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Experts rethink ritual studies and modernity

Author  :  CHEN YU     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2019-08-10

SHANGHAI—Recently, an international symposium on ritual studies and Confucian Classical Studies in East Asia took place at Fudan University.

Ritual studies has always been an important part of Confucian classic texts. Wu Zhen, a professor from the School of Philosophy at Fudan University, said that the Book of Etiquette and Rites (Yili), the Rites of Zhou (Zhouli) and the Book of Rites (Liji), together known as the “Three Li (the three Confucian ritual books),” are an important part of the Thirteen Confucian Classics. However, they are primarily a ritual system for scholars and the imperial court. 

Since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), while ritual studies deepened, Confucian rituals gradually fell out of touch with general society. In the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Neo-Confucianism began to realize the lack of ritual norms setting family ethics. As such, Neo-Confucianism was faced with the new challenge of re-designing a set of ritual norms applicable to common families and capable of breaking the barriers between the intelligentsia and commoners, so as to change how ritual settings historically favored scholars and aristocrats.

Compiled by the great Neo-Confucian philosopher Chu Hsi (1130–1200), Chu Hsi’s Family Rituals is representative of the works that promoted Confucian ceremonial culture to the general public. 

Wu pointed out that the four ceremonial rituals of cappings, weddings, funerals and ancestral rites as laid out in the Family Rituals profoundly affected the Chinese lifestyle after the 13th century. Even more impressively, after the Family Rituals was transferred to and localized in the Korean Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) and Edo Japan (1603–1868), numerous studies emerged, enough to construct the new field of East Asian family ritual studies.

Although it was introduced to Japan very early, the Family Rituals did not attract real attention until the Edo period after the 17th century, which is almost in sync with the trend of the popularization and development of Confucianism in Japan, said Juji Azuma, a professor from Japan’s Kansai University. In Edo Japan, many scholars wrote articles related to the Family Rituals, and these scholars were not limited to the Chu Hsi School. Not only was it studied by scholars of the Edo period as a part of classical studies, but it also had a great influence on Japan’s ritual norms in practice. 

Similarly, the Family Rituals also exerted extensive influence after it was introduced to Korea at the end of the Goryeo period (918–1392). Adaptions and sequels of the Family Rituals continuously emerged in Korea. From the 15th century to the first half of the 20th century, at least 289 texts were completed (473 if the missing ones are included). In practice, the family rituals were localized, with scholars designing family rituals that conformed to the context and circumstances at that time.

The Family Rituals is an adaption of Confucian rituals for the conditions during the Song Dynasty, and it is the key to making the Song-style rituals possible. Korean Confucians incorporated Korean characteristics into the Family Rituals

However, compared with the achievements in ancient times, ritual studies have come to a halt in the past century.

Azuma said that the history of the Edo scholars has been forgotten by people in modern times. Such well-known Japanese scholars as Sokichi Tsuda, Shunpei Ueyama and Masahide Bitō have argued that Japan has not been influenced by Confucian rituals. They have overlooked how many books on the Family Rituals appeared in the Edo period. 

This seems to be a tendency not only in Japan, but also in China and South Korea, Azuma said. In his view, this stems from the fact that modern scholars have a preconceived notion of “what is Confucianism,” which is a result of modernist thinking.

“They think that for today’s Japan, the value of Confucianism lies in ethics and philosophy, so they turn a blind eye to the importance of Confucian rituals. That is to say, their understanding of Confucianism is not as extensive as that of the Confucians in the Edo period. But now that it is the postmodern era, we need to try to get rid of the modernist perspective and reassess the value of Confucianism and Japanese Confucianism,” Azuma said. 

The tension between modernity and tradition represented by Confucian culture has also lingered in modern China.

From a broader perspective, for reexamining the value of Confucian culture, including ritual studies, it is fundamental to figure out its relationship with modernity—whether the two contrast or enhance each other. 

This question has been gradually pushed aside with the economic take-off of East Asian countries, Wu said. For more than a century, the mainstream view is that tradition hinders the development of modernity, and there seems to be no possibility of mutual integration and interaction.

In the 21st century, China has entered a new stage of rapid development, Wu continued. After China became an economic power, all walks of life began to realize that behind economic development lies not only the hard power of science and technology but also the support of cultural soft power. 

Modern Japan and South Korea, which are at the forefront of modernization, pay great attention to retaining their own traditional culture. And there are many Confucian elements in these traditional cultures, which is undoubtedly a thought-provoking fact, Wu said.

All of the three scholars agreed that rethinking ritual studies and Confucian Classical Studies from the philosophical, historical and cultural perspectives has important academic significance for re-recognizing the intellectual resources of East Asian civilization. 


The article was edited and translated from Wenhui Daily.


(Eedited by JIANG HONG)

Editor: Yu Hui

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