Your Xing and What You Do

This post sketches part of the argument in my paper “The Warring States Concept of Xing,” which is just out in Dao 10.1 (Spring 2011). “Xing” is commonly translated as “nature,” though “spontaneous character” would be better.

There’s this idea that (in Warring States terms) it can be your xing 性 to do something even though you have no tendency to actually do it. This idea is badly wrong. And no one would take it seriously if they weren’t misreading the Mencius.

The big problem is that the Mencius seems to say that it is our xing to be good, and that people who study the Mencius are mostly trained to think that that claim somehow stands for or summarises everything else the collection has to say about human nature. And trying to interpret the claim so that it does stand for all that leads to some major interpretive troubles.

Two sorts of trouble are especially common in recent English-language scholarship. One draws on some of the Mencius‘s occasional emphasis on the human/animal distinction and associates a thing’s xing with characteristics that are distinctive of its species. It can thus be your xing to be (say) compassionate not because you actually are compassionate but because compassion is distinctive of human beings.

Another sort of trouble comes with the cultivationist or developmental readings of the Mencius we were talking about a while back. This has helped motivate the idea that it can be your xing to do something given only that you will acquire a tendency to do it if you develop in some appropriate way.

These two ideas actually tend to work best together: it is your xing to do whatever you will do if you mature in a way that is distinctive for members of your species. This is close to Graham’s interpretation, and Graham’s interpretation has been very influential.

But on these two points it is also wrong. In fact Warring States texts routinely assume that in the absence of interference a thing will do whatever is its xing to do—and assume that their audience will share the assumption. What the thing might do in the future or what other members of the thing’s species do is entirely irrelevant.

For my full argument you’ll have to check the paper, of course. But I’ll mention three important texts here.

Mencius 6A/6 has Gongduzi presents Mencius with three rival views about xing, as well as arguments in favour of two of them. These are the view that people’s xing can be either good or bad, depending on the influence of their rulers, and the view that some people’s xing is good while other people’s is bad. Both views contradict the first idea mentioned above, that xing is essentially tied to species. And the arguments in favour of these views plainly assume that the way to tell what it is a person’s xing to do is by checking what the person actually does. (One argument is that there are bad people even during the reign of a sage king, so it must be the xing of those people to be bad.)

It’s a bit tricky to figure out what exactly is going on in Mencius’s reply. He doesn’t mention xing at all, talking instead of capacity and the heart. Clearly the view he defends isn’t the view that it is people’s xing to be good, as Gongduzi would interpret that view. What he seems to be saying is that we are good in some less substantive sense. In any case, nothing he says challenges the assumptions Gongduzi makes about xing.

And Mencius is depicted as relying on the very same assumptions in 6A/2. He says that it is people’s xing to be good just as water tends to go down. Just as you can interfere with water (by splashing or with hydraulic technology), and make it go up, you can interfere with people so that they do bad things. In both cases, their xing remains unaffected. Note that it is hardly distinctive of water that it tends to go down, but the passage happily attributes that tendency to its xing—the issue is not any kind of species nature (I’m stealing this point from Graham).

One more passage, this one from the Zhuangzi. A swimmer astounds Confucius with his ability to survive the treacherous waters at Lüliang. The swimmer explains: “I was born on dry land and feel secure on dry land, this is initial conditions (gu 故). I grew up in water and am secure in water, this is xing. Not knowing why I am so I am so, this is fate (ming 命).” The statement about xing provides Graham with his main evidence outside the Mencius for saying that it can be a thing’s xing now to do things that it will only do after future developments have taken place. But the swimmer does not say that. He does indicate that his xing has changed, and context makes it clear that it has changed as a result of the swimmer’s success in spontaneously adapting to the ways of the water, without interference. But at any particular time it is his xing to do only those things he spontaneously does at that time.

And we find the same assumption throughout the late Warring States literature, including in the Mencius. Warring States thinkers just seem to have taken the assumption for granted, and expected their audiences to take it for granted also. If there are ways of reading the Mencius that fit poorly with that fact, this is a reason to doubt those readings of the Mencius, not to try to reinterpret the concept of xing so that it is really about species nature or about ways we can develop.

Of course there are lots of other things to say about xing; the link that Graham finds between xing and health is especially significant. But I think this is enough for one post.

