Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition

Here is a draft proposal for a paper I wish to write.

In the book, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times, Joseph Chan argues that there are three principles of a Confucian perspective on social justice. The three principles are: (1) sufficiency for all, where “each household should have an amount of resources sufficient to live a materially secured and ethical life”; (2) priority to the badly off, where “people who fall below the threshold of sufficiency – those who have special needs and are badly off – should have priority in being taken care of”; and (3) merit and contribution, where “offices and emolument should be distributed according to an individual’s merits and contributions; any subsequent inequality of income is not illegitimate.” (pp.175-176)

Yet it is interesting to note that the concept of li (禮 rites/ritual/ritual propriety) – a key concept central to Confucian thinking – is not mentioned in Chan’s reconstruction of a Confucian perspective of social justice. The Liji (禮記), also known as The Book of Rites, strongly suggests that li plays a key role in supporting the Confucian perspective on social justice. One such example can be found in the first chapter of the Liji, which praises li for its ability to guarantee a condition of security:

In the highest antiquity they prized (simply conferring) good; in the time next to this, giving and repaying was the thing attended to. And what the rules of propriety (li) value is that reciprocity. If I give a gift and nothing comes in return, that is contrary to propriety (li); if the thing comes to me, and I give nothing in return, that also is contrary to propriety (li). If a man observe the rules of propriety (li), he is in a condition of security; if he do not, he is in one of danger. Hence there is the saying, ‘The rules of propriety (li) should by no means be left unlearned.’ (Liji, Chapter 1 “Qu Li Part 1”, 10, trans. James Legge)

Do rituals really play such a key role in supporting social justice? I propose to further investigate the concept of li and its relation to social justice. As the early Chinese thinkers had no concepts of social justice, it is not possible to directly derive a theory of social justice from their thoughts. Instead, I will follow the methods employed by Joseph Chan: instead of asking if the early thinkers had a theory of social justice, I would look at how the early thinkers approached specific problems that are linked to our modern understanding of social justice. How did these early Confucian thinkers try to resolve problems of inequality, poverty, and the distribution of material goods? However, I will go a step further and examine how li was employed to resolve these social justice problems: Was it used to establish certain societal norms (and attitudes) to motivate the regular redistribution of goods? Or was it employed in a more regulatory way to guarantee certain layers of protection for disadvantaged classes in society? Did li establish a certain worldview that shaped the way people perceived themselves and their relations with others in ways that would lead to a more socially just society? Lastly, I will explore how we might be able to adapt li into contemporary discourses on social justice, and how we might strengthen modern Confucian reconstructions of political philosophy with this newfound understanding of li.


Some Initial Thoughts

Well, I’ve read quite a few papers and books so far, and I thought it’d be worthwhile to share some of my initial thoughts on the above topic.

Having read the Liji, there seems to be several interesting components in li that may help to contribute towards a theory on social justice.

Firstly, the function of li is to create discrimination of people of different roles. I’m hesitant to call it class distinctions because it’s not just about class. People can belong to the same class yet hold different roles, some of which hold greater importance over others. Apart from making clear the roles, the other function of li is to form certain attitudes and sympathies of one role towards other roles. Some rites require both rich and poor to be present, so that the rich will receive first-hand exposure of the poor, and through the ceremonies, educate them on the need for greater sympathy and benevolence towards people who are not as well off as they are. In this way, the rich will imbued with sympathy and motivation to share their goods with those who are less fortunate. There are other rites that function to bring a community together for the main purpose of distributing goods. Some ceremonies employ the sacrifice of animals. At the end of the sacrifice, the meat is shared, as a way to provide the necessary nutrition to those who cannot afford meat.

It is also interesting to note that the Liji talks about li as having “definite regulations … to serve as dykes for the people.” (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 2) There are certain elements codified within some (or all?) rituals to protect certain classes of people who are in a potentially disadvantageous position, depending on the type of interaction they engage in with others. The rituals are formulated such that the potentially disadvantaged are protected from exploitation. Here is an example:

The Master said, ‘According to the rules of marriage, the son-in-law should go in person to meet the bride. When he is introduced to her father and mother, they bring her forward, and give her to him’ – being afraid things should go contrary to what is right. In this way a dyke is raised in the interest of the people; and yet there are cases in which the wife will not go (to her husband’s).’ (Liji, Chapter 30 “Fang Ji”, 39)

These are some of the many ways in which the rites offer protection to the disadvantaged. Of course, in ancient times, laws then weren’t like the laws of today. They were coercive laws of punishment, rather than regulation. It was left up to li to govern and regulate the masses. What is worth exploring in this paper is whether (and how) the context of ritual opens up a new dimension of effectiveness not found in modern-day regulatory laws and policies.

