Mencius vs. Xunzi
The Debate on Human Nature
Chinese characters for "human nature is good" (xing shan)MenciusXunziChinese characters for "human nature is bad" (xing e)
Cartoon image of ConfuciusDiagram of concentric circles showing the relationship between ritual propriety and humaneness with regard to the process of self-cultivationChinese characters for humaneness (ren) and ritual propriety (li)
MenciusMengzi [a.k.a. Mencius] propounded a doctrine about the essential and intrinsic goodness of human nature, which accords with Heaven. He believed that all men are basically good, even if they often stray from their basic goodness and act in unwholesome ways. The fundamental goodness of the human heart is evident in the instinctive compassionate response when people are confronted with the suffering of others, for instance when seeing a child falling into a well. Each individual is naturally endowed with all qualities needed to realize moral perfection, as the four basic virtues are already instilled in the mind in the moment of birth and provide each person with an innate moral sense.
       At its core, according to Mengzi, moral cultivation involves recovering and polishing the lost mind of virtue. This is a gradual process that entails developing one’s basic humanity, according to a blueprint that is already inscribed in the mind by Heaven. Successful practice depends on one’s personal commitment, but it is also affected by the presence or absence of a social environment conducive to moral cultivation. When one perfects the ability to fully tap into the human potential for goodness and wisdom, that person fulfills his ultimate destiny and becomes a sage. (ICR, 51-52)

Image of a Chinese well (with no guard rails)
The Child & the Well
2A.6  Mencius said, All people have a mind that cannot bear to see the suffering of others. The ancient kings had such minds and hence had governments that could not bear to see the suffering of others. If those with minds that cannot bear to see the suffering of others direct governments of the same type, then governing the realm will be for them as easy as turning something around in the palm of their hands.
       “Now what I mean by saying that people have minds that cannot bear to see the suffering of others is this. Whenever people suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they have a sense of apprehension for the child and [a] sense of commiseration with it. This is not because they want to earn the favor of the child’s father and mother or make a good impression on neighbors and friends, or because they are annoyed by the child’s cries.
       Looking at it this way, someone who lacks a mind of commiseration, of shame and dislike, of civility and courtesy, or of right and wrong is not a human being. The mind of commiseration is the beginning of humanity; the mind of shame and dislike is the beginning of righteousness; the mind of civility and courtesy is the beginning of ritual; the mind that distinguishes between right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. People have these four beginnings just as they have their four limbs. People have these four, and when they say they are incapable of them, they are only stealing from themselves, and when they say their ruler is incapable of them, they are stealing from the ruler. If those people with these four beginnings within themselves know how to develop and fulfill them, they will be as fires beginning to burn or springs beginning to flow. Completely fulfilling these four allows them to embrace everything within the four seas, but if they cannot they will barely be able to care for their own parents. (CRAS, 57-58)
Seal character for "heart/mind" (xin)
The Great Person & the Small Person
6A:15  Gongduzi asked, “All are equally persons, and yet some are great persons and others are small persons — why is this?
       Mencius said, “those who follow the part of themselves that is great become great persons, while those who follow the part of themselves that is small become small persons.”
       [Gongduzi] said, “Since all are equally persons, why is it that some follow the part of themselves that is great, while others follow the part of themselves that is small?”
       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. (Sources of Chinese Tradition, 153)
Concentric circles (from self to family, community, country and world) with an arrow showing "humaneness" developing outward from the center (self)
The Mandate of Heaven
7A.1  Mencius said, “Those who completely develop their mind understand their nature, and those who understand their nature understand Heaven. To preserve the mind and nourish one’s nature is the way to serve Heaven. To make no distinction between early death and long life but cultivate oneself while awaiting whatever is to come is the way to establish one’s mandate/fate (ming).(Translated by Brian Hoffert; cf. CRAS, 59-60)
The Greek Fates
The Mandate of Heaven (Emperor being given the world)
7A.2  Mencius said, “There is nothing that does not have its mandate, and one should accord with [and accept one’s true mandate]. But those who truly understand what is mandated will not stand beneath a crumbling wall. Those who die having perfected the Way have [fulfilled their true mandate], but those who die in manacles and shackles have not. (CRAS, 59 [with modifications by Brian Hoffert])
Venn diagram showing relationship between three religious categories of belief, practice and experience
Is Mencius’ approach to Confucianism “religious”?
bamboo page divider

Chinese characters for "human nature is bad" (xing e)
“Human Nature is Bad”
Xunzi (c. 310-219 BCE)
XunziIn contrast to Mencius’s overly optimistic assertion of the human predicament, Xunzi asserted that by nature human beings are fundamentally predisposed towards evil and this leads them to seek satisfaction of their selfish desires by various kinds of unethical and antisocial behaviors, which are readily observable throughout society. Morality and goodness do not come naturally or spontaneously: they are akin to an acquired taste, and their active manifestation presupposes discipline and the application of effort. Xunzi thus started with the premise that human nature is evil, in a sense of human beings lacking an innate moral compass or inborn ability to distinguish right from wrong. But then he went on to emphasize that they can be trained to act in a civilized fashion and in harmony with proper ethical principles. This is precisely the task of Confucian education, which when put into practice has the potential to modify human behavior and change society, so that it comes to correspond to the ideals presented in the classics and explicated by Confucius.
