From its very beginnings, Chinese society has placed a particular emphasis on the right performance of rituals. In the Shang dynasty (c. 1554–1045/1040 B.C.E.), this had to do primarily with performing rituals to appease the High God (Shangdi), one's ancestors, and other spiritual powers. It should be noted that the larger part of ritual activity was applied to the veneration of ancestors, as it was generally felt that their approval was easier to attain than the more powerful but less reliable Shangdi. In all of this, the king bore a particular responsibility in performing the right rituals, since the success or failure of the state was seen to be a direct result of such performance. Indeed, proper performance of these rituals was seen to influence everything from harvests and weather patterns to illnesses and military campaigns. It should be noted, however, that this performance of ritual also served to legitimize the king's position, as it afforded him a special position as a mediator between spiritual forces and the welfare of the state.
In the Zhou dynasty (1045/1040–256 B.C.E.), this relationship became more formalized, largely in the attempt to legitimize the Zhou overthrow of the Shang. As recorded in the Shujing (Classic of documents), Shang rulers had once been virtuous and mindful of their ancestral obligations; toward the end of the dynasty, however, they became cruel and negligent. As a result, Heaven allowed the Zhou to rise up and overthrow the Shang, and thus to become the rightful rulers of China. As this account illustrates, the Zhou began to see the highest spiritual power as the impersonal Heaven (tian) rather than as the personal God, Shangdi; likewise, they saw the survival of the state as dependent on observance of a moral principle—the Mandate of Heaven (tianming) —rather than the allegiance of spiritual powers. Of course, this does not do away with the veneration of ancestors—a hallmark of Chinese practice—but begins to reinterpret it in terms of ritual responsibility rather than appeasement.
By the time of Confucius (Kong fuzi; 551–479 B.C.E.), the Zhou was in serious decline, such that there was military upheaval, social unrest, and general devastation throughout the empire. Confucius's message, as found in the Analects, was that this devastation was the result of the fact that the order of Earth no longer reflected the order of Heaven and the order of Heaven could only be exemplified by reviving the classic virtues (most significantly, ren, or humaneness). These virtues, in turn, could only be realized by a revival of the rituals (li) that guide human relations. Confucianism brought ritual propriety to the fore by taking a term that had indicated guidelines for deference among the nobility and imbuing it with ethical implications for all people. In short, for Confucius, right practice is not a matter of mere politeness but is rather the very heart of a stable and prosperous society.
A good example of ritual propriety is found in the Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), one of the central texts of the Confucian tradition. Among other things, it emphasizes acting in accordance with one's position: effectively, a person of lower position acts with deference without resentment, while a person of higher position acts with graciousness without disdain. Such ritual propriety applies on a diminishing scale as family relations become more distant and official positions less distinguished. Most importantly, the Zhongyong gives expression to the five relations taken to be the most important foci of right relation: "The five are those governing the relationship between ruler and minister, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder and younger brothers, and those in the intercourse between friends. These five are universal paths in the world" (The Doctrine of the Mean, quoted in Chan, p. 105). It should be noted that, while Confucianism is often associated with patriarchy, not all of the relations listed above are hierarchical. Thus, while many of its relations have historically been patriarchal, there is reason to believe that there is room in Confucian orthopraxy for more equitable relations.
While Confucianism is rightly seen as the dominant tradition informing social practices, it was only one of many approaches introduced during this tumultuous period; Mozi (fifth century B.C.E.), for example, argued for the eradication of all ritual (in that all people were equal before Heaven), while the so-called legalists argued for the strict enforcement of certain practices within the context of a system based on punishment and reward. Perhaps the most persistent counterpoint to the Confucian emphasis on ritual, however, was the Daoist tradition. Where the Confucians praised structured interactions, the Daoists prized spontaneity. To Daoists, the social constructs of the Confucians were unnatural at best, if not outright destructive. The opposition of these two schools of thought, however, should not be overstated, as each balanced the other and even borrowed from the other in its own development. Stated simply, even Daoists had their rituals, though they were less centralized than those of their Confucian counterparts (see, for example, Daoist liturgies, ordination rites).
Historically, however, it is the Confucians who have enjoyed the most government sponsorship, and have thus had the greatest influence on the nature and breadth of ritual practice in China. Consistent with the Confucian account, therefore, right practice was not enforced on any official level (as evidenced by its Daoist and Buddhist detractors), but it was upheld on an unofficial basis as a standard of social morality and decorum. Indeed, the prominence that ritual propriety still enjoys in Chinese society can be attributed in large part to the longstanding influence of the Confucian tradition on its history. Although the Confucian tradition is no longer officially sanctioned by the government in the early twenty-first century, the importance of ritual propriety continues to be very evident in Chinese social practices, and arguably will remain so for many generations to come.
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