Li: Etiquette, Manners, and Ritual in Confucian Philosophy

This post is a continuation of an ongoing series of posts about classical Chinese philosophy that is resulting from my participation in a reading group following Bryan Van Norden and Philip Ivanhoe’s Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. All of the posts can be seen here.

I’ve taken a step sideways this time to read a bit more about the key concept of Li in Confucian philosophy. Li tends to be translated in various ways, which suggests the depth of the concept, and the different ways its used, so it’s worth getting a bit deeper into it.

To this end, I found Amy Olberding’s paper ‘Etiquette: A Confucian Contribution to Moral Philosophy’ (2016, Ethics 126: 422-446) to be illuminating.

Olberding translates Li as ‘etiquette’ or ‘manners,’ while other translators, such as Edward Slingerland who did the translation for the Ivanhoe and Van Norden volume, translate it as ‘ritual.’ To me this suggests the concept really encompasses all three meanings, which in English at least, we’d normally keep as separate.

This is indicative of the various usage in the Analects and other Confucian texts as well. Olberding writes that Li encompasses everyday etiquette – the social mores that govern all of our interpersonal relationships – as well as court etiquette, religious ceremonies, and mourning rites.

In other words, Li as a concept is about shaping all of our behaviour – from the everyday and mundane (e.g. when interacting with friends), to the occasional and special (e.g. during religious rites).

Joel Kupperman (cited in Olberding) argues that the emphasis Li puts on all aspects of our behaviour is one marker by which Confucian philosophy can be distinguished from most Western moral systems. In the West, Kupperman’s argument goes, the main preoccupation of moral philosophy is ‘big moment ethics’ – considerations about what ought to happen in situations where there is a lot of moral weight on whatever action is taken. Confucianism, on the other hand, places an emphasis on our conduct in all aspects of life – giving moral weight to seemingly benign social interactions.

Chenyang Li (again, in Olberding), suggests that one way that this can be characterised is that our behaviour and the way in which we conduct ourselves among other people is a kind of language. If we were to behave in a completely improvised way – without the observance of any social mores, then our behaviour would be incomprehensible. One could illustrate this with the kind of cultural experience many tourists have – coming from one set of cultural standards into another, tourists often find themselves unwittingly committing various social faux pas, with differing consequences.

Li is thus a marker of our ability to remain morally consistent and virtuous in all of our social interactions – at every level of society. When Kongzi cautions us against being sloppy in our adherence to ritual, then, it is a warning against being careless in our interactions with others.

Olberding argues that for Kongzi and some of his descendants, such as Xunzi, Li inaugurates moral learning – it is the starting point for shaping our moral character. The rules are first applied externally, with a goal of the student internalising them and absorbing them into their nature. This thus makes appropriate behaviour natural.

Part of this naturalising aspect of appropriate behaviour also relates to what Kongzi thought of human nature – we are naturally resistant to good behaviour. Olberding cites Xunzi as giving the clearest statement of this attitude (noting also that Xunzi was more pessimistic about human nature): our natural desires would go unchecked if we did not adhere to Li, the function of Li is to structure and order these naturally occurring impulses. Xunzi therefore argues that Li beautifies human behaviour – it makes us palatable to others.

I think it’s interesting that Confucianism places such a great value on building moral character – this places it in line with contemporary virtue ethical moral theories. I’m going to return to this with the next post, where I’ll talk a bit more about Van Norden’s reading of Confucianism as a kind of virtue ethics (which I find increasingly attractive). I’m also curious about how later thinkers accounted for Li, since I know that some, such as Mozi, were opposed to a rigorous and unquestioning acceptance of received tradition. Mozi comes next in the Ivanhoe and Van Norden reader – so I’ll get there in a short while, when the reading group moves on from Kongzi.

Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy: Confucianism pt.1

Confucius -The Book of Life

This is the first in what will be a series of posts roughly following the reading group organized by the Monash University chapter of Minorities and Philosophy (MAP). Since all of our seminars have been cancelled, we’ve decided to spearhead a reading group on some material that we wouldn’t otherwise ever read at school. My intention is to write up my notes and post them, partly to encourage any of my readers to follow along, and partly because writing them up will help me remember the material better. All of the posts can be seen here.

We’re considering two texts:

  • Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, edited by Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden (2nd, Hackett, 2001).
  • Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy, by Bryan W. Van Norden (Hackett, 2011).

Unless otherwise noted, all references will be to these two texts. Since as a group we’ve chosen to not rush through the texts, it might take us a few weeks to get through each section. Please feel free to leave comments with any observations from your own reading or any questions – I don’t want to pretend that I’m an expert, but I’m happy to give you my perspective on the answer, and if the question is more complex, I could even put it to the group.

  1. Historical Context

Kongzi was alive approximately between 551-479 BCE. His text, the Analects, is a record of his teachings, mostly written down by his many disciples. Some scholars have argued against the view that it is a unified text – but it is mostly studied as if it were, so it makes sense to hang on to that in our reading group.

