CONTACT US Wed Nov. 13, 2013

CASS 中国社会科学网(中文) Français


Li: key to understanding Chinese culture

Author  :  DING DING     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2020-12-10


Bronze gui vessel of Jinlin is dated to the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE). During the Zhou Dynasty, bronzeware was often used to distinguish hierarchy and clarify nobility, as a symbol of li. Photo: FILE

The notion of礼(li) was central to Confucianism, an ancient Chinese belief system established by China's most famous educator and philosopher, Confucius (c. 551–479 BCE). During the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), Confucius summarized and reflected on the cultural legacy of Xia (c. 21th century–16th century BCE), Shang (c. 16th century–11th century BCE), and Zhou (c. 1046–256 BCE) dynasties, from these sources he inherited and carried forward the notion of "li." He endowed li with new meanings and created an intellectual system centered on li, which is known as Confucianism. In the Confucian intellectual system, li encompasses not only standards of daily behavior and social etiquette, but also various social institutions and norms, and even the ideas and internal moral impulses commensurable with these institutions and norms. Li is a political ideology, and simultaneously a set of ethical norms. It is used to sustain social order by constraining and guiding human action.

Core of traditional Chinese culture

Confucius has repeatedly stressed the importance of li to one's living, as recorded in the Analects. According to the Analects, Confucius told his son that "If you do not learn the rules of Propriety [li], your character cannot be established" (trans. James Legge). He also told his students that "without an acquaintance with the rules of Propriety [li], it is impossible for the character to be established." Confucius believed that li was the key to establishing oneself in society. This reflects li's position in Confucius's intellectual system.

According to the views of pre-Qin Confucian scholars, li was abstracted from cosmic models to order communal life. As written in Liji (Record of Rites), one of the Five Classics (Wujing) of Chinese Confucian literature, "Ceremonies [li] reflect the orderly distinctions (in the operations of) heaven and earth" (trans. James Legge). It denotes that li is equivalent to natural order. 

Song Dynasty (960–1127) philosophy featured the rise of the Cheng–Zhu school, one of the major philosophical schools of Neo-Confucianism, based on the ideas of Neo-Confucian philosophers Cheng Yi (1033–1107), Cheng Hao (1032–1085), and Zhu Xi (1130–1200). Zhu Xi, primary thinker of the Cheng–Zhu school, held that the cosmos has two aspects: the indeterminate and the determinate. The indeterminate, or理 (li), is a natural law which determines the patterns of all created things. The Cheng–Zhu school interpreted the notion of 礼(li) through the notion of理 (li), and even regarded礼(li) as equally significant to 天理 (tianli, the heavenly principles). Zhu Xi considered all the moral principles, li (礼), music, government decrees, and penalty as part of the heavenly principles, so as to highlight li (礼) as the dominant element in traditional Chinese culture.

Li and ancient Chinese politics

Ancient Chinese politics were grounded in li. Li was closely associated with the political ideas, activities, and systems of ancient China.

In ancient China, various political systems were placed within the domain of li, such as the feudal clan system (a system of principles by which a clan, a state, or society was run, based on bloodlines or whether a son was born from the wife or a concubine), the enfeoffment system, the land system, and the military system. Rituals and institutions have continuously evolved as dynasties succeeded one another. However, li was always the theoretical basis for all social institutions in ancient China. It could be argued that traditional Chinese culture and political systems were a "paradigm" of li. 

There was also a deep connection between the culture of li and ancient China's legal system. It is said the "law [penalty]" originated from "li," which means that "law" was a derivative of "li." When the li was taken as binding, it became the "law." Dadai Liji (The Rites by Dai De), a ritual literature compilation compiled during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE), depicts the relationship between "li" and "law" as "The li persuades people not to do wrong things while the law punishes one who has done something wrong." Both li and law functioned as standards of behavior.

The combination of li and law played a significant role in maintaining social order in ancient times. Particularly after Emperor Wudi of Han (c. 156–87 BCE) ordered the purge of dissent while making Confucianism the orthodox state belief system, subsequent dynasties ruled their states by the combination of li and law, which was based on Confucian li culture. With the refinement of li, state governance was viewed as benevolent governance, which was highly valued in Confucianism. Law endowed state governance with an aura of authority. Li and law complemented each other, thus promoting state governance and social development. 

Li and national spirit

Confucian li culture played a crucial role in shaping the spirit which defined the Chinese nation. When discussing the aim of li, Confucius once said, "In his practice of ceremonial usages [li] he shows the value which he sets on natural ease" (see Liji); Confucius's students also agreed with him: "In practicing the rules of propriety [li], a natural ease is prized" (see Analects). According to Confucius and his students, the appreciation of "natural ease" signified the basic spirit of li. "Natural ease" refers to the harmony between humans, and between humans and nature, and society. Therefore, the ultimate goal of li is to guide people from different social classes to deal with the relationships between themselves, nature, and society.

Over the past several thousand years, the Chinese nation has witnessed wars and divisions, but has maintained unity in general. The pursuit of harmony in the Confucian li-yue culture, a culture based on the system of rites and music laid down by the Zhou Dynasty, to promote ethical and moral principles and to maintain social order, has played an important role in bringing Chinese people together. Influenced by the appreciation of harmony, the Chinese spiritual legacy that has formed over thousands of years, which promotes tolerance, courtliness, modesty, and seeking common ground while reserving differences, has become the keynote of the Chinese national spirit. 


Ding Ding is a professor from the Qilu Culture Research Institute at Shandong Normal University.

Editor: Yu Hui

>> View All

Hong Joungsun: Ambassador of China-ROK literature

Hong Joungsun is a representative South Korean scholar of modern literature. He developed deep feelings for Chinese c...

>> View All