(Semester 1, 2013–14)

(Lecture: Tuesdays 13:30–15:20, CPD 2.45)

Xunzi was an influential Confucian of the late Warring States period whose writings are among the most elegant and tightly argued in the history of Chinese philosophy. The Xunzi covers a wide range of topics, including ethics, moral psychology, political philosophy, epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, and even economics and military affairs. The aim of this course is to guide students in close reading, interpretation, and analysis of the Xunzi, in order to develop students’ ability to interpret and critique primary sources in Chinese philosophy. Class discussion will focus on Xunzi’s epistemology, philosophy of language, ethics, political philosophy, and moral psychology. Class meetings will be devoted to joint interpretation of passages from the Xunzi, reconstruction of their arguments, and small-group discussion of topics assigned by the instructor. We will also call attention to relations between Xunzi’s views and contemporary ethics, epistemology, philosophy of language, and moral psychology.

HKU students: The course materials download page (password protected) is here.

Learning Objectives and Outcomes

After completing this course, students should be able to:

  • Describe selected issues pertaining to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and psychology that arise from study of the Xunzi

  • Critically examine a range of positions on and approaches to these issues and identify their strengths and weaknesses

  • Demonstrate interpretive, analytical, and argumentative skills in oral presentation and writing by discussing these issues in written assignments and tutorials

  • Demonstrate appreciation of the distinctiveness and complexity of Xunzi's philosophy and how it relates to the broader classical Chinese philosophical discourse

Course Outline

1. Introduction to Xunzi's Thought (9/3, 9/10, 9/17)

Reading: Discussion questions 1; Robins, “Xunzi,” sections 1–6; 《荀子集釋》537–51, 361–78.

2. Philosophy of Language, Logic, and Epistemology (9/24, 10/8, 10/22)

Reading: Discussion questions 2; Robins, “Xunzi,” sections 8–9;《荀子集釋》506–24, 410–15, 472–74, 478–88, 495–502; Fraser, "Language and Logic in the Xunzi"; section on Xunzi in "Knowledge and Error in Early Chinese Thought."

(Homework 1—mid to late October)

3. Ethics and Politics (10/29, 11/5)

Reading: Discussion questions 3; Robins, “Xunzi,” sections 2–3, and section 7;《荀子集釋》 161–66, 178–81, 195–202, 263–71, 417–29, 439–40, 79–83, 131–32; Fraser, "Happiness in Classical Confucianism: Xunzi." Optional: Fraser, section on Xunzi in "The Limitations of Ritual Propriety."

(Homework 2—early November)

4. Moral Psychology (11/12, 11/19, 11/26) 

Reading: Discussion questions 4; Robins, “Xunzi,” section 4 and section 6;《荀子集釋》527–32, 2–19, 23–24, 34, 558, 60–65, 140–43, 552–54, 430–32, 436–37; Hutton, “Does Xunzi Have a Consistent Theory of Human Nature?”

(Homework 3—late November)

Final writing assignment: mid December

Coursework and Assessment

Participation in class discussion (25% of the grade), three short writing assignments (500 words each, 50%), short final paper (1500–2000 words, 25%).

All written assignments are to be submitted by email to: fraser@hku.hk.


Primary Sources

李滌生:《荀子集釋》,台北:學生書局,1979。This will be the primary source text for class discussions.

Hutton, E. In P. J. Ivanhoe and B. Van Norden, eds., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006. Chapter 6: Xunzi, pp. 255–310.

Knoblock, J., tr. Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works, 3 vols. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988, 1990, 1994.

Watson, B. Hsün Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.

Secondary Sources






Fraser, Chris. "Happiness in Classical Confucianism: Xunzi."

Fraser, Chris. Xunzi and Zhuangzi: Two Approaches to Death in Chinese Philosophy. Frontiers of Philosophy in China 8.3 (2013): 410–427.

Fraser, Chris. Language and Logic in the Xunzi. Contribution to Dao Companion to Xunzi, Eric Hutton, ed. Dordrecht: Springer (forthcoming).

Fraser, Chris. The Limitations of Ritual Propriety: Ritual and Language in Xunzi and Zhuangzi. Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics 51.2 (2012): 257–282.

Fraser, Chris. Knowledge and Error in Early Chinese Thought. Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 10.2 (2011): 127–48.

Fraser, Chris. “Zhuangzi, Xunzi, and the Paradoxical Nature of Education.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 33.4 (2006): 529–42.

Geaney, Jane. On the Epistemology of the Senses in Early Chinese Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Hagen, Kurtis. The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction. Open Court, 2007.

Hansen, Chad. A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. Oxford, 1992.

Hutton, Eric. “Does Xunzi Have a Consistent Theory of Human Nature?” In Kline and Ivanhoe, 220–36.

Ivanhoe, P. J. “A Happy Symmetry: Xunzi’s Ethical Thought,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 59.2 (1991), 309–22.

Kline, T. C., and P. J. Ivanhoe, eds. Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi. Hackett, 2000.

Lau, D. C. “Theories of Human Nature in Mencius and Xunzi.” In Kline and Ivanhoe, 188–219.

Machle, Edward. Nature and Heaven in the Xunzi: A Study of the Tian Lun. SUNY Press, 1993.

Munro, Donald. “A Villain in the Xunzi.” In P. J. Ivanhoe, ed., Chinese Language, Thought, and Culture: Nivison and His Critics (Open Court, 1996), 193201.

Nivison, David. “Xunzi on ‘Human Nature’.” In Nivison, The Ways of Confucianism (Open Court, 1996), 203–14.

Robins, Dan. “Xunzi.” In E. Zalta, ed., The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Van Norden, Bryan. “Hansen on Hsun-tzu.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 20.3 (1993): 365–82.

Van Norden, Bryan. “Mengzi and Xunzi: Two Views of Human Agency.” In Kline and Ivanhoe, 103–34.

Wong, David. “Xunzi on Moral Motivation.” In Kline and Ivanhoe, 135–54.

Yearley, Lee. “Hsun Tzu on the Mind: His Attempted Synthesis of Confucianism and Taoism.” Journal of Asian Studies 39.3 (1980): 46580.