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What were the incentives for war during the Warring States Period?

What were the incentives for war during the Warring States Period?



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I've been reading about the Warring States Period in Li Feng's 'Early China', and I don't know if I missed a passage but I can't seem to figure out why the period was so violent.

I've been searching via Google but still I seem to be getting a lot of information on the dynamics of war, but not exactly why the wars happened in the first place. So a few questions about that:

  • why was there so much conflict during the period, and what were the incentives that each state had for being at war
  • is there a reason why the region couldn't have been peaceful during the period?

Qin (pronounced chin) was a state in the Wei River Valley, where the Chuanrong had overrun the Zhou king in 771 BCE. It was seen by peoples of the other Chinese states as inferior and semi-barbaric because of the many Tibetan and Turkish people that it had absorbed. Qin retained the martial spirit and vigor of nomadic herdsmen, and Qin was a thoroughfare for trade between Chinese civilization and the tribal lands in Central Asia, a trade that contributed to Qin's wealth.

Before the Warring States Period began (475 BCE) Qin was one of the balancing powers, joining others to hold off domination by any one power. Between 413 and 409, Qin suffered losses in a conflict with neighboring Wei, but it turned itself around through reforms. Qin's ruler had an innovative chief minister, Shang Yang &ndash philosophically a Legalist. He drew from the innovations of others, namely the state of Wei. Shang Yang borrowed Wei's idea of peasant-infantry soldiers and an elite professional standing army rather than an army of aristocrats in chariots. And Shang Yang's army had the horsemen common to tribal herdsmen.

Shang Yang, chief, minister in Qin

Shang Yang moved to intensify the strength of his military and the strength of his Qin through incentives. He created a system of rewards and punishments that were clear to society members. As chief minister he rewarded battlefield heroism. He wrote of war as something people hate, and added that "a fearful people, stimulated by penalties, will become brave, and a brave people, encouraged by rewards, will fight to the death." He claimed that given these incentives, Qin would have no match. note7

Shang Yang applied his incentives to the development of Qin's economy. He convinced the ruler to apply law to all his subjects and to reward people for good service and merit rather than give favor according to kinship. Rather than Confucianism's disdain for commerce, he encouraged trade and work. He encouraged the making of cloth for export. He threatened with slavery any able-bodied man who was not engaged in a useful occupation.

He asked educated and talented persons from other states to move to Qin, and he offered farming people from other states virgin land and promised them exemption from military service. Many came to Qin, increasing Qin's manpower and food production and strengthening its military.

With commoners flooding into the army of Qin, the ruler of Qin was able to align himself more with common people and less with the wants of his warrior-aristocrats and nobles. In one revolutionary sweep the ruler of Qin divided his principality into counties and had these counties administered by appointed officials rather than by nobles. What is today thought of as modern state was in the making.

Shang Yang introduced a range of administrative techniques: new methods to record available resources. He standardized measures and coinage, kept records of granary storage and initiated an accounting that prevented tax evasion &ndash tax evasion being a threat to the state's growth.

When the ruler of Qin died, Shang Yang was left without protection at court, and jealous persons at court had Shang Yang executed. But his work lived on.

In 314 BCE &ndash twenty-four years after the death of Shang Yang &ndash the kingdom of Qin won a military victory over nomads to its north. In 311, Qin expanded southward onto fertile plane against more nomadic people and defeated a state called Shu, and a Qin general, Zhang Yi, founded a new city, Chengdu.

Other states were also expanding: Yan against so-called barbarians east of the Liao River, and Chu was expanding southward across the Yangzi River. War and conquest reduced the number of states to eleven.

One of the eleven, Wei, had been reduced as a power by its war against Qi (pronounced chi). Qi appeared to be the dominant power, and Qin joined a coalition of four other states against Qi, which the allies of Qin feared more than they did Qin.

