Mencius vs. Xunzi
The Great Debate
 

The intellectual center of ancient China at this time became the Jixia Academy — named after the Ji Gate, the western gate in the wall of the capital of Qi, beneath which scholars gathered. Xu Gan says that patronage of scholarship began with Tian Wu, known as Duke Huan (r. 375-358), who “established a bureau at the Jixia, inaugurated the practice of bestowing the title of grand officer, and extended his welcome to wise men whom he honored and esteemed.” The Academy itself seems to have been founded by his son, King Wei of Qi (r. 357-320), who collected from all over China the outstanding minds of the day. Under the influence of his prime minister, Zou Ji, King Wei patronized some 72 scholars in the Academy who “took delight in deliberating the affairs of government,” but who “treated Zou Ji disrespectfully whenever they had occasion to associate with him.”
       King Xuan (r. 319-301) founded a Scholars Hall outside the Ji Gate. During this period, the Academy reached its zenith. The King was fond of scholars who were accomplished in learning and who were gifted virtuosos at rhetoric. Seventy-six such men were associated with the Academy, were given ranks and honors, and made senior grand officers, not to participate in the government, but to deliberate and propound learned theories. For this reason, “the scholars beneath the Ji Gate enjoyed a renaissance, coming to number in the hundreds and thousands.” Mencius says of King Xuan that the “heart behind his actions was sufficient to enable him to become a true king” and that despite his inordinate fondness for acts of valor, money, sex, and musical performances, he might have become great but for his refusal to act in the proper fashion.
       The Jixia scholars seem to have been free to debate with one another without any of the responsibilities of high office, though they were accorded its honors and emoluments. Freed from having to put their theories into action, the Jixia scholars seem to have delighted in displays of skill in argumentation. A few, such as Shunyu Kun, abjured the holding of office as a matter of principle, but most seem to have hungered for the power to act that office alone provided. We know very little more about the Jixia Academy and how its scholars debated one another. [John Knoblock]
 
 

The Great Debate
In 247 BCE, Zhao Zheng succeeded his father as the King of Qin. Although he was destined to become the First Emperor of China, in 240 BCE he was simply a twenty-year-old king faced with the daunting task of defeating the last six warring states that remained after Qin’s elimination of the House of Zhou in 256 BCE. In the following fictional debate, the followers of Mencius and Xunzi presented their respective arguments on the question of human nature to the King of Qin in an attempt to persuade him to reject the path of Legalism in favor of their own interpretations of Confucianism.
 
 
I. Define Human Nature
Mencius said, The fact that human beings learn shows that their nature is good. I say this is not so; this comes of his having neither understood human nature nor perceived the distinction between the nature and conscious activity. The nature is what is given by Heaven: one cannot learn it; one cannot acquire it by effort. Ritual and rightness are created by sages: people learn them and are capable, through effort, of bringing them to completion. What cannot be learned or acquired by effort but is within us is called the nature. What can be learned and, through effort, brought to completion is called conscious activity. This is the distinction between the nature and conscious activity. ... Now it is human nature that when one is hungry he will desire satisfaction, when he is cold he will desire warmth, and when he is weary he will desire rest. This is the emotional nature of human beings. Yet, even if a person is hungry, he will not dare to be the first to eat if he is in the presence of his elders because he knows that he should yield to them. Although he is weary, he will not dare to seek rest because he knows that he should work on behalf of others. For a son to yield to his father and a younger brother to yield to his elder brother, or for a son to work on behalf of his father and a younger brother to work on behalf of his elder brother — these two acts are contrary to the nature and counter to the emotions, and yet they represent the way of filial devotion and the refinement and principle that are associated with ritual and rightness. Hence, to follow the emotional nature would mean that there would be no courtesy or humility; courtesy and humility run counter to the emotional nature. From this perspective it is apparent that human nature is evil, and that goodness is the result of conscious activity. [SCT, 180-1]

6A1 Gaozi said, “The nature is like willow wood; rightness is like cups and bowls. To make humaneness and rightness out of human nature is like making cups and bowls out of the willow wood.” Mencius said, “Are you able to make cups and bowls while following the nature of the willow wood? You must do violence to the willow wood before you can make cups and bowls. If you must do violence to the willow wood in order to make cups and bowls, must you also do violence to a human being in order to make humaneness and rightness? The effect of your words will be to cause everyone in the world to think of humaneness and rightness as misfortunes.” [SCT, 147]

6A2 Gaozi said, “The nature is like swirling water. Open a passage for it in the east, and it will flow east; open a passage for it in the west, and it will flow west. Human nature does not distinguish between good and not-good any more than water distinguishes between east and west.” Mencius said, “It is true that water does not distinguish between east and west, but does it fail to distinguish between up and down? The goodness of human nature is like the downward course of water. There is no human being lacking in the tendency to do good, just as there is no water lacking in the tendency to flow downward. Now by striking water and splashing it, you may cause it to go over your head, and by damming and channeling it, you can force it to flow uphill. But is this the nature of water? It is the force that makes this happen. While people can be made to do what is not good, what happens to their nature is like this.” [SCT, 147]

