Significance of Confucian Rituals

Significance of Confucian Rituals Free Essay


The long period of development and spiritual appeal rendered Confucianism one of the popular world religions. The immense popularity suggests that the peace-loving philosophy has the potential to meet the religious needs of the Confucians by providing extensive guidance on numerous subjects. Adherence to religious practices allowed the strong believers to develop a unique view on all aspects of life including interpersonal relations, political participation, and personal growth. Therefore, comprehensive influence of the Confucian rituals on every aspect of human life is commonly attributed to its sociopolitical, religious, and moral applications.

Social and Political Dimensions of Confucianism

The adherents of Confucianism recognized the immense significance of religious rituals because they were deeply related to the contemporary social and political processes in the state.  In fact, the religious teachings helped the state authorities maintain the imperial system of governance and the overall credibility of the unilateral rule during the ancient times. The Chinese term for 'ritual' is commonly translated as “serving gods and praying for good fortune” (Yao 191). Therefore, the concept encompasses the fundamental principles of the universe that relate to both human and natural world (Yao 191). Notable scholars argue that the Confucian teachings focus on every sphere of human life including “eating and drinking… the observances of capping, marriage, mourning, sacrificing, archery, chariot-driving, audiences, and friendly missions” (Yao 192). Evidently, the influence of the Confucian religiosity extends to ethical and social norms, civil laws and customs as well as the standards of proper conduct. The sacrifices, in their turn, constitute the most important part of the ritual by cultivating humility and subservience to supernatural forces. The Chinese term for 'sacrifice' refers to the sacred offerings for heavenly, earthly, and ancestral spirits (Yao 193). The ritual traditions of Confucianism date back to the period of the late Warring States or early Han time and presuppose three levels of sacrifice (Yao 193). The grand sacrifice to Heaven and Lord on High included the offerings of jade, silk, and animals, with metal and animals usually prepared for the medium sacrifices (Yao 193). Meanwhile, the small ones required the offerings of animals (Yao 193). The freely made sacrifices seemed to symbolize the manifestation of reverence and submission to the divine powers. This religious practice may have served to cultivate the sense of modesty and humility in the Confucians.

A close look at the political applications of Confucianism proved the assertion relevant. Historically, worshipping Heaven and the Lord on High seemed to be a vitally important condition for the overall survival of the nation. In fact, the state officials saw a direct correlation between strict adherence to the instructions in the religious texts and the socio-political well-being of the people. The proper execution of the ceremonies with a sufficient number of offerings and pure motives was associated with the bestowment of good fortunes including “material gain, physical longevity and spiritual protection” (Yao 194). The three forms of sacrifice in the name of state were essentially incorporated into the political life of ancient China. The ritual offerings to Heaven, royal ancestors, and Confucius became longstanding traditions that constituted the foundation of the state religion (Yao 196). Modern scholars tend to emphasize the immense symbolic meaning of the sacrifice to Heaven. Its significance is largely rooted in the supremacy of the universe and humanity doctrine that views Heaven “as a supernatural force that predetermined the course of all events in the universe” (Yao 196). Therefore, sacrificial rituals were essentially a tribute to the spiritual forces that functioned as a supreme moral and spiritual authority. A favorable attitude to Heaven was considered the ultimate condition for future prosperity. During the sacrifices, the participants requested numerous gifts including” relief from drought, insect infestation, enemy invasion” as well as “a peaceful reign, a good harvest, a successful campaign,” and the justification of the sovereign's power (Yao 197). Granting the requests in exchange for the ritualistic sacrifices indicated communication and harmonization of the relationships between the human and spiritual world.

Moreover, strict adherence to the procedural aspects of the sacrificial ritual indicated the sovereign’s gratitude and commitment to the Heaven-given authority to govern people single-handedly. Notably, the execution of the ceremony was the privilege and duty of the ruler. According to Yao, the Chinese rulers had struggled to establish and continue the tradition of feng, the sacrifice to Heaven, since the early times (198). The historical accounts state that the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty decided to follow the example of the ancient sage kings and relied on the council of the Confucian masters in learning the complex procedure of the feng ritual (Yao 198). Later on, Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, who performed the ritual at the foot of the Mount Tai during his rule (Yao 198), upheld the tradition. The privileged position of the sovereign in the world order was marked by his unilateral performance during the ceremony. The title of the Son of Heaven provided the Emperors with a unique qualification for this grand sacrifice and right to exhibit his inferior position during the ritual (Yao 197-198). The sovereign executed the complex ceremony that included dance, music, reading religious documents, and offering gifts while facing north instead of the usual practice of facing south (Yao 197-198). In this way, the Emperor acknowledged the supremacy of the divine forces that bestowed the gift of power to lead the country upon him. At the same time, the manifestation of humility facilitated the permanent establishment of Confucianism as the state religion in the eyes of the imperial subjects.

