Xunzi Philosophy And The Early Chinese Secularization


Known for his contribution in Chinese philosophy, Xunzi’s work can be compared to the likes of Aristotle.Most of his work was recognized during the Warring States Period. Xunzi believed that man’s inborn evil tendencies need to be curbed through education, rituals and ethical norms. This takes away the significance of religion which should been formed to rectify mankind. His view on one hand inherits the Confucianism’s tradition that human beings can improve their situation through self reflection and cultivation. On the other hand, it absorbs the Daoism’s idea that Heaven takes no direct action and natural events occur spontaneously. In Gregorianum 50, Joseph Shih argues that “the works of Xunzi should be of current interest today because he promoted the secularization”. In my perspective, Xunzi does make a shift to secularity in early Chinese religious thought by his naturalistic arguments in “Discourse on Heaven”. His emphasizes on the significance of religious form in “Discourse in Ritual” are only forutilitarian or humanity purpose (Berthrong, p. 273).

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The most essential definition of religion I used is close to MirceaEliade who regarded religion as an encounter with the sacred. He proposed the term “hierophany” to designate the act of manifestation of the sacred. Early Chinese believe that Heaven is everywhere and omnipotent owing reference to the Sky-god and the gods of gods. Early Chinese religion states that everything is in its control from rivers to mountains, rain to thunders, spring to winter, sunrise to eclipses, the destiny of the humans and the future of the country. Early Chinese worshiped Heaven with a feeling of dependency making them obligated and having a sense of mystery. Heaven has supreme power which allows the emperorsto seek the privilege to worship and offer sacrifice. This makes people believe in the divine right of the reigning king. Several rulers from Xia Dynasty to Zhou Dynasty gradually built a set of complicated hierarchical rituals with details to control people. This reflects on the use of the desires of “living to the fullest or in close proximity to consecrated objects” (Eliade). The religious system centering on Heaven is engraved in early Chinese’s heart and becomes their inseparable spiritual support (Zhongying, and Bunnin, p. 429).

Xunzi rationalizes early Chinese religious thought by his ingenious quasi-naturalistic arguments. Many aspects of the religion are plausible from our contemporary perspective. Xunzithus presents himself as an atheist. He breaks down superstitions and omens which provide naturalistic explanations for traditional beliefs. The early Chinese were not able to understand the unusual natural phenomenon such as eclipses, shooting stars, comets, and meteors. They interpreted the existence of these features as threats of disasters from Heaven. According to “Discourse on Heaven”, Xunzi repudiates these views stating that “If stars fall or trees cry out, the people of the state are filled with fear and say, ‘What is this?’ I say: It is nothing.” Based on historical records, Xunzi points out that these irregularities in nature are merely one form of changes by natural forces. “These are rarely occurring simple aspects among the changes in Heaven and earth and the transformations of yin and yang.” He mentions in his teachings on how the Chinese should receive the heavenly bodies (Kline and Ivanhoe, p. 272). He states that “to marvel at them is alright, but to fear them is not.” There is also no correlation between “Eclipses of the sun, moon, unseasonable winds, rain, the unexpected appearances of strange stars and the destiny of the state. “If the superiors are benighted and the government is unstable, then even if none of these things come to pass, it is of no benefit.” Here Xunzi exhort the imperators that there is no excessive need to concentrates on asking Heaven for blessings. He showcases his neutralist quality by believing that everything has its inherent laws of nature and is in proper order by invisible and formless accomplishment of Heaven. “The arrayed stars follow each other in their revolutions, the sun and the moon take turns shining, the four seasons proceed in succession, yin and yang undergo their great transformations, and winds and rain are broadly bestowed.” To summarize the quotes, Xunzi undermines the concept of the existence of a sacred lifestyle in the early Chinese. He instead proposes the idea that people should embrace the real world as opposed to relying on Heaven (Lee, p. 135).

