Ritual studies vital to civilization development

By By Zhang Zhiqiang / 08-25-2014 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

On January 24, 2012, the Sacrifice to Heaven ceremony took place in the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, which served as a place of ceremony and ritual for the Ming and Qing emperors, reenacting the imperial worship rites of the Ming and Qing dynasty.


The latest trend in Chinese philosoph­ical research is a full-blown revival of scholarship focusing on the Confucian classics. The greatest emphasis is be­ing placed on the study of rituals.


After many years of development, this tendency has become the order of the day, highlighting many of the problems facing contemporary Chi­na. To comprehensively revitalize the study of Confucian classics, the key tasks are to revive the reasonable traditions of the Chinese civilization and to better construct modern Chi­na. Intended to combat the crisis of social integration, the study of rituals provides the basis for the construc­tion of new etiquette and customs.


Two paradigms of Confucian studies

The study of Confucian classics at present generally relies upon two paradigms—one driven by academ­ics and the other by culture. The two paradigms share the same goal of rebuilding the study of Confucian classics.


Previous approaches—whether they regarded the field as documen­tation science or a review of the his­tory of Confucian studies—were in essence a critical or transcendental study of Confucian classics from the modern academic perspective in combination with an Enlightenment mentality.


By contrast, the new approach, with its goal of rebuilding the disci­pline, first attempts to highlight the role Confucian research has played in traditional academics and civilization in order to articulate the meaning of Confucian studies and recapture the essence of the Chinese civilization.


Unlike the cultural conservatism that was prevalent in the 1990s, the culture-driven approach to re­constructing Confucian studies has tended to explore pragmatic ways to deal with the problems facing present China, while the academic paradigm attempts to draw upon empirical and historical data to reveal the meaning of Confucian studies as the core of Chinese civilization and traditions.


In the application of the Confucian study concept, more attention is paid to the correlation between the civilizing process and the system of cultural symbols than is given to the establishment and restoration of the traditional academic system. Further contemplating these matters is the key to enhancing social cohesion.


The academic and cultural ap­proaches to the study of Confucian classics are differentiated by their goals and interests. The cultural ap­proach looks to the New Text Confu­cianism championed by Kang Youwei as a model, inevitably falling into the same "heretic and strange" academic style of the New Text school.


By contrast, the academic ap­proach adopts a conservative at­titude toward traditions and history with respect and a certain affinity, which is the most praiseworthy thing about the contemporary study of Confucian classics. This is because such an attitude has endowed the study of traditions and history with soul, transforming empirical study from a means of criticizing traditions into a means of rebuilding them.


The study of Confucian classics is the only way to uncover the distinc­tive characteristics of the Chinese civi­lization, but this requires the perspec­tive gained from history. The value of the civilization uncovered through the study of Confucian classics is a sum­mary of Chinese history. The study of Confucian classics therefore should work in conjunction with history in creating new cultural forms.


The aim of studying Confucian classics is to tap a civilization value that can adapt to and guide the times while interpreting the continued development of Chinese history. In this sense, any route to rebuilding the study of Confucian classics should stand the test of modern academics and historical facts as well as provide value guidance under new historical circumstances.


Reviving ritual studies

Speaking of the relationship be­tween the study of Confucian classics and civilization, renowned Chinese philosopher Qian Mu concluded that the rise of the study of the Spring and Autumn Annals laid the foundation for the change of dynasties and that the study of the Rites of Zhou led to the formation of new facilities for poli­tics and education. The focus of con­temporary Confucian studies has also shifted from the study of the Spring and Autumn Annals to the study of rites. And the priority of ritual stud­ies is the renaissance of the study of three ritual classics: the Rites of Zhou, the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial and the Book of Rites.


For the renaissance of the ritual study, the first thing is to revisit Zheng’s study of the three ritual clas­sics, among which Zheng’s study of the Book of Etiquette and Ceremo­nial remains the focus. This trend continues the legacy of not only the tradition of ritual studies since the Qing dynasty but also the thoughts of Cao Yuanbi, who is regarded as the last master of Confucian studies.


It is also noteworthy that the ritual studies of Zhu Xi are emphasized, especially the rediscovery of the importance of his Notes on Ritual Books. Moreover, the discovery and sorting of its sequel on sacrificial rites revised by Yang Fu, has become a landmark in ritual studies.


There are two priorities in the field of ritual studies. The first is the study of the national ritual system. Forming the foundation of the sys­tem, the Five Rites—ceremonies for worship, condolence, military affairs, reception and interpersonal liaison—have become a particular focus of attention. The study of these empha­sizes the symbolic meaning of rites in ancient regimes and their role in rule by rite.


The second is the study of the mourning apparel system through which it’s made clear that the patriar­chal clan system has played a signifi­cant role in sculpting the pattern of human relations among the Chinese people.


The study of mourning apparel pays attention to rebuilding the tra­ditional social order. Since the clas­sification of mourning apparels is a trace of relations through genealogy, the mourning apparel system gives a glimpse of traditional life and its meaning, providing insight into potential ways to tackle the current crisis of social integration.


Importance of rule by rite

Ritual studies probe deep into the essence and values of traditional rites. Some scholars hold that the meta­physical difference between sacrificial vessels and general tools is the most fundamental difference between Chinese and Western cultures. Unlike the rule of law, which mitigates poten­tially conflicting behavior, rule by rite integrates personal behavior with a worldview of holistic harmony.


As defined by the rule of rite, Chi­nese politics serves to promote world harmony and that China in traditional society was never a purely political nation but a national civilization. It is significant to grasp the essence of the rule of rite in order to rebuild traditional life and define the Chinese identity.


In light of the fact that the enriched Chinese philosophy focuses on the concerns of the times and appeals for theoretical development, enormous efforts should be made to relate these concerns and appeals to historical research. Only by doing so, can Chi­nese philosophy serve the needs of the times and play an active role in providing theoretical support.


Zhang Zhiqiang is from the Institute of Philosophy at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 614, June 30, 2014.                                                

Translated by Ren Jingyun