  • How do Mencius’ remarks suggest an alternate way of thinking about human nature? Does Mencius’ approach capture aspects of human nature that Xunzi misses?
II. Is Human Nature Good or Bad?
2A6  All human beings have a mind that cannot bear to see the sufferings of others. The ancient kings had a commiserating mind and, accordingly, a commiserating government. Having a commiserating mind, a commiserating government, governing the world was like turning something around on the palm of the hand.
       Here is why I say that all human beings have a mind that commiserates with others. Now, if anyone were suddenly to see a child about to fall into a well, his mind would always be filled with alarm, distress, pity, and compassion. That he would react accordingly is not because he would use the opportunity to ingratiate himself with the child’s parents, nor because he would seek commendation from neighbors and friends, nor because he would hate the adverse reputation. From this it may be seen that one who lacks a mind that feels pity and compassion would not be human; one who lacks a mind that feels shame and aversion would not be human; one who lacks a mind that feels modesty and compliance would not be human; and one who lacks a mind that knows right and wrong would not be human.
       The mind’s feeling of pity and compassion is the beginning of humaneness (ren); the mind’s feeling of shame and aversion is the beginning of rightness (yi); the mind’s feeling of modesty and compliance is the beginning of propriety; and the mind’s sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom.
       Human beings have these four beginnings just as they have four limbs. For one to have these four beginnings and yet to say of oneself that one is unable to fulfill them is to injure oneself, while to say that one’s ruler is unable to fulfill them is to injure one’s ruler. When we know how to enlarge and bring to fulfillment these four beginnings that are within us, it will be like a fire beginning to burn or a spring finding an outlet. If one is able to bring them to fulfillment, they will be sufficient to enable him to protect ‘all within the four seas’; if one is not, they will be insufficient even to enable him to serve his parents. [SCT, 129]

Human nature is evil; its goodness derives from conscious activity. Now it is human nature to be born with a fondness for profit. Indulging this leads to contention and strife, and the sense of modesty and yielding ... disappears. One is born with feelings of envy and hate, and, by indulging these, one is led into banditry and theft, so that the sense of loyalty and good faith ... disappears. One is born with the desires of the ears and eyes and with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds, and, by indulging these, one is led to licentiousness and chaos, so that the sense of ritual, rightness, refinement, and principle ... is lost. Hence, following human nature and indulging human emotions will inevitably lead to contention and strife, causing one to rebel against one’s proper duty, reduce principle to chaos, and revert to violence. Therefore one must be transformed by the example of a teacher and guided by the way of ritual and rightness before one will attain modesty and yielding, accord with refinement and ritual, and return to order. From this perspective it is apparent that human nature is evil and that goodness is the result of conscious activity. Thus warped wood must be laid against a straightening board, steamed, and bent into shape before it can become straight; blunt metal must be ground on a whetstone before it can become sharp. And in that human nature is evil, it must wait for the example of a teacher before it can become upright, and for ritual and rightness before it can become orderly. [SCT, 179-80]
 
  • Does the fact that humans need to cultivate morality prove that human nature is “bad”?
III. Dealing with Selfish Desires
6A8 Mencius said, “The trees on Ox Mountain were once beautiful. But being situated on the outskirts of a large state, the trees are hewn down by axes. Could they remain beautiful? Given the air of the day and the night, and the moisture of the rain and the dew, they do not fail to put forth new buds and shoots, but then cattle and sheep also come to graze. This accounts for the barren appearance of the mountain. Seeing this barrenness, people suppose that the mountain was never wooded. But how could this be the nature of the mountain? So it is also with what is preserved in a human being; could it be that anyone should lack the mind of humaneness and rightness? If one lets go of the innate good mind, this is like taking an axe to a tree; being hewn down day after day, can it remain beautiful? ... Thus, given nourishment, there is nothing that will not grow; lacking nourishment, there is nothing that will not be destroyed. [SCT, 151]

6A9 Mencius said, “The king’s lack of wisdom is hardly surprising. Take something that is the easiest thing in the world to grow. Expose it to the heat for a day, and then expose it to cold for ten days, and it will not be able to grow. I see the king but seldom, and when I withdraw, the agents of cold arrive. Even if I have caused some buds to appear, what good does it do? [SCT, 151]

6A15 ... Mencius said, “The faculties of seeing and hearing do not think and are obscured by things. When one thing comes into contact with another, they are led away.The faculty of the mind is to think. By thinking, one gets it; by not thinking, one fails to get it. This is what Heaven has given to us.  When we first establish the greater part of ourselves, then the smaller part is unable to steal it away. It is simply this that makes the great person.” [SCT, 153]


