The Lofty Vision of Ritual Propriety in The Book of Rites (禮記 Liji), “Summary of the Rules of Propriety (曲禮 Qu Li), Part 1”

[This is an exploratory post as part of my research]

In this exploratory post, I will focus on the lofty ideals of rituals and its claims of bringing about a harmonious society as expounded in the first chapter of The Book of Rites (禮記 Liji).

In approaching the ancient texts, it is important to bear in mind that many of these texts were not written in a coherent prose form. Often, what we are presented with are more like the conclusions of an argument. Sometimes, we may find clues of the premises of the arguments elsewhere. Other times, we may need to fill in information from other sources (philosophical or historical). Nonetheless, reconstructing the argument into a familiar form is a laborious task, but one that I will attempt to under take here.

A scanned page of the Book of Rites
A scanned page of the Book of Rites

The Liji begins with this passage:

The Summary of the Rules of Propriety says:

At all times, never ever be irreverent (i.e. Always be reverent in all cases, at all times),

carry yourself with gravity as though you are deep in thought,

and speak calmly with a fixed determination.

[All these will] bring peace/tranquility to the people!

(translation mine)

For me, it is quite interesting that the Liji begins with such a passage as an introduction to the book. But it claims, nonetheless to be a summary of the entire chapter. Be reverent, carry one’s self with gravitas, and speak calmly but with a fixed determination. Like the rubrics of a ceremony, these instructions are representative of a person performing a ritual.

From the Confucian perspective, rituals are not just religious or ceremonial in nature. Rituals set in place what one must do according to one’s role, as well as how one should interact with others in a respectful and rightful manner. The main purpose of ritual isn’t just about the actions that one must do. Rather, rituals are formative as they also inculcate the right attitudes, outlook, and behaviour that one is supposed to have in specific situations. To be schooled in the rites is to be formed with the right attitudes, outlook, and behaviour to express one’s sincerity and benevolence in a way that is not easily misunderstood. In this way, a society schooled well in the rites is a society that knows how to best interact with each other, and address tensions in a non-conflictual way. It is a way by which society is able to remain, at all times, civil and moral in its interaction without falling into depravity.

Hence, the exemplary person who practises a ritual way of life is one who is least misunderstood, and best knows how to resolve issues. Such people, through their actions and lives, bring peace and tranquility to those around them.

The Book of Rites continues with this passage:

Virtuous people can be familiar with others yet remain respectful towards them;

they can stand in fear (awe) of others [superior to him] and yet love them.

They can love others despite knowing the evils within them;

They can detest others yet recognise the goodness within them.

(translation mine)

Here is a mark of a virtuous person. He does not go into any extreme. If he loves someone, he doesn’t love blindly. He is aware of the person’s flaws and weaknesses. And even if the detests certain people, he is able to still recognise the goodness in them. And yet in all things, he is able to maintain respect and love regardless of his superiority/inferiority, closeness/distance from such people. This, of course, comes from someone who has learnt well the rituals, and internalised the attitudes and behaviours. One who is still learning the rites, will indeed struggle with being able to show kindness or even a certain level of civic cordiality toward a person he strongly hates. But the practice of rituals, and being shaped by the it, would slowly enable the person to adopt the right attitudes and outlook to reconcile the internal conflicts within to express respect despite one’s hatred.

The Book of Rites elaborates further:

As for ritual propriety, it is employed to determine the proximity of closeness in relations with others (and how to conduct one’s self accordingly),

[it is employed] to judge [and settle] points of suspicions and doubt,

[it is employed] to distinguish where there should be agreement/unity or differences,

[and it is employed] to distinguish right from wrong.

(translation mine)

The power of rituals is that they facilitate by providing a framework for interaction and conflict resolution between people of varying roles. To illustrate in a modern context, husband and wife may have conflicts arising from working together in the same organisation, but the rites help to delineate the different aspects (working relationship from marital relationship), enabling both to see that the issue is on the working professional level, and operate only on that level, thereby resolving the issue as coworkers. When done well among those who have internalised the values of ritual propriety, they will not bring the hurt and conflict to the marital relationship. Thus the marital relationship is preserved, and the conflicts are not mixed up across the various aspects of one’s life.

