Li (Confucianism)

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'Li' (禮 pinyin: Lĭ) is a classical Chinese word which finds its most extensive use in Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese philosophy. 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', and Henry Rosemont and Roger Ames' 'ritual propriety'), 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" (Watson 1969) as vital parts of the fabric of li.

The concept of Chinese rites is sometimes compared with the Western concept of culture (钱玄、钱兴奇编:三礼词典,自序 p.1).

Approaches to Li

Among the earliest historical discussions on Li stands the 25th year of Zhao Gong 鲁昭公 in the Zuo Zhuan.

Li consists of the norms of proper social behavior as taught to others by fathers, village elders and government officials. The teachings of li promoted ideals such as filial submission, brotherliness, righteousness, good faith and loyalty (Arthur F. Wright and Dennis Twitchett's 'Confucian Personalities'). The influence of li guided public expectations, such as the loyalty to superiors and respect for elders in the community. Continuous with the emphasis on community, following li included 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" (Rosemont 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. Approaches in the community, as well as personal approaches together demonstrate how li pervades in all things, the broad and the detailed, the good and the bad, the form and the formlessness. This is the complete realization of li.

The rituals and practices of li are dynamic in nature. Li practices have been revised and evaluated throughout time to reflect the emerging views and beliefs found in society (W.L. Leonsg's 'Li and Change'). Although these practices may change, which happens very slowly over time, the fundamental ideals remain at the core of li, which largely relate to social order.

Confucian teachings on Li

Within Confucian texts, three works comprise the primary teachings of rites. These works include the Yi li, the Li ji and Zhou li. Confucius stated his large textual coverage of li as including ``300 major and 3000 minor rules of ritual`` (the Li Ji 10:22).

In Confucian thinking, the rites work in two principle ways. The first is the performative aspect of li, wherein the body is schooled by practicing choreographed physical movements. The second aspect is attained through literary scholarship, wherein the mind is schooled through mastery of the Confucian canon on Li (Michael Nylan's ``Li``).

Li is a principle of Confucian ideas. Contrary to the inward expression of 仁 Rén, Li was considered an outward practice, wherein one acts with propriety in society. Acting with Li and Ren led to what Confucius called the "superior human" or "the sage". Such a human would use li to act with propriety in every social matter.

Confucius advocated a genteel manner, where one is aware of their superiors and inferiors. Confucius felt that knowing ones rank in a feudalistic society would lead to the greatest social order. 'Li' as described in Confucian classics (The Book of Rites and The Analects) gave clear instruction on the proper behaviours expected of individuals based on their roles and placement in feudalistic society. Confucius regarded the disorder of his era as the society's neglect of Li and its principles. In the Analects Confucius states "Unless a man has the spirit of the rites, in being respectful he will wear himself out, in being careful he will become timid, in having courage he will become unruly, and in being forthright he will become unrelenting." (Book VIII Chapter 2).

Li in Government

Confucius envisioned proper government being guided by the principles of li. Since Confucian ideals proposed the perfectibility of all human beings (through the practices of li) as well as propriety being its own reward, government prescribed punishment was not seen as being necessary.

Confucius stressed the importance of the rites as fundamental to proper governmental leadership. In his writings, Confucius regarded feudal lords in China that adopted the Chinese rites as being just rulers of the Central States. Contrarily, feudal lords that did not adopt these rites were considered barbarians, not worthy of being considered Chinese or part of the Central States. (Spring and Autumn Annals).

In quotations

Li (ritual propriety) is the "one term by which the [traditional Chinese] historiographers could name all the principles of conservatism they advanced in the speeches of their characters." (Schaberg, p.159)

See also


  • Ames, Roger T., Rosemont Jr., Henry (Translators). "Analects of Confucius." Ballantine Books: 1998
  • Brash, Graham. "The Sayings of Confucius." Graham Brash (Pte.) Ltd Singapore: 1988
  • Confucius. "The Li Ji" Shandong Frienship Press: 2000
  • Lau, D.C. (Translator). Confucius: The Analects. The Chinese University Press: 1992
  • Nylan, Michael. "Li" in The Encyclopedia of Confucianism RoutledgeCurzon: 2003
  • Henry Rosemont, Jr. Lecture, Brown University, 2005
  • David Schaberg, A Patterned Past: Form and Thought in Early Chinese Historiography, Cambridge MA 2005 (Harvard East Asian Monographs)
  • Twitchett, Denis and Wright, Arthur F. "Confucian Personalities." Stanford University Press: 1962
  • Watson, Burton (Translator). "Basic Writings of Mo Tzu, Hsun Tzu, and Han Fei Tzu." Columbia University Press: 1963
  • Qiuming, Zuo (Commentary) "Selections from Spring and Autumn Annals." Shandong Frienship Press: 2000