The inexorable decline of the Chou Dynasty, signalled by the Warring States period, was accompanied by the collapse of the old feudal structure knit together by a host of interconnected religious and social rituals. Freedom from the forms of the past manifested in rapid economic growth and sceptical secular attitudes. A 'hundred schools' of thought arose, each seeking to provide a basis for social and political life and each trying to gain the adherence of rulers and governments. Mencius understood the fluidity of the times and reformulated Confucian ideals in ways that could secure the loyalties of people who found themselves increasingly free but rootless. His younger contemporary, Hsun Tzu, found China in a virtual intellectual and social maelstrom, which threatened to undermine its spiritual vision and moral solidarity. Abandoning the aphoristic literary conventions of older writers, Hsun Tzu explained Confucian teachings systematically, linking general philosophical understanding to concrete social necessities. Needing for the first time in history to clarify Confucian views amidst many schools of thought which rejected them, he laid the foundations upon which all subsequent Confucian thought was built.
Hsun Tzu's life passed unrecorded by history or legend. He was born Hsun K'uang around 312 B.C.E. in the state of Chao (in present-day Shansi province) into a minor noble family whose economic fortunes had already waned. He gained a sound education in the Chinese classics, but he also nurtured a remarkably astute awareness of the mercurial forces at work throughout Chinese culture – in technology, economics, agronomy, politics, society and religion. Whilst he welcomed many of the changes he witnessed, he was concerned that norms and values were decaying just when they were most needed. Cultural continuity as preserved in li, the social and religious rituals which expressed deep moral and spiritual values, was threatened, and yet it was essential to a creative transformation of society. Without that continuity, Hsun Tzu said, the progress of society would decay into barbarism, selfishness and violence. Before he entered the public arena, he spent years observing and reflecting upon human society, and he reformulated Confucian thought in ways which exemplified fidelity to the tradition and spoke to the emerging society. Unlike his predecessors, he did not travel very much, though he visited the three major states – Ch'i, Ch'in and Ch'u – and died in one of them.
Hsun Tzu visited Ch'i, probably by invitation, sometime around 264 B.C.E. Chi-hsia had become a great centre of learning in Ch'i, whose rulers honoured and supported scholars and gave them freedom to pursue their work. Hsun Tzu was already revered as a great thinker, for he was invited to preside three times at special court ceremonies which were reserved for scholars of the highest distinction. During this period, Hsun Tzu also visited Ch'in briefly, where he debated military issues before the king. In 255 he journeyed to Ch'u, where the prime minister appointed him chief magistrate of Lan-ling, a region in Shantung. He served in that post until 237, when he retired, remaining in Lan-ling until his death. Perhaps he lived long enough to witness the reunification of China under the first Ch'in emperor in 221.
Hsun Tzu's life and subsequent influence are riddled with ironies. Although he taught a large number of disciples, the two most famous of them brought discredit upon their teacher. Han Fei Tzu became a leading exponent of the Legalist school, which was strongly anti-Confucian in its views, and Li Ssu became the statesman who most helped the first Ch'in emperor to unify China, rejecting many Confucian views in the process. Because Hsun Tzu differed with Mencius regarding human nature, when Mencius came to be recognized as the second founder of the Confucian tradition, Hsun Tzu was ignored as heterodox. Yet his systematic expositions constituted the core of the later tradition which shunned him. Even though his writings were unread for several centuries, they are the best preserved of all ancient Chinese philosophical works, so that most scholars see his own hand throughout the treatises ascribed to him. In modern times, thinkers have honoured him as one of the truly seminal thinkers who deeply influenced Chinese life and culture over the last two millennia.
Since Hsun Tzu did not discuss his own writing, the first mention of the Hsun Tzu, the work ascribed to him, was by Liu Hsiang, a Han court scholar who examined three hundred and twenty-two p 'jen or bundles of bamboo writing slips, and organized them into the existing text of thirty-two sections. A collection of poems known to have been his was lost, save for a small section included in the Hsun Tzu. Unlike other ancient works, no commentaries were written on the Hsun Tzu until 818 C.E., and this edition survives into the present. Throughout his writings, Hsun Tzu enunciated fundamental principles which he linked to social and political life, providing threads to maintain continuity in consciousness and civilization in the midst of rapid and often precarious change.
Mencius and Hsun Tzu rooted their Confucian perspectives in divergent conceptions of human nature. This difference led them to alternative formulations of their views, suggesting a contrast greater than may have been the case. Mencius attempted to isolate what is distinctive in human nature, and so he excluded desires because they are common to both men and beasts. The most fundamental moral tendencies, he taught, abide in the heart, hsin, but often are not allowed to express themselves because of habits learnt while growing up and assimilated so thoroughly as to be indistinguishable from the heart, save when one is caught suddenly unawares. These habits need to be attenuated through the conscious effort to think with the heart, and the chief function of education is to nurture such thinking. From this standpoint, human nature is essentially good and needs to be freed from the prison-house of narrowly self-serving habits.
Hsun Tzu's approach to human nature was to delineate not what is unique to it but what is inseparable from it. Within human nature, he said, are potentials which manifest as desires when stimulated by external objects and events. If a human being were to allow these desires to manifest unchecked, the result would be inevitable and irresolvable conflict. On the one hand, the scarcity of some resources and goods would lead to conflict, because the unrestrained desires of human beings could not be quenched by them. On the other hand, even when there is a plenitude of whatever is desired, conflict arises because two people can come to desire the same particular object or state of affairs at the same time. Since desires arise from human nature and lead to inevitable conflict, and since conflict is without exception evil, Hsun Tzu taught that human nature is evil. It can be made good, however, by setting out clearly defined moral principles which include a specification of each individual's entitlement. When these principles are understood, people become habituated to them and restrain their desires.