       From Xunzi’s point of view, the accomplishment of moral excellence requires a conscious effort and the application of right teachings. He acknowledged an element of artifice in the process of acquiring proper inner virtues and external mores, which are conveyed by a cumulative tradition that was originally formulated by the ancient sages. This is not an easy task, requiring the learning of orthodox doctrines and correct ritual patterns of behavior, under the guidance of learned teachers. Nonetheless, proper education leads to the accumulation of virtue and wisdom, and without it ordinary people remain lost in a state of abject ignorance and moral confusion.
(ICR, 52-53)
Street signs pointing to "good" and "evil"
Human nature is evil; its goodness is conscious effort. The nature of people today is such that from birth they covet profit. To accommodate their covetousness they struggle and fight for their lives, and courtesy and civility vanish. From birth they bear violent hatreds, and to accommodate those hatreds they resort to violence and banditry, and loyalty and good faith disappear. From birth they have the desires of the ear and eye and fondness for sound and color; to accommodate those desires they resort to wanton behavior, and refined principles of ritual and righteousness evaporate. If people follow their natures and accommodate their emotions, struggling and fighting will invariably ensue, and they will transgress their stations in life, upset principles, and turn to violence. Only with the transformations of standards and teachers and the ways of ritual and righteousness can courtesy and civility appear, and under those circumstances people can develop refined culture and principles and turn to good governance. If one looks at it this way, then it is clear that human nature is evil, and that goodness is conscious effort.
Piece of wood being straightened with clamps and a knife being sharpened on a whetstone
A bent piece of wood can only be straightened by steaming, and a dull piece of metal can only be sharpened by grinding it against a whetstone. Now considering that human nature is evil, it can only be rectified with standards and teachers, and it can only be well governed with the application of ritual and righteousness. If people have no standards or teachers, they will waver perilously and lack rectitude; without rites or righteousness they will be intractable, disorderly, and badly governed. In antiquity the sage kings perceived all this. They initiated rituals and righteousness and formulated standards and various measures to straighten and enhance human nature and emotions; they did this to rectify them, to train and transform them, and to guide them. Thus everything was well governed and everything accorded with the Way. People today who are transformed by teachers and standards, who develop refined culture and learning, who follow the ways of ritual and righteousness, become honorable persons. Those who just go along with their natures and emotions, are satisfied with wantonness, and go contrary to ritual, are small-minded people. If one looks at it this way, it is clear that human nature is evil.
Cartoon image of Mencius/Mengzi
Mencius said the fact that human beings learn is because the nature is good. I say this is not so, and this indicates that he did not understand human nature and did not perceive the differences between human nature and conscious effort. The nature is given by heaven; it can be neither learned nor devised. But rites and righteousness were produced by the sages, and hence are things that human beings can learn and do; they can be devised and brought to completion. What is within human beings that can be neither learned nor devised is called the nature; what is within human beings that can be learned and done, that can be devised and brought to completion, is called conscious effort. These are the differences between the nature and conscious effort. (CRAS, 69-70)
Diagram of concentric circles showing the relationship between ritual propriety and humaneness with regard to the process of self-cultivation
Heaven’s acts are constant: they did not make Emperor Yao prevail, and they did not make Emperor Chieh perish. Those who respond to heaven with good governance will find auspiciousness; those who respond to it with chaos will experience calamities. ... Those who cultivate the Way consistently cannot be beset by misfortunes from heaven: floods and droughts cannot cause famine; excessive cold and heat cannot bring epidemics; preternatural manifestations cannot cause calamities. But those who are confused about what is fundamentally important and who make extravagant expenditures cannot be enriched by heaven: ... Neither floods nor droughts occur, yet famine appears; neither cold nor heat spreads across the land, but epidemics begin; no preternatural signs manifest themselves, yet calamities happen. ...
Zhuge Liang performing a wind ritual in Romance of the Three Kingdoms
One might ask why it rains when the Yu rain sacrifice is performed. I say that there is no reason, for even if one does not perform the sacrifice it still will rain. When people try to rescue the sun or moon from being eclipsed, perform the rain sacrifice when there are floods or droughts, or make great decisions only after divining with the tortoise shell or milfoil stalks, it is not because they are trying to get actual results by doing so, for these are just expressions of refined culture. The honorable person considers these expressions of refined culture, but the common people believe them the work of spirits. Considering it culture is auspicious, considering it the work of spirits is inauspicious. (CRAS, 66-67)
Venn diagram showing relationship between three religious categories of belief, practice and experience
Is Xunzi’s approach to Confucianism “religious”?
Dictionary Definition of Religion