A Proposal on the Study of Ancient Chinese Rituals and its Relationship with Management

This is a draft proposal for a paper I wish to write. It’s still very raw, but I like how this project will allow me to engage in the study of Chinese philosophy, Chinese history (and maybe even archaeology), and learn to apply philosophy to some practical area, like resource and operational management.

Image Source: http://alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/emperor.jpg
Image Source: http://alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/emperor.jpg

In the Analects, li 禮, often translated as ritual or propriety, refers to sets of rituals and customs (often with a religious dimension). Rituals had the power to educate the masses, teaching them about their place in society. their roles in relation to those around them, and how to appropriately interact with others. The early Confucians believed that rituals had the power to shape peoples’ characters, instilling in them (through the regular practice of rituals), the right attitudes and behaviours when interacting with others in varying circumstances. It is by undergoing a form of ritual education that a person is able to attain moral transformation within himself, thus learning how to be a moral individual, a person of ren (仁 benevolence). Confucius preferred that rulers govern with rituals than with law and punishments (Analects 2.3). Unlike laws and punishments which do not impart any kind of moral education or transformation, rituals had the power to instill morals in people, hence should they fail in their duties, they would be motivated by a sense of shame to reform themselves.

The Liji 禮記, or the Book of Rites, expounds a similar train of thought. In the first chapter, the Liji states: “The course (of duty), virtue, benevolence, and righteousness cannot be fully carried out without the rules of propriety (li). … when the sages arose, they framed the rules of propriety in order to teach men, and cause them, by their possession of them, to make a distinction between themselves and brutes. … If a man observe the rules of propriety, he is in a condition of security; if he do not, he is in one of danger. Hence there is the saying, ‘The rules of propriety should by no means be left unlearned. … When the rich and noble know to love propriety, they do not become proud nor dissolute. When the poor and mean know to love propriety, their minds do not become cowardly.” (“Qu Li 1”)

Yet, it is puzzling that despite such claims of the lofty powers of ritual to educate and morally transform the people, teaching them how best to act and interact with others, we find passages in the Liji (and in other classical texts), where the ritual rubrics bear more resemblance with the standard operating procedures (SOP) or job descriptions found in many modern organisations today. These passages simply prescribe a list of things a ruler or official must do or avoid, or how to allocate certain types of resources to others. There is nothing remotely religious, ceremonial, or have anything remotely close to providing any kind of moral education or transformation whatsoever. To illustrate this point, here are a few passages from the chapter, “Wang Zhi (王制 Royal Regulations)” in the Liji:

“Of the nine provinces embracing all within, the four seas, a province was 1000 li square, and there were established in it 30 states of 100 li (square) each.; 60 of 70 li; 120 of 50 li – in all, 210 states. “

“The chief minister determined the expenditure of the states, and it was the rule that he should do so at the close of the year. When the five kinds of grain had all been gathered in, he then determined the expenditure – according to the size of each territory, as large or small, and the returns of the year, as abundant or poor. On the average of thirty years he determined the expenditure, regulating the outgoing by the income.”

“If in a state there was not accumulated (a surplus) sufficient for nine years, its condition was called one of insufficiency; if there was not enough for six years, one of urgency. If there was not a surplus sufficient for three years, the state could not continue.”

“The minister of Works with his (various) instruments measured the ground for the settlements of the people. About the hills and rivers, the oozy ground and the meres, he determined the periods of the four seasons. He measured the distances of one spot from another, and commenced his operations in employing the labour of the people.”

“The Grand director of Music, having fully considered who were the most promising of the ‘completed scholars,’ reported them to the king, after which they were advanced to be under the minister of War, and called ‘scholars ready for employment.'”

These passages are a minority in the Liji, yet similar passages can be found in other texts, such as the Zhouli and the Xunzi. Nonetheless, while most of the rituals described in the Liji are still religious or ceremonial in nature, or have an implicit moral dimension, there are passages that are still quite regulatory in nature. For example, the chapter entitled, “Yue Ling (月令 Proceedings of Government in the Different Months)”, has many passages that have a religious/ceremonial dimension, yet prescribe certain procedures on what a ruler, official, or subject must do (or avoid), much like a standard operating procedure, but with a religious dimension to it:

“In this month no warlike operations should be undertaken; the undertaking of such is sure to be followed by calamities from Heaven. The not undertaking warlike operations means that they should not commence on our side. No change in the ways of heaven is allowed; nor any extinction of the principles of earth; nor any confounding of the bonds of men.”

“In this month few of the husbandmen remain in their houses in the towns. They repair, however, their gates and doors, both of wood and wattles; and put their sleeping apartments and temples all in good repair. No great labours, which would interfere with the work of husbandry, should be undertaken.”

“In this month (the fishermen) should not let the streams and meres run dry, nor drain off all the water from the dams and ponds, (in order to catch all the fish), nor should (the hunters) fire the hills and forests.”

Much scholarship has been devoted on classical Chinese political theories, or on the study of ritual in the context of religion or ethics. Yet, the art of a good ruler is highly dependent on the art of good management of people, resources, and operations. Unfortunately, the theories and philosophical aspects of management (in the context of rulership and politics) in ancient China is often overlooked.

Therefore, I propose to carry out an investigation of these peculiar passages, exploring the relationship of ritual and management as they as discussed in the Liji and other classical Chinese texts, such as the Yili (The Book of Customs and Etiquette), the Zhouli (The Rites of the Zhou), and the Xunzi. I would like to investigate how such managerial passages are to be understood in the context of ritual, the significance of ritualising management, and the advantages and pitfalls of such ritualised management. If it exists, I would also like to explore how the managerial aspects of ritual may have an influence or effect on morality. It is my hope that such an exploration of this often under-studied aspect of Chinese rituals would help to expand our understanding of the concept of li in classical Chinese thought. I would also like to explore if this expanded conception of li would change or deepen our interpretation of certain Confucian passages on rituals. This will be achieved through a very close study of the ancient texts, drawing support from relevant scholarly materials discussing the role and significant of rituals and rulership in ancient China. Lastly, I will look at modern scholarship on the topic of ritualised management in an organisation, and carry out a comparative study of the differences, and if possible, try to determine whether the approach of ritualised management employed in ancient China is more or less efficacious than existing theories of ritualised management.