, or the appearance of wondrous stars. If the ruler is enlightened and the government peaceful, then even if such things arise all together, they cannot cause any harm. If the ruler is benighted and the government precarious, then even if none of these things should happen, [their absence] will still confer no benefit.

What is crucial is not how loudly the trees may have squalled this year, but how people have behaved. Xunzi goes on to expound his theory of “human portents” (renyao 人祅‎), a term that would have seemed as counterintuitive in Xunzi’s language as it does in ours. “Human portents” are (p.189) the many shortsighted and immoral acts through which human beings bring on their own destruction.59

物之已至者,人祅則可畏也。楛耕傷稼,耘耨失薉,政險失民,田薉稼惡,糴貴民飢,道路有死人,夫是之謂人祅。政令不明,舉錯不時,本事不理,夫是之謂人祅。禮儀不修,内外無別,男女淫亂,‎ 則父子相疑,上下乖離,寇難竝至,夫是之謂人祅。祅是生於亂,‎ 三者錯,無安國。‎ (Xunzi 17.7)60

Among material [anomalies] that may occur, it is human portents that are to be feared: poor plowing that harms the harvest, hoeing and weeding out of season, governmental malice that causes the loss of the people. When agriculture is untimely and the harvest bad, the price of grain is high and the people starve. In the roads and streets there are dead people. These are called human portents. When governmental commands are unenlightened, corvée miscalculated or untimely, fundamental affairs chaotic—these are called human portents. When ritual and morality are not cultivated, when internal and external are not separated, when male and female are licentious and disorderly, when father and son are suspicious of each other, when superior and inferior are obstinate and estranged; when crime and hardship occur together—these are called human portents. Portents are born of disorder; when these three types [of human portents]61 obtain, there is no peace in the country.

Heaven has no part in such wrongdoing. Now and then strange things may happen in the skies, but they have happened at all moments in history, and they have never been sufficient to destroy a prudent and moral society, whereas an imprudent and immoral society will fail even if it is spared an eclipse. Good acts have good consequences; bad acts have bad consequences; and only fools (and hypocrites) wait for Heaven to intercede.

Xunzi even extends this theory of “human portents” to contend that religious ceremonies have no numinous effect; we carry them out merely for their inherent beauty and the social cohesion that they promote. In this connection, he has been compared to Durkheim.62

雩而雨,何也?曰:無何也,猶不雩而雨也。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。以為文則吉,以為神則凶也。‎ (Xunzi 17.8)63

(p.190) If the sacrifice for rain [is performed], and it rains, what of it? I say: It is nothing. Even if there had been no sacrifice, it would have rained. When the sun and moon are eclipsed, we rescue them [by performing the proper rites]; when Heaven sends drought we perform the sacrifice for rain; we decide great matters only after divining with turtle and milfoil. This is not in order to obtain what we seek, but in order to embellish [such occasions]. Thus the noble man takes [these ceremonies] to be embellishment, but the populace takes them to be spiritual. To take them as embellishment is auspicious; to take them as spiritual is inauspicious.

Xunzi’s idea of man-made rituals based on immutable cosmic norms, which is distinctive among classical Confucians, can be used to test some of the more questionable chapters in the Xunzi, such as “Discussion of Warfare” (“Yibing” 議兵‎, Xunzi 15), which is presented as a debate between Xun Kuang and a certain Lord Linwu 臨武君‎ before King Xiaocheng of Zhao 趙孝成王‎ (r. 265–245 BC).64 Scholars have long recognized that “Discussion of Warfare” could not have been written by Xun Kuang himself, because it consistently refers to Xunzi as Sun Qingzi 孫卿子‎, “Master Chamberlain Sun,” a title that he would not have used.65 Moreover, the use of the posthumous name of King Xiaocheng of Zhao implies that Xunzi 15 was, at the very least, edited after 245 BC. (It is uncertain whether Xunzi himself was still alive at this time.)66 And there is no reason why the date of the text could not be even later than that.67

“Discussion of Warfare” squares extremely well with Xunzi’s undisputed writings, however—so well, in fact, that the author, whoever he was, must have been intimately familiar with Xunzi’s philosophy, and applied it cogently to the question of warfare. Similarly, while it is uncertain whether the debate between Xun Kuang and Lord Linwu really took place—or, if it did, whether the chapter faithfully reproduces the participants’ arguments—it is still plausible that we are dealing with a close approximation of what Xun Kuang once said in a live debate on warfare. To be sure, the figure of “Master Chamberlain Sun” assumes an oratorical tone in “Discussion of Warfare” unlike that of his expository works, but a difference in register is only to be expected in material that was not originally composed in essay form.

