Li (禮 pinyin: Lǐ) is a classical Chinese term that is most extensively utilized in Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese philosophy. As with many other terms in the Chinese lexicon, li encompasses a constellation of related meanings, making it difficult to render with a single English word. Thus, it is translated in a number of different ways including "ritual action," "propriety," "customs," "etiquette," "morals," and "rules of proper behavior."
In all cases, the term li refers to a range of human activities (from ancestor worship to dinner-table etiquette) and the attitudes of propriety that stimulate and reinforce them. The general Confucian perspective is that the cultivation of these activities and attitudes promotes peace, harmony, and proper governance within society.
As a classical Chinese concept, li encompasses elements that would definitively be termed "religious rituals" (such as ancestor worship and the various elements of the Imperial Cult cataloged in the Book of Rites), as well as domains such as ethical norms, social etiquette, and even (in the case of Mencius) internal moral impulses. The unifying thread among these varied notions is that they are all related in practice—li, stated simply, refers to the standards of behavior that both constrain and guide human action. Given the overarching concern with social order and ethical conduct prevalent in classical Chinese religion and philosophy, it is easy to see how this notion became entirely central to the early Confucians. However (and despite this general consensus on the idea's import), each of the classical Confucian philosophers addressed the notion differently, which necessitates examining them each in turn.
To begin, it is helpful to recall, as Angus Graham does, that Confucius had a particularly immediate relationship with li, in that he was professionally employed as an itinerant teacher of rites and ceremonies. As Graham suggests,
In his context as an educator (and later as a religious and moral philosopher), Confucius perceived the necessity of li (here defined broadly as contextually-appropriate behavior) in promoting ethics and social harmony. Regardless of the situation, li, in the sense of internalized models of (and guides to) appropriate behavior, were understood to discipline one's conduct and channel it into the context where it would be most personally, socially, and (perhaps) spiritually beneficial:
Likewise, the Analects suggest that "Exemplary persons (junzi) learn broadly of culture, discipline this learning through observing ritual propriety (li), and moreover, in so doing, can remain on course without straying from it" (6:27).
In the above examples, individual learning (in thought and practice) is seen to depend on the selection and adoption of positive models of appropriate behaviors (in all contexts, from the mundane to transcendent). However, these examples of propriety should not be seen as overtly stultifying forces. Instead, they provide a framework within which one can act to bring harmony and order to the world. Just as a poet has limitless options, even when working within a restricted creative domain (such as the sonnet form), so to does the doctrine of li discipline conduct without totally subverting human agency. This type of disciplined-yet-unhindered conduct is suggested in the Analects, when Confucius states that "from seventy I could give my heart-and-mind [xin] free rein without overstepping the boundaries" (2:4).
Intriguingly, the Confucian schema goes on to suggest that, by internalizing this style of conduct, an individual would begin to impact those around them, seemingly through a process ethical osmosis:
This perspective is echoed by the (perhaps apocryphal) tale of Confucius' desire to live amongst the "uncivilized" people on the fringes of the Chinese polity:
Such ideas were also central to the Confucian notion of proper governance, which set up the li framework as a foil to the notion of coercive laws and punishments:
The clearest statement of faith in this perspective is found in the Analects (2:1), which argues that "Governing with excellence (de) can be compared to being the North Star: the North Star dwells in its place, and the multitude of stars pay it tribute."
Unlike his storied antecedent, Mencius adopted a considerably more internalized understanding of li. Instead of describing an external (though learnable) model of propriety, the term for Mencius came to signify an "inward sense of good manners." In the process, li lost its place of primacy, becoming simply one of four innate virtues (yi ("righteousness"), ren ("benevolence"), li ("propriety"), and zhi ("wisdom")). His faith in the inherency of these virtues was central to his doctrine that human nature is good:
Thus, one can see a notable shift in focus between the Confucian and the Mencian perspectives. While Confucius stressed the necessity of li in promoting harmonious behavior, Mencius has substantially more faith in human nature. The difference between these perspectives is eloquently summarized by Benjamin Schwartz:
In blatant contrast to Mencius, Xunzi believed that human nature was inherently evil—a perspective that allowed him to explain the chaos and uncertainty that characterized his age. Thus, following Confucius, he stressed the necessity of li for conditioning human behavior and constructing a harmonious society:
However, he also expanded upon the Confucian formulation by explicitly exploring the ways that these behavioral standards would guide and discipline the desires and emotions of individuals:
Unlike Confucius, he also stressed that these standards were defined by the kings of yesteryear for the explicit purpose of exerting social control (a formulation that places the achievement of social harmony as a subsidiary concern):
Thus, Xunzi's system summarizes the Confucian conception of li but does so within an overtly pessimistic and somewhat authoritarian context. Further, he expands the understanding of li's role by purposively exploring its function in disciplining human emotions.
By the Neo-Confucian period, scholarly interest in the pragmatic (and fairly practical) doctrines of li had waned considerably. Centuries earlier, the demise of the Han Dynasty (which had explicitly allied itself with the Confucian school) effectively discredited many of the ideas classically forwarded by Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi. This "fall from grace" effectively paved the way for the wholesale importation of Buddhism, a foreign doctrine with an involved metaphysical system the likes of which had never been seen in China before. Thus, when Confucianism began to make a resurgence during the Song dynasty, it was considerably more interested in cosmological and metaphysical issues than the seemingly parochial doctrines of li that had concerned many of its forebears.
This being said, the interest in li was not entirely extinguished. In one notable example, Zhu Xi (1130-1200), the primary thinker of the movement (who was famed for his far-reaching and intellectually rigorous Neo-Confucian philosophical system) also devoted considerable energy to compiling an orthodox synthesis of existing ritual scholarship. The resulting text, "Master Zhu's Family Rituals," was an immediate scholarly and popular success, with an influence that endured until the modern era. An example of the text's prevalence is visible in the writings of "the French missionary Jean-Francois Foucquet (1665-1741) [who] reported that the book was second in popularity only to the Analects, and that copies of it could be found in almost every home in China.” Thus, even though li lost its place of philosophical preeminence, it would be be an overstatement to suggest that it ceased to be important after the classical era.
The classical Confucian understanding of li has led to a revitalization of interest in the school, especially among twentieth-century Western intellectuals. Emerging from such diverse backgrounds as process theology and performance theory, scholars such as Herbert Fingarette and David Hall are beginning to (re)interpret this system as describing an ethical behavioral schema that is uniquely compatible with the embodied existence of human beings.
For example, Herbert Fingarette in Confucius: The Secular as Sacred summarizes one such perspective as follows:
Li as an idea was not terribly popular among the other philosophical schools in classical China. For instance, the Legalist school, especially in the formulation of Han Feizi, argued that government by virtue (which contains an implicit assumption concerning the role of li) was impractical, and that laws and punishments were necessary to regulate human conduct. For the Daoists, the stress on the effortful internalization of these ideas was profoundly contradictory to the stress on naturalness and "actionless action" propounded in the Dao De Jing. Likewise, it was antithetical to Zhuangzi's emphasis on the utter contingency of all human modes and categories. Finally, Mozi (and the Moist school built upon his formulations) was known to have "no faith in the magic power of li and music."
Thus, it is only through the Confucians that this particular mode of discourse (and understanding of human ethics) was preserved and propounded.
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