The Government of China (1644-1911)

By Pao Chao Hsieh | Go to book overview
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The Chinese word "Li" literally translated as "ceremonies" or "rites" derived this meaning from its corrupted sense: for lack of more approximate words in the English language, these terms are here adopted. Before any discussion of the department or the examinations, a brief explanation of the real meaning of the term "Li" will help us to understand the establishment of this department. By ceremony or rite, a Westerner denotes the formal conduct with which one acts towards another as a matter of etiquette or politeness. At its best, it is an expression of culture without regard to intent; a social term, not a spiritual symbol. But, this magic word means much more to a Chinese, particularly in earlier times. "It includes not only the external conduct, but involves the right principles from which all true etiquette and politeness spring." 1 It represents, then, besides the outward appearance of refinement, the very man himself. "Li" means propriety: in China where the absence of a noble class or other class distinction prevailed throughout her history, a hierarchic set of ceremonies symbolizing the status of the men, governing the formalities of occasions from wedding to funeral, from daily dress to court uniform, distinguished one group of individuals from another. By it every one should abide; violation of it would cause public disapproval or constitute a legal offense. An ordinary subject, usurping the right of conducting a funeral like an official, would bring contempt upon himself: a mandarin wearing the dress of the emperor, or even that of a higher official might cost him his head. Its practice resembles

Williams, Middle Kingdom, v. 1, p. 645.


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