Qi was well organized and densely populated relative to most other states. It was high in food production and had grown wealthy also from trade in iron and other metals, and, in 256 BCE, Qi absorbed Lu.

Qin expanded into Zhou family territory, an area around Luoyang containing about 30,000 people and thirty-six villages. A Zhou prince counter-attacked, trying to claim the Zhou throne for himself. Qin's army defeated him, and this brought the great Zhou dynasty, dating from 1045 BCE, to an end, 256 BCE.

In 246 BCE, Yong Zheng, the thirteen-year-old son of the ruler of Qin, succeeded his father. After sixteen years of rule, Zheng embarked upon the conquest of the remaining states that had been a part of Zhou civilization. According to Victoria Tin-bor Hui, the historian Mark Edward Lewis describes Qin, in his words, as having enjoyed "a splendid geographic situation. It was accessible from the East only through the Hangu Pass and from the southeast through the Wu Pass." And, writes Victoria Tin-bor Hui, Ralph D. Sawyer "similarly thinks that Qin occupied a 'virtually unassailable mountainous bastion'." note11

In the wars that led to a unification of what had been Zhou civilization, armies of hundreds of thousands were involved on both sides. Qin was driven by the fear that if it didn't defeat all of the others they would combine and crush it. Qin defeated one state after another: Han in the year 230, Zhao in 228, Wei in 225, the large but more sparsely populated and less tightly knit Chu in 223, Yan in 222 and Qi in 221. Occasionally, to eliminate possible military opposition, Qin's armies slaughtered all enemy males of military age.

The Warring States Period was over. Zheng had become ruler of all that had been Zhou civilization. He went to a sacred mountain, Dai Shan, where, it would be said, he received the Mandate from Heaven to rule the "entire world." He took the name Shihuang-di (di signifying emperor). He was also named Qin Shi Huang.

He then expanded his frontiers southward to Guangzhou and to Guangxi, creating what would thereafter be considered China. And he pushed into Annam, or northern Vietnam &ndash an area the Chinese would hold only temporarily. Shihuangdi had become the first emperor of China.


China and East Asia

Chinese people are fond of saying that their country has the longest continuous history of any still existing country, yet the subject of this history — “China,” “The Middle Kingdom”— has itself varied considerably over time. What we mean by “the Chinese people” is also less than clear. People who historically have lived in what today is the People’s Republic of China represent many hundreds of different ethnic groups. Even within the largest of these — the Han people — a number of mutually incomprehensible languages have been spoken. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that it became possible to talk about a Chinese “nation,” understood as a community of people that encompassed most of the country.

What made a person Chinese, and what brought a sense of unity to the Chinese people, was not state power but instead more than anything a shared set of rituals and seasonal celebrations. These rituals go way back in time. The first rulers — the Shang dynasty, 1600-1046 BCE — engaged in human sacrifice and ancestor worship. They were also the first to use characters — divinations inscribed on so-called “oracle bones” — as a means of writing. While human sacrifice soon ceased, ancestor worship and the unique Chinese form of writing have survived to this day. During the following dynasty, the Zhou, 1050-777 BCE, the kings became more powerful and the territory they controlled increased dramatically. The Zhou kings regarded themselves as “Sons of Heaven” who had been given a “Mandate of Heaven” to rule the country. This mandate could be revoked, however, by any rebels who could demonstrate that they were powerful enough to take over the state. A successful uprising was proof that Heaven had withdrawn its favors and instead bestowed them on the rebels.

Towards the end of the Zhou dynasty, political power began to fragment as regional leaders who had been given land by the kings asserted their independence. Eventually, seven separate states emerged, and they were constantly at war with each other. This era has been referred to as the “Warring States period,” 475-221 BCE. During the Warring States period, China was not a country as much as an international system in its own right. The seven independent states engaged in traditional forms of power politics: they forged alliances, made treaties and fought battles, and they took turns in the position as the most powerful state in the system. The armies were enormous, counting up to perhaps one million men, and it was said that some hundreds of thousands of soldiers might die in a single battle. Not surprisingly, the Warring States period is a favorite of twenty-first century costume dramas on Chinese TV. Eventually one of the states, Qin, emerged on top. The question for the smaller states was how to react to Qin’s ascendancy. The topic was much discussed by the philosophers and military strategists of the day.

