The Significance of Ritual in Confucius’ Teachings

The Significance of Ritual Free Essay

China is one of the oldest civilized countries in the world. Its written history envelops almost five thousand years, and the idea of high antiquity and eternity of the Celestial Empire in modern conditions encourages Chinese thinkers to harmonize the modernity with the roots of the great Chinese culture, which extend deep into the millenniums. The history of China is characterized by the emergence and development of the concept of Confucianism, which was created by the great philosopher Confucius. For thousands of years, this doctrine had been the basis of the state and social control, and it remained so until it contacted the western type of civilization. In our days, the Confucian principles promote a rapid development of new technologies in the right direction. In accordance with moral and ethical social criteria, it leads to balance in modern Chinese society. Confucianism ensures a harmony between innovative and traditional forces. In such terms, it is necessary to be aware of the meaning of this doctrine in order to understand its influence on the modern world. The purpose of this paper is to reveal the concept of Confucianism primarily by examining one of the most important issues in the Confucius’s studies — namely, rituals. Thus, the essay will undertake different methods, including the help of additional literature, in order to explain the significance of rituals in accordance with the philosopher’s perception.

Chinese philosophy has created a distinctive conception of man and the world as the consonant realities. The beginning of the Chinese philosophical thought is rooted in mythological thinking. In this mythology, it is possible to meet the deification of the sky, the earth, and all of the elements of the nature as the substances which form the environment of human existence (Yao, 190). According to it, it becomes exceedingly obvious why the rituals take a specific place in Chinese culture. In general, a ritual is one of the many forms of human behavior which is determined by cultural tradition and which possesses features such as symbolism and playful nature (Fan 143). The study of the rituals is important to the general exploration of the development of human culture. In ancient China, the concept of the rituals was associated with various kinds of ceremonies, which were denoted by the word ‘li’ (Fan 143). Thus, the Chinese paid close attention to the rites, formalizing deep philosophical and cultural content of behavior parameters, as well as the parameters of human consciousness expressed in behavioral norms, which also possess the nature of rituals. Therefore, the normative program of Confucius can be briefly defined as a ritual ethic.

In substance, the most important invention of Confucius is the discovery of man as a special reality, which can be observed in the perception of the rituals (Eno 25). Thus, the basis of the mystical teachings of Confucius is the notion of ‘li.’ It is a particular form of behavior, speech, thoughts, and aspirations that leads a person to the constant contact with the sacred heaven powers (Yao 193). After obtaining this harmony, the person reaches the special state of a “noble man”, namely an initiated magician. The main meaning of Confucius’ ritual is expressed in the proclamation of the ideals of social harmony and in the search of the means to achieve those ideals, primarily through ethical and ritual norms. Moreover, the concept of ‘li’ in Confucianism was not solely theoretically interpreted and justified, but it also became the supreme symbol of ritualized ethics and turned into a succinct description of the proper social order and the required behavior (Fan 144). The aim of Confucius was to encourage people to understand the need for a conscious compliance with the generally accepted norms, and more importantly, to realize that without them, the stable and well-organized society cannot exist.

A curious fact is that Confucius was not interested in questions of ontology and epistemology, though in regard to the source of moral requirements and values, he considered the sky as the highest creative power in nature and society (Yao 192). The heavenly decree is a destiny which people and the states adhere to, and the person must unconditionally follow the will of the heaven (Eno 36). Based on the legacy of their predecessors, the founder of Confucianism developed the concept of heaven as a single primary substance. Confucius borrowed the primitive beliefs, such as the cult of the dead ancestors, the cult of the earth, and honoring the ancient legendary ancestors (Rainey 16).

Furthermore, it is necessary to mention another peculiar moment of Confucius’ teachings, which is closely connected to the concept of ritual. The philosopher shared the belief of the ancient people that a person is the supreme being out of all creatures in the developed world (Tu 20). Primarily, a man is born to serve nature and to achieve its objective, namely — the continued creation of life. The cosmic destiny of man, according to Chinese notions, ideally lies in its potential gift to communicate with Heaven and Earth, thus representing the three main world beginnings (Yao 196). In fact, as a center of the earth and the sky, the ideal personality perfectly corresponds to the living meaning of cosmology, while the sapient advice is the leading element of the particular world order (Eno 40). Thereby, adhering to the natural laws, storing all the existing substances, and loving all the creatures were the most important tasks of Chinese culture and especially of Confucianism.

It is important to note the fact that in accordance with the traditional Chinese thought, the society was an integral part of the cosmos. Hence, the boundary between nature and society was not established (Ebrey 60). One of the fundamental concepts of Chinese culture, shared by Confucius, was the issue of the perfect hierarchy (Fan 148). Specifically, the following of this concept ensured the evolution of the society in regard to space laws, clearly revealing the role of rituals as means to save and prolong life. The distinction between high and low essence in the degree of perfection is a sign of hierarchy and the inclusion of the individual and society into the never-ending chain of space and nature.

The particular feature of the rituals is clearly manifested in Confucius’ interpretation of ‘Liji’ as an instrument of a man to soothe the human senses (Rainey 56). Specifically, the philosopher establishes the norm of behavior that can become visible and available through external rituals and ceremonies. Consequently, every individual, inscribed in the ecological niche, is in harmonious relationship with nature and the society. Conscious regulation of all spheres of activity coinciding with the harmony of nature ensured the evolution of the individual and the public, as well as the continuation of the life itself (Rainey 60). In general, according to Confucius, the rituals connect past, present, and future together, and help people to survive under any extreme conditions, harmonizing the needs of the population.

