Renowned modern Chinese reformist and scholar Liang Qichao was a great admirer of his counterpart Yan Fu, a pioneering translator at the turn of the 20th century. In his letter to Yan, Liang lauded Yan as a “first-class scholar in both Chinese and Western learning,” but his Chinese translations were too classical and abstruse to be effectively disseminated. As a reply, Yan said that he introduced Western knowledge through translation not to replace Chinese scholarship, but to inject new vigor into Chinese classics. In his role, Yan was meticulous in translating Western works into Chinese, spending much time weighing each word and phrase.
Yan’s translation of sociology into “qunxue,” meaning a study of groups, was consciously inheriting famed ancient Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi’s sociological legacy. In a speech at Peking University in the 1930s, English social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, who had a “sympathetic understanding” of traditional Chinese culture, also acknowledged that the discipline of sociology had already been founded by Xunzi in the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) [more than 2,000 years before British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer]. Reputed Chinese sociologist Quentin Pan (Pan Guangdan) later wrote a paper analyzing the similarities between Xunzi and Spencer in the epistemology of sociology.
Then, how distinguished is Xunzi as a sociologist? How relevant are his theories today? Let’s start with a prediction Xunzi made during his travel to the state of Qin.
Xunzi’s survey of the Qin was quite comprehensive. When responding to Qin’s high minister Fan Ju’s request for his opinion of the state, Xunzi spoke highly of it in terms of geography, local customs, urban administration, scholar-officials, and the central court. Following the rhetoric, however, Xunzi said [in the chapter “The Strong State” in Xunzi, an ancient Chinese collection of philosophical writings attributed to Xunzi]: “despite the achievements, the Qin has something to worry about.” He didn’t expand on this point but went on to say that the state still had much to do to claim true leadership [over other states]. “Why is that? Because it doesn’t adopt Confucianism as the state philosophy.”
Most astonishingly, Xunzi added that governance with sheer Confucian values, such as virtue, would assure the Qin leadership over all under heaven and taking into account realistic interests would make it a hegemon, but if neither of the two conditions was met, the state would be doomed. “This is also the shortcoming of the Qin,” he said.
History has shown that Xunzi’s prophecy unfortunately came true. The extraordinarily mighty Qin state united China and founded the first imperial dynasty in Chinese history, but it was short-lived.
Coincidence or reasonable prediction?
Was the fulfilment of Xunzi’s prophecy a coincidence, or an example of lobbyers’ commonly used threatening rhetoric [to preach Confucianism], or an accurate prediction based on certain theories? In our opinion, the judgment of Xunzi, as the first sociologist in China — and even the world — was indeed grounded in his sociological insights.
Xunzi pointed out the fundamentals for the generation of human society with a thought experiment approach frequently used by philosophers in the Enlightenment 2,000 years later. As he said in the chapter “The Rule of a True King” of Xunzi: “humans are not as powerful as oxen and don’t run as fast as horses, but oxen and horses are enslaved by humans, why? Because humans can form social groups while domestic animals cannot. Why can humans form social groups? Because of division. And why is division practical? Because of daoyi, morality and justice.”
“Morality and justice determine individual status, so that people can live in harmony, which leads to solidarity. Solidarity means strength, strength brings power and prosperity, and power and prosperity enable triumph over others. As such, people can live and work in peace and contentment…and bring benefits to the entire world,” as stated in the chapter “The Rule of a True King.” Xunzi concluded that all these outcomes result from hierarchy and moral principles. In other words, division of labor and stratification precondition the existence of society.
Xunzi emphasized that human nature is consistent, which resembles a proposition raised in the Enlightenment in the West. However, he also argued that humans should be differentiated by rank. Moreover, humans cannot live without groups. Without division, groups will be at strife, strife will cause chaos, and chaos will impoverish a state. Therefore, a lack of division is detrimental to human society, according to the chapter “Enriching the State.”