This was a bleak time of insecurity and war, but the Warring States period also was a time of great economic progress. Military competition, it seems, helped spur innovation. The imperative for all seven states, as the popular dictum put it, was to “enrich the nation and to strengthen the army.” This was first of all the case as far as military hardware was concerned, with new forms of swords, crossbows and chariots being invented. In addition, each state became far better organized and administrated. Taxes were collected more efficiently, the independent power of the nobility was suppressed, and a new class of bureaucrats took over the running of state affairs and organized their work according to formal procedures. A powerful state required a powerful economy, and to this end, farming techniques were developed and major irrigation projects were undertaken. The amount of cast iron produced by China already in the fifth century BCE would not be rivaled by the rest of the world until the middle of the eighteenth century — over two thousand years later. Economic markets developed as well, with coins being used to pay for goods coming from all over China but also from distant lands far beyond, including Manchuria, Korea, and even India.

The intellectual developments of the period were at least as impressive. The Warring States period was known as the age of the “Hundred Schools.” This was the time when all major Chinese systems of thought first came to be established. Eventually, nine of these schools dominated over the others, a group which included Confucianism, Legalism, Daoism, and Mohism. These teachings were propagated by scholars who wandered from one court to the other, looking for a ruler who would be interested in their ideas. Those who were successful found themselves jobs as advisers and courtiers. Since there were many states and multiple centers of competing power, even unorthodox ideas could be given a sympathetic hearing somewhere.

Kongzi, 551-479 BCE — better known outside of China as “Confucius” — is the most famous of these wandering scholars. Born in the state of Lu in what today is the Shandong province — the peninsula which juts out in the direction of Korea — Kongzi rose from lowly jobs as a cow-herder and clerk to become an adviser to the king of Lu himself. Yet eventually political intrigues forced him to leave the court and this was when his life as a peripatetic teacher began. Kongzi’s philosophy emphasized the importance of personal conduct, and he insisted that the virtue of the rulers was more important than the formal rules by which the state was governed. Moral conduct, as Kongzi saw it, is above all a matter of maintaining the obligations implied by our social relationships. Society, in the end, consists of nothing but hierarchical pairs — relations between father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, ruler and subject, and between friends. The inferior party in each pair should submit to the power and will of the superior, but the superior has the duty to care for the inferior and to look after his or her welfare. A well-ordered society is a society in which these duties are faithfully carried out.

Daoism is a philosophy associated with Laozi, a contemporary of Kongzi’s. Laozi is the author of the Daodejing, a text of aphorisms and assorted teachings. Yet there is little historical evidence for the actual existence of a person by that name and the teachings are for that reason best regarded as a compilation of texts produced by others. Dao, “the way,” does not only provide you with religious wisdom but also hands-on advice for how to live a successful life. Daoist monks emphasized the spiritual dimensions of human existence and sought to communicate with the spirits of nature. In addition, Daoism has had an impact on politics too. Its spiritualism and disdain for formal rules have been an inspiration for several political movements that have risen up against the political authorities.

But it was the Legalists who were to have the most direct impact on practical politics. Legalism is the school of political philosophy which the Chinese know as fajia. And the law was indeed important to them but only as a tool of statecraft. The Legalists assumed that all people act only in their self-interest and that they follow no moral codes which do not benefit themselves. It is consequently only the law and its enforcement which can keep people in line and guarantee peace and order in society. The law must, therefore, be clear enough for everyone to understand it, and the punishments which it requires must be harsh enough to make sure that everyone obeys. In the end, it was only the state and its survival that mattered to the Legalists. The ruler was free to act in whichever way he chose as long as it benefited the state. This applied not least to matters of foreign policy. Alliances could be made but also broken ostensibly friendly countries could be attacked without warning peace negotiations could serve as a pretext for starting another war, and so on.

