Li (Confucian)

Li (Confucian)

"Li" (禮 pinyin: Lǐ) is a classical Chinese ideograph which finds its most extensive use in Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese philosophy. Just like other ideographs of the Chinese lexicon, "li" encompasses not a definitive object but rather a somewhat abstract idea; as such, it is translated in a number of different ways. Most often, "li" is described using some form of the word ‘ritual’ (as in Burton Watson’s ‘rites’,Watson, Burton (Translator). "Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu."Columbia University Press:1963] and Henry Rosemont and Roger Ames’ ‘ritual propriety’), [Ames, Roger T., Rosemont Jr., Henry (Translators). "Analects of Confucius." Ballantine Books: 1998] but it has also been translated as ‘customs’, ‘etiquette’, ‘morals’, and ‘rules of proper behavior’, among other terms.


The rites of "li" are not rites in the Western conception of religious custom. Rather, "li" embodies the entire spectrum of interaction with humans, nature, and even material objects. Confucius includes in his discussions of "li" such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance. Xunzi, cites “songs and laughter, weeping and lamentation…rice and millet, fish and meat…the wearing of ceremonial caps, embroidered robes, and patterned silks, or of fasting clothes and mourning clothes…spacious rooms and secluded halls, soft mats, couches and benches” as vital parts of the fabric of "li".

In Confucianism, the sage is one who, in any given situation, can integrate every piece of information in his or her surroundings and know what is appropriate for that situation. "Li" is what the sage uses to find that which is appropriate; it is both the means which sets the example for others, and the end which maximizes understanding, pleasure, and the greater good. In this way, the words one uses to convey respect for another, the clothes one wears to celebrate an occasion, and even the preparation of a meal find a home within the framework of "li".

tructure and Creativity

"Li’s" most politically relevant aspect is its degree of fluidity. Since even the littlest of things affect one’s surroundings, surely the ‘appropriate’ action constantly changes as a function of the situation at hand. And yet, there must be some pattern of appropriateness, some broader structure as well. Confucius was perhaps the most individualistic of Chinese thinkers in this regard, as he accorded "li" much room for personal creativity, rebuking the ruler who merely copies his predecessor. On the other hand, the Legalist movement espoused a much more rigid framework, valuing large-scale order over individual freedom. Chinese philosophers fall all over the spectrum between complete personal license and inflexible law, depending on their perspectives on community and government. No two people are alike, and so it is hard to put a number on something so subjective as mourning period; yet, if respect for one’s elders is held important, as it is in Confucianism, then steps must be taken to ensure that the entire population conveys this respect.

Individual and community

Just as there exists a dichotomy between structure and creativity within "li", so too is there a delicate balance of responsibility to one’s community and personal pleasure. Confucius says that "one stands to be improved by the enjoyment found in attuning oneself to the rhythms of "li"," but also warns that “when things are not going well, to realize harmony just for its own sake without regulating the situation through "li" will not work.” Clearly, there is more to "li" than pursuit of personal “harmony”. Pleasure is undoubtedly one of man’s strongest motivations to act; "li", then, becomes a much more attractive way of interacting with the world if it is also enjoyable. But in light of early Chinese history, which is dominated by warring factions and instability, it should come as no surprise that responsibility to one’s surroundings, in particular the human community, is of the utmost importance. Following "li" should lead to the internalization of action, which both yields the comforting feeling of tradition and allows one to become "more open to the panoply of sensations of the experience." [Henry Rosemont, Jr. Lecture, Brown University, 2005] But it should also maintain a healthy practice of selflessness, both in the actions themselves and in the proper example which is set for one’s brothers. When all this comes together, one may finally understand how "li" pervades in all things, the broad and the detailed, the individual and the community, the good and the bad, the form and the formlessness. This is the complete realization of "li".


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