15 replies on “Your Xing and What You Do”

  1. I have three questions. Two are relevant to your piece on 性. The other is tangential, but based on your Zhuangzi citation.

    I have the same issue that you present, but from another angle (that is, issues with conceptions that people’s 性 are to behave in some way, while observed behaviors evince counters to the conception).

    I routinely accuse Mengzi of begging the question on his conception of 性. Goodness is something that we judge upon establishing a value system from 性. However, if Mengzi’s conception of 性 is “to be good,” then he’s begging the question (at least from a Yangist end) because he claims that our 性 is to be good, while the meaning of “being good” comes from 性. Is there a substantive counter to this kind of rebuttal in Confucian literature?

    One way around this kind of objection is to think of 性 as two psychological arenas, one which is private, but another which is social.

    Yangist 性 is much more private, as it asks what people would do if they had no burdens of obligation or fear of punishment. Such a list of pursuits contains only leisure, indulgence, peace of mind, and all of the means necessary to enjoy the prior three: sufficient means (e.g. money, influence), sufficient health, perhaps one or two other things.

    The Mencian 性 always appears more socially oriented, as it doesn’t admit for such a huge hypothetical question, but wants to know how people comport themselves in real social life. In this way, it wouldn’t be circular to explain 性 normatively, since the “being good” would mean something akin to “preserving happiness overall,” which may link back to some conception of private, individual 性 that is not explicit in Mengzi, himself.

    Is Mengzi’s conception of 性 explicitly private question about individual minds and motivations, or can it assume the trend of group behavior (a 性 of a collective)?

    If this is so, the Yangist rebuttal is different (and may actually suffer a composition fallacy), but at least it doesn’t make an initial contention so plain.

    My tangential question is this:

    If “not knowing why I am so” is 命. Does this presume the principle of sufficient reason in Zhuangzi, and can we presume it throughout Warring States literature?

    • Thanks for the thoughts! On the first issue you mention, I read the Mencius quite differently, because I don’t think it ever tries to derive a value system from xing. If it did, though, I wouldn’t say the claim that xing is good would beg the question, it would simply become vacuous (and I agree that it does become vacuous on a fair number of readings). The obvious arguments against are of course Xunzi’s, and he does have a bit where he sort of impatiently sets out what he considers good and bad so it’s clear how he’s judging xing; maybe that’s relevant.

      Bringing in Yangism makes me nervous. Graham of course thought that Mencius started arguing about xing to counter Yangism, but the texts he draws on for his interpretation of Yangism are all much later than Mencius—very suspicious. The passages in the Mencius that slam Yang don’t mention xing, and the passages about xing don’t mention Yang, which maybe also matters.

      I’m not sure I understand the question about sufficient reason. This does present the idea that you don’t always know that by which you are as you are, and that idea is not unique to this passage. But I’m not sure it implies there is a that-by-which even in the particular case, much less always. I’d say in the Zhuangzi at least you get the idea that transformations can be inexplicable (certainly that they can be unanticipatable). But I’m not sure that really addresses the question.

  2. Stephen Walker has pointed out off-blog that the post is a bit quick with 6A/6. The second of the two arguments Gongduzi presents fits what I say quite nicely, but maybe the first doesn’t, because that argument takes some people’s love of good to imply that their xing is good—it’s about how they feel, not what they do, at least explicitly.

    There are actually at least three issues worth distinguishing here:

    1. If it is your xing to X, does that mean you actually X (unless you are interfered with)?

    2. For what sorts of X can it be your xing to X? Only actions? Or maybe also feelings, desires, and so on?

    3. When people talked about people’s xing being good or bad, did they mean it is our xing to be good or bad, or did they mean it is good or bad in some possibly less substantive sense?

    My main aim in the post was to answer the first question affirmatively. But I also talked as if I were saying it can only be your xing to do things, and not, for example, to feel things. That’s just wrong, and I shouldn’t have given that impression (long teaching day…).

    On the third issue, I think that the intended meaning sometimes is that it is our xing to be good or bad (e.g., in Xunzi, or in Mencius 6A/2), but maybe not always, and in particular maybe not in the view that people’s xing can be good and can be bad. Maybe in that view the goodness or badness of your xing depends on which you love, not what you do, and therefore the issue isn’t really whether it is your xing to be good or to be bad. (Another possibility is that in saying that people loved good, Gongduzi is assuming that they therefore did good as well.)