Qin Shi Huang, often referred to as “the First Emperor,” 220-210 BCE, came to power on the back of advice such as this. He suppressed the rivaling states, united the country, and standardized weights and measures, the Chinese language, and even the width of roads and of the axles of carts. In an attempt to restart Chinese history, and to do it on his own terms, he ordered all classical texts to be burned and had Confucian scholars buried alive. Despite the Legalists’ ruthless advice, or perhaps because of it, the Qin dynasty only lasted fifteen years. After Qin Shi Huang’s death, the country soon descended into another round of wars. Yet the many philosophical schools of the period — Confucianism and Legalism in particular — would continue to play an important role throughout Chinese history.


What Caused the Warring States Period?

As for the major states, their fortunes fluctuated over the course of the Warring States Period, with no single state gaining a clear advantage over the rest until the last decades of the 3rd century BC. In 247 BC, a 13-year-old boy by the name of Ying Zheng became the new ruler of the state of Qin. In 238 BC, Ying Zheng took over power after eliminating his rivals Lü Buwei and Lao Ai. Eight years later, the king of Qin set out on a grand campaign to unify China.

Adopting the idea of his chancellor, Li Si, Ying Zheng carried out the conquest of China in order of difficulty. The state of Han was the first to fall, in 230 BC. The states of Zhao and Yan were partially occupied in 228 BC and 226 BC respectively, and finally conquered in 222 BC. The state of Wei was annexed in 225 BC, whilst the Qin’s strongest rival, the state of Chu, was defeated in 223 BC. The state of Qi was the last to fall, in 221 BC. Thus, within a decade, Ying Zheng, the King of Qin, unified China, established the Qin Dynasty, and adopted the title ‘Qin Shi Huang’.

To conclude, the Warring States Period was indeed a bloody era in Chinese history, as the constant warfare led to countless deaths on the battlefield. It is also due to the constant warfare that much progress was made in military technology and thought. As an example, it was during this period that iron weapons and crossbows were first used.

This would also lead to the development of new types of armor that would provide better protection to its user. Military strategy also flourished during this period, with such works as Sun Tzu’s Art of War , and Wu Qi’s Wuzi (both of which are counted amongst the Seven Military Classics of China) being written.

Top Image: Dagger axe with engraved decoration of a tiger, China, Warring States period, 475-221 BC, bronze - Östasiatiska museet, Stockholm. Source: CC0


The king could not control the entire land all alone, so he divided it up by granting lands or “fiefs” to his most important nobles: his barons, and his bishops. The barons were positioned in high class of the feudal system, and they reported directly to the king and were very powerful. In return, they pledged their loyalty and

Under these strict rules was how the Qin was able to unify China and standardise the language used. After the Qin Dynasty, it has become evident that legalism was very successful in helping to maintain order and controlling the country. So its philosophy was also adopted by the Han who used it to control its empire. Legalism provides a more practical approach to governing a country through the enforcement of law, deterring people from committing crime. Although China is not a legalist country, legalism has a profound impact on the legal system practiced by the government throughout Chinese history.


Six Dynasties

After the Han Dynasty of ancient China there was a period of constant civil war. The period from 220 to 589 is often called the period of 6 dynasties, which covers the Three Kingdoms, Chin Dynasty, and Southern and Northern Dynasties. At the start, the three leading economic centers of the Han Dynasty (the Three kingdoms) tried to unify the land:

  1. The Cao-Wei Empire (220-265) from northern China
  2. The Shu-Han Empire (221-263) from the west, and
  3. The Wu Empire (222-280) from the east, the most powerful of the three, based on a system of confederation of powerful families, which conquered the Shu in A.D. 263.

