Contra Hip-Hop (Xunzi on Music)

As I discussed last time, Xunzi clearly saw ritual as important, but important in very different way from his predecessors. Yes, a gentleman should perform rituals as if he was actually serving the dead, but he should not think he was actually interacting with ‘real’ beings. That type of talk was for commoners. Of course it was also for the Shang kings, who’s power came explicitly from their ability to use ritual to interact with and get favors from the ancestors and the powers. So for Xunzi ritual still matters, but not in the all-encompassing magical way it did before.

To find the real magic in Rites and Music in Xunzi you need to look at Music, which is Chapter 20. Here we do find a transcendent magical thing that can change the world. You can see this in at least two ways. One is that music is dangerous if you get it wrong. Bad music is connected to a bad age and seems to help make it bad.

The influence of music and sound on man is very profound, and the transformations they produce in him can be very rapid. Thus, the Ancient Kings were assiduous in creating proper forms. …. If music spoils and seduces toward wickedness, then the people will become dissipated and indolent and will be mean-spirited and base. Where they are dissipated and indolent, there is disorder; where they are mean-spirited and base, there is conflict. Where there is disorder and conflict, the army is weak and the city walls are broken through, so that enemy states can threaten the existence of the state. When this situation prevails, the Hundred Clans feel insecure even in their own homes, are
discontent with their native villages, and are dissatisfied with their superiors. Thus, casting aside ritual and music and allowing evil songs to develop is the root of danger and territorial encroachment for the country and of insult and dishonor for the ruler. Thus, the Ancient Kings esteemed ritual and music and despised evil songs.

If people are exposed to bad music the effects are….bad

Men wear brightly colored clothing; their demeanor is softly feminine; their manners are lascivious; their minds are bent on profit; their conduct lacks consistency; their music is wicked; and their patterns and decorations are gravely in error and gaudy.1 They nurture the needs of the living without measure, but they send off their dead in a niggardly manner and with blackly impure principles. They despise ritual and moral principles, and prize instead valor and feats of strength. When they are poor, they become robbers; when they are rich, they become predators. An orderly age is the opposite of this.

The stuff about those kids today and their music goes back farther than you might have thought. The big difference from rites is that music is actually dangerous. Mis-perform a rite and nothing happens.2 Play bad music and the world is disordered. You can sort of see this in the status of people who do these things. In Xunzi (and Lu Buwei, who I am also reading right now) music masters seem to be people of considerable stature, while the guy who checks to see if you have the right kind of vessels out for a ritual is some sort of underling.

Next Lu Buwei on music and the other way it is magical. (Bet you can’t wait)

  1. Who understands those rap guys anyway? 

  2. In fact I’m not sure you can mis-perform a rite for Xunzi. If the point is to appear gravely sincere as long as you screw up with dignity you should be fine. 


  1. Great post. I blog it a bit here:

    And I just found something fun in Annping Chin’s book, The Authentic Confucius (p. 104). She is recounting a Han dynasty account of the trouble Confucius ran into when he was traveling in Kuang. Apparently, Confucius and his crew were surrounded by enemy soldiers. And what did they do to get out of it? The Han text reports this:

    [Confucius said]”Why don’t you sing a melody and I will do the harmony?” Zilu sang and Confucius harmonized. After three rounds, the soldiers dispersed, and the siege was over.

    Chin then adds: “According to this Han writer, it was, therefore, with “the sound of strings and singing” that Confucius persuaded the crowd in Kuang “he was not Yang Hu”: “he did not have to resort to words to defend himself.””

  2. Sam (or Alan):

    Chin’s explanation of it seems to remove a bit of the “magical” causal efficacy of music, if I’m reading it correctly. If the soldiers dispersed because Confucius singing convinced them he wasn’t Yang Hu, that leads me to think something like “oh, heck, Yang Hu can sing better than _that_!” or something of that nature (or maybe Confucius sang better than Yang Hu).

    I don’t know the story, though. Is there something I’m missing?

    Or was it rather something like this: they were thinking “someone who can sing so well can’t possibly be in league with that brigand Yang Hu!” If so, that would restore a bit of the “magical” nature, or at least suggest that the capacity for musical harmony is linked to an ability for interpersonal/political harmony in some way.

    But I’m just speculating here. What’s the rest of the story?

  3. I read it as more of the latter: that the singing showed a certain civility and it is that civility that is transformative: it made the soldiers walk away. Yang Hu, a bad guy, could never appreciate and thus perform music so well. Indeed, this seems to be true by definition: bad guys are too busy doing bad stuff to take the time to learn and practice moral uplift, which can be gained through music.

  4. Sam,

    It feels like a stronger point, something like: musically harmonious individuals can’t fail to be socially harmonious individuals. Perhaps the belief is that musical harmony requires the recognition of, and appreciation for, the way difference can be made to work together in an aesthetically pleasing manner. As a result, appreciating musical harmony will spill over into one’s interpersonal relationships — one would not bear to see the sight of people interacting in a way that lacks this kind of aesthetic. Xunzi talks this way in places (I don’t know the references offhand) — as if the sage kings and exemplary people are repulsed by the ugliness of what lacks social harmony.

    Or perhaps your point can be consistent with this one: perhaps if Yang Hu bothered to learn musical harmony, he would be repulsed by his brigand ways, and would be forced to reform himself.

  5. I have a question: does traditional ritual shed any light on the Mainland habit of blasting pop music at deafening levels at the entrances to stores during their grand openings? Does ritual give us any insight into the importance of renao?

  6. I had wanted to mention (in response to your previous post) one way of connecting Xunzi to kids today. Dave Eggers, in his memoir, talks about trying to scatter his mother’s ashes into Lake Michigan. It doesn’t work out. The wind is blowing toward him, so he winds up with bits of his mom all over him. He’d been meaning to do something kind of spiritual and cathartic, but just winds up feeling sick to his stomach. That’s the example I give in classes to illustrate how ritual can still be important. Eggers wanted to find the right gesture, the right thing to do to express and transform his emotional state.

    Screwing up with dignity — wouldn’t the sincere person have prepared well enough that screwing up was at best unlikely? Does Xunzi never speak of “shi li” 失禮?

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