    Still, Gongduzi clearly does assume that if it is your xing to love good, then you will love good unless you are somehow interfered with: it’s still your actual character that’s at issue, not a potential character or one that’s typical for or distinctive of your species.

  3. Hi Dan,

    The paper seems to me brilliant, convincing, and important.

    Here are a couple of questions or worries or something.


    Is it my xìng to sleep? Or to be awake? Right now I have no tendency to sleep. Would one say that my xìng changes twice a day? You might want to say instead that it is my xìng to alternate between sleep and wakefulness, in a day-long cycle; that is, to follow a certain course. Similarly — It seems to me consistent with your account of xìng that there are two slightly different things one might mean by “It is X’s xìng to Y,” depending on what the meaning of ‘is’ is. One might ‘is’ in the present tense, and so mean that naturally X is currently tending to Y; or instead one might mean something tenseless that might refer more directly to the whole course of X’s life in the absence of interference. For example, one might say it is the xìng of rabbits or of rabbit couples to have baby rabbits, even though some rabbits have been fixed or have aged out (if rabbits age out).

    Xunzi seems to be engaging in this kind of talk in the passage you quote on p. 47 of your paper: “‘Now it is people’s xìng to grow (shēng) and to separate off from their simplicity, and to separate off from their endowment; they always lose it’ (Xúnzǐ 23.1d/542).” – unless by ‘separate off’ he just means change ever so slightly in the direction of separation. (And after we lose it, are we still separating off from it? And do we grow even when we’re shrinking, physically and mentally?)


    The vaguess of the notion of “non-interference” is not an objection to your account. But two dimensions of its vagueness strike me as interesting, and I wonder if you have any comment.

    One is the continuity between “non-interference” and “the presence of normal or standard nourishing conditions.” On p.49 (in point 7) you say that “deprivation” is one kind of interference. For example, I may be unable to see because there has not been enough for me to eat.

    The other is the question how intentional or artificial something has to be to be interference. Water can be pushed up when dirt slides into it; I can be unable to see because I have encountered an avalanche. What makes that count as interference? On p. 49 (in point 7) you seem to define interference simply as the non-enabling of the xìng-behavior, though on p. 32 you seem to define the spontaneous as what is done in the absence of interference.

    • Thanks, Bill!

      I normally read those claims as being about current tendencies. The line from the Xunzi could be about a continuing tendency to separate off—not to separate off from an original purity that is then lost, but to continue to separate oneself from one’s desire and such through the activity of the heart. E.g., you continue to want to eat first even as you defer to your elders (and even if you didn’t defer, that would also be because of the activity of your heart, not simply the desire). But your reading also makes sense.

      Actually, in the paper I suggest a similar reading of the line from the LSCQ saying that it’s our xing to be shou 壽. If that means (as it’s usually taken to mean) that it’s our xing to be long-lived, then it pretty much has to be talking about the tendency of our whole lives. Even here though there’s another possibility, because when LSCQ use the word “shou” they seem to be talking about someone’s current character (for longevity they use the compound “shouchang 壽長”), so the line could be saying something like it’s our xing to be healthy or to go on living or something.

      The wording on p.32 is maybe not the best. I think the texts typically assume that they have a handle on what would be spontaneous for a thing, and they base their judgments about what counts as spontaneity on that. I don’t think intention can be essential to interference, what’s essential is that the spontaneous behaviour or growth of the thing gets undermined somehow.

      I agree that it would be tricky to make the distinction work in some cases. Why does the use of hydraulic technology to redirect water go contrary to the xing of the water, as Mencius 6A/2 has it? Why not say that it’s the xing of water to respond in such-and-such a way to hydraulic technology? (In fact there’s that passage in the Guanzi that seems to say that.)

      With living things, I think such judgments have at least some basis in our sense of what it is for the thing to be healthy, robust, and so on. On this I’m pretty close to Graham, I think, though he tends to think of xing in relation to health as mostly being a matter of longevity, whereas I think the thing’s current vitality is much more central.

      Still, it’s not always going to be a straightforward question whether an interaction with a thing contributes to its health or not. For people, at least, there’s also the issue of which interactions are relevant to xing (either nurturing or interfering). The primitivists maybe thought all of them are, Xunzi for one would have disagreed.