During the period of the three kingdoms, tea was discovered, Buddhism spread, Buddhist pagodas were built, and porcelain was created.


Warring States Period

Compared with the Spring and Autumn Period, the Warring States Period was an even more turbulent age. Old traditions and systems were cast off, and new ones established. After numerous wars, the more powerful states annexed the smaller ones. In the end, seven powerful states coexisted with each other. They were Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and Qin. In Chinese history, they are known as 'the Seven Overlords in the Warring States Period'.

The Warring States Period, also known as the Era of Warring States, covers the period from 476 BC to the unification of China by the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC. It is nominally considered to be the second part of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, following the Spring and Autumn Period, although the Zhou dynasty itself ended in 256 BC, 35 years earlier than the end of the period. As with the Spring and Autumn Period, the king of Zhou acted merely as a figurehead. The name Warring States Period was derived from the Record of the Warring States, a work historically compiled early in the Han Dynasty.

The Warring States Period saw the proliferation of iron working in China, replacing bronze as the dominant metal used in warfare. Areas such as Shu (currently Sichuan) and Yue (currently Zhejiang) were also brought into the Chinese cultural sphere during this time. Different philosophies developed into the Hundred Schools of Thought, including Confucianism (elaborated by Mencius), Taoism (elaborated by Lao Zi and to a lesser extent Zhuang Zi, in that it is possible to see the philosophy espoused in the text of the Zhuang Zi as separate from what could be considered 'classical Daoism'), Legalism (formulated by Han Feizi) and Mohism (formulated by Mozi). Trade also became important, and some merchants had considerable power in politics.

Military tactics also changed. Unlike the Spring and Autumn Period, most armies in the Warring States Period

A Statue of Sun Bin
made combined use of infantry and cavalry, and the use of chariots gradually fell into disfavor. Thus from this period on, the nobles in China remained a literate rather than warrior class, as the kingdoms competed by throwing masses of soldiers against each other. Arms of soldiers gradually changed from bronze to unified iron arms. Dagger-axes were an extremely popular weapon in various kingdoms, especially for the Qin who produced eighteen-foot long pikes.

This was also around the time the legendary military strategist Sun Tzu (Sun Zi) wrote The Art of War which is recognized today as the most influential, and oldest known military strategy guide. Along with this are other military writings that make up the Seven Military Classics of ancient China: T'ai Kung's Six Secret Teachings, The Methods of the Sima, Sun Bin's Art of War, Wu Qi, Wei Liaozi, Three strategies of Huang Shigong, and The Questions and Replies of Tang Taizong and Li Weigong. Once China was unified, these seven military classics were locked away and access was restricted due to their tendency to promote revolution.


Wei defeated by Qin (370-340)

King Hui of Wei (370-319) set about restoring the state. In 362-359 he exchanged territories with Han and Zhao in order to make the boundaries of the three states more rational. In 344 he assumed the title of king.

In 364 Wei was defeated by Qin at the Battle of Shimen and was only saved by the intervention of Zhao. Qin won another victory in 362. In 361 the capital was moved east to Daliang to be out of the reach of Qin.

In 354 BC, King Hui of Wei started a large-scale attack on Zhao. By 353 BC, Zhao was losing badly and its capital, Handan, was under siege. The State of Qi intervened. The famous Qi strategist, Sun Bin the great, great, great grandson of Sun Tzu (author of the Art of War), proposed to attack the Wei capital while the Wei army was tied up besieging Zhao. The strategy was a success the Wei army hastily moved south to protect its capital, was caught on the road and decisively defeated at the Battle of Guiling. The battle is remembered in the second of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, "besiege Wei, save Zhao" meaning to attack a vulnerable spot to relieve pressure at another point.