He was the son of a noble family, that had fallen on hard times after the death of his father. Despite the setbacks he had experienced in his youth, Kongzi managed to acquire an education and enter into government service, though later in life he became disgusted with the rulers he served, so he became a travelling teacher.

Van Norden reports of the incident that precipitated the change of career. At the time, Kongzi was appointed to serve the Ji family, the de facto rulers of Lu, the province where Kongzi was born. The family which wasn’t too keen on Kongzi’s teaching. He left their employment when the family was sent a group of ‘dancing girls.’ The head of the family supposedly enjoyed their services in private, ignoring his official duties. This was the final straw for Kongzi, who resigned in disgust, and left the province seeking a ruler who would bring his proposals into effect.

The disgust Kongzi felt at the head of the Ji family stems from a reverence for tradition that is at the centre of Confucian philosophy. Kongzi felt that his times were turbulent because people have turned away from the traditions that have made the prosperity of the gilded ages past.

If we are to believe the Analects, Kongzi was a keen observer of the world, interested in the way in which our personal character relates to our character as members of the state. These interests translated into the main features of his philosophy.

  1. Is This Philosophy?

This is a question that we’re not really considering in the reading group – because we take the Analects to be a philosophical text. However, there are far too many who want to dismiss Confucianism as fundamentally unphilosophical, and call Kongzi a ‘sage’ as opposed to ‘philosopher.’ The question is worth addressing at least briefly.

The typical argument against the Analects being a philosophical text usually rests on the form of the writing. It isn’t a philosophical treatise the way Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics or Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy are. It’s a collection of fragments, many referring to the practical aspects of life, and few presenting arguments in the sense of presenting conclusions with premises to support them.

As far as that goes, I’m happy to say that the text doesn’t share the form with much that a contemporary philosopher would write. The discipline has its mores now, and we write monographs and journal articles, not collections of fragments.

But to say that the text isn’t philosophical just because its form is different from what we now accept as philosophy is ridiculous. Firstly, the Analects are clearly concerned with presenting a clear and cohesive system for understanding the world. There are philosophical claims being made and defended consistently, just not in a form that is easy to recognize. Secondly, the same people who want to dismiss the ancient Chinese philosophers from philosophy are happy to accept many ancient Greek philosophers who, in effect, also wrote in a form that’s deeply unrecognizable in contemporary philosophy. Parmenides wrote poems, Socrates never wrote anything, Plato wrote dialogues, Elizabeth of Bohemia wrote letters, etc. But we don’t usually have a hard time accepting them into the canon.

There is a well-documented history of philosophy excluding women and philosophers from countries outside of the West. However, every voice we’ve excluded on the arbitrary basis that we still operate in a philosophical world shaped by the racist and misogynist views of Kant and Hegel is a loss to the depth of understanding we could have otherwise gained. [i]

Some might accuse me of opening philosophy to the ‘non-philosophical’ by my acceptance of a very broad view of what counts as philosophy. I don’t really care about that accusation, because if philosophy’s main task is to help us understand the world, and everything is open to thought, then everything can and should be considered within the purview of philosophy.

Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (eBook Rental) | Chinese ...

  1. Main Themes of Confucianism

The Analects present a series of anecdotes about the Master. The text in the Readings is a selection of these, most focused on presenting the relevant philosophical themes. In his Introduction, Van Norden breaks the main themes up a bit differently to what I do, as does Mark Csikshentmihalyi in his SEP entry for Confucianism. It’s worth remembering these are just different ways of cutting up the same pie – and all of these categories relate to each other. I’ve settled on the way that seemed most clear to me.

  • Revival of traditional values

The revival of traditional values and rituals is the theme that stands out most in the Analects. Kongzi thinks that these traditional values and practices constitute the method by which we can change our psychology and attitudes towards the world, and our participation in them (and the way in which we participate) are key to how we can be judged by others. I’d already mentioned above that Kongzi was disgusted by the head of the Ji family shunning tradition and keeping the gift of the ‘dancing girls’ to himself, while neglecting his duties. Kongzi took them to be the exemplar of the degradation of tradition and ritual, and proof that disregarding these things leads to moral and political failure.

Beyond a strict adherence to tradition, we must also maintain the right kind of attitude towards ritual, as Kongzi says, “If I am not fully present at the sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice at all” (3.12). The right motivation is thus required for ritual to actually affect us correctly.

I think the emphasis on ritual has a double meaning here. One is ritual in the sense described above – taking ritual in the sense of performing ceremonial and religious rites (such as sacrifices). The other is ritual in the sense of adhering to accepted social mores – and this is suggested by Kongzi’s emphasis on filial piety (e.g. 1.2, 1.6) and on the acceptance of social hierarchy in general.

  • The Family

In general, the family as a social structure plays a key role in Confucian ethics. In ancient China, family could be considered in two ways. The first is the family qua immediate relations. Families lived in multi-generational homes including one’s grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, etc. In this sense, the emphasis on filial piety and loyalty to the family means maintaining the proper hierarchy within one’s home and adhering to the kind of duties that come with one’s place within it. The second is the family qua state. The ruler of the state can be taken to assume the role of the ‘father of the nation’ and the state that of one’s home. Here again, the emphasis is on living in accordance with one’s place within the social hierarchy and in according to the duties that come along with it.