In terms of their social significance, the religious rituals facilitated civil obedience, sense of dignity, and family connectivity. During the ceremonies, the participants underwent the process of spiritual purification. The longstanding traditions required the parties to acknowledge their wrongdoings, make amends, and regain confidence (Yao 192). The achievement of these goals strengthened the family ties by determining the members’ place within the household while signifying the maintenance of the supremacy of the Heaven-given laws and the expression of human emotions (Yao 192). In addition, the assertion suggests that the religious rituals had a far-reaching goal of establishing the self-sustained state whereas the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of separate individuals guaranteed social order and national prosperity (Yao 192).

Social and political stability were largely ensured by the strong influence of the state religion that traditionally supported the unlimited power of the emperors. Common people, in their turn, had little choice but to accept the authority of the royal dynasty (Yao 198). The concept of civil obedience was an essential part of the Confucian teachings that popularized the idea of Heaven’s control over the sovereigns as well as separate individuals (Yao 198).  The assertion is especially relevant in the view of the Confucian ideal of the harmonious and self-sustained society. Meanwhile, the political applications of the Confucian rituals supplied common people with a positive advantage. The evidence mentioned above implies that the Emperor was accountable for his success and failure in fulfilling his sacred duty of following the religious teachings. In Yao’s words, the neglectful attitude of the rulers has led to numerous attempts “to reprimand a dissolute emperor” (Yao 199). On several occasions, the so-called Former Scholars of Confucianism struggled to overthrow the rule of the disgraced sovereigns during the Middle Ages (Yao 199). In this regard, the fundamental principles of Confucianism seemed to evoke the sense of dignity in the common people by admitting their right for protection against the corruptive authority. The evidence strongly suggests the deep connection between the political and social dimensions of Confucianism, manifested in the overlapping objectives of both aspects of religion that presupposed the establishment of the advanced society.

Religious Significance of Confucianism

The Confucian practices primarily focus on establishing a sacred bond with spiritual powers. The longstanding tradition of the ordered ritual is perceived as the channel of communication with the supernatural forces. According to Yao, the perfectly executed ceremony that combines music, dance, offerings, and sacrifices, enables the descendants to express their gratitude to the great ancestors (192). The cult of ancestors occupies a solid place among the Confucian beliefs as a source of spiritual blessing and insurance of material wealth. The emergence of the religious practice may be attributed to the central position of family in the Confucian culture, with the sacrifice to the ancestors considered an honorable obligation (Yao 199). The sacrifice to the deceased relatives had a twofold purpose. Firstly, the offerings to the dead manifested the unconventional attitude to death. The end of physical existence did not envisage the end of the family connection since the deceased relatives were buried with numerous offerings including vessels, servants, animals, and chariots (Yao 200). The sacrifices indicated the desire to provide the ancestors with the equal opportunities for maintaining the accustomed lifestyle (Yao 200). The failure to perform the sacred duty would lead to numerous hardships for the living descendants (Yao 200). Therefore, the rituals helped facilitate the sense of family commitment and appreciation of the ancestral memory.  

Secondly, the sacrifice to ancestors served as a mechanism of preserving the channel of communication with spirits and the interconnection between religion and politics. The former assertion is based on the widespread belief in the close residence of the ancestors and the Lord on High in the spiritual realm. The concept presumed that the royal ancestors sat closely to the divine entity in Heaven and, therefore, had unlimited access to the Lord (Yao 200). In this view, the ritual offerings to the deceased relatives were equated to the sacrificial tribute to Heaven (Yao 200). On other occasions, the sacred ceremonies were aimed at reviving the spirits of the dead. During the sacrifices in front of the ancestral tablets, the participants recalled the heavenly spirit and earthly soul of the deceased, thereby inviting them to revisit the human realm (Yao 200). Evidently, the Confucian practices helped sustain the sacred bond between numerous generations by promoting the sense of reverence toward the family connections.