In 341 BC, Wei attacked Han. Qi allowed Han to be nearly defeated and then intervened. The generals from the Battle of Guiling met again (Sun Bin and Tian Ji versus Pang Juan), by using the same tactic, attacking Wei's capital. Sun Bin feigned a retreat and then turned on the overconfident Wei troops and decisively defeated them at the Battle of Maling.

In the following year Qin attacked the weakened Wei. Wei was devastatingly defeated and ceded a large part of its territory in return for truce. With Wei severely weakened, Qi and Qin became the dominant states in China.


3. Human Nature, Education, and the Ethical Ideal

A. Human Nature

As Mencius is known for the slogan “human nature is good,” Xunzi is known for its opposite, “human nature is bad.” Mencius viewed self-cultivation as developing natural tendencies within us. Xunzi believes that our natural tendencies lead to conflict and disorder, and what we need to do is radically reform them, not develop them. Both shared an optimism about human perfectability, but they viewed the process quite differently. Xunzi envisioned that humanity was once in a state of nature reminiscent of Hobbes. Without study of the Way, people’s desires will run rampant, and they will inevitably find themselves in conflict in trying to satisfy their desires. Left to themselves, people will fall into disorder, poverty and conflict, living a life that would be, as Hobbes put it, “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It was this insistence that human nature is bad that was most often condemned by later thinkers, who rejected Xunzi’s view in favor of the idea, traced to Mencius, that people are naturally good.

Xunzi offers several arguments against Mencius’s position. He defines human nature as what is inborn and does not need to be learned. He argues that if people were good by nature, there would be no need for ritual and social norms. The sages would not have had to create them, and they would not need to have been handed down through the generations. They were created precisely because people do not act in accordance with them naturally. He also notes that people desire the good, and on the principle that one desires what one doesn’t already have, this shows that people are not good. He gives several illustrations of what life is like in the state of nature, without any education on ritual and morality. Xunzi does not believe that people are evil, that they deliberately violate the rules of morality, taking a perverse pleasure in doing so. They have no natural conception of morality at all: they are morally blind by nature. Their desires bring them into conflict because they don’t know any better, not because they enjoy conflict. In fact, Xunzi believes people do not enjoy it at all, which is why they desire the kind of life that results from good order brought about through the rituals of the sages.

Like Mencius, Xunzi believed human nature is the same in everyone: no one starts off with moral principles. The original nature of Yao (a legendary sage king) and Jie (a legendary tyrant) was the same. The difference was in how they cultivated themselves. Yao reformed his original nature, Jie did not. In this way, Xunzi emphasizes the essential perfectability of everyone. Human nature is bad, but it is not incorrigible, and in fact Xunzi was rather optimistic about the possibility of overcoming the demands of desires that result in the state of nature. Though Confucius suggests that some people are better off by nature than others, Mencius and Xunzi seem to agree that everyone starts out the same, though they differ on the content of that original state. Though Xunzi believes that it is always possible to reform oneself, he recognizes that in reality this will not always happen. In most cases, the individual himself has to make the first step in attempting to reform, and Xunzi is rather pessimistic about people actually doing this. They cannot be forced to do so, and they may in practice be unable to make the choice to improve, but for Xunzi, this does not mean that in principle it is impossible for them to change.

B. Education

Like Confucius and Mencius, Xunzi is much more concerned with what kind of person to be than with rules of moral behavior or duty, and in this respect his view is similar to Western virtue ethics. The goal of Xunzi’s ethics is to become a person who knows and acts according to the Way as if it were second nature. Because human nature is bad, Xunzi emphasizes the importance of study to learn the Way. He compares the process of reforming one’s nature to making a pot out of clay or straightening wood with a press-frame. Without the potter, the clay would never become a pot on its own. Similarly, people will not be able to reform their nature without a teacher showing them what to do. Xunzi’s concern is primarily moral education he wants people to develop into good people, not people who know a lot of facts. He emphasizes the transformative aspect of education, where it changes one’s basic nature. Xunzi laid out a program of study based on the works of the sages of the past that would teach proper ritual behavior and develop moral principles. He was the first to offer an organized Confucian curriculum, and his curriculum became the blueprint for traditional education in China until the modern period.

