Xunzi’s Take on Ritual: Part 2

Here’s the second part of my presentation for the Society of Scholar Priests. Part 1 introduces Xunzi as a pre-modern person interested in how ritual practice forms virtue; part 2 is here, part 3 is looking at classical Anglican liturgy with Xunzi’s thoughts in mind.

(Production on the next Liturgical Look Forward is running behind, but it should be up at some point today…)


I’m going to abstract out of Xunzi’s thought four big picture points.

  1. Human nature is bad; because it’s bad it must be corrected by means of external tools following an external pattern.

  2. The efficacy of ritual lies chiefly in its ability to channel emotion and shape affect.

  3. Ritual is essential, but for ritual to be most effective requires teachers.

  4. Ritual creates a harmonious society by inculcating proper relationships


1. Human nature is bad; because it’s bad it must be corrected by means of external tools following an external pattern.

Mengzi—a Confucian teacher in the previous generation—teaches that human nature is good. Since it’s good, in order to know what is good, we simply have to look within ourselves. Goodness is inate. While our good nature may be corrupted by society or through some other problem, it’s always there and its development is a natural process. Thus, meditation and introspection are key tools for forming the virtues because they enable us to look inwardly and tap into that inherent good nature. As a result, Mengzi can use the metaphor of growth. So, seeds of virtue within human nature will naturally grow. It’s one-directional process and there’s a certain natural inevitability to it. Just like a plant, if human nature is given what it needs and is not interfered with, virtue is going to grow. So, Mengzi can use agricultural metaphors.

Xunzi doesn’t. He’s deliberately setting himself up against Mengzi and he uses no agricultural metaphors for the human spirit or for the acquisition of virtue. Instead of being agricultural, all of his metaphors are about crafts; they’re technological. A piece of clay is never inherently going to become a pot. If you don’t do anything to it, it’s just going to sit there.  In the same way a piece of wood is never going to spontaneously turn into a wheel. Instead, it requires an artisan to steam the wood and use a jig to shape and bend it into a new configuration. These are the metaphors he employs before turning to the construction of virtue within humans.

Someone may ask: if man’s nature is evil, then where do ritual principles come from? I would reply: all ritual principles are produced by the conscious activity of the sages; essentially they are not products of man’s nature. A potter molds clay and makes a vessel, but the vessel is the product of the conscious activity of the potter, not essentially a product of his human nature. A carpenter carves a piece of wood and makes a utensil, but the utensil is the product of the conscious activity of the carpenter, not essentially a product of his human nature. The sage gathers together his thoughts and ideas, experiments with various forms of conscious activity, and so produces ritual principles and sets forth laws and regulations. Hence, these ritual principles and laws are the products of the conscious activity of the sage, not essentially products of his human nature. (Burton, 160)

[All quotations come from Burton Watson’s translation of sections of the Xunzi whom he romanizes as Hsun Tzu]

So—there are two external things at work here. There is the tool and then there’s the pattern. So, there’s the means by which character is shaped, then there’s the pattern of what you’re trying to shape it to. So where do these come from? This is directly related to the question that Lizette Larson-Miller raised in her talk: if liturgy is primary theology, where does liturgy come from? What’s it’s initial source? Xunzi invokes the sage kings of antiquity and points to the rites handed down in the traditional documents:

In ancient times the sage kings realized that man’s nature is evil, and that therefore he inclines toward evil and violence and is not upright or orderly. Accordingly they created ritual principles and laid down certain regulations in order to reform man’s emotional nature and make it upright, in order to train and transform it and guide it into the proper channels. In this way they caused all men to become orderly and conform to the Way. (158)

Well, ok, great—but where did the principles come from?

The former kings looked up and took their model from heaven, looked  down and took their model from the earth, looked about and took their rules from mankind. Such rules represent the ultimate principle of community harmony and unity. (107-108)

Xunzi is invoking a received pattern here. The Five Classics refer to a triad between heaven, earth, and humanity. Each of these has a Way, a Dao. As far as the Daoists—like Laozi and Zhuangzi–were concerned, these three ways are interwoven into one great unnameable indescribable Dao and human virtue consists of cooperating with and conforming one’s life to the Dao of heaven and earth. You align your pattern with the cosmic pattern. Xunzi says, no, that’s not going to work—because if you look at heaven and earth, things aren’t perfect, orderly, and harmonious. The natural world has lots and lots of disorder in it. So as far as he’s concerned, you can extract some principles of right living by the observation of heaven and earth, but humans are the ones who bring order to both heaven and earth. Our job isn’t to passively float along accord to their Dao; instead, we need to discern the patterns, figure out how order needs to be brought, then to accomplish it. Thus the first job of the sage kings is to ask—what’s the cosmic pattern supposed to look like. Where is it orderly and harmonious, and where is it not? What are the patterns that do work? So—from that work of observation the sage kings figure out what the patterns of humanity are supposed to look like.