This resolution of inevitable conflicts is possible, Hsun Tzu thought, not because the heart is inherently good, but because it has a particular function. Desires cannot be eliminated without destroying human nature itself, since as potentials they are inseparably a part of it. But the heart can distinguish between desiring something and seeking to attain it. Once proper moral education makes clear that certain desires are impossible of fulfilment – which habituation does – then the heart restrains itself by not seeking unattainable things even though it continues to desire them. Similarly, moral habituation can lead an individual to seek that which he does not in fact desire. Thus human nature can be made good through moral training. In his essay on the subject, Hsun Tzu stated his view simply:
Hsun Tzu did not think that society could provide the moral education needed to perfect human nature, because a society at any given time reflects the wide-ranging moral and spiritual attainments of all its people, bad as well as good. A teacher, who understands the ambiguous mirror of society and the frailties and inclinations of a particular student, can provide precise moral training, at once guiding the student in realizing his potential for the good and lending support to the improvement of the entire social order through training individuals. Although disciples came to make a great deal out of the differences in the teachings of Hsun Tzu and Mencius, serious thinkers noted that they were united in their convictions that human beings need moral education to become good and that, with such education, every human being is potentially capable, in principle, of becoming a sage, even if few approach that exalted ideal.
The Sage's proper place in the social order is not only that of teacher, but even more that of a ruler. Because he can discern the correct ethical relationships involved in every aspect of society, he alone can order the state in a fundamental moral way which secures peace and ensures prosperity. If Hsun Tzu's conception of human nature is sobering, his view of its possibilities is bright and shimmering. Yet he was well aware that the warring states of his day were not ruled by Sages. Whilst he depicted the ideal society in terms of the Golden Age of the past, when Kings Wei and Wu ruled, he did not leave his vision in a vacuum, to be appreciated and ignored. Breaking with Confucian tradition, he named rulers closer in time to his own period as exemplars of kingship, thereby tying down his views to widely accepted historical models. And, he held, if rulers emulated such exemplars, a moral vitality would so suffuse the social order that true Sages would once again appear. For Hsun Tzu, the Golden Age ideal is not an unattainable goal: it is a reality waiting to be called forth. Like Mencius, Hsun Tzu called for the abolition of hereditary rights to governmental offices because they blocked the rise of the morally meritorious. Even more than Mencius, however, Hsun Tzu rejected the feudal system in calling for the end of all hereditary titles.
Since he thought that a fundamentally reordered society was an attainable goal, he did not follow his Confucian contemporaries in rejecting the usefulness of the pa, the overlord or dictator whose throne was based on military and political conquest. Such men ruled the Chinese states in his day, and Hsun Tzu noted differences between them. Although the state of Ch'in had achieved ascendancy through harsh and repugnant means, its military and economic accomplishments could not be ignored. In fact, Hsun Tzu might have lived long enough to see Ch'in unite all of China and give its name to the result. For Hsun Tzu, the pa possessed neither the virtue to uplift society morally nor the sanction of the people. Nonetheless, a pa could provide the military protection, general social stability and economic prosperity which allows deeper collective concerns to emerge. So, rather than merely preaching uncompromising social and moral reform, Hsun Tzu taught and wrote a great deal about becoming a successful pa, a dictator who provided the stable foundations which could allow moral reform by true teachers to commence.
Hsun Tzu taught that the Mandate of Heaven, ming, was ex pressed through the support of the people. A pa might seize a throne or a king ascend it, but rule depended ultimately on popular support, even if that support were grudging and passive. He likened the ruler to a boat and the people to the sea, which can rise up, toss the boat about and capsize it. Legitimacy of rule is embodied in the support of the people. For Hsun Tzu, the politically astute pa cannot help but be aware that his survival depends on eliciting popular approval, and this realization involves the recognition that rulership involves moral responsibility. In teaching the pa how to rule successfully, even though his motives for doing so might be raw self-interest and the crudest kind of selfishness, the pa must honour the basis of true moral reform and collective welfare.
Hsun Tzu believed that at least some moral corruption in the social order could be traced directly to superstitions which infect religion and psychology. To him, worship of the ancestors, fear of ghosts and invocations of supernatural spheres through ceremonies of divination were all too often merely ways of manipulating circumstances and other people. He did not deny the invisible world or the possibility of transcendence – after all, the Sage transcends human nature as ordinarily understood. Rather, he condemned involvement in them, because it was mostly an attempt to shirk responsibility in the human world which can be changed and improved. He condemned magical practices, not because they were illusory or ineffective, but because most people got involved in them only for dark and selfish purposes. Religious ceremonies were permissible, he said, only to the extent that they reaffirmed human interdependence and social solidarity, but were to be outlawed when the goals were power and salvation. The shen, demons of various kinds, are to be denied because invoking and propitiating them are only ways of trying to manipulate circumstances rather than altering them by getting to fundamental causes. When Hsun Tzu used the word shen, he referred to that moral excellence which could become the presiding spirit of a well-ordered society.
The heart of Hsun Tzu's teaching is education, especially moral education and training in those social graces which reflect good moral taste.
For Hsun Tzu, learning is gradual and incremental, and though it begins in the classics, it never ceases. True civilization is moral and spiritual in nature and it is nurtured through lifelong learning.