  4. Hi Dan,

    I’ve been somewhat disorganized lately and have wanted to pose some questions and comments about your paper. Here’s what i have for today, there will be more later (lucky you!). I quite liked your paper and it made me realize I haven’t read your dissertation on xing. (I read the section on the primitivists yesterday … liked it.)

    When you say that “it is a thing’s xing to have some characteristic just in case the thing has this characteristic naturally, and it is a thing’s xing to behave in some way only if it behaves that way spontaneously,” I think this is close enough to “nature” as normally used. There are some nuances where xing and nature don’t match up well, but not everybody uses the word nature in the same way, so we can’t be sure we’re being led astray by glossing xing as nature. At least, that’s my opinion.

    I think you have demonstrated very well that there was somewhat of “a single, shared concept of xing,” but I wouldn’t take it too far. I would find it surprising that different thinkers from all over ancient “China” and separated by decades to centuries would all share the same conception of a word (especially without the aid of dictionaries to tell them the “correct” meaning).

    I’m not sure what to make of your argument that xing is not species nature. On p. 35 you suggest that it is our xing to have “incipient moral sensitivities” (which lead to goodness) and on 36 you say “it is the beginings of virtue that distinguish us as a species from animals.”

    And finally, when you reject the view that xing can represent potential, I at once thought of Mengzi’s explanation that when he spoke of human xing being good, by good he meant that one can be good (6A6: 可以為善). Perhaps you would argue that we currently have the inner resources (“incipient moral sensitivities”) for goodness or perhaps point out the relevance of the preceding several graphs: 乃若其情.
    You say “we nowhere find a text attributing to a thing’s xing a characteristic it does not yet possess,” but doesn’t Mengzi 6A6 sort of do that by saying that the goodness of human xing should be understood as the potential to be/act good?

    Sorry, if I’m misunderstanding you. I don’t have a Phd, or BA or MA or…

    • If it were just those connections to naturalness and spontaneity, then “nature” might do fairly well for “xing,” though I think that even here “xing” is less vague than “nature” is. It’s the connection to health, with the idea that your xing can be vulnerable, that makes xing so different from nature.

      I do try to avoid the concept/conception issue in the paper. I suppose that what I try to show is that there’s enough of a shared conception that it’s not helpful to think of discussions of xing in terms of different concepts (the way scholars often think of MC and XZ, for example). That allows for differences of emphasis and so on, and leaves other issues unsettled (e.g., people disagreeing about what sorts of interaction count as interferences).

      When I say that xing isn’t species nature, I mean that your xing all about your own (current, actual) character, so that if you don’t tend to act in a certain way, it cannot be your xing to act that way—even if all other members of your species act that way. That doesn’t mean that members of a species won’t often be similar in their xing, and in fact many Warring States claims about xing take the form of generalisations about species (but many others do not).

      Mencius 6A/6 is tricky. Mencius is asked whether he really thinks that our xing is good, and he says we have the capacity, and this is what he calls good. He *doesn’t* say that that’s what it means to say it’s people’s xing to be good (in fact he doesn’t mention xing at all).

      I think there are two ways to make sense of this, and both are consistent with what I say about xing.

      First, you could say the view here is that it’s our xing to have the capacities (or to have the hearts that give us the capacities). Mencius is saying that our xing is good in this sense, but he’s not going so far as to say that it’s our xing to be good.

      Second, Mencius could be retreating, as if acknowledging that it would be going too far to say that it’s our xing to be good. “Really all I meant was…” This is actually the reading I lean towards. It might strike you as awkward or forced, but I suspect it strikes people that way largely because they’re not used to thinking of the Mencius as a text that was put together over (probably) decades by people who likely changed their minds about various things (but also had an interest in not highlighting such shifts).

  5. Hi Dan,

    I quite like your “definition” of Xing as “a thing’s natural tendencies to grow or develop in particular ways” (p. 38). I know you argue against Xing referring to something yet to appear, but I feel we should not rule it out, that we should have a wider semantic circle, and not one so precise, though I could be wrong.

