Xunzi Develops Teachings That Lead to Legalism

Xunzi, a major scholar, rejected many tenets of Confucianism, creating a philosophy that, in the hands of his students, became Legalism.

Summary of Event

Xunzi was born in the state of Zhao (Chao) during the Warring States Period (475-221 b.c.e.). He was extremely gifted intellectually and studied at the Jixia Academy in Qi (Ch’i), the intellectual center at the time. He traveled to different states, eventually became a great scholar, and rose to official posts, including that of magistrate. Xunzi
Li Si

Xunzi developed his philosophical theories in a logical manner in the Xunzi (compiled c. 285-c. 255 b.c.e.; The Works of Hsuntze, 1928; commonly known as Xunzi), a book of some thirty-two chapters. These might be regarded as the first collection of philosophical essays in China, as distinct from fragments (analects) or records of conversations.

According to the Xunzi, human nature is bad. Human nature is such that people are born with a love of profit. If they follow this inclination, they will struggle and take things from each other, and they will drive out less dominant inclinations, such as to defer or yield. People are born with fears and hatreds. If they follow them, they will become violent, and any tendencies they have toward good faith will disappear. Similarly, people are born with sensory desires that draw them to pleasant sounds and sights. If they indulge in these desires, the result will be the disorder of sexual license, and ritual and moral principles will be lost. In other words, if people act in accord with human nature and follow their desires, they inevitably end up struggling, taking things, violating norms, and acting with violent abandon. Consequently, only after people are transformed by teachers and by ritual and moral principles do they defer, conform to culture, and abide in good order.

In spite of his gloomy view of humanity’s original nature, Xunzi believed that people could be improved through education and through application of the proper rules of conduct. He also believed that heaven is not a realm of mystical forces embodying ethical principles (the Confucian philosopher Mencius’s view) but is part of the realm of nature, indifferent to humans.

Xunzi was a major scholar who bridged Confucianism and Legalism. He lived at a pivotal time in Chinese history that produced some truly profound thinkers. What is more, he had the advantage of being taught by a number of these people at a prestigious learning academy that had access to the doctrines of numerous schools of thought. Xunzi was in a position to build on and integrate the ideas of numerous thinkers, adopting their strengths and correcting or discarding their weaknesses. He is believed to have died c. 235 b.c.e., but some scholars such as John Knoblock think that the philosopher died around 220 b.c.e.

By his teaching and writing, Xunzi established a strong reputation that ultimately brought him such talented students as Hanfeizi and Li Si. His students developed Legalism, which is very different from the earlier philosophy of Confucianism, named after its founder Confucius (Kongfuzi, K’ung-Fu-Tzu; c. 551-479 b.c.e.). Although the name given to the last classical school of philosophy developed before the Qin Dynasty is translated as Legalism, the philosophy has little to do with jurisprudence per se. The central idea of this school of political philosophy is the supremacy of authority and centralization of power in the person of the ruler.

Most of the major tenets of the Legalists were fully developed and formulated between 380 and 230 b.c.e., during the late Warring States Period. Legalists were noted for their unabashed insistence on the total subordination of the people to the ruler. Whereas Confucianism made verbal concessions to the interest of the people and justified the authority of the sovereign as ensuring the welfare of the people, the Legalists explicitly treat the people as a means for the glorification of the ruler. They were called the Legalist school because of their insistence on the importance of law as a major tool of the ruler to maintain his authority and power. In contrast to the Confucians, who emphasized rituals, ethics, and education, the Legalists stressed the role of force and punishment.

Ironically, a number of Legalists died as the result of severe punishment. The early Legalist Shang Yang (d. c. 337 b.c.e.) implemented a series of reforms that brought about fundamental changes in social and political institutions designed to strengthen the state and to enhance the authority of the sovereign. The reforms stripped the nobles of many privileges and incurred the hatred of the aristocracy and the prince regent. After the old Qin lord died, Shang was executed by the new ruler. Two of Xunzi’s students, Hanfeizi and Li Si, also met similar fates.