The family (in both senses) plays a key role in our moral cultivation. Kongzi said, “To live in the neighborhood of the Good is fine. If one does not choose to dwell among those who are Good, how will one obtain wisdom?” (4.1). In other words, our environment plays a key role in our ability to cultivate virtue. This applies to the family (as most clearly seen from the quote above) since they form our immediate environment, but it also applies to the state. Kongzi wrote that if one tried to rule by coercion, then “the common people will become evasive and will have no sense of shame,” however leading by virtuous example would mean “the people will have a sense of shame and will rectify themselves” (2.3).

Similarly, cultivating our moral character is how we can best participate in the state (2.21).

  • Ethical cultivation

Confucianism places a great value on moral cultivation, with many passages indicating that this is the true goal of life. Moral cultivation is how we can best support the state without directly participating in government (2.21). The pursuit of virtue also relates to the Way of the ‘Gentleman’ (more on this below).

Cultivating goodness is how we can live to enjoy pleasure and love (4.2, 4.3). In many ways, cultivating virtue has to do with how we interact with the world around us. Wealth is not inherently good, and poverty is not inherently bad, it is only our relationship to those things that determines their value (4.5).

Cultivating virtue therefore has a key role to play in our social relationships and our place in the social hierarchy. Consider the story of a man who refused a high income attempting to be humble – the Master reproached him for not considering how the higher income could be used to help others (6.5). Similarly, Kongzi tells his disciples that they ought “not be concerned that no one has heard of [them], but rather [to] strive to become … worthy of being known” (4.14). There is therefore a clear emphasis on the social aspects of virtue – after all, goodness would be useless if it were for our own sake only – we cultivate goodness both for ourselves (to be happy) and for the sake of our community.

  • Underlying philosophical anthropology

There is an underlying view of human nature that can be drawn out of the Analects. While Kongzi’s teachings did not concern a metaphysics of the human (like we often see at the base of Western ethics – such as those of Descartes or Kant), his philosophy is nonetheless grounded in a view of what kind of creatures we are.

Some comments (e.g. 2.4, 12.1) suggest that Kongzi held a view of human nature as resistant to change, and that human beings were not naturally drawn to virtue (see Van Norden’s Introduction pp.43-44). There seems to be a kind of ‘natural substance’ requirement for virtue; that is, some people are naturally able to cultivate virtue while others are not.

In 3.8 Kongzi says of the rituals that “The application of colors comes only after a suitable unadorned background is present” – that is to say, the moral value of ritual only comes to those who have the appropriate emotions or tendencies. Similarly, in 5.10 Kongzi says that “Rotten wood cannot be carved, and a wall of dung cannot be plastered.” All of this suggests that those whose nature is resistant to virtue simply cannot attain it or could, but only to a lesser degree.

Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy by Van Norden, Bryan ...

  1. What next?

There is much more to be said about Confucianism in general. In our first session we’ve managed to cover the first three sections of the Analects, which is to say that we have much more material to cover, though from my reading I think the majority of it expands on the themes I’ve outlined.

One major aspect of Confucianism that I have not discussed here, but intend to come back to next week is reading it as a moral theory. This includes two key features that I want to focus on in more depth, namely, the master virtue ‘ren’ and the Way of the Gentleman. Beyond this, I want to discuss the kind of moral theory Confucianism is, largely in relation to Van Norden’s argument that Confucianism is a form of virtue ethics.

I have a complicated relationship with this sort of taxonomizing of philosophy. On one hand, I think it’s handy to think be able to classify what we’re reading because it brings it together with what we might already know, and thus makes it easier to understand. If we begin our understanding of Kongzi from the standpoint of virtue ethics, we will be looking for a series of traits that loosely tie all virtue ethical theories together. Loosely speaking, we’re looking for an emphasis on character, goodness as opposed to rightness, and a set of character traits to cultivate.[ii] As far as all of that goes I am happy to agree with Van Norden that Confucianism is a kind of virtue ethics. I’m a bit worried, on the other hand, of retro-fitting an entire philosophical system into contemporary categories like that. As with any such classification, we inevitably miss some nuance and might overlook certain aspects of the view that we might not have if we took a neutral standpoint. This said – I can’t be too critical since the first chapter of my PhD thesis is titled “Why Descartes is a Virtue Ethicist.”

In any case, my mind is going to be on Confucianism for the next few weeks, it seems, so I intend to expand on this next time.


[i] I highly recommend two books on the topic. The first is Bryan Van Norden’s Taking Back Philosophy (2017, Columbia University Press), and the second is Peter K.J. Park’s Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy (2013, SUNY Press).

[ii] For a really great introduction to classifying virtue ethics in relation to consequentialism and deontology, I recommend Justin Oakley’s paper “Varieties of Virtue Ethics” (Ratio 9(2), 1996, pp.128-152).