    Mengzi felt that we will degenerate into beasts unless we receive (Confucian) education (3A4). This is perhaps not because our Xing is bad, but because our minds are weak. Or is he here admitting that we have negative natural tendencies also? He seems to be saying we need to interfere with this natural tendency toward idleness and “beastiality.” Xunzi focuses on the more negatively-viewed aspects of humans, like excessive desires and certain emotions and also believed the mind was the important issue, the mind needed a Confucian education to keep these bad bits under control. Mohists and “Legalists” also seemed to have believed that people had bad tendencies (e.g., partiality, selfishness) and needed to be controlled (or exploited). Mozi had a dim view of humans in a time before rulers (尚同), but this could be because their minds were weak/undeveloped and not a matter of people’s Xing being bad. The Guodian Xing Zi Ming Chu also argues that people need education in order to develop good character/virtue (as you point out).

    I continue to find the notion of “interference” confusing in your paper. That a lack of available nourishment for a plant to count as interference seems a bit strange to me (unless the nourishment was purposely denied to it). That people require education and direction in order to act virtuously seems to be interference, even if we are just “watering” our good tendencies. But I get the impression that you consider a lack of direction and education as interference. Again, though, maybe this has more to do with the mind and not Xing (of course, the semantic signifier 忄 is present in the character 性).

    Though not surprising, the passages from the Zuozhuan quoted on page 33 and 42/3 seem to view Xing quite differently insofar as people’s Xing is good or bad. If the people have a natural tendency to abuse their superiors and enjoy calamity, then perhaps it would be a good thing for people to “lose their xing.” Obviously, the targets of each passage are different, so we should not expect coherence (even if it came from the same author).

    On page 44 you write, “These and other texts assume that one’s xing requires care, and that it can be injured or even lost. This distinguishes people xing fundamentally from human nature. Scholars sometimes gloss over this difference by using expressions such as ‘take care of one’s nature,’ ‘harm one’s nature,’ or ‘lose one’s nature.’ But this cannot be the ‘nature’ of ‘human nature,’ and it is not really clear what it is supposed to mean.”

    I’m unsure what this fundamental difference is. If “human nature” refers to a person’s natural tendencies, which I think it does, then, granted one believes human nature to be “good” and worth preserving, one can talk about taking care of one’s nature or harming it. What do you think?

    Two more things. I discovered this passage regarding renxing in Wenzi chapter 1 and thought I’d share it: 原人之性無邪穢,久湛於物即易,易而忘其本即合於其若性。 Cleary translates it as “The essential nature of the original human being has no perversion or defilement, but after long immersion in things it easily changes, so that we forget our roots and conform to a seeming nature.”

    The other is a lengthy review of Mencius : contexts and interpretations by Michael LaFargue which I think is worth reading, especially since it deals thoroughly with the human nature issue.
    (I have a Word document of this review which is easier to read, in case you’re interested).

    • Scott, I wonder whether your quote from the Wenzi could be translated this way:

      “The original person is by nature without perversion or defilement, but after long immersion in things he changes, and changing forgets his roots and conforms to a seeming nature”? or even “… and conforms to them as though to his nature” ?

    • It seems like the subject of the sentence is the xing of the “original person,” but I don’t really have any problems with your interpretation.

    • Thanks for the comments, Scott!

      That Wenzi line is a good one. I agree with Bill that the subject is actually the person rather than the xing. (The two occurrences of “yi / change” must have the same subject, and the second “yi” must have the same subject as “wang / forget,” and it’s not the xing that forgets.) That’s the grammar usually works in claims with this sort of structure: it’s “it is X’s xing to…” rather than “X’s xing is…”. (Bill’s version might actually be better than mine: “X is by xing…”)

      This and other texts that talk about how an acquired tendency can be “like xing 若性” are among those that make the idea of interference I depend on hard to pin down. It’s easy to imagine someone just disagreeing with these passages, and saying that the sort of transformation they’re talking about actually changes the xing: the new tendency is not just like xing, it actually is xing. It’s *not* part of my interpretation of xing that everyone who used the term would have agreed about which sorts of interaction count as interference and which don’t.

      I do agree that it’s a bit odd to classify deprivation as a kind of interference in lots of cases. Maybe I was overextending my use of the term?

