Skip to main content

Xunzi’s Theory of Ritual Revisited: Reading Ritual as Corporal Technology


This essay offers a new reading of Xunzi’s ritual theory against the backdrop of excavated technical manuals from the Mawangdui and Zhangjiashan collections. While most studies tend to focus on the sociopolitical and moral aspects of Xunzi’s thought, I attempt to demonstrate that in composing his theory of ritual, Xunzi was not only concerned with defending the Confucian tradition against the criticism of his fellow philosophical masters, but was also responding to the emergence of bio-spiritual practices such as meditation, sexual cultivation, and gymnastic exercises. Alarmed by the growing popularity of these individual corporal techniques among the Warring States elite, Xunzi opted to repackage and redefine ritual as a superior technology of the body that would enable humans to transform their bodies and minds and obtain physical and spiritual bounties while at the same time enhancing sociopolitical stability and harmony by creating an organic communal body.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Bell, Catherine. 1997. Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boyer, Pascal, and Pierre Liénard. 2006. “Whence Collective Rituals? A Cultural Selection Model of Ritualized Behavior.” American Anthropologist 108.4: 814-827.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brindley, Erica. 2006. “Music and Cosmos in the Development of ‘Psychology’ in Early China.” T’oung Pao 92.1-3: 1-49.

  • Brown, Miranda, and Uffe Bergeton. 2008. “‘Seeing’ Like a Sage: Three Perspectives on Perception and Identity in Early China.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 35.3: 641-662.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Campany, Robert. 1992. “Xunzi and Durkheim as Theorists of Ritual.” In Discourse and Practice. Ed. by Frank Reynolds and David Tracy, 197–231. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chen, Qiyou 陳奇猷. 1984. Collated Explanations on the Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lü 呂氏春秋校釋. Shanghai 上海: Xuelin Chubanse 學林出版社.

  • Cook, Scott. 1997. “Xunzi on Ritual and Music.” Monumenta Serica 45: 1-38.

    Google Scholar 

  • Csikszentmihalyi, Mark. 2004. Material Virtue: Ethics and the Body in Early China. Leiden: Brill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Despeux, Catherine. 2004. “La Gymnastique Daoyin dans la Chine Ancienne.” Etudes chinoises 23: 45-86.

    Google Scholar 

  • Falkenhausen, Lothar von. 2004. “Review of To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 64.2: 465-479.

  • Foucault, Michel. 1988. “Technologies of the Self.” In Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Ed. by Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, 16-49. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gao, Dalun. 1995. 高大倫. A Study of the Han Bamboo Manuscript “the Stretching Book” 張家山漢簡《引書》研究. Chengdu 成都: Bashu Shushe 巴蜀書社.

  • Goldin, Paul R. 2011. Confucianism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hagen, Kurtis. 2007. The Philosophy of Xunzi: a Reconstruction. Chicago: Open Court.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harper, Donald. 1998. Early Chinese Medical Literature: The Mawangdui Medical Manuscripts. London and New York: Kegan Paul International.

    Google Scholar 

  • _____. 1999. “Warring States Natural Philosophy and Occult Thought.” In The Cambridge History of Ancient China. Ed. by Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ivanhoe, Philip. 1991. “A Happy Symmetry: Xunzi’s Ethical Thought.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 59.2: 309-322.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kalinowski, Marc. 2004. “Technical Traditions in Ancient China and Shushu Culture in Chinese Religion.” Religion and Chinese Society: A Centennial Conference of the École française d’Extrême-Orient. Ed. John Lagerwey, 223-248. Paris: École française d’Extrême-Orient.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kline, T.C. III. 2006. “The Therapy of Desire in Early Confucianism: Xunzi.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 5.2: 235-246.

    Google Scholar 

  • ____. 2004. “Moral Cultivation and Ritual Participation: Xunzi’s Philosophy of Ritual.” In Thinking through Rituals: Philosophical Perspectives. Ed. by Kevin Schilbrack, 188-206. New York: Routledge.

  • Kline, T.C. III, and Philip Ivanhoe, eds. 2000. Virtue, Nature, and Moral Agency in the Xunzi. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kupperman, Joel. 2000. “Xunzi: Morality as Psychological Constraint.” See Kline and Ivanhoe, 89-102.

  • Lau, D.C. 2000. “Theories of Human Nature in Mencius and Xunzi.” See Kline and Ivanhoe, 188-219.

  • Lau, D.C. 劉殿爵 and Chen F.C. 陳方正, eds. 1996. A Comprehensive Concordance to the Xunzi 荀子逐字索引. Hong-Kong 香港: Shangwu Yingshuguan 商務印書館.

  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1981. The Naked Man. New York: Harper & Row.

    Google Scholar 

  • Li, Ling 李零. 2000. A Comprehensive Examination of Chinese Occult Arts 中國方術續考. Beijing 北京: Dongfang Chubanshe 東方出版社.

  • Li, Xueqin 李學勤. 1991. “The ‘Stretching Book’ and the ‘Diagram of Guiding and Stretching’ 《引書》與《導引圖》.” Wenwu Tiandi 文物天地 2:7-9.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lo, Vivienne 2007. “Imagining Practice: Sense and Sensuality in Early Chinese Medical Illustration.” In The Warp and the Weft: Graphics and Text in the Production of Technical Knowledge in China. Ed. by Bray Metailie and Vera Dorofeeva-Lichtmann. Leiden: Brill.

  • Mair, Victor. 1998. Wandering on the Way: Early Taoist Tales and Parables of C huang Tzu. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

  • Pines, Yuri. 2000. “Disputers of the Li: Breakthroughs in the Concept of Ritual in Pre-Imperial China.” Asia Major 13.1: 1-41.

    Google Scholar 

  • Puett, Michael 2002. To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ren, Yingqiu 任應秋, ed. 1986. A Segmented Concordance to the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor 黃帝內經章句索引. Beijing 北京: Renmin Weishang Chubanshe 人民衛生出版社.

  • Roth, Harold. 1999. Original Tao: Inward Training (Nei-yeh) and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sato, Masayuki. 2003. The Confucian Quest for Order: The Origin and Formation of the Political Thought of X un Zi. Leiden: Brill.

  • Sterckx, Roel. 2002. Animal and the Daemon in Early China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Szabó, Sándor P. 2003. “The Term shenming—its Meaning in the Ancient Chinese Thought and in a Recently Discovered Manuscript.” Acta Orientalia 56.2-4: 251-274.

    Google Scholar 

  • Turner, Victor. 1983. “Body, Brain, and Culture.” Zygon 18.3: 221-245.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wang, Keping 王柯平. 2009. “Mozi versus Xunzi on Music.” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 36.4: 653-665.

    Google Scholar 

  • Watson, Burton. 1963. M o Tzu: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Whitehouse, Harvey. 2004. Modes of Religiosity: A Cognitive Theory of Religious Transmission. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wong, David. 2000. “Xunzi on Moral Motivation.” See Kline and Ivanhoe, 135-154.

  • Yang, Bojun 楊伯峻. 2007. An Annotated Translation of the Analects 論語譯注. Beijing 北京: Zhonghua Shuju 中華書局.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ori Tavor.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Tavor, O. Xunzi’s Theory of Ritual Revisited: Reading Ritual as Corporal Technology. Dao 12, 313–330 (2013).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Xunzi
  • Ritual
  • Music
  • Corporal Technologies
  • Excavated Manuscripts