(p.191) The debate begins with some pronouncements by Lord Linwu on surprise tactics and timely mobilizations:

觀敵之變動,後之發,先之至,此用兵之要術也。‎ (Xunzi 15.1a)68

Observe the enemy’s movements; “set out after him but arrive before him.” This is the essential technique in using troops.

“Set out after him but arrive before him” is an unmistakable allusion to Sunzi.69 Xunzi responds by denying the long-term value of clever battlefield maneuvers: the basis of all military action lies not in skillful generalship, but in unifying the populace. By practicing humanity and morality, Xunzi argues, a sage ruler can undermine the power of an aggressor:

且夫曓國之君,將誰與至哉?彼其所與至者,必其民也,而其民之親我歡若父母,其好我芬若椒蘭;彼反顧其上,則若灼黥,若仇讐。‎ (Xunzi 15.1b)70

Moreover, whom would the ruler of a cruel state send [to the battlefield]? Those whom he would send must be his own people. But his people would feel intimate toward us; they would be as complaisant as if we were their father and mother. They would be as attracted to us as to the pepper and orchid (i.e., sweet-smelling plants). But when they look back at their ruler, then he will seem like a brand or a tattoo, like a sworn enemy.

In other words, even with brilliant strategies, a ruler cannot rely on his army if his people do not serve him gladly; and conversely, a benevolent ruler—one who deserves the name “King”—can always be sure of victory, because the soldiers of his enemy will simply desert their commander. Xunzi continues:

故王者之兵不試。湯、武之誅桀、紂也,拱挹指麾而強曓之國莫不趨使,誅桀、紂若誅獨夫。‎ (Xunzi 15.1d)71

Thus the troops of a true king are never tested. When Tang and Wu punished Jie and Zhòu, they bowed with their hands folded and gave the signal with their finger, whereupon not one of the mighty and cruel states failed to rush to their service and execute Jie and Zhòu as though they were executing a forsaken man.

(p.192) As he has related it so far, Xunzi’s view of warfare is not original. The idea that a sage can evoke unquestioning devotion, even in his enemies, is commonplace in Confucian discussions of warfare. Mencius, as we saw (pp. 103–4), also argued that a beneficent ruler will always defeat his opponents in battle, because in winning over the people, he secures for himself the most effective weapon of all. What is unique in Xunzi’s “Discussion of Warfare,” however, is his emphasis on ritual as the key to a well-ordered state. To be sure, earlier writings had also discussed the idea of ritual as the foundation of statecraft; the Zuo Commentary, in particular, is famous for its scenes in which a ruler who is about to attack his neighbor publicly justifies his aggression on the grounds that he is merely “punishing” his enemy’s intolerable violations of ritual.72 But Xunzi raises the significance of ritual to a new level: in his view, the ruler’s ability to govern his state in accordance with ritual is the sole criterion that will determine success or failure on the battlefield.

君賢者其國治,君不能者其國亂;隆禮貴義者其國治,簡禮賤義者其國亂。‎ (Xunzi 15.1c)73

If the ruler is worthy, his state will be ordered; if the ruler is incompetent, his state will be chaotic. If he exalts ritual and esteems morality, his state will be ordered; if he is lax about rituals and debases morality, his state will be disordered.

Having established the principle that “exalting ritual” is the true path to order and strength, Xunzi proceeds to expatiate on the concept of ritual in characteristic language.

禮者,治辨之極也,強固之本也,威行之道也,功名之總也。王公由之,所以得天下也;不由,所以隕社稷也。故堅甲利兵不足以為勝,高城深池不足以為固,嚴令繁刑不足以為威,由其道則行,不由其道則廢。‎ (Xunzi 15.4)74

Ritual is the ridgepole of order and discrimination; it is the foundation of a strength and security, the Way of awesome practice, the chief precondition for a successful reputation. When kings and dukes follow [the rituals], that is how they obtain the world; when they do not follow [the rituals], that is how they damage their own altars of soil and grain. Thus firm armor and keen weapons are not enough to bring about victory; lofty (p.193) fortifications and deep moats are not enough to bring about security; strict commands and manifold punishments are not enough to instill awe. If one follows the Way, then one will progress; if one does not follow the Way, then one will perish.

