What does Xunzi have to say about rituals and social justice?

This post will be a follow up to my previous post (see Investigating the Relationship between Ritual Propriety and Social Justice in the Early Confucian Tradition), where I will explore the relationship between li (ritual/ritual propriety) and social justice as found in the works of Xunzi, another pre-Qin Confucian philosopher.

I begin my exploration by focusing on Chapter 19 of The Xunzi (yes, the text is named after the author).

The chapter starts with an exposition on the origins of li:

How did ritual principles arise? I say that men are born with desires which, if not satisfied, cannot but lead men to seek to satisfy them. If in seeking to satisfy their desires men observe no measure and apportion things without limits, then it would be impossible for them not to contend over the means to satisfy their desires. Such contention leads to disorder. Disorder leads to poverty. The Ancient Kings abhorred such disorder; so they established the regulations contained within ritual and moral principles in order to apportion things, to nurture the desires of men, and to supply the means for their satisfaction. They so fashioned their regulations that desires should not want for the things which satisfy them and good would not be exhausted by the desires. In this way the two of them, desires and goods, sustained each other over the course of time. This is the origin of ritual principles. (Xunzi 19.1a, trans. John Knoblock)

One of the requirements for a just society is a well-ordered society. In the case of Xunzi and the other early Confucian thinkers, society is ordered and regulated by means of rituals (li).

The passage above describes three major purposes of rituals:

  1. Apportion things
  2. Nuture the desires of men
  3. Supply the means for their satisfaction

So, not only do rituals work in deciding who gets how much, rituals also ensure that people are able to receive the resources they need. But more importantly, rituals function to regulate (and educate) the desires of the people so that they do not desire more than they require. In not desiring more than they need, they will not place a strain on the limited resources meant for others. It seems, therefore, that this would guarantee that everyone receives a fair share of the necessary goods they require. Of course, an interesting question to ask is: would this actually guarantee that everyone will receive a fair share of goods, or sufficient resources to live decently?

To this question, Xunzi says:

Rites employ valuables and ordinary objects to make offerings, use distinctions between noble and base to create forms, vary the quantity according to differences of station, and elaborate or simplify to render each its due. (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

Those of higher rank, like rulers and ministers, should receive not just more resources, but also more elaborate and refined goods. It is interesting that the punchline of this statement is that it is the ritually appropriate way “to render each its due.” This is something that may make some people feel uncomfortable. Why should people of higher rank deserve more than those of lower rank? What is the basis for them to receive a greater share?

There are two reasons for this. (1) These are people who hold office and thus shoulder the burden of looking after the state. While they may be working as hard as everyone else, the responsibility is greater, and thus they deserve a greater share. (2) The second reason is more interesting. Xunzi recognises the pedagogical powers in the visual display of li in teaching the people to distinguish those with power and rank. People behave very differently towards a person wearing t-shirt and shorts, compared to a person wearing a suit and a tie. The outward appearances matter. If a person of authority were to dress in a very undignified manner, he would not receive the same respect or be able to exercise his authority effectively. If instead, such a person of authority were to dress in a way more refined than the masses, or be publicly conferred elaborate/refined goods, people will see and learn that this is an important person, whose respect is due by virtue of his position and the authority and burden he shoulders on behalf of the people. Hence, what is due to people of authority isn’t so much the material goods per se. No, the material goods are instrumental to aiding such people to effectively exercise their authority. What is due to them is the respect.

And if you are worried about abuses of power and authority, Xunzi has this to say:

Thus, the gentleman could make the elaborate forms of ritual more florid or make its simplified forms leaner, but he dwells in the mean of its mean course. Whether he walks or runs, dashes after or hurries about, moves with urgency or runs quickly hither and thither, he does not depart from ritual, for it is “the outer boundary of his proper dwelling.” (Xunzi 19.3, trans. Knoblock)

If necessary, rituals should vary in elaborateness or simplicity depending on the circumstances. While some elaborate and refined goods are required for those of high rank, it does not mean that they indulge in these things. Rather, the amount of what they have should be adjusted accordingly (to the economic situation), always following the principle of moderation, of staying within the middle way proper to their rank and position.

Is there a way to ensure this moderation in people? According to Xunzi, yes there is!

