Warp, Weft, and Way

A Group Blog of Chinese and Comparative Philosophy

Mencius or Xunzi?

There’s a lot of emphasis in the Analects on ritual propriety (li 禮). In the Mencius, it’s mentioned as being important but not really emphasized, since any actual rituals are only discussed in passing. In the Xunzi (Hsun Tzu), the rituals hold a very central place in the social program that is to save humans from their own worse selves. Doesn’t Xunzi seem more like the real bearer of Confucius’ mantle than Mencius in this regard? (I know that goes against the traditional hierarchy, but we’re not bound by tradition on this blog.) Any thoughts?


February 1, 2008 - Posted by | Chinese philosophy


  1. Short answer: yes.

    You could say more than that it’s not emphasised in the Mencius: it actually plays no role in the philosophy of that text. It’s addressed from time to time, and gets a nod in the passages about the four hearts (2A/6 and 6A/6), but it never does any real work.

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 1, 2008 | Reply

  2. Not so short answer: I agree, that in this regard, Xunzi *is* “the real bearer of Confucius’ mantle.” And the scholarship, at least that in English, seems increasingly to support that conclusion (or at least lean in that direction) as well. Cf. for example, Paul Goldin’s “Xunzi in the Light of the Guodian Manuscripts,” from his book After Confucius (2005). Goldin argues these remarkable manuscripts suggest an identifiable doctrinal tradition of Confucianism that is “closer to the *Xunzi* than to any other text and indeed anticipate several significant ideas in Xunzi’s philosophy. […] These newfound Confucian texts contain a number of core ideas that distinguish them clearly from Mencian Confucianism and suggest the existence of a vibrant non-Mencian tradition of Confucianism that culminated in Xunzi’s system of moral philosophy.” Still, independent of this discovery and this discrete non-Mencian Confucian “school” or tradition, close textual scrutiny I would think does place Xunzi closer to Confucius than Mencius with regard to li even if, perhpas, li was something the latter might have taken for granted, or set to the side so as to take on arguments from other philosophers, or perhaps he was aware of another incipient or proto-Xunzi tradition preoccupied with li!

    Comment by Patrick S. O'Donnell | February 2, 2008 | Reply

  3. I’d be curious why people think Mencius de-ritualizes the philosophy (for the most part). I wonder if it is due in part to a desire to make the philosophy more timeless and “theory” oriented, but I’m not sure.

    Comment by Chris | February 3, 2008 | Reply

  4. I think Patrick’s right that this is probably an effect of Mencius taking on arguments, mostly of the Mohists. But that only explains a little bit of his neglect of the rituals since one could assert the value of rituals as actually being beneficial–that is Xunzi’s tack, I think, making Xunzi in some ways a consequentialist. I think the role of rituals in Mencius’ thought has to be diminished because their value is secondary to the expression of natural human feeling. That is, the rituals are valuable to the extent that they express accurately the sorts of feelings people have naturally–for example, the burial rites express our natural anxieties about the state of our dead parents’ bodies. Something like that. If that’s the case, then the rituals are not directly instrumentally valuable but can have some value in the expressive role they play. I should have a clearer idea of things than that, given that I publish on Mencius, but I’ve never been quite sure about rituals in Mencius’ thought.

    Comment by Manyul Im | February 3, 2008 | Reply

  5. Manyul,

    If you’re right (and I suspect you are), then it is a desire on Mencius’ part to make the philosophy more “timeless”. Specificially, it seems it would be a desire to locate the relevant components of virtue (say) in human nature. When the rituals match that, great, when they don’t, so much the worse for ritual. So ritual takes the backseat.

    I’m not convinced that Confucius’ own take runs in that direction (in fact I’d say it doesn’t), but as you know the relationship between jen (or yi) and li in the literature is very controversial and complicated to say the least (though extremely interesting as a consequence). My own research work is moving in this direction, actually. I find the whole question very intriguing.

    Comment by Chris | February 3, 2008 | Reply

  6. Chris, I’d say that if anything the Mencius is less theory-oriented than, say, the Xunzi, certainly when it comes to elaborating and defending social and political ideas (and Xunzi has no problem working ritual into some of his most theoretical texts). Another possibility is that Mencius and his followers were too much under the influence of the Mohists to place a great deal of weight on ritual.

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 3, 2008 | Reply

  7. Oops, somehow I didn’t see Manyul’s and Chris’s posts before putting up my own.

    Manyul, the Mohist influence on Mencius and his followers wouldn’t just have been on the sort of arguments they gave; in fact I think they were far more influential on Xunzi in that respect. Their influence on MC is I think more apparent in the idea of benevolent government, and more generally in MC’s concern (which I take at face value) for the material well-being of the people. If, like Xunzi, you start out with a commitment to ritual and you find yourself arguing against consequentialists, then maybe you end up with a consequentialist defense of ritual; but if, possibly like MC, you start out with a commitment to the well-being of the people, I don’t think the obvious next step is to defend the elite ritual tradition.

    Comment by Dan Robins | February 3, 2008 | Reply

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