One will notice that the rituals are repeatedly associated with the Way in these passages; at times, the two terms appear to be used interchangeably, as though “exalting the rituals” were essentially the same thing as “following the Way.” The figure of Master Chamberlain Xun in “Discussion of Warfare” evidently views military combat as one of the many fields of analysis that can be engaged profitably with the fundamental and all-encompassing model of the Way manifested through ritual practice. The chapter is not really about warfare at all.

So too Xunzi’s famous essay on language, “Rectifying Names” (“Zhengming” 正名‎): while it includes some impressive insights into the nature of verbal communication,75 the primary concern of the chapter is morality, not linguistics.76 The thrust of the essay is easily missed because a few of Xunzi’s comments sound as though they came out of a twentieth-century pragmatics textbook:

名無固宜,約之以命。約定俗成謂之宜,異於約則謂之不宜。名無固實,約之以命實,約定俗成謂之實名。名有固善,徑易而不拂,‎ 謂之善名。‎ (Xunzi 22.2g)77

Names have no inherent appropriateness. We designate them [by some word] in order to name them. If it is fixed by convention and implemented by custom, then it is called appropriate. If [the name that people use] is different from what has been agreed on, then it is called inappropriate.

As much as this may remind one of Saussure, Xunzi was not interested in the same questions as modern linguists. In “Rectifying Names,” Xunzi also discusses sophistic paradoxes that were rampant in his day (the most famous being “A white horse is not a horse”—see p. 16), dividing them into three typological categories. His conclusion discloses that his main purpose is not a proper taxonomy of falsidical paradoxes, but an assertion of the moral purpose of language: “All heretical theories and aberrant (p.194) sayings depart from the correct Way and are presumptuously crafted according to these three categories of delusion” 凡邪說辟言之離正道而擅作者‎, 無不類於三惑者矣‎ (Xunzi 22.3d).78 The paradoxes of the sophists cannot be used as a basis for moral governance and thus would be objectionable even if they were not false; they are “disputes with no use” 辯而無用‎ (Xunzi 6.6).79 The only legitimate purpose of language, like that of government itself, is to serve as the king’s tool in propagating moral excellence.

故王者之制名,名定而實辨,道行而志通,則慎率民而一焉。故析辭擅作名以亂正名,使民疑惑,人多辨訟,則謂之大姦,其罪猶為符節、度量之罪也。‎ …… 其民莫敢託為奇辭以亂正名,故壹於道法而謹於循令矣。如是,則其跡長矣。跡長功成,治之極也,是謹於守名約之功也。‎ (Xunzi 22.1c)80

When a true king determines names, if names are fixed and realities distinguished, if the Way is practiced and his intentions communicated, then he may carefully lead the people and unify them by this means. Thus splitting phrases and presumptuously creating [new] names in order to bring disorder on rectified names causes the people to be doubtful and confused. When there are many disputes and indictments among people, this is called “great sedition”; this crime is as [serious as] crimes pertaining to [the falsification of] contracts and measures. … When one’s people dare not circulate odd phrases to bring disorder on rectified names, they will be unified by the Way and its methods and will be careful to obey [the King’s] orders. In such a case, his traces will be long-lasting. To have long-lasting traces and to achieve merit is the acme of establishing order. This is what is achieved by carefully defending the convention of names.

The task of determining names and then enforcing their use belongs to the King alone, not to any lord and certainly not to the people. “A true king” (wangzhe 王者‎, literally “one who is a king”), in Confucian language, refers not to the person who happens to be sitting on the throne, but someone who has lived up to the moral requirements of that office and duly rules the world by his charismatic example. Accordingly, a phrase like “leading and unifying the people” (shuai min er yi yan 率民而一焉‎) refers not to expedient rulership, but to implementing the Confucian (p.195) project of morally transforming the world. Language is useful in that enterprise because without it the people cannot even understand the ruler’s wishes, let alone carry them out.

Just as the rituals need to be based on the foundation of the Way, the ruler’s names, though they can be arbitrary as designations, must correspond to reality. You can make up the word for “reality,” but you cannot make up reality.

