Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Rituals That Don't Reach, Punishments That Don't Impugn: Jia Yi on the Exclusions from Punishment and Ritual

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Rituals That Don't Reach, Punishments That Don't Impugn: Jia Yi on the Exclusions from Punishment and Ritual

Article excerpt

The "Qu li" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] chapter of the Li ji [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Record of rituals) contains what may be the best-known ritual prescription that has come to us from ancient China: "Ritual does not extend down to the common people; punishment does not extend up to grandees" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (1) The fame of these lines contrasts with the ample historical evidence that no such rules functioned in pre-Qin China. In the "Jie ji" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Levels and grades) chapter of the Xin shu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the early Han political thinker Jia Yi [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (200-168 B.C.) deploys the same ideas--with particular emphasis on exclusion from punishment--as part of a larger argument focused on how the ruler is affected by his treatment of subordinates. These notions become part of Jia Yi's normative discussion of the abstractions and praxes that serve to preserve the ruler's majesty, and form part of his explication of the relationship between ritual practice and political hierarchy. Perhaps most importantly, since historical records indicate that Jia Yi successfully persuaded his sovereign to exempt high-ranking officials from punishment, his use of the lines marks the first time these ideas crossed over from theory to reality.

I will preface my discussion of Jia Yi with a brief outline of some other exegetical approaches to understanding the injunctions, from Han as well as modern scholars. It is not my intention here to disprove other interpretations, but rather to analyze Jia Yi's take on these ideas. These other understandings serve to provide context and contrast to Jia Yi's understanding. The lines in question have been variously interpreted; to accept a given interpretation in one context is not necessarily to reject another interpretation in a different context.

The Li ji is certainly the best-known source for these lines, and a brief consideration of them there offers an entry point for the discussion. The Li ji in its current form dates to late Eastern Han times; some of its constituent sections are older, but establishing a definitive date of creation for them is difficult. (2) Like the Li ji itself, "Qu li" contains a wide variety of materials on all primary aspects of ritual. (3) In this miscellany comes the following passage:

  The lord of the state leans on the [chariot-] rail; the grandee
  descends it. The grandee leans on the [chariot-] rail; the gentleman
  descends it. Ritual does not extend down to the common people;
  punishment does not extend up to grandees. People that have been
  punished are not at the lord's side.
  [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. (4)

The relationship between the lines within this passage is not clear, and I have found no explanation that is able to explain what connects all of the rules mentioned here. Like the Li ji itself, this passage probably represents an amalgamation from disparate sources. Thus the early commentators likely have the right idea in not explaining the limitation of ritual and exemption from punishment on the basis of this context. Similar lines are found elsewhere, most notably among the texts recovered at Guodian [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which date to the late fourth century B.C. (5) However, the context there is quite different from that of "Qu li," and does not resolve the situation.

Even setting aside the questions posed by the Li ji context, the statement that "Ritual does not extend down to the common people; punishment does not extend up to grandees" can seem difficult to interpret because of the existence of ample historical material to show that no such exemptions were observed in early China. (6) One response to this is to treat the Li ji as the product of Warring States or even later times and simply not descriptive of any earlier situation. Another is to accept that the exemptions existed and to try to resolve the apparent conflict through interpretation. …

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