Daily Archives: August 10, 2012

Xunzi and Ritual: An Initial Suggestion

Xunzi was a Chinese philosopher active at the very end of the Warring States period and lived roughly between 312 and 230 BC. A Confucian, his eponymous Xunzi is the earliest surviving attempt to systematize Confucian thought in the face of rival schools (like the Daoists and the Mohists) and earlier Confucian interpreters (especially Mengzi/Mencius). The classic Confucianism of the Analects is based on living life in a well-ordered society, a revivalistic use of tradition, proper participation in ritual, and education that cultivates the virtues. The word “ritual” here is the Chinese li which is broader than the American usage and includes everything from etiquette to proper decorum to actual religious ceremonies as we think of them. Coming from my Western Classical perspective, Xunzi strikes me as being almost Epicurean in his approach to the presence and usefulness of gods and spirits; he’s rather agnostic about them. What’s significant—especially given this stance—is that he is emphatic about the importance of ritual (li) and its direct connection to the cultivation of virtue. On one hand, rituals and ritual observance are part of the cosmic pattern of things; on the other, rituals were created (and adapted and modified) by the sages to guide and norm human affections and actions into virtuous habits. (Here’s the Wikipedia entry on him; his teaching on ritual is rather downplayed in the article IMO.)

A few years ago, I first ran across chapters from the Xunzi in the Burton Watson translation. Naturally, I was struck by his teaching on the connection between ritual and virtue. I thought about him again when preparing the electronic text of Frere’s Principles of Religious Ceremonial because Xunzi’s teachings on the root source and purpose of ritual/ceremonial was both absent and complementary to what Frere was expounding. I was reminded of him again this past week while reading through a new acquisition, Bryan Van Norden’s Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. After years of reading around in Confucian and Daoist material, I thought it was time for a good systematic intro to put it into a big picture. The book’s an easy read for such weighty material—well-written, thought provoking, and engaging; I recommend it! 

Seeing Xunzi placed within the larger perspective of the classical Chinese tradition, I’m even more convinced that he would be a very interesting dialogue partner in an Anglican catholic appraisal of ritual and ceremonial. For form’s sake I’ll state clearly here that I have no interest in syncretism and that’s not what I’m suggesting—people who know me will already know that’s not what I mean. Rather, I’m intrigued by what a catholic Christian understanding of liturgy can be informed by when we consider the philosophical and ethical dimensions of Xunzi’s understanding of li.