Then how should society be governed? Xunzi was in favor of Confucian strategies. As he said in the chapter “The True King and the Hegemon,” “In the court, Confucians will uphold rites and righteousness, and supervise the performance of officials of all ranks while ensuring fairness…if scholar-officials willingly die for the ritual system to maintain their integrity, the military will be powerful. If officials of all ranks revere laws and regulations, the state will be stable most of the time. If merchants are honest and don’t commit fraud, the business environment will be safe, and goods and money will be circulated, thus meeting the demands across the state. If craftsmen of all trades earnestly manufacture exquisite instruments and utensils, materials will not be in shortage. If farmers work hard in a down-to-earth manner, they will not struggle against climate and geographical conditions, and will live in peace, so that government orders can be executed effectively, and the social environment is desirable. This governance model will sustain a stable nation, with military robust, people in a good life, and labor paid off. This is what Confucianism calls ‘thoughtful governance.’”
Central to this theory was a clear understanding of social systems and underlying principles, to classify phenomena based on certain rules or characteristics to deal with them effectively. Xunzi criticized Mengzi for inadequacy in classification. To put it in modern terms, he regarded Mengzi as ignorant of sociology, which made effective state governance impossible.
Case study of Qin state
In the whole text of Xunzi, there are four parts which discuss the state of Qin. Two occur in the chapter “The Strong State” and the other two in the chapter “A Debate on Military Affairs.”
The Qin was distinguished from other states undoubtedly for its military might. Analyzing the reason for its strong army and related social mobilization mechanism, Xunzi expressed profound insights. He said in “A Debate on Military Affairs,” “The Qin court made the people’s lives miserable. It enslaved people cruelly, threatened them by force, choked them with poverty, tricked them with rewards, and forced them to fight in wars using criminal law, so that the people had no alternative but to join the military if they desired benefits. Common people were employed after being impoverished, and awarded if they contributed to military victories, while the reward grew alongside their merits. If they chopped off five enemy soldiers’ heads, they were permitted to enslave five other households in their hometown.” Xunzi didn’t deny that this institutional design contributed to a large army and high combat effectiveness. However, once such “elite soldiers” encounter a united army built upon justice, they would crumble like scorched, dried earth smashing onto rocks, completely disintegrating and suffering a crushing defeat.
Another description of the state of Qin in “A Debate on Military Affairs” was a conversation between Xunzi and Qin’s minister Li Si. Li said that the Qin state had the strongest military, with its power extending to all vassal states; however, they didn’t engage in war based on justice or principle; instead, flexibility was valued above all else. Xunzi replied that although the Qin scored victories for four generations, the central court often feared that other states would unite to ravage the state. It was an army in decline, which failed to grasp the crux of the matter. Why was the Qin court fearful? Because society of this kind was seemingly strong, but it lacked inherent morality and cohesion.
Qin society’s lack of morality and cohesion was a fact. According to the Lyushi Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lyu Buwei), among rural people in the Qin, brothers sued one another, and relatives killed each other for petty interests.
Jia Yi, a disciple of Xunzi’s disciple Zhang Cang, also vividly satirized the Qin’s social climate, as he wrote in Zhi’an Ce (Strategies on Public Security), “when a son lends farm tools to his father, he would feel it was a gift to the father; and when his mother uses his dust pan and broom, she would be immediately scolded.”
In his magnum opus Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian), Sima Qian said that with the weakening of Qin’s national strength, the great unity of all under heaven began to crumble, like a landslide.
It is worth noting that Xunzi voiced his concern to the King Zhao of Qin face to face, probably following Xunzi’s conversation with Fan Ju, as the King Zhao of Qin said to Xunzi directly: “Confucians are of little use to states in the world, are they?” Obviously, the king disagreed with Xunzi’s diagnosis and criticism of the Qin and didn’t hide his distain. No matter how Xunzi explained Confucianism’s significant role in improving governance and social cohesion, and in uniting all under heaven as a family, he was unlikely to have his sociological theories accepted by the king. Certainly, we cannot expect a few words to reform the Qin given structural problems of its society, but it was regrettable that the state missed a good opportunity to improve itself.
Cheng Boqing is a professor and dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Nanjing University.