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Confucian liyue formed the aesthetic pillars of traditional Chinese politics

LIU CHENGJI | 2017-10-11 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


A musician plays bianzhong, a Chinese polyphonic musical instrument with a history of more than 2,500 years. In Chinese political philosophy, proprieties and music embody two checking and balancing powers—rationality and emotion, which jointly shaped a harmonious society.

Ancient Chinese political philosophy had a long tradition of valuing the role of culture. The Duke of Zhou in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE) established li, which were rules for rites and propriety,  and composed appropriate music, known as yue, for different occasions. This liyue system evolved over the long history of Chinese civilization. As recent as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), this tradition was still seen in the imperial exam for selecting officials through the Eight-part Essays.

The six arts of Confucian education were: li, yue, archery, riding, writing and mathematics. Confucian education was not only a matter of cultivating personal virtue, but also the core of national education and the criteria for selecting officials. This forged an inseparable connection between art and politics in traditional China. The governance of beauty thus became a distinctive feature of traditional Chinese politics, which is a historical facet of China as a nation of rites and propriety.   


Aesthetics, art, politics
How did aesthetics and art become integrated with traditional Chinese politics? The history of early Chinese politics was itself the history of beautifying nature. Fu Xi, one of the first three mythical emperors of Chinese civilization, was believed to have presided over the creation of Chinese culture. Fu Xi is said to have made the famous Chinese bagua, which are eight trigrams used to interpret and forecast phenomena in both nature and society. By simulating natural phenomena, such as the sky and the earth, Fu Xi transformed the disorder in nature into the graphic existence of bagua. In this way, deep connections between astronomical phenomena and human affairs were established.

According to the Great Appendix to the I Ching, by simply making rules for upper and lower garments following the natural laws as a way of demonstrating li, the legendary emperors Huang Di, Yao and Yu were able to secure order under heaven. Dressing marked the progression from barbarism to civilization, manifesting the fusion of aesthetics, ethics and politics.

The later great innovation was the liyue system in the Western Zhou Dynasty. The Duke of Zhou established rules for rites and propriety, and composed appropriate music for different occasions in the sixth year of his term as regent. The liyue system was both political and aesthetic. The national politics were aligned with aesthetic and artistic education. In this sense, aesthetic pursuits became the dominant pursuits of this kind of politics. A humanistic beauty was the soul of this system. 

Commenting on the uniqueness of the traditional Chinese political system, Friedrich Hegel wrote in The Philosophy of History: “China [is a] State based on the Family relation—a paternal Government, which holds together the constitution by its provident care, its admonitions, retributive or rather disciplinary inflictions; — a prosaic Empire.” Just by investigating the core position that liyue system held in traditional Chinese politics, it would be proper to say that Hegel’s judgment is incorrect. He had overlooked the aesthetic and idealistic dimension of traditional Chinese politics, which were manifested in the system of rules for rites, etiquette and music. 

However, in pragmatic political practice, the complexity of humanity and the cruelty of reality must also be taken into consideration. The political operation cannot be too poetic and aesthetic. Otherwise, the rulers would find themselves in a dilemma.

Precisely because of this, after the pre-Qin Period (-221 BCE), generations of Chinese thinkers had great esteem for liyue system. At the same time, they also emphasized the compulsory nature of political issues.

Take Confucianism for example. The Confucians valued governance through education about liyue as well as governance through punishment. In certain periods, they valued ruling by both benevolence and force. Sometimes Confucianism was granted a monopoly over political life, at other times, there was a  superficial Confucianism while the legalism was at the core of political operation. The double-track strategy helped strike a necessary balance between idealistic political values and pragmatism.

However, the political compulsion adopted by Chinese politicians for practical governance of urgent political issues never undermined the sublime values of liyue system or the aesthetic politics. On the contrary, the harsher the political punishments were, the more poetic values were required to justify these punishments.