Rituals thus provide the framework for achieving clarity, creating distinctions between the various roles and dimensions of one’s life. Tensions in relationships can thus be bracketed so avoid it spilling into other aspects where important things must be done. But more importantly, even if one may bear harsh feelings towards others, rituals provide a framework for avoiding clashes, so that issues can be addressed in very civil ways. Like traffic rules that help to prevent regular collisions, the rites are a kind of social traffic rules for people to interact with minimal collisions. (I use the analogy of traffic rules because it does not prevent accidents from happening, but it reduces the possibility of it happening; similarly rituals are not this magic things that solve all conflicts; but it reduces significantly the conflict and tension that may arise in society)

We see this further elaborated in The Book of Rites as follows:

According to those rules, one should not (seek to) please others in an improper way, nor be lavish of his words. According to them, one does not go beyond the definite measure, nor encroach on or despise others, nor is fond of (presuming) familiarities. To cultivate one’s person and fulfil one’s words is called good conduct. When the conduct is (thus) ordered, and the words are accordant with the (right) course, we have the substance of the rules of propriety. I have heard that it is in accordance with those rules that one should be chosen by others (as their model); I have not heard of his choosing them (to take him as such). I have heard in the same way of (scholars) coming to learn; I have not heard of (the master) going to teach. (trans. James Legge)

And similarly:

The course (of duty), virtue, benevolence, and righteousness cannot be fully carried out without the rules of propriety; nor are training and oral lessons for the rectification of manners complete; nor can the clearing up of quarrels and discriminating in disputes be accomplished; nor can (the duties between) ruler and minister, high and low, father and son, elder brother and younger, be determined; nor can students for office and (other) learners, in serving their masters, have an attachment for them; nor can majesty and dignity be shown in assigning the different places at court, in the government of the armies, and in discharging the duties of office so as to secure the operation of the laws; nor can there be the (proper) sincerity and gravity in presenting the offerings to spiritual Beings on occasions of supplication, thanksgiving, and the various sacrifices. Therefore the superior man is respectful and reverent, assiduous in his duties and not going beyond them, retiring and yielding – thus illustrating (the principle of) propriety. (trans. James Legge)

But perhaps the greatest value of ritual is this:

The rites [place great] value on reciprocity.

If one were to give, but failed to receive, this is against ritual propriety;

If one were to receive, but failed to reciprocate in giving, this is against ritual propriety.

It is precisely because humans have ritual propriety that they are able to have a state of security; without ritual propriety, there will only be insecurity (or danger).

Thus, it is said: “As for ritual propriety, it cannot be left unlearnt.”

(translation mine)

Perhaps there is a theory of social justice embedded in ritual propriety?

What the rites teach is that every human relationship is a reciprocal relationship. Relationships break down when reciprocation fails. But it is not merely the case of one party giving while the other party keeps taking. When one gives, the reciprocal action is to receive. And consequently, the latter should give, and the former reciprocates by receiving. Hence there are two layers of reciprocation. This is the core of human relationships.

Rituals create social expectations. They create a culture of reciprocation, of giving and receiving, of paying it forward and returning the favour, in every aspect of a relationship, the emotional as well as the material. This culture of reciprocation, and the expectation of it, creates stability and security in society. It motivates and stirs people to action. I know that when I do this, my actions will be reciprocated in return. I am compelled, thereafter, to continue this cycle, and the cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. There is no insecurity of wondering whether I will be cheated of my effort.

For this reason, The Book of Rites confidently states:

As for ritual propriety, it stems from humbling one’s self, and reverencing/venerating/honouring others.

Even the lowly porters and pedlers are sure to have this reverencing [of others]. Wouldn’t the rich and noble aspire to greatly reverence others?

When those who are rich and noble know how to love ritual propriety, they will not become arrogant or licentious;

When those who are poor and mean know how to love ritual propriety, their wills (or sense of purpose) will not become cowardly.

(translation mine)

The rich and noble who are well formed in the rituals will not be arrogant or licentious. Thus they will not take advantage of the weak, for they have been imbued with the right attitudes towards others, and understand the importance of reciprocative relations.

The poor and mean will not be fearful of others, and they will develop a strong will or sense of purpose, knowing well what is expected of them, and what they get in return for doing their part. They need not worry of being taken advantaged of, for the rites would have taught them what they can expect of others as well.

This is the security and peace of mind that one may derive from rituals.

Of course, I am just scratching the surface here, but I do think there is more about social justice that can be unpacked here. But I will leave that to another exploratory post.