Rites of Zhou prepared ground for China’s unity



An ancient “Li” bronze zun in the shape of a foal, representing a ritual popular in the Zhou Dynasty to celebrate a foal entering court service at two years of age, usually held by the emperor Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

Zhouli, or the Rites of Zhou, is a Confucian classic that documents the laws and institutions of the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE) and elucidates political philosophy. Traditionally attributed to the Duke of Zhou [who helped his brother sweep away a corrupt ruler of the Shang Dynasty and found the Zhou Dynasty in the 11th Century BCE], some scholars attribute its compilation to the disciples of Confucius from the late Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE) to the early Warring States Period (475–221 BCE). The core concept of this classic revolves around the documentation of the early Zhou rulers “establishing a state through determining its geographical location and territory at first, then assigning court official positions, and finally achieving the purpose of serving people.” The Rites of Zhou outlines a full set of national governance mechanisms in the form of “setting up systems to categorize and classify court officials.”

The Zhou was a unique dynasty in Chinese history. A series of measures taken at the beginning of this dynasty prepared the ground for Chinese politics for the next three thousand years. The Zhou people departed from the prevailing ideology of the middle and late Shang Dynasty, which was dominated by beliefs in ghosts and gods, and instead formed a political culture rooted in realism and humanism.

The “elegance” (wen) of the Zhou ritual systems was greatly admired by Confucius, who commented in The Analects: “Zhou had the advantage of viewing the two past dynasties. How complete and elegant are its regulations! I follow Zhou” (trans. James Legge). Additionally, Confucius emphasized the “usefulness” (zhi) of these systems, stating that the core of the ritual-music system lies in the institutional exploration of the nature of state governance. Confucius provided a crucial explanation of the relationship between “elegance” and “usefulness,” stating: “Where the solid qualities [zhi] are in excess of accomplishments [wen], we have rusticity; where the accomplishments are in excess of the solid qualities, we have the manners of a clerk. When the accomplishments and solid qualities are equally blended, we then have the man of virtue.” This principle not only pertains to individual self-cultivation, but also offers insight into the inner logic of Chinese civilization’s evolution.

The Rites of Zhou is not merely a collection of “ritual texts,” but also a set of pragmatic political plans. It subsequently became an important part of the academic inheritance of scholar-officials in north China, evolving into an ideal political blueprint following the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–220 CE) dynasties.

‘Wen’ and ‘Zhi’

The first reform in Chinese history based on the Rites of Zhou was initiated by Wang Mang [founder of the short-lived Xin Dynasty (9–25), which interrupted the Liu family’s succession of the Han Dynasty]. Wang utilized this classic as the institutional foundation on which the reconstruction of the official system and the policies outlined within it were based. However, his blind emulation of the ancient approaches led his reforms astray of social realities, causing severe political and social chaos, ultimately resulting in the end of his reign.

Like Wang Mang’s reform, a reform initiated by Wang Anshi during the mid-Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) also drew from the Rites of Zhou. However, Wang Anshi did not simply mimic the content of this text. Instead, he explored the political and economic principles embodied in the rites, distilled their essence, and tailored the system to align with the contemporary circumstances.

Wang Anshi’s financial and economic reform concepts were entirely derived from the chapter known as “Quan Fu” in the Rites of Zhou. Quan Fu referred to the national financial reserve and regulatory agency, with its value embodied in equalization, flexibility, and circulation. Wang Anshi proposed a rapid and efficient economic cycle under the leadership of the government, relying on resources, institutions, channels, information, prices, warehousing, and other factors at all levels from the central to local, aiming to eliminate redundancies, plan and reorganize, transfer expenditures, and direct investments to facilitate a fundamental transformation of the economic structure.

The primary concern of Wang’s reform aligned with the core concept of the Rites of Zhou: “finally achieving the purpose of serving people.” It sought to establish various “direct channels” between the central government and the common people, which crossed middle classes such as wealthy businessmen and private lenders, and aimed at achieving the two-way circulation of finance. In order to accommodate this model, the Song government minted and issued currency at scale to increase primary-level fiscal allocations and enhance market liquidity. The ultimate objective was to unleash the economic potential of the market and civil society by integrating various economic sectors within the Central Plains. While Wang’s attempt failed to achieve ultimate success due to various reasons, it nonetheless bequeathed a significant institutional legacy for Chinese civilization.

Integration of northern ethnic regimes

As a political doctrine concerning state governance, the Rites of Zhou not only had a profound impact on the Central Plains dynasties, but was also of great significance to the northern ethnic groups in constructing their dynastic systems.

The core appeal of the Rites of Zhou lies in its exploration of the essence of governance through rituals, which was precisely what the northern dynasties were looking for. Driven by the need for governance, the northern ethnic regimes were compelled to enrich their ritual and music systems. However, they remained cautious of the difficulties and potential crises stemming from excessive sinicization. Dynasties with northern ethnic genes, such as the Northern Wei, Northern Zhou, Sui and Tang, Liao, Jin, Yuan, and Qing, shared certain similarities due to their living environments, inherent customs, political ecologies, and the governance problems and dilemmas they faced. Therefore, Confucian classics, including the Rites of Zhou, could serve as a political ideology to gain the recognition and attachment of scholar-officials from the Central Plains, while also offering important theoretical guidance for constructing a new governance system.


Lei Bo is an assistant research fellow from the Institute of History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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