Practice was an important aspect of Xunzi’s course of education. A student did not simply study ritual, he performed it. Xunzi recognized that this performative aspect was crucial to the goal of transforming one’s nature. It was only through practice that one could realize the beauty of ritual, ideally coming to appreciate it for itself. Though this was the end of education, Xunzi appealed to more utilitarian motives to start the student on the program of study. As noted above, he discussed how desires would inevitably be frustrated in the state of nature. Organizing society through ritual was the only way people could ever satisfy even some of their desires, and study of ritual was the best way to achieve satisfaction on a personal level. Through study and practice, one could learn to appreciate ritual for its own sake, not just as a means to satisfy desires. Ritual has this power to transform someone’s motives and character. The beginning student of ritual is like a child learning to play the piano. Maybe she doesn’t enjoy playing the piano at first, but her parents take her out for ice cream after each lesson, so she goes along with it because she gets what she wants. After years of study and practice, she might learn to appreciate playing the piano for its own sake, and will practice even without any reward. This is what Xunzi imagines will happen to the dedicated student of ritual: he starts out studying ritual as a means, but it becomes an end in itself as part of the Way.

C. The Ethical Ideal

Xunzi often distinguishes three stages of progress in study: the scholar, the gentlemen, and the sage, though sometimes the sage and the gentleman seem to be equivalent for him. These were all terms in common use in philosophical discourse of the time, especially in Confucian thought, but Xunzi gives them a unique twist. He describes the achievements of each stage slightly differently in several places, but what he seems to mean is that a scholar is someone who has taken the first step of wishing to study the Way of the ancient sages and adopts them as the model for correct conduct the gentleman has acquired a good deal of learning, but still must think about what the right thing to do is in a situation and the sage has wholly internalized the principles of ritual and morality so that his action flows spontaneously without the need for thought, yet never goes beyond the bounds of what is proper. Using the piano analogy, the scholar has made up his mind to study the piano and is practicing basic scales. The gentleman is fairly skilled, but still needs to look at the music in front of him to know what to play. The sage is like a concert pianist who not only plays with perfect technique, but also adds his own style and unique interpretation of the music, accomplishing all this without ever consciously thinking about what notes to play. As the pianist is still playing someone else’s music, the sage does not make up new standards of conduct he still follows the Way, but he makes it his own. Yet even then, at this highest stage, Xunzi believes there is still room for learning. Study is a lifelong process that only ends at death, much as concert pianists must still practice to maintain their skills.

The teacher plays an extremely important role in the course of study. A good teacher does not simply know the rituals, he embodies them and practices them in his own life. Just as one would not learn piano from someone who had just read a book on piano pedagogy but never touched an actual instrument, one should not study from someone who has only learned texts. A teacher is not just a source of information he is a model for the student to look up to and a source of inspiration of what to become. A teacher who does not live up to the Way of the sages in his own life is no teacher at all. Xunzi believes there is no better method of study than learning from such a teacher. In this way, the student has a model before of him of how to live ritual principles, so his learning does not become simple accumulation of facts. In the event that such a teacher is unavailable, the next best method is to honor ritual principles sincerely, trying to embody them in oneself. Without either of these methods, Xunzi believes learning degenerates into memorizing a jumble of facts with no impact on one’s conduct.

D. Discovering the Way

Given Xunzi’s insistence on the importance of teachers to transmit the Way of the sages of the past and his belief that people are all bad by nature, he must face the question of how the first sages discovered the Way. Xunzi uses the metaphor of a river ford for the true Way: without the people who have gone before to leave markers, those coming after would have no way of knowing where the deep places are, and they would be in danger of drowning. The question is, how did the first people get across safely, when there were no markers? Xunzi does not address the question in precisely this way, but we can piece together an answer from his writings.

