Between ritual and classics: An emerging knowledge domain

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2024-01-31


Mencius displayed at the Museum of Archaeology in Beijing Photo: Yang Xue/CSST

Some fields of knowledge are well constituted from the start. For instance, you can be a specialist of European economic history on a period spanning from the time of the industrial revolution to the First World War. Some other fields stand at the intersection of several academic disciplines, and their object, method and frontiers are only progressively emerging. This is the case for me: I work in religious anthropology and I try to intertwine two research interests: on the one hand, I pay attention to the rituals through which a community gives meaning to its existence; on the other hand, I pay special attention to the comparative study of classics: throughout the reading of classics of various civilizations, I try to describe recurring patterns of thought.

These patterns, which have to do with the way humankind represents the world, its origin and destiny, are also present in the way rituals are enacted: when engaging in ritual dancing or yet when composing writings of special significance, humankind makes use of geometrical figures such as the circle, the square, the triangle, and the combination of these figures articulates mental patterns. I have tried to unearth the principles grounding this “structural rhetoric” in a study bearing on the Huainanzi. In many respects, working at the intersection of rituals and classics is an endeavor that is part of a general anthropology of the mind.

I will use three expressions for describing the present state of such research endeavor. First, it has strong Chinese characteristics; Second, it attracts young and sophisticated Chinese researchers; and finally, it allows for deeper dialogue among civilizations.

Strong Chinese Characteristics

Internationally recognized figures such as Erving Goffman and Herbert Fingarette have done much for popularizing “ritual studies” in academia and for demonstrating how the way rituals are enacted helps us to better understand our social and mental structures. In general, these scholars were aware of the Chinese roots of this approach: Ancient Romans and Greek authors certainly knew how to carry out a distanced reflection on the rituals which organized their collective life. We can think of Cicero’s De divinatione, which probes the legitimacy and effectiveness of divinatory procedures, or of the way Livy relates the ceremony surrounding what he calls “the first contract concluded in history,” which is based on sacrifices and oaths made by each of the parties involved. Similarly, biblical texts that relate the refoundation of the Jewish community in Jerusalem from 538 BCE onwards, after the Exile in Babylon, provide us with a description that is both normative and ethnographic of the rituals that accompany it. Nevertheless, it is the ancient Chinese texts, and in particular the Confucian ones, that offer the most systematic and reflexive insights on our subject – it is no coincidence that one of the initiators of the field of ritual studies, Catherine Bell, was a sinologist by training.

For Xunzi, the invention of ritual allowed humankind to proceed from savagery to civilization, and only proper ritual observance could ensure correct social functioning. Particularly solemn in its expression, the reverence shown by Xunzi towards ritual forms and observances is far from an exception. Throughout history, Confucianism developed as a system of thought and practices that has given to rituals overarching importance. Its main thinkers emphasized that rituals were a privileged way to educate both the individual and collective body, to institutionalize ethical care and the sharing of resources, to harmonize human society with the cosmic order, and to go beyond a way of governing that would have been based merely on law and punishment. At the same time, the understanding of and importance given to ritual has varied according to authors and historical circumstances.

Among present-days thinkers, let me mention Byung-Chul Han, a South Korean-born Swiss-German. His recent publication presents rituals on the model of a family house: the latter helps us to locate our existence in space, ordering other landmarks around a central point. Similarly, rituals introduce cognitive discontinuities in our relationship to time, thus allowing for a temporal mapping. As Byung-Chul Han sees it, the “disappearance of rituals” deeply disrupts foundational social phenomena and relationships. Somehow, when rituals disappear, we are left homeless…

Increased sophistication

Studying rituals and classics in order to unravel mental and social patterns is an endeavor that attracts an increasing number of young Chinese scholars. In 2023, I edited a special issue of the A&HCI journal Religions entitled “Plots and Rhetorical Patterns in Religious Narratives.” Except for myself and another contributor, all the authors are Chinese scholars of a younger generation. Many of them are affiliated or have been affiliated with Fudan University. Several are now teaching or doing research at Shanghai-based academic institutions such as Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Shanghai Maritime University, and East China Theological Seminary, and another is just starting to teach at Zhejiang University. They testify to the vitality of studies in comparative classics and religious anthropology in greater Shanghai and the Jiangnan region.

