Class #6

Confucian Ritualism

Reading:  Analects, Books III & X; passages 12.11, 15.3, 15.31

Lecture PowerPoint Deck

The third and tenth books of the Analects are thematically interested in ritual. The ritual network which had been elaborated during the heyday of the Western Zhou included religious ceremony, political ceremony and norms of political etiquette, and a wide range of norms of social etiquette. These were overlapping aspects of ritual, and people at the time did not make any category distinctions between "rites," "ceremonies," and "manners." All these were called by a single name, "li." "Li is the focus of Confucian philosophy. It is the path through which ren can be attained in individuals, and order restored to society.

During the Western Zhou, li had been little more than accepted custom. Legitimate action within the political, religious, and social spheres of the Zhou polity had been marked by ritualistic behavior, but this style of behavior had not been the focus of attention as an object in itself. In the "debased" Eastern Zhou, an era dominated by warlords and knights-errant engaged in the unceasing civil wars of five centuries, the norms of behavior increasingly came to focus on values such as personal loyalty, bravery, straightforwardness, and the pleasures of wealth and power. Li became "showpiece" behavior: appropriate primarily as a means of claiming increased political and social status at a time when hereditary social order was giving way to the forces of social mobility. In short, li became an means of legitimizing "usurpations," but beyond that, was not of much interest.

Within this social climate, Confucius and his followers became oddities. They insisted that li was valuable in itself, because it was rewarding aesthetically and psychologically, because it generated a species of wisdom, and because lying immanent within it were the painfully evolved patterns of human-ness, which had reached their peak in the early Zhou. They were not bored by li; they practiced rituals all day long. They gathered in the morning to step out ceremonial procedures, chant poems long out of date, and play music and practice dances which bored everybody else. They wore clothes nobody wore anymore, and they tried to speak in the dialect of the Zhou court, which people generally did not use. They were odd in every way.

Philosophically, what is interesting about Confucians in this regard is that they built their philosophy by accepting with great earnestness the authority of history, as they saw it, and began their reasoning there. The confirmation of the validity of the axiom that history--and specifically the social customs of the early Zhou (which we would view as "accidents")-- provided a firm value ground, was to be discovered through the process of ritual practice which the Confucians undertook. We might say that acquisition of ritual skills transformed one's perspective and confirmed the absolute value of those skills. This sort of thinking would hold no water in Western philosophical traditions, but it did in the Chinese case, and part of our task is to figure out why.

Book X, which you should read along with Book III, gives us a clear picture of just how devoted to the intricacies of ritual action the early Confucians were. Westerners do not generally approve of the picture of the ideal actor sketched in Book X, but paradoxically, in the context of Confucian training and beliefs, it may have represented a style of self-expression, rather than the binding constraint apparent from out point of view.