What good is ritual?

Rites (li禮) are something that you talk about a lot when you teach Chinese history. Usually the word is translated as “ritual,” which is a pretty accurate translation but not one likely to inflame American students. For any right-thinking American “ritual” is always proceeded by the prefixes “dead” and “meaningless.” For most educated people in traditional China, especially the ru (Confucians, if you must) it was a tremendously important thing. Ritual was what the ancient kings used to bring order to the world, and it was what fathers used to mold their sons into good sons. Rulers used it to mold their ministers into proper officials, and officials used it to mold rulers into good rulers. Finagrette Confucius-The Secular as Sacred (p.9) uses the example of handshaking as a modern example. Handshaking and small talk are actually a fairly complex ritual performances that force others to behave in a civil fashion. Someone can refuse to shake your hand, but only at the expense of completely rejecting civility. Ritual properly performed gives you the power to make people behave themselves. A proper system of rituals is a social technology that creates and orderly society. (Law does the same thing, but it is less effective.)

Of course you need a good story to illustrate this, so here is one, from Nylan The Five “Confucian” Classics p.176 It is a story from Sima Qian about Liu Bang, the first Han emperor. He had been a village policeman, but in the chaos at then end of Qin he did well for himself and founded one of China’s best-known dynasties. At this point he is trying to turn his rabble of followers into an imperial court.

Liu Bang’s followers were given to drinking and brawling over their respective achievements. When in their cups, some would shout wildly and others would draw their swords and hack at the pillars [of the palace], causing the High Ancestor [that is, Liu Bang] distress over their behavior.

Shusun Tong, realizing that the emperor was becoming increasingly disgusted with the situation, persuaded the emperor [to take action]: ..”I beg to summon scholars from Lu, who can join with my disciples in drawing up court rituals.”
“Can you make them not to difficult?”
“The Five Emperors of antiquity all had different types of court music and dance: the Three Kings [of Xia, Shang, and Zhou] did not follow the same ritual….They did not merely copy their predecessors. I intend to pick a number of ancient rituals and some Qin ceremonies, to make a combination of these.”
“See what you can do,” replied the emperor. “But make it easy to learn! Keep in mind it must be the sort of thing I can perform.”

Shusun Tong then summoned some thirty-odd scholars from Lu [the home state of Confucius]…. With the more learned imperial advisors and his own disciples, numbering over a hundred men, he worked out the rituals. When they had practiced for more than a month, Shusun Tong felt that it was time for the emperor to come take a look…”I can do that all right!” exclaimed the emperor when he had watched them carry out the rituals, so he ordered all his officials to practice them so that they could be used in the New Year festivities.

In the seventh year of Han, at the completion of the Eternal Joy Palace, all the nobles and officials attended the New Year’s formal audience…During the ceremony, every single person, from the assembled nobles on down, trembled with awe and reverence. During the drinking which followed the formal audience,…no one dared to quarrel or misbehave in the least. At this, the High Ancestor announced, “Today, for the first time, I know how exalted a thing it is be an emperor. “


  1. Having not read Elias on court etiquette I am not sure how, or if it is different. Do you have any suggestons? In the case of the ru, however, court was by no means the only place ritual worked, although this example is about the court.

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