然則何緣而以同異?曰:緣天官。凡同類、同情者,其天官之意物也同,故比方之疑似而通,是所以共其約名以相期也。形體、色、理以目異,聲音清濁、調竽、奇聲以耳異,甘、苦、鹹、淡、辛、酸、奇味以口異,香、臭、芬、鬱、腥、臊、洒、酸‎ [=漏、庮‎]81、奇臭以鼻異,疾、養‎ [=癢‎]82、滄、熱、滑、鈹、輕、重以形體異,‎ 說、故、喜、怒、哀、樂、愛、惡、欲以心異。‎ (22.2c–d)83

What does one rely on to [determine] same and different? I say: One relies on the Heaven-endowed organs. The senses of all members of the same species with the same essence perceive things in the same manner. Thus we associate things that appear similar upon comparison; in this manner we provide designated names for them in order to define them with respect to each other. Shape, body, color, and pattern are distinguished by the eyes. Sound, tone, treble, bass, mode, harmony—diverse sounds are distinguished by the ears. Sweet, bitter, salty, bland, pungent, sour—diverse tastes are distinguished by the mouth. Fragrant, foul, ambrosial, odorous, rank, fetid, putrid, acrid—diverse smells are distinguished by the nose. Painful, itchy, cold, hot, smooth, sharp, light, and heavy are differentiated by the body. Statements, reasons, happiness, resentment, grief, joy, love, hate, and desire are distinguished by the heart-mind.

The notion that we rely on our senses to perceive the world around us represents a substantial claim on Xunzi’s part, because other philosophers had already suggested that reality is not straightforwardly discerned; on the contrary, one’s partial perspective on reality necessarily informs one’s perception of it (recall Zhuangzi, p. 135). For Xunzi, however, reality is reality, regardless of how we perceive it. Once again, some scholars question whether Xunzi is such a strong realist,84 but I find any alternative, “constructivist” interpretation of Xunzi difficult to reconcile with his repeated assertions that language must conform to reality and the Way.

(p.196) 名也者,所以期累實也。辭也者,兼異實之名以論一意也。辨說也者,不異實名以喻動靜之道也。期命也者,辨說之用也。辨說也者,‎ 心之象道也。心也者,道之工宰也。道也者,治之經理也。心合於道,說合於心,辭合於說。‎ (Xunzi 22.3f)85

Names are that by which one defines different real objects.86 Phrases are that by which one combines the names of different real objects in order to expound a single idea. Polemical statements are that by which one analogizes about the movements of the Way without causing names to diverge from reality. Definitions and names are what polemical persuasions use [as their basis]. Polemical statements are what the heart-mind uses to depict the Way. The heart-mind is the master craftsman of the Way. The Way is the canonical pattern of order. One’s heart-mind should accord with the Way, one’s statements with one’s heart-mind, one’s phrases with one’s statements.

With the heart-mind, we come at last to the keystone of Xunzi’s philosophy, the one piece that links together all the others. The Chinese word, xin 心‎, meaning “heart,” is the same that Mencius had used, but Xunzi attributes such strong and varied mental processes to this organ that one has to construe it as not only the heart but also the mind.

First, the heart-mind is the organ that we use to discover the Way. Xunzi’s discussion of Heaven presented his argument that moral self-cultivation is a matter of correctly perceiving and then applying the Way, but it did not explain how we perceive the Way in the first place. Elsewhere, he addresses the question explicitly:

人何以知道?曰:心。心何以知?曰:虛壹而靜。心未嘗不臧也,‎ 然而有所謂虛;心未嘗不滿也,然而有所謂一;心未嘗不動也,然而有所謂靜。人生而有知,知而有志。志也者,臧也,然而有所謂虛,不以所已臧害所將受謂之虛。心生而有知,知而有異,異也者,‎ 同時兼知之。同時兼知之,兩也,然而有所謂一,不以夫一害此一謂之壹。心,臥則夢,偷則自行,使之則謀。故心未嘗不動也,然而有所謂靜,不以夢劇亂知謂之靜。‎ (Xunzi 21.5d)87

