The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism

The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism

The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism

The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism


In The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism Michael Ing describes how early Confucians coped with situations where their rituals failed to achieve their intended aims. In contrast to most contemporary interpreters of Confucianism, Ing demonstrates that early Confucian texts can be read as arguments for ambiguity in ritual failure. If, as discussed in one text, Confucius builds a tomb for his parents unlike the tombs of antiquity, and rains fall causing the tomb to collapse, it is not immediately clear whether this failure was the result of random misfortune or the result of Confucius straying from the ritual script by building a tomb incongruent with those of antiquity. The Liji (Record of Ritual)--one of the most significant, yet least studied, texts of Confucianism--poses many of these situations and suggests that the line between preventable and unpreventable failures of ritual is not always clear. Ritual performance, in this view, is a performance of risk. It entails rendering oneself vulnerable to the agency of others; and resigning oneself to the need to vary from the successful rituals of past, thereby moving into untested and uncertain territory. Ing's book is the first monograph in English about the Liji--a text that purports to be the writings of Confucius' immediate disciples, and part of the earliest canon of Confucian texts called ''The Five Classics,'' included in the canon several centuries before the Analects. It challenges some common assumptions of contemporary interpreters of Confucian ethics--in particular the assumption that a cultivated ritual agent is able to recognize which failures are within his sphere of control to prevent and thereby render his happiness invulnerable to ritual failure.


Confucian ethics is, in this sense, an ethics of flexibility.

Most modern interpreters of Confucian ethics focus on describing the process of cultivating fluent moral agents that are skilled at both following ritual scripts and altering ritual scripts in situations of potential failure. the primary emphasis of these modern scholars has been to explore the contours of fluency in ritual performance—meaning both how fluency is developed and how the fluent agent reasons through various situations. One blind spot in the contemporary discourse is the role of what I have called ‘unpreventable failures in efficacy.’ Many contemporary interpreters focus, on the other hand, on ‘preventable failures in efficacy.’ in other words, they concentrate on situations where changing the ritual script, if done appropriately, prevents the ritual from failing. As this chapter demonstrates, however, many contemporary interpreters mishandle situations where a ritual fails regardless of the changes that might be made to its script. This is to say that they mishandle unpreventable failures in ritual.

Modern scholars of Confucian ethics examine a variety of early Confucian texts—usually the Xunzi, Mencius, and/or the Analects—and do not present a uniform account of the purposes of ritual or of how a ritual might fail. At a general level, however, they agree on some characteristics of the process of moral development and the role that ritual plays in that process. Roughly speaking, most scholars subscribe to the following systematic characterization of these features.

According to early Confucians, human beings find themselves in constant interaction with each other as well as with other things in the world (both animate and inanimate things). As interaction occurs, certain feelings, or emotions, are inevitably aroused. People must learn to express these . . .

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