Xunzigoes on to disagree with the Mencian notion that Heaven has a moral will. He instead asserts that Heaven is simply the natural world. People should thus focus on the human social realm rather than dealing with Heavenly ideas. He holds the opinion that “the activities of Heaven are constant. They do not persist because of Yao. They do not perish because of Jie”. Heaven does not suspend the winter because human do not like it. Earth does not reduce its abroad expanse because people do not like long distances. The natural world objectively exists independent of human consciousness. Xunzigives an alternative proposal on the idea that Heaven and man have distinct roles. He makes his point through the illustration of this concept by comparing the gentleman who reveres what lies within his power and does not long for what lies with Heaven with pretty man who forsakes what lies within his power and longs for what lies with Heaven. Xunzihowever does not mean that Heaven and Man are separated from each other, disjointed or alienated (Berthrong, p. 278). He suggests that human should nourish things and oversee them rather than to exalt Heaven and long for it. Overseeing what Heaven has mandated and using it rather than obey it; praise it rather than long for things and appraise them.People should order things and never lose focus on their choice. He concludes that “if one rejects what lies with man and instead longs for what lies with Heaven, then one will have lost grasp of the true disposition of things.” Consequently,Xunzi points out prosperity, fortune, adversity and misfortune which form essential part of religious thought of early Chinese religion. These elements result not from the invariable process of nature but from their own subjective capacity and activities (Kline and Ivanhoe, p. 268).

Xunzi’s emphasis on rite or ceremony is because of utilitarian or humanity purpose. Human nature lacks an innate moral compass and left to itself fall into is chaos and anarchy if human simply follow their desires. To reform humanity’s original nature, Xunzi believes that ritual as an integral part of a stable society is crucial because it clarifies and enforces social distinctions. This will bring an end to contention for limited resources and improve social order which will in turn, ensure greater prosperity. The ritual tradition not only emphasized reciprocal obligations between people of different status.It had extremely precise regulations concerning who was allowed to own what kind of luxuries. Although rite or ceremony could be considered as religious form and Xunzi reiterates their significance, he gives them new meaning. When he mentions that “the sacrificial rites are the refined expression of remembrance and longing. They are the utmost in loyalty, trustworthiness, love, and respect. They are the fullest manifestation of rituals, proper regulation, good form, and proper appearance.” In Xunzi’s view, sacrificial rites represent humanity not superstitions (Lee, p. 139). He criticizes the common people “regard them as serving the ghosts and praises the sage “clearly understands the meaning of the ceremonies”. As for other ceremonies like the rain, sacrifice or divination on national affairs, Xunzi directly points out that the nature of religion is served for the politics.It is merely the way that imperators master people. With or without the rain sacrifice, it will rain anyway. Divination is not for the sake of getting what one seeks but rather to give things proper form. At the early times when the superstitious beliefs and traditional religions are popular, Xunzi shows his thoughts of humanism that he dares to deny the theological bases of religion, changing Dao of God to the Dao of Man. He asserts that “the gentleman looks upon [divination] as proper form, but the common people look upon [divination] as connecting with spirits” (Lai, p. 209).

In conclusion, by interpreting religion in ways of science, philosophy or traditions, Xunzi’s view is logical and persuasive and brings dramatic impact on early Chinese religious thought making his metaphysical in nature. However, its dogma does not support the basements of the imperial hierarchy. His thoughts are later considered to be outside of Confucian orthodoxy and not to be accepted by the mainstream afterward.




Works cited

Berthrong, John. Expanding Process: Exploring Philosophical and Theological Transformations in China and the West. State Univ of New York Pr, 2009. Print.

Cheng, Zhongying, and Nicholas Bunnin.Contemporary Chinese Philosophy. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. Print.

Kline, T C, and P J. Ivanhoe.Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub, 2000. Print.

Lai, Karyn. Learning from Chinese Philosophies: Ethics of Interdependent and Contextualised Self. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006. Print.

Lee, Janghee. Xunzi and Early Chinese Naturalism. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 2005. Print.


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