How does one know the Way? I say: the heart-mind. How does the heart-mind know? I say: emptiness, unity, and tranquility. The heart-mind never stops storing, but it has something called “emptiness.” The heart-mind never stops being filled, but it has something called “unity.” The heart-mind (p.197) never stops moving, but it has something called “tranquility.” From birth humans have awareness; with awareness come thoughts; thoughts are stored. But [the heart-mind] has something called “emptiness”: it does not take what is stored to harm what is to be received; this is called “emptiness.” From birth the heart-mind has awareness; with awareness comes differentiation; different things are known at the same time. Knowing different things at the same time is duality. But [the heart-mind] has something called “unity”: it does not take one thing to harm another; this is called “unity.” The heart-mind dreams when it sleeps; it moves spontaneously when it relaxes; it plans when it is employed. Thus the heart-mind never stops moving, but it has something called “tranquility”: it does not take dreams and fancies to bring disorder on knowledge; this is called “tranquility.”

“Emptiness,” “unity,” and “tranquility” are three nurturable faculties that we all possess from birth, but do not all employ to the same degree. (The title of chapter 21, “Resolving Blindness,” refers to the self-destructive acts that people undertake because they fail to employ their heart-minds correctly.) Xunzi patently borrowed these three terms from earlier discourse, particularly Zhuangzi, though he used them very differently.88 “Emptiness” refers to the heart-mind’s ability to store a seemingly unlimited amount of information; we do not have to erase one datum in order to make room for another. “Unity” refers to the heart-mind’s ability to synthesize diverse data into meaningful paradigms. And “tranquility” refers to the heart-mind’s ability to distinguish fantasy from rational thinking. (“Not taking dreams and fancies to bring disorder on knowledge” may be an oblique allusion to the famous episode at the end of Zhuangzi 2, where Zhuang Zhou is said not to be able to tell whether he is Zhuang Zhou or a butterfly in his dream.)89 Armed with these powers, we can infer the patterns of the Way by taking in, and then pondering, the data transmitted to the heart-mind by the senses.

Second, the heart-mind is the chief among the organs. It is the only organ that can command the others; indeed, it is the only organ with any self-consciousness.

心者,形之君也,而神明之主也,出令而無所受令。自禁也,自使也,自奪也,自取也,自行也,自止也。故口可劫而使墨‎ [=默‎]90 (p.198) 云,形可劫而使詘申,心不可劫而使易意,是之則受,非之則辭。‎ (Xunzi 21.6a)91

The mind is the lord of the body and the master of “godlike insight.”92 It issues commands but does not receive commands. It prohibits on its own; it employs on its own; it considers on its own; it takes on its own; it acts on its own; it ceases on its own. Thus the mouth can be forced to be silent or to speak; the body can be forced to contract or expand; the mind cannot be forced to change its intention. If it accepts [something, the mind] receives it; if it rejects [something, the mind] forgoes it.

Third, because the heart-mind can control both itself and all other organs of the body, it is the font of “artifice,” or the deliberate actions that begin to transform the morally deficient xing:

心慮而能為之動謂之偽。慮積焉、能習焉而後成謂之偽。‎ (Xunzi 22.1b)93

When the heart-mind reasons and the other faculties put it into action—this is called “artifice.” When reasoning is accumulated in this manner and the other faculties practice it, so that [morality] is brought to completion—this is called “artifice.”

And most explicitly:

人之所欲,生甚矣,人之所惡,死甚矣,然而人有從生成死者,非不欲生而欲死也,不可以生而可以死也。故欲過之而動不及,心止之也。心之所可中理,則欲雖多,奚傷於治!欲不及而動過之,心使之也。心之所可失理,則欲雖寡,奚止於亂!故治亂在於心之所可,亡於情之所欲。‎ (Xunzi 22.5a)94

People’s desire for life is deep; their hatred of death is deep. Yet when people discard life and cause their own death, this is not because they do not desire life or because they desire death. Rather, this is because it is not [morally] acceptable for them to live; it is acceptable for them only to die. Thus when one’s desires are excessive but one’s actions do not reach [the same degree], it is because the heart-mind brings them to a halt. If the heart-mind has accepted correct patterns, then even if one’s desires are manifold, how would they harm order? And when one’s desires do not reach [the level of excess], but one’s actions are excessive, it is because the (p.199) heart-mind causes one [to act in this manner]. If the mind has accepted invalid patterns, then even if one’s desires are few, how would one refrain from disorder? Thus order and disorder lie with whatever the heart-mind will accept, and not with the desires or the emotions.