Meanwhile, the political significance of the ritual is manifested in the fierce efforts of the state leadership to popularize the concept of filial piety. For instance, the ancestral temples were the usual location of social events. On many occasions, the religious landmarks served as the place of royal coronations, marriages, audiences with the state officials, state councils, and weaponry (Yao 201). The tradition strongly indicates the desire of the sovereigns to emphasize the interrelation between religious practices and politics by promoting the institutionalization of the ancestral rituals. The imperial rulers struggled to ensure the continuity of the religious practice by underscoring the unbreakable link between the living descendants and their ancestors (Yao 200). The assertion avoided the evident distinction between the old and immediate ancestors highlighting the aspect of moral purification as the result of the dutiful adherence to the Confucian teachings (Yao 200). Overall, the religious appeal and politicization of the ancestral rituals were aimed at solidifying the position of Confucianism as the state religion by stimulating the dependency of the common people and future generations on its spiritual guidance.      

Moral Principles of Confucianism

As Confucianism had penetrated all the aspects of social life in ancient China, the religion successfully generated an immense influence on the moral standards. The compulsory requirement for moral purity served as a method for cultivating the high standards of spiritual upbringing. The assertion implies that the symbolic meaning of the ritual extends beyond the simple procedure of gathering and offering sacrifices. It presupposes the achievement of moral perfection whereas the freely given offerings in combination with the kind-hearted motives were an indication of the reunion with the sacred spirits (Yao 194). The assertion suggests that living a good life was a necessary precondition for enjoying happiness and overall well-being. Meanwhile, the Confucian doctrine seems to promote the lifetime adherence to the religious teachings. The historical accounts state that seriously ill Confucius, the founder of the religion, responded to the question about the scale of the prayer’s power with a straightforward admission; he said, “I have been offering my prayers for a long time” (Yao 195). The answer indicates the compulsory manifestation of strong faith, detached from the earthly problems (Yao 195). Evidently, the spiritual leader believed that humility and reverence should be the ultimate determinants of one’s aspirations for the moral perfection instead of the praying words, facilitated by the pressing routine problems and current hardships. Ultimately, the moral upbringing and educational purpose of Confucianism constitute the core elements of the religious teachings. According to Yao, the participation in the rituals and their observance by people stimulate spiritual purification by shaping the general vision of good and evil (196).  

The historical figure of Confucius and his adherence to the spiritual growth through learning occupy a special place among the religious teachings of Confucianism. The preserved documentary sources depict the religious leader as an incredibly modest individual with the sole life goal of enriching his knowledge (Yao 204-205). The contemporary scholars have endowed Confucius with supernatural powers by assigning to him the title of the Son of Heaven (Yao 205). The popular admiration led to the establishment of the traditional sacrifice to Confucius as a remarkable philosopher and patron of education (Yao 205-206). Evidently, the outstanding spiritual leader succeeded in the popularization of his doctrine by presenting a personal example of a lifelong student. The pursuit of knowledge remained the cornerstone of spiritual growth even after his death. His life story suggests the direct correlation between personal growth and a deep understanding of the sacred connection between the human and spiritual realms (Yao 209). According to Yao, Confucius strongly advocated for the significance of studying as a primary way of achieving moral perfection that is manifested in the cultivation of noble virtues including “humaneness, righteousness, wisdom and courage” (210). Notably, the philosopher fiercely supported the method of empirical experience while essentially condemning the single practice of reading the literature. In addition, he placed a great emphasis on moral advancement that entailed the demonstration of kind-heartedness, sincerity, faithfulness, love, and filial piety as well as the obtainment of substantial knowledge in music, dance. and poetry (Yao 211). The comprehensive learning appears to constitute a major way of achieving spiritual maturity, with the accumulation of knowledge leading to complete self-realization.


Confucianism strongly relies on the idea of the underlying connection between the human and spiritual world, commonly manifested in the sacrifices to Heaven, the ancestors, and Confucius. Due to the irresistible appeal of the concept, the religion projects an immense influence on the social, political, and moral standards of the contemporary society. Since ancient times, the Confucian practices have justified and encouraged the imperial system of rule as well as the significance of family connections and comprehensive education. The identification of these distinguishable features suggests potential benefits of the further investigation of the Confucian ritualistic traditions.

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