Xunzi on ritual

Next semester I will be teaching about ritual, so I have been reading Xunzi on ritual and music. I’ve been using the Knoblock translation, which is wonderful.  (Chinese Text project has the Chinese) Xunzi is always good to use when teaching about classical ideas, since he was the last of the Big Three classical philosophers and he also tends to write in complete essays.  Xunzi was quite interested in ritual and music, in part because he was a Ru and in part because the value of  ritual and music were under attack by Mo-zi and others. 19.11 gives a wonderful defense of the role of ritual as a method of externalizing emotion. Its a long quote, but better than my commentary so I reproduce it in full and welcome any comments about teaching it.

Xunzi 19.11

Sacrifice originates in the emotions stirred by remembrance and recollection of the dead and by thinking of and longing for the departed. There inevitably are occasions in everyone’s life when he is seized by an unexpected change of mood, when feelings of disquietude and melancholy cause him to sigh involuntarily or to feel that his breath is short from deep emotion. Thus, even in the midst of enjoying himself with congenial company, the loyal minister and the filial son are sometimes overcome with such changes of mood. When they do come, they are
profoundly moving. If they are repressed, the emotions stirred by remembrance of the dead will be frustrated and remain unexpressed, and the rituals in dealing with such matters will seem lacking and incomplete. Thus, the Ancient Kings acted to establish proper forms wherein men
could express the full measure of their obligation to pay honor to those deserving honor and to show affection to those whom they cherished.

Hence, I say that sacrifice originates in the emotions stirred by remembrance and recollection of the dead and by thinking of and longing for the departed, expresses the highest loyalty, faithfulness, love, and reverence, and is the fulfillment of ritual observances and formal bearing. If it were not for the sages, no one would be capable of understanding the
meaning of sacrifice. The sage clearly understands ritual, the scholar and gentleman find comfort in carrying it out, officials of government have as their task preserving it, and the Hundred Clans incorporate it into their customs. For the gentleman, ritual observances are considered to be part of the Way of Man. Among the Hundred Clans, they are thought
to be a matter of serving the ghosts of the departed.

Hence, bells and drums, flutes and chime-stones, lutes and zithers, reed pipes and reed organs, musical performances such as the “Succession,” the “Elegant,” the “Guarding,” the “Martial,” the “Libation,” the “Militant,” the “Panpipe,” and the “Imitation”—these the gentleman considers the proper forms expressive of sudden feelings of pleasure and joy. The unhemmed garment of the mourner, his clothes of sackcloth and his bamboo staff, the lean-to hut where he lives, the gruel he eats, his brushwood mat, and his clod of earth for a pillow—these the gentleman
considers the proper forms expressive of his changed feelings of grief and pain. The marshaling of troops has proper regulations and the punishments prescribed in law have gradations of severity so that none go unpunished in a manner befitting their offense—these the gentleman
considers the proper form expressive of unexpected feelings of loathing and hatred.

One divines with the tortoise shell and milfoil, determines auspicious days, purifies oneself and fasts, repairs and sweeps the temple, lays out the low tables and bamboo mats, presents the ceremonial offerings, and informs the invocator as though someone were really going to enjoy the sacrifice. One takes up the offerings and presents each of them as though someone were really going to taste them. The chief waiter does not lift up the wine cup, but the chief sacrificer himself has that honor, as though someone were really going to drink from it. When the guests
leave, the chief sacrificer bows and escorts them out, returns and changes his clothing, resumes his place, and weeps as though someone had really departed with the guests. How full of grief, how reverent this is! One serves the dead as one serves the living, those who have perished as those who survive, just as though one were giving visible shape to what is
without shape or shadow, and in so doing one perfects proper form!

As we have discussed here before, getting American 18 year-olds to take ritual seriously is not easy, but this section really does (I hope) help a lot, as it grounds ritual (he is focusing on funerary ritual) in the emotional state of those performing it. He specifically denies the that these rituals are “serving the dead”. That’s how commoners think of them. Of course it is also how the Shang and Western Zhou nobility thought of them, but Xunzi is beyond that. One must serve the dead just as if they were there, but of course they are not.

He is also ritualizing law and punishment by making a direct link between music as a way to express joy and punishments as a way to express hatred. This is not quite the legalist view of law, so one suspects some of his students were not paying attention.

Next, Xunzi on Music. (bet you can’t wait)


  1. Thoughtful thoughts! You shed light on the questions I pondered in my piece, “Lies, Damn Lies, and Chinese Lies.” (Frog August 28, 2008). “Rituals” sometimes seem like lies to Americans.

    Fingarette’s example of the handshake is very useful, but music also works well. Rock and hip hop both have the same melding of form and cultural politics that Confucius had in mind (though the content of the politics is different).

    In the Chinese Civ. course I am doing next quarter I want to explain that the popular term “ancestor worship” isn’t quite right. I will have to use the quote you give: “One serves the dead as one serves the living, those who have perished as those who survive, just as though one were giving visible shape to what is without shape or shadow, and in so doing one perfects proper form!”

  2. In teaching Eastern thinkers I have encountered the same issues — how do you get across to an 18yr old American kid that ritual is actually important, and that the early Ru weren’t just all suffering from massive OCD? For the most part, my students seem to start off thinking that rituals are at best inessential extras (high-fallin’ “finery”) and at worst a set of constraints that call upon the individual to conform and forfeit his/her individuality. Given that they tend to think of rituals as external to their own identities in these ways, they resist them as coercive devices.

    When I teach the Confucians, I try to present ritual as the language of identity. It may be that ritual can be coercive, but identity also can’t exist without it. It’s impossible to be a good girlfriend or boyfriend (the main things that appeal to 18yr olds) unless one attends very closely to _how_ this is done in specific situations, given that in each the language of expressing one’s love requires moving oneself (speaking) in different fashions. Of course, the point about expressing emotion is not lost either: to mimic language without the appropriate emotion is unintelligible. All my students agree that if their boy/girlfriend is doing the right things, but with no appropriate emotion, it is meaningless.

    Usually I ask students to go to their next weekend party and to try to maintain a state of mindfulness about just how much peer-to-peer interaction is ritualistic in the sense of communicating who is who, what different people feel, who is offended by what, who is “interested” in who, and so on. They come back to class with a different view of rituals, and start to realize that there really isn’t very much intelligible human interaction in their own lives that isn’t governed by them.

    As I usually put it: they all have their own versions of Confucius’ refusal to “sit unless his mat was straight” (things like “there’s no way I’m going to show up to the party dressed like THAT!”) They just aren’t accustomed to thinking of it this way.

    This was a little off your main point regarding the externalization of emotion suggestion in Xunzi. Sorry, got sidetracked a bit!

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