Rites trim what is too long, stretch out what is too short, eliminate excess, remedy deficiency, and extend cultivated forms that express love and respect so that they increase and complete the beauty of conduct according to one’s duty. … Elegant adornment, music, and happiness are what sustain tranquility and serve auspicious occasions. Gross ugliness, weeping, and sorrow are what sustain anxiety and serve inauspicious occasions. Hence, their utilization of elegant adornment does not go so far as to be sensuous or seductive, nor gross ugliness so far as to produce emaciation or self-neglect. Their use of music and happiness does not go so far as to be wayward and abandoned or indolent and rude, nor do weeping and sorrow go so far as to produce despondency or injury to life. Such is the middle course of ritual.

Thus, the changes of emotion and of manner should be sufficient to distinguish the auspicious from the inauspicious and to make clear that the rank is high or low and that the relation is near or distant, but with this they stop. Any practice that exceeds these goals is evil, and although such practices may be difficult to accomplish, the gentleman disdains them. (Xunzi 19.5b, trans. Knoblock)

The various rituals, in the form of ceremonies or etiquette, are meant to teach us how to appropriately express our emotions and intentions. They are meant to teach us what is the appropriate use of materials, and how much of it to use in various circumstances. In this way, we learn to render the respect and resources/goods due to others, never shortchanging them. Or if one is the recipient, to know how much to expect so as not to be shortchanged by others.

And of course, social relations aren’t just merely about showing respect, expressing emotions, and redistributing material goods. No. There’s more. Though the context for this passage is about funerals, what Xunzi says is relevant to li in all social interactions:

Use of these [ritual] forms ornaments social relations. (Xunzi 19.4a, trans. Knoblock)

There is a certain aesthetic quality in social relations!

Sure, you may drink coffee simply because you need to stay awake, but you can enjoy coffee for its aesthetic qualities, savouring its acidic and nutty qualities with every sip. You can do the same with tea and wine too. There is a certain aesthetic appreciation and enjoyment in one’s interaction, in one’s tasting of the beverage. In the same way, social relations aren’t just there to be engaged with on a purely functional level. In our daily life, we can enjoy friendship, or the company of colleagues or strangers.

Rituals add form which emphasize the aesthetic value of social relations, informing us to enjoy, or at the very least, to appreciate, the relationship we have with the other when engaged in social interaction. Hence, when dealing with those higher and lower than us, wealthy or less well-off than us, the rites give us structure and form by which we are able to “ornament” the relation, to arrive at that enjoyment of the relationship.

While this may not be directly related to social justice per se, I think this is valuable in the sense that at the very least, li compels us (or rather, requires us) to treat the other with greater respect and appreciation. We aren’t just dealing with “the poor” or “the disadvantaged” as if they are an abstract concept, devoid of real personhood or character. To be engaged in social justice with those who are less well-off in a ritually-appropriate manner means that we have to enter into an aesthetic social relation.

Doil Kim, in his PhD Dissertation, on Xunzi’s Ethical Thought and Moral Psychology (2011), wrote about the significance of discrimination (辨 bian). According to Xunzi, humans have the advanced capacity for discrimination that goes beyond basic sensory capabilities (p.89), able to differentiate between the different types of relationships we can have with others, to the extent that we can even distinguish the different relationships we may have with the same person (e.g. the same person could be both your colleague and best friend).

Discrimination is essential because it helps us to determine different modes of responding to people. How intimate should our response be? We treat people around with with different degrees of love, intimacy and respect. To be able to distinguish who’s who in relation to you is essential in picking out the right mode of interaction and engagement. More importantly for Xunzi, is whether “we can develop love and respect on the basis of the capacity in ways that enable them to interact with one another in accordance with the spirit of ren (benevolence) and yi (rightness)” (p.96). The relationship determines how we respond to a person. The rites give us structure not only for interacting with that person, but also the structure to develop love and respect in an appropriate manner. It is not about simply helping the disadvantaged. There are some who help the disadvantaged in ways that make the less well-off feel undignified or ashamed of who they are, thus stripping them of whatever remaining human dignity they may have. Good intentions, benevolence, and compassion must be expressed through a structure that respects, dignifies, and empowers them. Rituals provide that form, thus ornamenting the social relationship between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged.

There are another two interesting concepts in the Xunzi that’s both relevant and interesting in bringing out the richness of rituals in the context of social justice. The two concepts are: rang (讓 deference) and ci (辭 declination), and they are both present in many rituals.