Human nature is evil; its goodness derives from conscious activity. Now it is human nature to be born with a fondness for profit. Indulging this leads to contention and strife, and the sense of modesty and yielding ... disappears. One is born with feelings of envy and hate, and, by indulging these, one is led into banditry and theft, so that the sense of loyalty and good faith ... disappears. One is born with the desires of the ears and eyes and with a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds, and, by indulging these, one is led to licentiousness and chaos, so that the sense of ritual, rightness, refinement, and principle ... is lost. Hence, following human nature and indulging human emotions will inevitably lead to contention and strife, causing one to rebel against one’s proper duty, reduce principle to chaos, and revert to violence. Therefore one must be transformed by the example of a teacher and guided by the way of ritual and rightness before one will attain modesty and yielding, accord with refinement and ritual, and return to order. From this perspective it is apparent that human nature is evil and that goodness is the result of conscious activity. Thus warped wood must be laid against a straightening board, steamed, and bent into shape before it can become straight; blunt metal must be ground on a whetstone before it can become sharp. And in that human nature is evil, it must wait for the example of a teacher before it can become upright, and for ritual and rightness before it can become orderly. [SCT, 179-80]

  • How does Xunzi’s understanding of the relationship between the sense faculties and the heart/mind compare with Mencius’ perspective?
 
IV. Focus of Self-Cultivation?
6A14 Mencius said, “... Some parts of the body are superior and others inferior; some are small and others are great. One should not harm the great for the sake of the small, nor should one harm the superior for the sake of the inferior. One who nurtures the smaller part of himself becomes a small person, while one who nurtures the greater part of himself becomes a great person. Here is a master gardener who neglects his wu and jia trees while nurturing thorns and brambles: he is an inferior gardener. Here is a person who, unknowingly, nurtures a single finger while neglecting his back and shoulders: he is a hurried wolf. A person given to drinking and eating is considered by others to be inferior because he nourishes what is small in himself while neglecting what is great.” [SCT, 153]

6A15 ... Mencius said, “The faculties of seeing and hearing do not think and are obscured by things. When one thing comes into contact with another, they are led away. The faculty of the mind is to think. By thinking, one gets it; by not thinking, one fails to get it. This is what Heaven has given to us. When we first establish the greater part of ourselves, then the smaller part is unable to steal it away. It is simply this that makes the great person.” [SCT, 153]

If human nature were good, we could dispense with the sage kings and desist from the practice of ritual and rightness. Since human nature is evil, we must elevate the sages and esteem ritual and rightness. Therefore the straightening board was created because of warped wood, and the plumb line came into being because of things that are not straight. Rulers are established and ritual and rightness are illuminated because the nature is evil. From this perspective it is clear that human nature is evil and that goodness is the result of conscious activity. Wood that is straight need not wait for the straightening board to become straight; it is straight by nature. But a warped piece of wood must be laid against a straightening board, steamed, and bent into shape before it can become straight because its nature is not straight. Now since human nature is evil, people must await ordering by the sage kings and transformation through ritual and rightness, and only then do they attain order and accord with goodness. From this perspective, it is clear that human nature is evil and that goodness is the result of conscious activity. [SCT, 182]

  • Does Mencius argument provide a satisfactory response to Xunzi’s critique of his definition of human nature?
  • According to Mencius, what can one do to nurture one’s “greater part”?
  • How would this differ from the approach to self-cultivation advocated by Xunzi?
V. Ren & Li
6A18 Mencius said, “Humaneness overcomes inhumaneness just as water overcomes fire. Those today who practice humaneness do it as if they were using a cup of water to put out the fire consuming a cartload of firewood, and then, when the flames are not extinguished, they say that water does not overcome fire. This is to make an enormous concession to what is not humane, and in the end it must inevitably result in the destruction of humaneness.” [SCT, 154]
 
  • What are the implications of this perspective with regard to the relationship between “ritual” (li) and “humaneness” (ren)?
  • If priority is given to ren, then how can it be cultivated? How does Mencius’ approach to self-cultivation differ from Xunzi’s?
  • Does Xunzi value humanity and ritual equally, or does he give priority to one over the other?
In their human nature, [the sages] Yao and Shun were one with [the tyrants] Jie and Zhi, just as the noble person and the lesser person are, by nature, one. How could it be that ritual and rightness and sustained conscious activity are human nature? If this were the case, what reason would there be to honor Yao or Yu or to honor the noble person? People honor Yao, Yu, and the noble person because of their ability to transform their nature, to generate conscious activity, and, through this conscious activity, to create ritual and rightness. ...
       The man in the street can become a [sage like] Yu.” What does this mean? I reply, What made the sage emperor Yu a Yu was the fact that he practiced humaneness and rightness and took uprightness as his standard. This being so, humaneness, rightness, and proper standards must be based upon principles that can be known and practiced. Any man in the street has the natural endowment needed to understand humaneness, rightness, proper standards, and uprightness and the ability to practice humaneness, rightness, proper standards, and uprightness. Therefore it is clear that he can become a Yu. ... If the man in the street applies himself to training and study, concentrates his mind, unifies his will, and pondering and examining things carefully, continues his efforts over a long period of time, accumulating good acts without stop, then he can penetrate to a spiritual understanding and form a triad with Heaven and Earth. The sage is a person who has arrived where he has through the accumulation of good acts. [SCT, 182-3]
 
So in the end ...
Is human nature “good” or “bad”?