Li (rites)

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This painting of an ancestor gallery represents the ancient Chinese practice of ancestor veneration, one of the many forms of human activity that can be described as li ("ritual").

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.

Confucian Context

See also: Confucianism, Li Ji

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.


Main article: Confucius

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,

It may be a mistake to think of [Confucius] as finding his message first and attracting disciples afterwards. His thought and his sense of mission are of a kind which might develop naturally from the experience of an ordinary teacher of the Songs, Documents, ceremony and music of Chou, distinguished only in that his disciples learn from him, as from an inspiring schoolmaster, much more than is on the curriculum.[1]

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)[2] 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:

Yan Hui said, "Could I ask what becoming authoritative [ren] entails?” The Master replied, “Do not look at anything that violates the observance of ritual propriety [li]; do not listen to anything that violates the observance of ritual propriety; do not speak about anything that violates the observance of ritual propriety; do not do anything that that violates the observance of ritual propriety" (12:1).

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:

The Master said, "Deference unmediated by observing ritual propriety (li) is lethargy; caution unmediated by observing ritual propriety is timidity; boldness unmediated by observing ritual propriety is rowdiness; candor unmediated by observing ritual propriety is rudeness. Where exemplary people (junzi) are earnestly committed to their parents, the people will aspire to authoritative conduct (ren); where they do not neglect their old friends, the people will not be indifferent to each other" (8:2).

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:

The Master wanted to go and live amongst the nine clans of the Eastern Yi Barbarians. Someone said to him, "What would you do about their crudeness?"
The Master replied, "Were an exemplary person (junzi) to live among them, what crudeness could there be?" (9:14).

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:

Lead the people with administrative injunctions and keep them orderly with penal law, and they will avoid punishments but will be without a sense of shame. Lead them with excellence (de) and keep them orderly through observing ritual propriety (li) and they will develop a sense of shame, and moreover, will order themselves (2.3).[3]

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."


Main article: Mencius

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."[4] 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:

As for [people's] qing [essence], "what they genuinely are," they can become good. This is what I mean by calling their natures good. As for their becoming not good, this is not the fault of their potential. Humans all have the heart of compassion. Humans all have the heart of disdain. Humans all have the heart of respect. Humans all have the heart of approval and disapproval. The heart of compassion is benevolence. The heart of disdain is righteousness. The heart of respect is propriety. The heart of approval and disapproval is wisdom. Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are not welded to us externally. We inherently have them. It is simply that we do not concentrate upon them. Hence, it is said, "Seek it and you will get it. Abandon it and you will lose it" (Mencius 6A:6).

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:

As a Confucian, Mencius also believes in the ‘objective’ prescriptions of li. He even seems to believe that they must be learned. Yet he has a burning faith that what is learned is really ours to begin with because the li are ultimately the external expressions of a capacity for ‘humanity and righteousness’ as intrinsic to the human organism as is his whole physical organization. He obviously also believes that only if humans understand that what is right is inherently in their ‘natures’ can they be brought to exercise their responsibility as moral agents.[5]


Main article: Xunzi

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:

Hence, any man who follows his nature and indulges his emotions will inevitably become involved in wrangling and strife, will violate the forms and rules of society, and will end as a criminal. Therefore, man must first be transformed by the instructions of a teacher and guided by ritual principles (li), and only then will he be able to observe the dictates of courtesy and humility, obey the forms and rules of society, and achieve order.[6]

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:

The beginnings of [joy and sorrow] are present in man from the first. If he can trim or stretch them, broaden or narrow them, add to or take from them, express them completely and properly, fully and beautifully, seeing to it that root and branch, beginning and end are in their proper place, so that he may serve as a model to ten thousand generations, then he has achieved true ritual. But only a gentleman of thorough moral training and practice is capable of understanding how to do this.[7]

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):

Man is born with desires. If his desires are not satisfied for him, he cannot but seek some means to satisfy them himself. If there are no limits and degrees to his seeking, then he will inevitably fall to wrangling with other men. From wrangling comes disorder and from disorder comes exhaustion. The ancient kings hated such disorder, and therefore they established ritual principles in order to curb it, to train men’s desires and to provide for their satisfaction.[8]

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.

Later Confucians

Main article: Neo-Confucianism
See also: Zhu Xi, Wang Yang-ming

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.[9] 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.”[10] 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.

Modern Reappraisals

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:

Characteristic of Confucius's teaching is the use of the language and imagery of li as a medium within which to talk about the entire body of the mores, or more precisely, of the authentic tradition and reasonable conventions of society. Confucius taught that the ability to act according to li and the will to submit to li are essential to that perfect and peculiarly human virtue or power which can be man's. ... The (spiritually) noble man is one who has labored at the alchemy of fusing social forms (li) and raw personal existence in such a way that they transmuted into a way of being which realizes te, the distinctively human virtue or power.[11]

Li in Other Religio-Philosophical Systems

See also: Mozi, Moism, Legalism, Han Feizi, Daoism, Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi

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."[12]

Thus, it is only through the Confucians that this particular mode of discourse (and understanding of human ethics) was preserved and propounded.


  1. Graham, 10.
  2. Expanding upon the notion introduced above, Ames and Rosemont suggest that "Li are those meaning-invested roles, relationships, and institutions which facilitate communication, and which foster a sense of community. The compass is broad: all formal conduct, from table manners to patterns of greeting and leave-taking, to graduations, weddings, funerals, from gestures of deference to ancestral sacrifices—all of these, and more, are li. They are a social grammar that provides each member with a defined place and status with the family, community, and polity" (51).
  3. See also Analects (14:41): "The Master said, “If those in high station cherish the observance of ritual propriety (li), the common people will be easy to deal with."
  4. Graham, 113.
  5. Schwartz, 264.
  6. Xunzi, Section 23: Watson, 157.
  7. Xunzi, Section 19: Watson, 102.
  8. Xunzi, Section 19: Watson, 89.
  9. Wright, 17.
  10. Ebrey, xiii.
  11. Fingarette, 7. The title of his book comes from the central thesis that the li framework implies the sacralization of all forms of human social interaction.
  12. Schwartz, 141.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • de Bary, William Theodore. Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960. ISBN 0-231-02255-7
  • Berthrong, John. Transformations of the Confucian Way. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. ISBN 0-8133-2804-7
  • Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963, 49-83.
  • Chu Hsi's Family Rituals. Translated and with an introduction by Patricia Buckley Ebrey. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991. ISBN 0-691-03149-5
  • Fingarette, Herbert. Confucius: The Secular as Sacred. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.
  • Graham, A.C. Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1993. ISBN 0-8126-9087-7
  • Mencius. With Introduction and Translation by Bryan W. van Norden. Included in Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2001, 111-155. ISBN 1889119091
  • Schwartz, Benjamin I. The World of Thought in Ancient China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985. ISBN 0-674-96190-0
  • Watson, Burton. Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsün Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967.
  • Watson, Burton. Xunzi: Basic Writings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-231-12965-3
  • Wright, Arthur F. Buddhism in Chinese History. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959. ISBN 0-8047-0548-8
  • Yao, Xinzhong. An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-521-64430-5


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