Rang refers to “the action of offering honor or something desirable to other people” (p.98). It is not any kind of offering, but an offering of something that the recipient also desires to attain (p.102). As there is a desire in us often to desire more (goods or honour), the principle of rang compels us to defer the desire for more to the other, so that the other may share or have more of we desire. The ruler should defer his own desires so as not to frustrate the people and deprive them of their dues; and similarly the people should defer their own desires so as to give to the ruler more of what is due to him. Ritual propriety demands that the principle of rang be practised by both parties so that both may exercise self-moderation. It is never a one-sided requirement, unless propriety has been violated.

Ci on the other hand, refers to “the act of declining an offer or a treatment that would be suitable only for a person of a higher social status,” or “inappropriate to one’s social status” (p.108). It can be properly understood as “the kind of deferential declination based on a proper self-recognition of one’s own social status” (p.108). In the context of rituals, ci demands that we recognise that we may not be so worthy of whatever it is that we receive. This is not to be confused with humility. Humility would be to say that one is too unworthy to receive this (for reasons of moral failing or otherwise). Rather, in this case, ci is about recognising that it may not be appropriate for us to receive, for doing so would be pretending to be someone we are not. The appropriate recipient may be someone of a higher status, but it may also be for someone of a lower status. This is important because it brings to mind the recognition that we are not entitled to it, nor do we deserved; instead calling us to ponder on who might be the more deserving recipient. Once again, ritual propriety demands that the principle of ci be practised by both sides, so that both parties will think less of themselves as being entitled to something, and instead think who might be the more worthy, deserving recipient.

These are the two principles at play in many rituals.

In Chapter 20 of the Xunzi, there is a description of a village wine ceremony:

With the exchange of three bows between host and guest, they reach the steps, and after the guest has thrice deferred, the host takes the guest up to his place. Bowing deeply, he presents the wine up in pledge. There follow many episodes of polite refusals and deferring between host and chief guest… (Xunzi 20.5, trans. Knoblock)

In this ritual, both the host and chief guest are expected “to offer to give way to the other (rang) three times, so that the other will go ahead and step up to the main hall first”, and they are also simultaneously expected “to show their reluctance or hesitation to immediately accept the other’s offer by making polite verbal refusals (ci) and giving way to the other (rang) three times” (p.114).

By means of rang (deference), both parties are required to focus on the social status of the other, acknowledging the other to be better than one’s self either in terms of rank, social standing, or moral achievement. This prevents one from being distracted by one’s superiority of the other, and so be willing to give way, and offer the best to that other.

By means of ci (declination), both parties are required to consider that they may be treated inappropriately, in the sense that they are receiving treatment that is far too good for one’s own position/status (to be treated like a king, when one is not, and thus to decline it) At the same time, it compels each party to consider if they are also treating the other inappropriately too. If one is not worthy of such grand treatment, perhaps the other is the one who truly deserves such grand treatment, thus one must not disrespect the other and instead treat the other grandly as well.

Kim concludes:

[This] code of conduct presents the vision of an ideal society in which every person tries to deal with the other person in a transaction by habitually focusing on a higher or better social status that may be ascribed to the person; and, ever person is always careful about a possible overestimation of his or her own social status. In these ways, everyone can be treated properly, and there is no need to make a demand to others for one’s own due. (p.115)

Since the principles of rang and ci are present in the concept of li, what we have here are the dynamics embedded within rituals for social justice. In which case, a ritually-ordered state, i.e. a state governed by li, would compel people, both rich and poor, young and old, superior or inferior, to look out for each other, to constantly ponder on the needs of others, and to distribute it to those who are in need.

Yet, it seems that this sort of utopia might work only for a family or a small community, like a village. In a small community, it is still relatively easy to look out for one another and their needs. On the surface, this doesn’t seem possible to implement in a big city. One can only act in this way towards one’s small network of friends and family in the city. This might even be impossible to implement on a state level.

If this is the case, then maybe we will need to adapt the principles of rang and ci within li, and reconstruct it to fit a contemporary theory of Confucian social justice.

Another interesting question is: if a modern reconstruction is possible, how do proceed to the next stage, to frame this as policy, stirring the people to action?

Well, it’s something I’ll need to contemplate further, but I think it is, nonetheless, a very interesting idea!