Because of this, Confucianism was forever dominant in morality and aesthetics for its emphasis on governance by rules for rites, etiquette and music. On the one hand, as Mencius said, “Goodness alone is not sufficient for the exercise of government. Laws cannot enforce themselves.” On the other hand, it was also commonly accepted that governance through education on liyue system should be primary while governance through punishment should be secondary.

The political system in Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE) was characterized by the appreciation of culture in governance. It applied poetic content to harsh realities. Because of this, generations of Chinese politicians admired the political system of the Zhou Dynasty as a symbol of a golden age. 


Ceremonies, music
The political system in the Zhou Dynasty was appreciated for the high premium it placed on culture and education, which was reflected in its decision to rule the country based on a system of rules for rites, etiquette and music. The liyue system constituted a value system that reflected both the Way of the Heaven and the free will of humanity.

According to the Book of Rites, “The theory of rules for rites, etiquette and music embraces the whole nature of man.” Music and ceremonies go deep to the very root of human feelings.

The system of rules for rites, etiquette and music was considered a general concept that was reflected in all things in the world. The Book of Rites states that “In music of the grandest style there is the same harmony that prevails between heaven and earth; in rites of the grandest form there is the same graduation that exists between heaven and earth.”

The rules for rites and etiquette established the order for human behaviors. Inspiring the vitality of this orderly life requires music, which could help promote the system of rules for rites and etiquette. Music is a force that helps release human vitality and is inclined to induce excess human desires, which rules for rites and etiquette may help to control. Li and yue embody two checking and balancing powers—rationality and emotion. They jointly shape an ideal picture of a harmonious society.

In the time of Confucius, poetry was separated from music. The road for personal cultivation and national peace and tranquility was further summed up as “being incited first by the Songs, then given a firm footing by the study of rites and etiquette, and finally perfected by music.”

Hence, a stepwise way of ascending was established in this value system made up of a series of concepts, including poetry, rites and music. Rules for rites and etiquette transcend poetry while the music transcends the those rules. The governance by music was the ultimate level of ideal political governance.

The liyue, or rules for rites, etiquette and music, as the core concept of traditional Chinese political theory, were based on human nature. The education of liyue was taken in the artistic forms including poetry, rites, etiquette, music and dancing, aiming to establish the real world as an ideal one equipped with various artistic factors. Liyue regulated the activities in human societies while at the same time connecting the nature. In this way, the order of ceremonies and the harmony of the music became a cosmic spirit which threads together the heaven, earth, humanity and the divinity.

In this sense, if aesthetic spirit was the soul of traditional Chinese politics, the ideas of beauty, poetry, li, music and dancing can be viewed as the founding principles of traditional China as a nation.


Idealistic attributes
Traditional Chinese politics of liyue contained a notable feature of idealism. This characteristic caused great difficulties for political practice. An example is the setback that Confucius encountered in the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE) when he advocated maintaining the political system of the Zhou Dynasty.    

Despite all these difficulties, beauty and art were still significant in traditional Chinese politics. The human propensity to love beauty is in essence the love of dreams. A nation without the guidance of dreams will no doubt lose its goals and direction.

Beauty and art, as a result of their idealistic nature, demonstrate an attribute of transcendence. This would help design a political system that is of a vision for the entire humanity. A humanistic politics with an aesthetic quality will be of ever-lasing values as the result of its idealistic and transcendent nature as well as its ultimate concern with all of humanity.

Chinese classical aesthetics not only paid attention to literature and art but also possessed a broad vision for the nation and the world. The value of Chinese literature and art lies not only in satisfying the disposition and feelings of the individuals, but also in injecting poetic content into politics as well as leading the political operation at the ideal level. 

Cai Yuanpei, a prominent Chinese educator in the first half of the 20th century once said: “Ancient China valued both li and yue. The governments selected officials through their literary or calligraphic works and even established national art academies sometimes. The buildings in the palaces and temples as well as the gardens and pavilions of the wealthy families all indicate that China is a nation with the sense of beauty.” Cai’s remarks accurately explained the role of beauty in edifying and molding traditional China.


Liu Chengji is a professor from the School of Philosophy at Beijing Normal University.