Examining the analogies Xunzi uses is instructive here. He talks about cultivating moral principles as a process of crafting, using the metaphors of a potter shaping and firing clay into a pot, or using a press-frame to straighten a bent piece of wood. Just as the skill of making pottery was undoubtedly accumulated through generations of refining, Xunzi appears to think that the Way of the sages was also a product of generations of development. According to Xunzi’s definition of human nature, no one could say people know how to make pots by nature: this is not something we can do without study and practice, like walking and talking are. Nevertheless, some people, through a combination of perseverance, talent, and luck, were able to discover how to make pots, and then taught that skill to others. Similarly, through generations of observing humanity and trying different ways of regulating society, the sages hit upon the correct Way, the best way to order society in Xunzi’s view. David Nivison has suggested that different sages of the past contributed different aspects of the Way: some discovered agriculture, some discovered fire, some discovered the principles of filiality and respect between husband and wife, and so on.

Xunzi views these achievements as products of the sage’s acquired nature, not his original nature. This is another way of saying these are not products of people’s natural tendencies, but the results of study and experimentation. Accumulation of effort is an important concept for Xunzi. The Way of the sages was created through accumulation of learning what worked and benefited society. The sages built on the accomplishments of previous sages, added their own contributions, and now Xunzi believes the process is basically complete: we know the ritual principles that will produce a harmonious society. Trying to govern or become a moral person without studying the sages of the past is essentially trying to re-invent the wheel, or discover how to make pots on one’s own without learning from a potter. It is conceivable (though Xunzi is very skeptical about anyone actually being able to do it), but it is much more difficult and time-consuming, when all one has to do is study what has already been created.

E. The Heart

In addition to having a teacher, a critical requirement for study is having the proper frame of mind, or more precisely, heart, since early Chinese thought considered cognition to be located in the heart. Xunzi’s philosophy of the heart draws from other contemporary views as well as Confucian philosophy. Like Mencius, Xunzi believed that the heart should be the lord of the body, and using the heart to direct desires and decide on right and wrong accords with the Way. However, like Zhuangzi, Xunzi emphasizes that the heart must be tranquil and concentrated to be able to learn. In the view of the heart basically shared by Xunzi and Mencius, desires are not wholly voluntary. Desires are part of human nature, and can be activated without our necessarily being conscious of them. The function of the heart is to regulate the sense faculties and parts of the body, so that though one may have desires, the heart only acts on those desires when it is right to do so. The heart controls itself and directs the other parts of the body. This ability of the heart is what allows humanity to create ritual and moral principles and escape the state of nature.

In the chapter “Dispelling Blindness” Xunzi discusses the right way to develop the heart to avoid falling into error. For study, the heart needs to be trained to be receptive, focused, and calm. These qualities of the heart allow it to know the Way, and knowing the Way, the heart can realize the benefits of the Way and practice it. This receptivity Xunzi calls emptiness, meaning the ability of the heart to continually store new information without becoming full. Focus is called unity, by which Xunzi means the ability to be aware of two aspects of a thing or situation without allowing them to interfere with each other. “Being of two hearts” was a common problem in Chinese philosophical writings: it could mean being confused or perplexed about something, as well as what we would call being two-faced. Xunzi addresses the first aspect with his discussion of unity, a focus that keeps the heart directed and free from perplexity. The final quality the heart needs is stillness, the quality of moving freely from task to task without disorder, remaining unperturbed while processing new information. A heart that has the qualities of emptiness, unity, and stillness can understand the Way. Without these qualities, the heart is liable to fall into various kinds of “blindness” or obsessions that Xunzi attributes to his philosophical rivals. Their hearts focus too much on just one aspect of the Way, so they are unable to see the big picture. They become obsessed with this one part and mistake it for the entirety of the Way. Only with the proper attitudes and control of one’s heart can one perceive and grasp the Way as a whole.