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.

14 thoughts on “Xunzi and Ritual: An Initial Suggestion

  1. mcdoc

    Indeed. Our automatic, unrestrained, unformed nature and arising choices, actions and reactions lead us to enslavement and suffering. Urgings to buy more stuff, to feed our hunger, to follow our thrist, to hate and smite that alien or that enemy, to take advantage of the weak, exploit the need of the sick, to espouse cowardice and eschew moral courage, to throw off “binding oneself back” via religion are all cynical ploys to become lesser people in “Lord of the Flies” fashion. I am reminded of Collodi’s late-nineteenth-century wisdom story, relegated to children, Pinocchio. Particularly, in his nearly disasterous detour from becoming real in sojourn in the “Land of Dunderheads” where Pinocchio quite nearly is changed into a beast of burden to be hitched up to bring even moe wander souls to their appetite-driven ruin. It is this from which we all need Li enough to avoid and to be saved by and grow in the Gospel.

  2. Harold Stassen

    Ironically, many people get their “smiting” stories from your Bible. And go to many churches in Britain or Scandinavia or the Netherlands-their enemies’ flags are hung along the walls.
    Sorry, just can’t believe it. Religion is at least as much part of the problem as part of any solution. I think the idea of genuflecting in front of a wafer as pointless as putting your hand over your heart in front of cloth on a pole.

  3. Harold Stassen

    Passer-by to H.L.Mencken: “Why do you go to church? You’re an atheist.”
    H.L.; “Why do people go to zoos?”

  4. mcdoc

    Troll House Cookies
    Similar tasting to the traditional toll house cookie only gluten-free. Flours used in this recipe are brown rice and potato.

    Recipe Ingredients
    1 cup butter
    1/2 cup brown sugar
    1 cup granulated sugar
    2 eggs
    1/4 teaspoon Gluten-Free Vanilla Powder
    1-1/2 cup brown rice flour
    1/2 cup potato flour (not potato starch flour)
    1 teaspoon baking soda
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 package chocolate chips (milk or semisweet)

    Recipe Directions
    Cream butter (can use dairy-free margarine or Crisco if necessary), sugars, eggs and Gluten-Free Vanilla Powder.

    Mix in dry ingredients, then chocolate chips.

    Drop by rounded teaspoons onto un-greased cookie sheet. Flatten very slightly with fork.

    Bake between 350-375-degrees for 12 minutes or so (temperature and time vary by individual oven — if yours bakes hot, use the lower temperature).

    Remove from oven when cookies are lightly browned (they over-brown very quickly).

    Remove cookies to cooling rack after a few minutes.

    Note:  These cookies are also good with chopped nuts and/or shredded coconut.

  5. Lue-Yee Tsang

    Dr Olsen, your post confirms the connexion I see between Xunzi and adiaphoric rites, and I am sure that Xunzi can productively be put in touch with Hooker. Xunzi seems to say, ‘Frankly, whether they be ordained by gods or not, these rituals teach virtue.’ Likewise, Hooker makes no attempt at proving direct divine sanction for many of the rites and ceremonies of the Church, but argues rather that these pertain to the visible, temporal Kingdom and therefore that the civil authorities have a right to regulate them within reason.

  6. Harold Stassen

    Wow-then I guess all those fat people in very religious states like Alabama are tourist visiting from non-religious places like Vermont and Washington State? And of course all the unmarried pregnancies are from atheists and not from groups in the US more likely to believe in God?

  7. Harold Stassen

    Basically the idea that Anglicanism is the English version of Shinto is the correct one? You can believe that there never was a god and never will be but you absolutely must paint the door of the church bright red?

  8. Lue-Yee Tsang

    Not so. If you have read about adiaphora, this is the realm of things indifferent, to which belong many of the ritual and ceremonial particulars of any given church. Doctrine is extremely important, but even churches with practically identical doctrine on a certain matter may still choose different rites and ceremonies in that area. The Reformed churches, then, though holding quite similar eucharistic doctrines, differ in ritual and ceremony: in the Church of England the people receive communion kneeling; in the Reformed churches of France, standing; and in Scottish Presbyterian churches, usually sitting.

    There are, however, some points of liturgical practice whose institution is divine. Baptism done specifically in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost would be one example, as would Holy Communion with the eating and drinking of both bread and wine. Liturgical rites and ceremonies must, moreover, have at least some theological grounds to belong properly to public worship, a fact that some are apt to acknowledge when divine ordinances are displaced by a proliferation of man-made ceremonies and methods.

  9. Derek Olsen

    Hi, Harold. Look—it’s clear you don’t agree with us on religion. That’s fine with me. And it’s fine with me if you continue to post here, but stay on topic. Random and off-topic comments will be deleted.

    I think you’ve confused Shinto which is the traditional belief system of Japan involving local deities and manifestations of the divine with Confucianism which is a Chinese philosophical system. They’re entirely different.

  10. Fred Garvin

    Not quite-the idea of ceremonies for the sake of ceremonies is a big part of Shinto and all the people I’ve heard on the subject (e.g. Whitney Smith) say Confucianism was and is a big influence on the Shinto “mindset”.

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