Next, the tools. Then they abstracted from that big-picture goal what rites and rituals and ceremonies are needed to do the work of shaping people to create virtue. Ok—so how do they figure this out? Here we get to Xunzi’s anthropological principles and to his functional approach to ritual and that leads to our second point:


2. The efficacy of ritual lies chiefly in its ability to channel emotion and shape affect.

Emotion is at the heart of Xunzi’s anthropology: “The basic nature of man is that which he receives from Heaven. The emotions are the substance of the nature and the desires are the responses of the emotions” (151).So, Xunzi sees us principally as emotional beings. We act out of our emotions and our emotions give rise to our desires. Alright so what’s the problem here? Well—here’s where we get to why he says human nature is bad:

Hence any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal. Therefore, man must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles, and only then will he be able to observe the dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the forms and rules of society, and achieve order. (157)

So, this is where I’m going to qualify his language a bit. When Xunzi says that human nature is bad, a precise way to frame it is that human nature is inherently anti-social because our tendency is to follow our desires regardless of the consequences for ourselves or for anyone else around us. That’s our nature: we’re selfish and will live a disordered existence in order to satisfy these desires.

[In many ways, I see his perspective as parallel with an Augustinian post-lapsarian anthropology: while humanity is created good in the image of God, the corruption of Original Sin does make us inherently selfish and disordered—a condition from which we need to be redeemed. Obviously, we and Xunzi disagree on how that redemption happens!]

What do we do about desire? Well, some philosophies said that desires can be extinguished—whether through force of will or meditative training, desire can be stopped. Xunzi had a very clear teaching on this point: “Beings that possess desire and those that do not belong to two different categories— the living and the dead” (150). Desire is not the kind of thing that can be extinguished. Instead, it can be channeled and directed and modulated:

What is the origin of ritual? I reply: man is born with desires. If his desires are not satisfied for him, he cannot but seek some means to satisfy them himself. If there are no limits and degrees to his seeking, then he will inevitably fall to wrangling with other men. From wrangling comes disorder and from disorder comes exhaustion. The ancient kings hated such disorder, and therefore they established ritual principles in order to curb it, to train men’s desires and to provide for their satisfaction. They saw to it that desires did not overextend the means for their satisfaction, and material goods did not fall short of what was desired. Thus both desires and goods were looked after and satisfied. This is the origin of rites. (89)

If the people have emotions of love and hatred, but no ways to express their joy or anger, then they will become disordered. Because the former kings hated such disorder, they reformed the actions of the people and created proper music for them, and as a result the world became obedient. (115)

Music and ritual, then, are the means by which emotions are channeled and expressed in appropriate ways. They take the urges that are going to arise in humans naturally, but they place boundaries and limits on them. He points in particular to the way that burial and mourning rituals function:

Rites trim away what is too long and stretch out what is too short; eliminate surplus and repair deficiency. Extend the forms of love and reverence, and step by step bring to fulfilment the beauties of proper conduct Beauty and ugliness, music and weeping, joy and sorrow are opposites, and yet rites make use of them all, bringing forth and employing each in its turn. (100)

So—rites and music don’t suppress feeling, they direct it. They guide it. Sometimes they may need to temper it, but Xunzi’s starting place is with humans as emotional animals whose responses and anti-social tendencies can be remedied by means of ritual patterns that can model and inculcate proper desires and proper social relationships.

3. Ritual is essential, but for ritual to be most effective requires teachers. 

So—rites are essential. But, they are not self-evident. They can lead individuals in certain directions but are going to be less efficacious if they are not fully understood. You can’t just be self-reflective. You can’t look into yourself and figure out they are or aren’t working because the principles are external to you. You need a teacher to get the most out of them. Here’s the long version:

In learning, nothing is more profitable than to associate with those who are learned. Ritual and music present us with models but no explanations; the Odes and Documents deal with ancient matters and are not always pertinent; the Spring and Autumn Annals are terse and cannot be quickly understood. But if you make use of the erudition of others and the explanations of gentlemen, then you will become honored and may make your way anywhere in the world. Therefore I say that in learning nothing is more profitable than to associate with those who are learned, and of the roads to learning, none is quicker than to love such men. Second only to this is to honor ritual. If you are first of all unable to love such men and secondly are incapable of honoring ritual, then you will only | be learning a mass of jumbled facts, blindly following the Odes and Documents, and nothing more. In such a case you may study to the end of your days and you will never be anything but a vulgar pedant. If you want to become like the former kings and seek out benevolence and righteousness, then ritual is the very road by which you must travel. (20-21)