Such vitality is not a new phenomenon. In Jiangnan, religious networks used to associate a cluster of temples through fluvial and commercial circuits—a model that differs from the village-based religiosity found in northern China and which asks for innovative conceptual representations of the religious fabric of the area. In addition, Jiangnan is a region in which religious interactions have been deep and numerous; these have fostered reflexive accounts of the changes in practices and social configurations taking place. Furthermore, Jiangnan scholars were versed in the study of classics, and this well-maintained tradition has nurtured strong expertise in the comparative study of classics. This has led to the development of tools that allow one to decipher a text’s patterning, and also sensitivity to the religious undertones of different classical corpora. After all, Xu Guangqi, Li Zhizhao and Yang Tingyun were all Jiangnan scholars who realized, through their practices and writings, a lived encounter between the Chinese and Western traditions.

The contributions gathered in the special issue of Religions that I just mentioned illustrate the sophistication of the methods employed in this new field. For instance, through a structural analysis of the text, Fu Boxi examines the way the Mencius (among other texts from Early China) gives a quasi-sacred status to the aquatic element. This status is highlighted by a narrative model that follows the cycle of water. This cycle unveils both earthly and celestial realities: being attentive to the characteristic of water (humility, ductility, strength hidden behind apparent weakness) allows the observer to better understand their heart-mind, as well as the intimate connection between the latter and heaven. These metaphors are transformative: they are meant to trigger changes in the subject’s consciousness, and these changes will translate to the way one discerns, decides on, and engages in action or non-action (wuwei).

The text of the Mencius is also at the center of research conducted by Min Jung You, a young Korean scholar now teaching at Zhejiang University. The Joseon Korea scholars (whose commentarial works she introduces) were not separating the content of the Mencius from its rhetorical composition. Identifying various rhetorical features and notably circular patterns of textual composition was akin to receiving and assimilating the Dao of the Mencius. In other words, textual patterns revealed the workings of the Dao present in all realities.

In yet another example, in the same volume, Liu Sha focuses upon a pedagogical treatise written by the Italian Jesuit Alfonso Vagnone. Vagnone makes use of animal simile that connects the love for one’s offspring to showing how humankind needs to take seriously the education of their children, and which models they must follow. Vagnone establishes a continuous gradation from the world of the animals to the ones of the sages and then of the saints. Vagnone’s ascensional construction associates Confucian and Catholic references. Here, the a fortiori rhetorical device extends into an overall narrative that spells out the continuity between the natural and supernatural worlds.

Dialogue among civilizations

The questions studied in the field I here describe are loaded with important implications. What happens when we read classics from different traditions together, and what shifts take place as we read? Does the comparative reading of classics give us new perspectives on each of the classics under consideration, and in what way? Does the entry of our various classics into a perpetually expanded dialogue with new interlocutors give them a relevance that enables us to move together towards the emergence of a global wisdom?

The same is true when we focus on the interplay among different ritual traditions. In the course of history, ritual traditions come into contact with each other, eventually developing a kind of “implicit dialogue.” The meeting of rituals creates new meanings, and this fact is particularly noticeable today. Rituals are less “spoken” than “lived,” and performed side by side when different traditions share a common social space. Their parallel performance often brings unnoticed alterations to each: they become woven together; the evolution of Christian funerals in China towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, and the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, provides us with an excellent example of this process — Confucian and popular elements were progressively woven into the Catholic liturgy.

More generally, rituals help us to shape our “relationality” in time and space. The sharing of what some authors have called “ritual conviviality” can be a new expression of the way in which dialogue is forged between cultures, faiths, and communities. Conversely, intercultural dialogue can be seen as a specific form of ritual: dialogue requires that rules of verbal exchange be established and respected, that mutual respect prevail, that sharing be developed. When rules of exchange are settled and respected, our social and spiritual space gradually expands. Dialogue is basically an evolving language game, whose rules can be constantly modified and enriched by mutual consent. Misunderstandings in dialogue usually arise when the rules of exchange are unilaterally modified by one of the players, who is over-confident about the degree of mutual understanding already achieved. The ritualization of dialogue, through strict adherence to its rules, will progressively enrich exchanges among protagonists. So, paying attention to “the power of ritual” is not just a methodological question; it opens up an ethical and programmatic question, for he vitality and quality of our everyday rituals express and determine the vitality and quality of our interpersonal and social exchanges.

Said otherwise: should not the dialogue between different cultural and textual traditions take on a “ritual” form? Should not such dialogue proceed according to the rules (caution, politeness, attention to details) that traditionally mark rituals? Doesn’t this approach make it possible to overcome an overly “rationalist,” overly “utilitarian,” conception of what dialogue is? In other words, can dialogue truly take place in the absence of rituals that allow for its progressive unfolding? Such are some of the questions and findings that emerge as we continue to navigate between “ritual” and “classics,” looking for the social and mental patterns that their study progressively unravels.


Benoît Vermander is a professor from the School of Philosophy at Fudan University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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