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Three Confucian Values:
Ritual (Li)

Robert Oxnam :: The last of the three central Confucian values is respect for ritual — the proper way of doing things in the deepest sense.

Irene Bloom :: The third leg in this tripod is that of li — ritual consciousness or propriety. Li represents the forms in which human action are supposed to go on.

[Excerpt from the Analects of Confucius]

Confucius said: "In rites at large, it is always better to be too simple rather than too lavish. In funeral rites, it is more important to have the real sentiment of sorrow than minute attention to observances."


Irene Bloom :: In the character li, the strong religious associations are very, very clear here. On the left side of the character li is the element indicating prognostication or pre-saging. On the right, you have a ritual vessel.

Image of the character li

So while in the course of evolution of the Confucian tradition, li, rights, are considered to have become more, what in the West might be called more secular in character, not to be concerned so much with the idea of trying to appease deceased ancestors as had been true in the period prior to the time of Confucius. Still the notion of the ritual retains a very strong religious association throughout time.

Wm. Theodore de Bary :: So as that evolves in a more secular, humanistic context, it still retains the sense that individuals have to defer to one another, have to show respect to one another. They have to be prepared to make some sacrifice for one another.

Myron Cohen :: Confucius himself emphasized again and again that ritual itself was important. That rituals, that through ritual, people could learn proper relationships.

So if we look at ancestor worship through the lenses of ritual, what can we see? We can see, first of all, that through ancestor worship filial piety is eternal. People can continue to be loyal and obedient to their parents even after their parents have passed away.

At the same time, and in line, indeed, with the ancient Confucian theory, through ancestor worship, parents continue to teach their own children filial piety.

Excerpt from Sources of Chinese Tradition, Wm. Theodore de Bary, ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), Analects 3:4.