      I tend to think the usual Mencian view is that moral improvement does not require interference with xing, and that changes to xing are required, if at all, only for full sagehood (the Yao and Shun of Book 7), not for more ordinary levels of virtue. This is a bit of an extrapolation, because the texts I’d draw on to defend this view mostly don’t mention xing. It’s a tricky question how (even whether) to relate this view to the idea, in 3A/4 and 1A/7 at least, that the common people need education if they’re going to be good. I’d certainly resist trying to extract a theory of xing from this idea and then reading that theory into the rest of the Mencius and trying to reconcile it with the more famous human-nature stuff. (Note that 1A/7 both says that the common people need moral education and seems to assume that the king doesn’t, and it’s the stuff about the king that’s usually taken to illustrate the idea that our xing is good. It’s a tricky but interesting question what exactly to make of the elitism both here and earlier in the passage, with regard to the slaughter of animals.)

      What do you think it means to harm your nature? Is this just a metaphorical way of saying that you’re acting contrary to your nature? If it’s like harming your xing it has to be more than that, it actually has to sound like a health issue, I think.

  6. Hi Dan,

    re: “What do you think it means to harm your nature? Is this just a metaphorical way of saying that you’re acting contrary to your nature? If it’s like harming your xing it has to be more than that, it actually has to sound like a health issue, I think.”

    — To harm/lose my nature means, I think, to interfere with its natural expression and/or to replace it with a “seeming nature” (若性). I would include related health issues.

    I agree with your view on the subject of the Wenzi passage. Thanks.

  7. Hi,

    Regarding Xing not representing a future state, here’s something from the Hanshi Waizhuan which begs to differ:

    1 繭之性為絲, It is the nature of a cocoon to make silk thread,
    2 弗得女工燔以沸湯, but if it is not first heated in boiling water by the woman whose job it is,
    3 抽其統理, and then unraveled and put into order,
    4 則不成為絲。 it will not become silk thread.
    5 卵之性為雛, It is the nature of an egg to make a chick;
    6 不得良雞覆伏孚育, but without a good hen to cover it and protect it
    7 積日累久, for days on end,
    8 則不成為雛。 it will not become a chick.
    (Hightower trans.)

  8. Hi Scott! Sorry for the late reply. That’s a really interesting passage, though I don’t know Han stuff nearly well enough to be really sure what to make of it. It looks like it supports Graham’s understanding of xing really nicely: it’s presupposing a distinction between nourishment and interference, and saying that a thing’s xing includes characteristics that it will have if appropriately nourished. There’s nothing comparable in the surviving Warring States literature, though.

    Here’s a try at squaring the passage with my own interpretation of xing.

    Take “it is the xing of a cocoon to make silk thread” and “it is the xing of an egg to make a chick” as generic statements, that is, statements about what is generally or typically true of the members of some kind. An analogy: “a horse has four legs” doesn’t tell us about any particular horse or about all horses, and the statement is not falsified by the fact that there are horses without four legs. What it tells us is what is typical of horses as a kind. It’s pretty clear, I think, that the two HSWZ statements are statements of this kind, telling us what is typically true of cocoons and eggs as kinds. Importantly, it’s not the word “xing” that gives the statements this generic character: “cocoons make silk thread” and “eggs make chicks” would be generic in just the same way.

    My suggestion: the passage is pointing out that what is typically true of cocoons and eggs is actually true of particular cocoons and eggs only if conditions are right. It’s tightening the focus, if you will. But this does not undermine the claims about what is generally true of cocoons and eggs so much as explain why its true. Reading the passage this way requires the assumption that the ways it mentions of nourishing cocoons and eggs are somehow typical or natural for them—they really do count as nourishment rather than as interference. (This distinction is as fundamental to my interpretation of xing as it is to Graham’s, though I don’t give it the same normative significance he does.)

    The important point here is that this reading avoids the consequence that it can be the xing of a particular cocoon (say) to produce threads even before it has been appropriately tended: it’s generally true of cocoons that it’s their xing to produce silk even though that is true of particular cocoons only when they are tended right.

    Does that make any sense?

    (Another interesting Han occurrence comes in the “Shi xing 實性” chapter of the Chunqiu fanlu, slightly later than the HSWZ: “Good is like rice; xing is like unharvested grains. Although the grains produce (chu 出) rice, they cannot yet be called rice. Although xing produces good, it cannot yet be called good. Rice and goodness are what people complete on the outside by extending (ji 繼) tian, not within what tian has done.”)

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