Educated in the state of Qi, Xunzi was associated with the Confucian school, but his philosophy has a darker, pragmatic, flavour compared to Confucian optimism, perhaps because he witnessed the chaos surrounding the fall of the Zhou dynasty. Xunzi believed man's inborn tendencies need to be curbed through education and ritual, counter to Mencius's view that man is innately good. He believed that ethical norms had been invented to rectify mankind. Xunzi was the teacher of Li Si and Han Fei Zi, proponents of Legalism, who believed that man's nature is innately bad and needs to be controlled by law and punishments.
Xunzi was born Xun Kuang (荀況). Some texts recorded his surname as Sun (孫) instead of Xun, either because the two surnames were homophones in antiquity or because Xun was a naming taboo during the reign of Emperor Xuan of Han (73–48 BC), whose given name was Xun. Herbert Giles and John Knoblock both consider the naming taboo theory more likely.
The name "Xunzi" is an honorary title that means "Master Xun".
The early years of Xunzi's life are enshrouded in mystery. Nothing is known of his lineage. Sima Qian records that he was born in Zhao, and Anze County has erected a large memorial hall at his supposed birthplace. He was first known at the age of fifty, around 264 BC, when he went to the state of Qi to study and teach at the Jixia Academy. Xunzi was well respected in Qi; the King Xiang of Qi honoured him as a teacher and a libationer. It was around this time that Xunzi visited the state of Qin and praised its governance, and debated military affairs with Lord Linwu (臨武君) in the court of King Xiaocheng of Zhao. Later, Xunzi was slandered in the Qi court, and he retreated south to the state of Chu, where Lord Chunshen, the prime minister, gave him a position as Magistrate of Lanling (蘭陵令). In 238 BC, Lord Chunshen was assassinated by a court rival and Xunzi subsequently lost his position. He remained in Lanling, a region in what is today's southern Shandong province, for the rest of his life and was buried there. The year of his death is unknown.
Of his disciples, the most notable are Li Si (prime minister to the first Qin emperor) and the Han state royal Han Feizi, who developed the quasi-authoritarian aspects of his thought into the doctrine called the School of Law, or Legalism. Because of Li Si and Han Feizi's staunch anti-Confucian stances, Xunzi's reputation as a Confucian philosopher has often come into question.
While Xunzi's doctrines were influential in forming the official state doctrine of the Han Dynasty, during the Tang Dynasty his influence waned compared to that of Mencius.
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