Nevertheless, the most important point in the teachings of Confucius is the idea of a fullness of a sacred ritual (Yao 195). The philosopher believed that the precision of each gesture, every word, and even every thought during the ritual is the entry into the grand rhythm of the universal life (Tu 10). Therefore, adherence to ethical and ritual norms is foremost a chance to fix oneself. In addition, it is a return to what is originally laid in the essence of man, to the purity of heart and clarity of mind. In fact, for many philosophers who came after Confucius, the ethical and ritual ceremonies designed by this great philosopher of antiquity were a form of music of the soul, based on the integrity and depth of life (Fan 150). However, Confucius' ritual and ethical teachings were often subjected to a critical discussion of the representatives of various philosophical trends of China's traditional culture, as every major school of thought represented and allocated the specific edges in their opinions.

It is well known that ethics and ritualized ceremonies, always relying on the strong foundation of Confucianism, dominated the Chinese society for thousands of years. Moreover, they formally and informally played the role of an official state religion. The ideological basis of the country was Confucianism, the essence of which in its most general form simply boiled down to the ethical standards and ritualized ceremonies. It is natural that all this has been clearly reflected in the Book of Rites, the encyclopedia of Confucianism where ethics and rituals are the coordinates of the general scheme, inscribed in the context of everything else (Eno 60). Thus, ethics and rituals are the main components of this treatise, and they reveal the significance and meaning of Confucius’ teachings.

In fact, the usage of the aforementioned elements often takes a dominant place in the text. All the context of the treatise is not merely intertwined with ethical standards and ritualized ceremonials, but is also based on other things (Ebrey 76). Moreover, the ethics and rituals were proclaimed in the chapters where people talked about the norms of behavior. Thus, the first two comprehensive chapters of the document outline the basic ethical and rituals items and provide the detailed guidance on how a person should behave in different situations (Ebrey 77). Primarily, it envisages a certain set of rules which are based on moderation and respect for others, as well as on dignity, sense of propriety, integrity, and decency (Sarkissian 7). Thereby, the words and deeds of people should be weighed, namely — they should strictly comply with the accepted norms and focus on the famous and approved models.

In addition, ensuring a better insight into the ritual teachings of Confucius is possible through the observation of the explicitly described ceremonial reception in the treatise, which is primarily based on Confucius' thoughts. Consequently, those rites explain the primitive norms to people, namely where to sit during the meeting, how and when to carry on a conversation, and who should bow in the sign of politeness and gratitude (Rainey 78). The treatise describes in details how to make gifts, how to behave in the family, in the days of mourning, at the service, and in someone else's kingdom (Ebrey 67). Much attention is also paid to the rules of sacrifice, to relations in the house of the ruler, and to the demeanor in court (Tu 16). However, the most important emphasis which is repeatedly visible in the text is placed on the aspiration to understand the essence and meaning of ‘li.’

According to both the text and Confucius' teachings, the main objective of the ritual is to establish strict distribution of different social ranks in the rank-hierarchical structure (Sarkissian 10). Thus, everyone should know their place and the corresponding rights and privileges, as well as the number and nature of their obligations. Confucius affirms that people should not only know, but also comply with them in everyday life (Yao 195). The significance of this is manifested in the ceremonial ritual. The purpose of a thorough ceremony is to remind people of the origins which have formed the basis of the existing order. Confucius repeatedly stressed that the basic meaning of ritual is in the clear distinction, namely in the strict fixation on social and political inequality of people, without which there cannot be order (Fan 150). In general, ethics and rituals are the root of all relationships, the basis of self-respect and mutual respect in society, and the tool of establishing the order in the world. Thus, the ritual is the foundation of a stable society, a pledge of social harmony, and an instrument to create a prosperous state.

It is possible to notice that the ritual in Confucius’ perception has different meanings and can be used in various situations. Hence, another very important ritual is a funeral rite (Yao 196). The death of any person is explained not just as an ordinary death, subordinate to the laws of nature, but also as a kind of cosmic event, namely a departure of life of a person from the culture. The human life literally contains global sense, which envisages that the person is a spiritual being — consequently, all lives must be transformed into a ritual, especially the completion of them. Therefore, Confucius preached full adherence to the specifics of the funeral rites, and the process of mourning (Eno 80). Moreover, the philosopher considered the major features of the rite as the inner experience and a mystical transformation into the spirits to which all prayers are addressed (Rainey 120). Therefore, Confucius created a comprehensive and diverse meaning of the ritual teachings, which refers to the most critical issues of humanity. The ritual ceremonials revolve around the most sacred and secretive moments of every person.

Considering all the aforementioned facts, it is possible to state that the paper has established the significance and meaning of Confucius’ concept of ritual. In fact, in order to provide a thorough and detailed explanation of the topic, the essay referred to different additional sources and explored this issue through the context of the famous Chinese encyclopedia of Confucianism. Thus, it has been found that a ritual is a meeting place of heaven and earth, a special kind of symbolic action that allows a person to cognize oneself in the space of the cosmos. The concept is a very diverse phenomenon which is rather difficult to understand. In general, the rituals certainly contributed to the education and the culture of feelings attached to moderation and preservation of moral values, and in particular, to the development of consumerism at the expense of spirituality. Therefore, the particular ethical teachings of Confucius have grown into a powerful social and political doctrine through the centuries, and have become a basis of many philosophical studies.


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