Hanfeizi, probably the greatest Legalist, developed the philosophy of Legalism further by elevating law to a position of supreme importance in governing human affairs. According to Hanfeizi, a victory in the competition among states depends on having the greatest force. The ruler who has great force will be paid tribute by others, and the ruler who has less force will pay tribute to others; therefore, the wise ruler cultivates force. The fifty-five-chapter work Hanfeizi (traditionally later half of third century b.c.e., probably compiled c. 235-c. 160 b.c.e.; The Complete Works of Han Fei Tzu: A Classic of Chinese Legalism, 1939-1959, 2 vols.; commonly known as Hanfeizi) is the work of Hanfeizi and later Han Dynasty Legalists.

Xunzi’s other prominent student, Li Si, was more a practitioner than a scholar of Legalism. Li Si once offered his teacher Xunzi a position serving in the Qin court, but Xunzi declined the offer. Li Si was engaged in a rivalry with fellow student Hanfeizi, and when Li Si felt that his former schoolmate might be elevated above him by the Qin king, Li Si convinced the king that Hanfeizi posed a danger to the Qin state and had him arrested. Then Li Si had poison sent to Hanfeizi and persuaded him to commit suicide in prison.

Li Si played a very important role in helping the state of Qin defeat six other states to create the first united Chinese dynasty in 221 b.c.e. As prime minister under Shi Huangdi, the first Qin emperor, Li Si was responsible for initiating some important Legalistic reforms that had a decisive effect on the building of institutions and the bureaucracy in the Chinese empire. He was a pivotal force in Shi Huangdi’s decision to abolish feudal fiefs and replace the aristocracy by an appointed, nonhereditary bureaucracy.

Li Si enabled a junior son of the Qin emperor to acquire the throne by illegitimate means. In the second year of the second Qin emperor, Li Si himself became a victim of court intrigue and was falsely accused of plotting treason. He was executed by the consorted five corporal punishments, the cruelest form of execution devised by the Legalists.


Xunzi’s theory of the inherent evil of human nature must have made a great impression on his Legalist disciples. Xunzi’s insistence on decorum was a bridge from Confucian decorum to Legalist law, because law can be regarded as an extension of decorum in that it adds norms and a coercive element to decorum. It could be argued that the Legalists share some important ideas with the Confucians: the ideal of one unified world under the supreme authority of one ruler, the centralization of political power, a hierarchical social order, and the treatment of law as a natural extension of decorum.

Xunzi emphasized the multiple functions of decorum to such an extent that his concept of decorum appears to be almost identical to what the Legalists conceived of as law: Decorum is what the ruler uses as legal form to set measures for the conduct of the various ministers. Those who emphasize decorum and respect the virtuous will become kings, and those who stress law and love the people will become hegemonic rulers. It is significant that Xunzi, who emphasized decorum more than any other classical Chinese thinker, was the master of the two eminent Legalists Hanfeizi and Li Si. Like Confucianism, its rival school of thinking, Legalism continues to affect Chinese legal and political thinking today.

Further Reading

  • Ebrey, Patricia. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook. 2d ed. New York: Free Press, 1993. Good introduction to Chinese culture; includes a concise discussion of Xunzi.
  • Goldin, P. R. Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi. Chicago: Open Court, 1999. A summary and analysis of Xunzi’s philosophy with a focus on rituals.
  • Knoblock, John. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works. 3 vols. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988-1994. The most comprehensive and authoritative translation and analysis of Xunzi’s work.
  • Machle, E. J. Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi: A Study of the Tian Lun. Albany: State University Press of New York, 1993. An analysis of the core concept of Tian (heaven) in Xunzi’s thinking.
  • Watson, Burton, trans. Xunzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. A good translation of selected writings by Xunzi.
  • Zhengyuan Fu. China’s Legalists: The Earlier Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996. Examines the key viewpoints of major eminent Legalists including Li Si and Hanfeizi.

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