The human instinct of self-preservation must be the starkest example of xing, yet the heart-mind is capable of overriding even this impulse by “halting” (zhi 止‎) it if it clashes with the correct “patterns” (li 理‎).95 We have the necessary faculties to recognize immorality when we see it, and if we permit ourselves to tread an immoral path, we cannot blame our emotions or desires but must accept that our heart-mind has failed to exert the requisite discipline. We know that we could have done better. Indeed, when we speak of “we,” we are speaking of our heart-mind.96 For the heart-mind is the crucible where these teeming moral deliberations take place.

Thus Xunzi ends, like all Confucians, with individual responsibility. Mencius would have called this “living up to our destiny”; for Xunzi, with his more ramified cosmology, it is more accurately stated as the heart-mind’s obligation to process the principles of the Way and then command the rest of the body to conform. Because we are not sages, we are advised to follow the rituals in order to attain this degree of understanding, but, fundamentally, the path to morality is open to anyone who sees and thinks.97

Xunzi’s conception of the heart-mind also figures in a distinctive congruence that he postulates between a kingdom and a human being. A kingdom possesses an initial set of features—it may be large or small, rich or poor, hilly or flat—but these are immaterial to its ultimate success or failure, for any territory, however small, provides enough of a base for a sage to conquer the world. Thus it is the management of the state, and not its natural resources, that determine whether it will become the domain of a king or be conquered by its neighbors. This management, furthermore, comprises two elements: a proper method, namely the rituals of the sage kings; and a decisive agent, namely the lord, who chooses either to adopt the rituals or unwisely discard them.

In much the same way, human beings are made up of two parts: their xing, or detestable initial condition, and wei, their conscious conduct. They may reform themselves, or they may remain detestable: the outcome (p.200) depends entirely on their conduct. The management of the self, just like the management of the state, comprises two elements: a proper method, which is, once again, the rituals of the sage kings; and a decisive agent, which chooses either to adopt the rituals or unwisely discard them. This agent, the analogue of the lord of a state, is the heart-mind.98 As in the Broadway song, “It’s not where you start; it’s where you finish.”99


(1.) The source of this oft-repeated phrase is Shiji 74.2348.

(2.) For an overview of the problems surrounding Dong Zhongshu’s dates, see Fukui, Kandai Jukyō no shiteki kenkyū, 387–404.

(3.) This is stated in the preface by Liu Xiang, conveniently included in Xunzi jijie, 558.

(6.) Zhu Xi’s fullest exposition of his distaste for Xunzi appears in Chuci houyu 1.1a–2a (preface to “Chengxiang” 成相‎). See also Li Jingde, Zhuzi yulei 137.3255. It is, of course, possible that Song Neo-Confucians were deeply indebted to Xunzi even as they excoriated him. See esp. Dai Junren, Meiyuan lunxue ji, 411–20; and Dai Junren, Meiyuan lunxue xuji, 272–301; also Wyatt, Recluse of Loyang, 83–84 and 177.

(7.) For the important exception of Ling Tingkan 凌廷堪‎ (1755–1809), see Kai-wing Chow, Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China, 191–97.

(9.) Tan laid out his objections to Xunzi in §§ 29 and 30 of his Renxue 仁學‎; see the bilingual edition by Chan Sin-wai, Exposition of Benevolence, 146–52 (English) and 270–72 (Chinese). Cf. also Carsun Chang, Development of Neo-Confucian Thought, 2:423–24.

(11.) Louie, Inheriting Tradition, 165–78, shows that the rehabilitation of Xunzi (along ideological lines) was already well underway during the first two decades of the People’s Republic.

(14.) For a lucid overview, see Hutton, “Does Xunzi Have a Consistent Theory of Human Nature?”; also Siufu Tang, Self-Realization through Confucian Learning, 51; and Goldin, Rituals of the Way, 6ff.

(15.) Xunzi jijie 17.23.435–36 (“Xing’e”).

(17.) Xunzi jijie 16.22.412 (“Zhengming” 正名‎). Cf. Xunzi 22.5b: “Xing is what is wrought by Heaven” 性者,天之就也‎ (Xunzi jijie 16.22.428), i.e., not by human beings.

(18.) Note that this word often has a pejorative connotation in Classical Chinese (“forged” or “feigned”). Xunzi’s usage must have surprised ancient readers.

(19.) Xunzi jijie 17.23.434–35 (“Xing’e”).

