Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Customs and Rituals

How important is ritual in Confucianism and CIT?

There is perhaps no more fundamental notion in Chinese religious thought than that of li, proper ritual. The Chinese term is composed of two characters meaning sacrifice and spirit—more precisely, “contact with the upper world”—combined with a character that once depicted a sacred vessel. It applies to all religious ceremony, from the most “popular” to the most official imperial cultic worship. Historically overseen by a Ministry of Rites, state rituals have generally been the most formal and precise. Pre-modern ritual practice distinguished several levels of ceremony. Supreme Offerings, performed mostly by the emperor himself, addressed Heaven, Earth, the forebears of the emperor and empress, and the deities of earth and seed. Middle Offerings propitiated sun and moon, ancestors of previous reigns, the god of agriculture called Emperor Shen Nung, and the goddess of silk production, Lei Zu. Lower Offerings occurred in local or regional state temples and revered Guan Di as deity of war, Wen Zhang as deity of literature, and Sage Emperor Fu Xi, among others. When Confucius spoke of li, he had in mind all of these, plus the entire range of ceremonies enacted on a smaller scale or in private. But more than that, he conceived of li as informing all proper human relationships.


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