Going beyond this, I get the sense that the Liji seems to describe an expansion of the family-relation template onto the broader society as a whole. In a family, the parents look after and provide for their children (and reciprocity requires that the children do their part in the family too, of course); elder siblings look out for and care for their younger siblings. These two familial relations seem to form the basis of the way in which materials are distributed from the rich to the poor. The community is the family. Neighbours are like siblings who look out for and help each other, and so the rich assist the poor in ways just like how elder sibling helps the younger sibling. Where the elder sibling is unable to help, the parents come in. The analogous equivalent would be the state, providing the necessary assistance in the form of public/state rituals involving the community. Rituals are the way by which the state exercises its parental role to all its “children”.

Ritual ensures that relational connections are established in a community, it facilitates a means, an event, a place, an action, to draw people together and interact in a certain way. Ritual is the tool by which people come to understand how their familial relationships are expanded to a broader society.

Let me now introduce a certain religious dimension into this picture. The power of rituals is that it imposes an as-if ideal world onto a less-than-perfection as-is world. Rituals – whether it’s something as grand as a state sacrifice, or something as simple as bowing between two persons – by its very performance, juxtaposes a certain ideal onto the world.

Take for example, the liturgy of the Eucharist celebrated by Christians. While the as-is reality is that of people sitting/standing/kneeling in pews as they are led in prayer by a priest/pastor, there is an as-if world that comes into play: the ideal Christian society as that mimicking the communion of saints in heaven. This worldview encompasses ideals of how one is to interact with each other in so many different ways.

Here’s another example, but on a more secular level. Let’s think about the ritual of high-fiving: when you and I perform a high-five, what are we communicating? Friendship? Camaraderie? Brotherhood? The celebration of success? Or perhaps there is something more? Whatever it is, it communicates a certain ideal relationship between us. (If you are wondering how that is possible, imagine a situation (or better yet, experience it yourself) where you try to high-five someone, but that person refuses to reciprocate back – you immediately begin to experience certain inadequacies about the relationship just from the failure to execute the reciprocal relation.) There is a certain vision of that relationship encapsulated in that high-five action. While our relationship is far from perfect in real life, that as-if world comes into existence, juxtaposing with the reality of our as-is world, whenever we perform the high-five.

Similarly, the performance of rituals brings into play an ideal world, that reminds constantly the participants about the ideal forms of interaction, and the ideal type of community. We see an illustration of this ideal society, described once again in the Liji:

When the Grand course was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky; they chose men of talents, virtue, and ability; their words were sincere, and what they cultivated was harmony. Thus men did not love their parents only, nor treat as children only their own sons. A competent provision was secured for the aged till their death, employment for the able-bodied, and the means of growing up to the young. They showed kindness and compassion to widows, orphans, childless men, and those who were disabled by disease, so that they were all sufficiently maintained. Males had their proper work, and females had their homes. (They accumulated) articles (of value), disliking that they should be thrown away upon the ground, but not wishing to keep them for their own gratification. (They laboured) with their strength, disliking that it should not be exerted, but not exerting it (only) with a view to their own advantage. In this way (selfish) schemings were repressed and found no development. Robbers, thieves, and rebellious traitors did not show themselves, and hence the outer doors remained open, and were not shut. This was (the period of) what we call the Grand Union. (Liji, Chapter 9 “Li Yun”, 1, trans. James Legge)

While having a utopian vision of society doesn’t instantly lead to social justice, it nonetheless provides a goal towards what might be conceived of as a just society, an ideal society for its people to strive for.

Well, these are some of my initial comments. I’ll have more to say when I begin researching deeper on this.



Chan, Joseph, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

Chan, Joseph, “Is There a Confucian Perspective on Social Justice?” in eds. Takashi Shogimen & Cary J. Nederman, Western Political Thought in Dialogue with Asia (Lanhan MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), pp. 261-277.

Chan, Joseph, “Confucianism and Social Justice: Historical Setting,” in eds. Michael D. Palmer & Stanley M. Burgess, Companion to Religion and Social Justice  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012), pp. 77-92.

Puett, Michael, “Ritual and the Subjunctive” in eds. Seligman A, Weller R, Simon B, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008). pp. 17-42.

Puett, Michael, “Innovation as Ritualization: The Fractured Cosmology of Early China,” Cardozo Law Review, 2006: 28 (1).

Puett, Michael, To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Centre, 2002).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, Confucian Democracy – A Deweyan Reconstruction of Confucianism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Dao of Politics: Rites and Laws as Pragmatic Tools of Government,” Philosophy East and West, 2011: 61 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “The Concept of Yi (义) in the Mencius and Problems of Distributive Justice,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 2014: 92 (3).

Tan, Sor-Hoon, “Ritual and Deference: Extending Chinese Philosophy in a Comparative Context,” Philosophy East and West 2012: 62(1).