(20.) Xunzi jijie 17.23.443. Cf. Xunzi 8.11.

(22.) Xunzi jijie 13.19.346 (“Lilun”).

(23.) Xunzi jijie 2.4.70 (“Rongru” 榮辱‎).

(25.) Xunzi jijie 5.9.164 (“Wangzhi” 王制‎).

(26.) Following the commentary of Yu Yue.

(27.) Xunzi jijie 3.5.78–79 (“Feixiang” 非相‎). Compare Xunzi 10.3a and 19.1c.

(28.) Cf. Yearley, “Xunzi,” 92–101; and Ivanhoe, “Happy Symmetry.”

(31.) These accouterments coincide with the prescriptions in Vestments of Mourning (Sangfu 喪服‎), an ancient document currently found in the canonical collection called Ceremonies and Rites (Yili 儀禮‎), and I supply the explanatory phrase “hatband and waistband” on the basis of that text. Other commentarial explanations of ju zhang 苴杖‎ (“female nettle plant and staff”) strike me as less convincing.

(32.) Xunzi jijie 14.20.379–80 (“Yuelun” 樂論‎).

(33.) This statement is difficult to construe, and there is a conspicuous lack of commentary about it. Shu 術‎ commonly means “technique”; perhaps Xunzi means to say that music (“sounds and tones, movement and quietude”) is a technique for improving the xing and thus fulfilling the Way of Humanity. This would be in line with his general views. But as shu can also mean “to proceed” (it is interchangeable with shu 述‎), I render it here as “progression.”

(34.) The meaning of xi 諰‎ is unclear here.

(35.) Compare Xunzi 22.5a: “All those who say that order depends on eliminating desires have no means of guiding desires, and thus are distressed that they have any desires at all. All those who say that order depends on reducing desires have no means of moderating desires, and thus are distressed that their desires are so many” 凡語治而待去欲者,無以道欲而困於有欲者也。凡語治而待寡欲者,無以節欲而困於多欲者也‎ (Xunzi jijie 16.22.426 [“Zhengming”]).

(36.) Xunzi himself does not provide any examples of disruptive or wholesome compositions. I infer a title like “Let’s Plant in the Autumn and Harvest in the Spring” from the claim that good music should make the people “act in accord with the seasons” 以時順修‎ (below).

(38.) Following the commentaries of Wang Xianqian 王先謙‎ (1842–1917) and Wang Yinzhi.

(39.) Xunzi jijie 14.20.380–81 (“Yuelun”).

(40.) Procedures of the Officials sounds like the title of an authoritative text of some kind. These lines also appear in Xunzi jijie 5.9.167–68 (“Wangzhi”).

(41.) By “Elegantiae” (ya 雅‎) Xunzi may mean either the section of the canonical Odes by that name, or the “elegant” music sanctioned by the Sages—or both, since these alternatives amount to essentially the same thing.

(42.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.318–19 (“Tianlun” 天論‎).

(43.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.306–8 (“Tianlun”).

(p.280) (44.) Or conceivably “for the way [that you have chosen] is such” (qi dao ran 其道然‎).

(45.) For this reason, tian in Xunzi is sometimes construed as akin to natural law and accordingly translated as “nature” or “Nature” (see the evenhanded discussion in David B. Wong, “Xunzi’s Metaethics,” 142–47), but I prefer “Heaven” in order to retain the rhetorical overtones of archaic religion and politics, which postulated a notion of divine-right monarchy by Heaven’s Mandate.

(46.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.311 (“Tianlun”).

(47.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.311 (“Tianlun”).

(49.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.308 and 310–11 (“Tianlun”).

(50.) Xunzi appears to borrow this term from Zhuangzi (see p. 140).

(51.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.317 (“Tianlun”).

(53.) Xunzi jijie 4.8.122 (“Ruxiao” 儒效‎).

(54.) Xunzi jijie 15.21.386 (“Jiebi” 解蔽‎).

(55.) Xunzi jijie 15.21.399–400. For notes on this difficult passage, see Goldin, “Theme of the Primacy of the Situation in Classical Chinese Philosophy and Rhetoric,” 25n72. Compare Xunzi 5.5: “In antiquity and the present day, there is but one measure. Categories do not diverge; however much time has passed, the patterns are the same” 古今一度也。類不悖,雖久同理‎ (Xunzi jijie 3.5.82 [“Feixiang”]).

