Matti Nojonen on Xunzi’s practical philosophy of governance; concepts of rites (li), law (fa) and social order and contemporary Chinese Party-State

On 24 May 2021, Professor Matti Nojonen from the University of Lapland gave a guest lecture on ”Xunzi´s practical philosophy of governance, concepts of rites (li), law (fa) and social order and contemporary Chinese Party-State”. During his lecture, Professor Nojonen gave an interesting insight into Xunzi´s (c. 300 – c. 235 BC) thinking and the concepts of li and fa. Apart from the historical discussion, Professor Nojonen also talked about the Chinese contemporary trend to value Confucianism. At the end of the lecture, he gave answers to questions arising from the audience.

Professor Matti Nojonen, 24 May 2021

Xunzi was an important Confucian thinker after Confucius (551 – 479 BC) and Mencius (372 – 289 BC). Xunzi lived in the ”Warring States era” when there was more social disorder compared to Confucius´ times. He wrote a comprehensive book ”Xunzi”. As Professor Nojonen pointed out, Confucianism is not a static philosophy. Xunzi in his part also modified it. In general, Professor Nojonen reminded that the concepts in China differ from western concepts. Chinese concepts are more practical and not so clearly defined. Traditional Chinese does not even have a word for concepts and they can be verbs at the same time.

Xunzi was influenced by the Jixia Academy of his era. The question of how to bring order to society was important to him. Li (rite, ritual) was already a Confucian concept but Xunzi developed a full theory of li. According to Xunzi´s theory of li, human nature is evil and humans are driven by certain desires and inborn emotions. Therefore, Xunzi´s view on humans born evil differs from Mencius´ more idealistic view on humans being potentially good. In Xunzi´s theory, li is the tool to control the desires and emotions humans are born with. However, because it is a rather vague concept, it is any ruler’s monopoly, but also his responsibility to define li for his people, which makes li a practical and deliberate tool of governance.

An example of li coupled with other concepts is liyi with yi meaning „justice/righteousness“. Yi is what differs humans from animals. However, according to Xunzi, humans are born evil and without yi, but they can attain liyi by studying and thereby handle their evil desires. Professor Nojonen pointed out how Xunzi´s view differed again from Mencius’: Mencius saw studying as a way to become good while Xunzi saw it as an instrument to control evil. Xunzi stressed the importance of wei (conscious activity) and not leaving one´s fate to the hands of tian (heaven or nature). Another related concept is fen (distinction of social classes). According to Xunzi, people should stay in their social classes, as that makes them understand justice and easier to control.

For Xunzi, li was not enough to govern. Fa (law, regulation) was needed too in maintaining social order. Fa can be understood as a method of governance that constrains the behavior of people, especially with the penal code. It is therefore the „backbone“ that lies underneath li and stabilizes the society. One of Xunzi´s students, Hanfeizi, was a founding father of legalism, which led to the rough legalist Qin-dynasty, which only lasted for 17 years. However, Xunzi differed from strict legalism because he thought that fa is subordinate to li. A symbiotic relationship between li and fa can be seen as Xunzi´s legacy.

Professor Nojonen talked about the recent ”turn to own classics” in China. Xi Jinping has been the driving force of it. He has, for example, visited the birthplace of Confucius and has given a speech on Confucius´ 2.565th birthday. Professor Nojonen also discussed contemporary Party-State interplaying li and fa in the Xuncian sense. In his summary remarks, Professor Nojonen stressed the importance of Xunzi for the Chinese culture. Only the Xuncian insertion of fa made the idealistic, li-based Confucianism an efficient and practical ideology of governance.

This blog post was written by the Center’s interns, Elias Jakala and Johanna Fähnrich.