Hsün-tzu

The Chinese philosopher Hsün-tzu (ca. 312-ca. 235 B.C.) is one of the important early Confucian philosophers. He is famous for his theory that human nature is basically evil.

Hsün-tzu, or Hsün K'uang, is frequently referred to as Hsün Ch'ing. Almost the only information about his life comes from a short biography written by the historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien in the Records of the Historian. It mentions that Hsün-tzu was a native of Chao, a state in modern western Hopei and northern Shansi provinces in north-central China.

The first mention of Hsün-tzu is when, at the age of 50, he arrived in Ch'i, a state in modern Shantung Province. Ch'i by this time had become one of the major centers of learning in China. The ruling family of Ch'i, which had usurped the throne in 386 B.C., was interested in promoting scholarship in order to enhance the state's prestige. They established at the Ch'i capital an academy known as the Chi-hsia and invited the most illustrious scholars of the realm to come and study there. Hsün-tzu arrived in Ch'i around 264, when the Chi-hsia was in decline.

Apparently he left Ch'i several times and visited the western state of Ch'in. After one of these visits, upon his return to Ch'i Hsün-tzu found himself slandered at court, perhaps because of his association with the state of Ch'in, which was one of Ch'i's enemies. Hsün-tzu then traveled south to the state of Ch'u, where the prime minister, the lord of Ch'un-shen, gave him a position as prefect of Lan-ling, a small city-state in southern Shantung. The lord of Ch'un-shen was assassinated in 238, and Hsün-tzu resigned his post. Hsün-tzu remained in Lanling, where he established a school. His students included the philosopher Han Fei Tzu and the future prime minister of Ch'in, Li Ssu. Hsün-tzu died at Lan-ling approximately in the year 235.

Hsün-tzu is attributed with a work originally titled New Writings of Minister Hsün, which in the 9th century was given the current designation, Hsün-tzu. Parts of the book are undoubtedly spurious, but much of the material appears to be an accurate representation of Hsün-tzu's teachings, even if it does not come directly from his hand. Hsün-tzu is important in the history of Chinese thought for his theory that human nature is basically evil and that only through study and moral training can one attain goodness. He placed strong emphasis on rites and music as edifying influences. Hsün-tzu anticipated the later authoritarian Legalists, such as Han Fei Tzu, by stressing the importance of harsh punishment of wrongdoers. He was particularly intolerant of superstitions and attacked a number of the religious observances of his time.

Further Reading on Hsün-tzu

For further information in English on Hsün-tzu's life and ideas see Homer H. Dubs, Hsüntze: The Moulder of Ancient Confucianism (1927). Highly recommended is Burton Watson, Hsün Tzu: Basic Writings (1963).

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