(56.) Xunzi jijie 16.22.430 (“Zhengming”).

(58.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.313 (“Tianlun”).

(59.) Xunzi’s idea of “human portents” is adumbrated in Mencius 2A.4 and 4A.8, which attribute the same line to Taijia 太甲‎: “When Heaven makes calamities, one can still avoid them, but who makes his own calamities cannot survive” 天作孽,猶可違;‎ 自作孽,不可活‎ (Mengzi zhengyi 7.225 and 14.500). The received Canon of Documents includes a chapter entitled “Taijia,” and this passage is included in it, but the chapter is considered spurious.

(60.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.314 (“Tianlun”).

(61.) I.e.: (1) lack of separation between internal and external, male and female; (2) friction between father and son, superior and inferior; and (3) crime and hardship.

(63.) Xunzi jijie 11.17.316 (“Tianlun”).

(64.) For inquiries into Xunzi’s military thought, see, e.g., Meyer and Wilson, “Sunzi Bingfa as History and Theory,” 106ff.; Lewis, Sanctioned Violence in Early China, 66–67 and 130–31; and Oliver, Communication and Culture in Ancient India and China, 205ff. Lloyd and Sivin, Way and the Word, 66, write that the supposed debate is really “a form of entertainment for courtiers,” a judgment influenced by the structure of the chapter (but no other evidence).

(p.281) (65.) This point evidently escaped Needham and Gawlikowski, “Chinese Literature on the Art of War,” 65, who referred to this chapter as Xunzi’s own account of the debate.

(66.) Scholars disagree over Xunzi’s dates. Knoblock, Xunzi, 1:1–35, argues for ca. 310–ca. 210 BC.

(67.) The surname Sun (i.e., instead of Xun) may have been used to avoid the taboo-name of Emperor Xuan of the Han 漢宣帝‎ (r. 76–48 BC), who changed his personal name to Xun 詢‎ in 64 BC. This suggestion is disputed—but if it is true, the consequence would have to be that someone (perhaps Liu Xiang) had a hand in editing the “Yibing” chapter after 64 BC. See Knoblock, Xunzi, 1:233–39.

(68.) Xunzi jijie 10.15.266 (“Yibing”).

(70.) Xunzi jijie 10.15.269 (“Yibing”).

(77.) Xunzi jijie 16.22.420 (“Zhengming”).

(78.) Xunzi jijie 16.22.422 (“Zhengming”).

(79.) Xunzi jijie 3.6.94 (“Fei shi’er zi” 非十二子‎).

(80.) Xunzi jijie 16.22.414 (“Zhengming”).

(81.) Following the commentary of Wang Niansun.

(82.) Following the commentary of Yang Liang.

(83.) Xunzi jijie 16.22.415–16 (“Zhengming”).

(85.) Xunzi jijie 16.22.423 (“Zhengming”).

(86.) On the technical term shi 實‎, see Graham, Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science, 196–99.

(89.) Zhuangzi jishi 1B.2.112 (“Qiwu lun”).

(90.) Following the commentary of Hao Yixing 郝懿行‎ (1757–1825).

(93.) Xunzi jijie 16.22.412 (“Zhengming”).

(95.) Though they are homophones in Modern Mandarin, li 理‎ (Old Chinese *mə. rəʔ), “pattern,” and li 禮‎ (*rˤijʔ), “ritual,” had different Old Chinese vowels and are unrelated. Speakers of later forms of Chinese sometimes tried to connect them, however; e.g., Wang Shouren, Wang Yangming quanji, 7.271 (Liji zuanyan xu 禮記纂言序‎): Li is li 禮也者,理也‎.

(p.282) (96.) For thoughts on whether this constitutes a mind-body problem, see Goldin, “Mind-Body Problem in the Zhuangzi?,” 235–36.

(98.) Cf. Goldin, Rituals of the Way, 16–17. For similar analogies (the heart-mind is to the person as the lord is to the state) in Guanzi, see Guanzi jiaozhu 11.31.583 (“Junchen xia” 君臣下‎), 13.36.759 (“Xinshu shang” 心術上‎), and 17.52.988 (“Qichen qizhu” 七臣七主‎). Also two general studies: Raphals, “Body and Mind in Early China and Greece,” 148–51; and Wang Jianwen, “Guojun yiti,” 251ff.