Learning by itself is no guarantee of virtue. You’ve got to have a teacher. Here’s the short version:

Ritual is the means by which to rectify yourself; the teacher is the means by which the ritual is rectified. If you are without ritual, how can you rectify yourself? If you have no teacher, how can you understand the fitness of ritual? If you unerringly do as ritual prescribes, it means that your emotions have found rest in ritual. If you speak as your teacher speaks, it means that your understanding has become like that of your teacher. If your emotions find rest in ritual and your understanding is like that of your teacher, then you have become like a sage. Hence to reject ritual is to be without law and to reject your teacher is to be without a guide. . . . Therefore learning means learning to regard ritual as your law. The teacher makes himself the standard of proper conduct and values that in himself which finds rest in ritual. (30)

4. Ritual creates a harmonious society by inculcating proper relationships 

Confucian thought is not modern Western thought. It is not egalitarian. Instead it is inherently hierarchical and, indeed, hierarchy is very much seen as a good thing. Kongzi [aka Confucius) himself laid out five fundamental relationships between unequals that must be kept in correct relationship in order to ensure the smooth functioning of society. Xunzi insists that the correct relationships are embedded within ritual:

Heaven and earth are the beginning of life, ritual principles are the beginning of order, and the gentleman is the beginning of ritual principles. Acting on them, practicing them, guarding them, and loving them more than anything else—this is the beginning of the gentleman. Therefore Heaven and earth produce the gentleman and the gentleman brings order to Heaven and earth. The gentleman forms a triad with Heaven and earth; he is the controller of all things, the father and mother of the people. Without the gentleman, Heaven and earth will lack order and ritual principles will lack unity. There will be no true ruler or leader above, no true father or son below. This is what is called the extreme of chaos. The correct relationships between ruler and subject, father and son, elder and younger brother, and husband and wife begin and are carried through to the end, end and begin again. They share the order of Heaven and earth, they last for ten thousand generations. They are what is called the great foundation. The rules that govern mourning and sacrificial rites and the ceremonies of the court and the army are based upon this single foundation.  (44-45)

Men, once born, must organize themselves into a society. But if they form a society without hierarchical divisions, then there will be quarreling. . . . This is why I say that ritual principles must not be neglected even for a moment. He who can follow them in serving his parents is called filial; he who can follow them in serving his elder brothers is called brotherly. He who can follow them in serving his superiors is called obedient; he who can follow them in employing his inferiors is called a ruler. (46)

The patterns in ritual lay out the social scripts for how one is supposed to behave towards those arrayed around you in social relationships. If we live into the ritual then we will be taught the proper kinds of actions and the proper kinds of attitudes that we should use for people all of the way up and down the social scale. This happens most powerfully in full scale, whole community ritual activities.

Most of the time that Xunzi talks about ritual it’s rather generic and in passing. There are only a few specific rites that he goes into detail on. Otherwise he just assumes that we’re familiar with the ritual environment of 3rd century BC China. The two he does dig into in detail have very specific social hierarchy connects. One is burial and mourning rites for parents, the other is a community feast that takes place at a village school. He describes how the host treats the guest of honor, and then how all of the people in attendance are served. He ends his description of it and summarizes the ceremony like this:

When the distinction between eminent and humble is made clear, when the complexity or | simplicity of the ritual is adjusted to distinctions of rank, when there is harmonious pleasure without abandoned behavior, drinking according to distinctions of age but with no one left out, and drinking and feasting without disorder—when these five types of conduct are achieved, they will be sufficient to insure moral training to the individual and peace to the state, and when the state is peaceful, the world will be peaceful. (119-120)

I find this significant. His ideal ceremony for describing what a well-ordered society looks like and how a well-ordered society is formed in the first place is a community feast where everything is done in good order and where no one is left out. It’s really hard for me to read this and not to make the move to the Eucharist! So—let’s go ahead and do that. Let’s move away from Classical China and move into Classical Anglicanism. After making one over-arching concluding point.

For Xunzi, ritual is about moral formation, virtue acquisition, through training a new habitus formed in and through ritual action. Even though there’s a lot of talk about learning, and a teacher is essential to get the deepest meaning out of ritual patterns, the most important thing about ritual is to do it and to gain a new way of being through ritual action. We perform our way into virtue. We don’t think it. Our emotions are trained and modulated and the affections are shaped. This is an incarnate and incarnational process. We’ve mentioned muscle memory several times across presentations. And here it is again. The renewing and redirection of desire is trained through ritual participation and the way we relate to one another is formed through deliberate patterning. Ok—now that we have that piece in place—let’s take a look at some Classic Anglican patterns and practices and see if we can find anything new…