What is li (禮), anyway?

  • 1. Protocols for ceremonies and rituals

Zhu Xi: “Li is the heavenly way which is institutionalised. It refers to the rules of ceremonies conducted by humans.”

Commentaries to 1.12 (天理之節文,人事之儀則)

  • Rules of ceremonies and rituals dedicated to mountains, rivers or to the ancestors
  • King Xun accomplished 5 kinds of ceremonial protocols. 5 kinds of jades, 3 kinds of silk, 2 kinds of live animals and 1 dead animan are used. 修五禮、五玉、三帛、二生、一死贄 (尚書, 虞書, 舜典 4)
  • Rules governing rituals and ceremonies conducted in the course of human life 冠婚喪祭 (cappinig, marriage, funeral, ancestral ceremony)
  • When a person dies, give funeral according to the Li, give sacrificial ceremony according to the Li (死葬之以禮,祭之以禮) Lunyu 2.5
  • When Confucius paid a visit to the Grand Temple, he asked about various aspects of the Li (子入大廟,每事問). Somebody said, “Who said the guy from Qu knows Li? When he entered the Grand Temple, he asked about everything.” Master heard this and said, “This is Li.” (Lunyu 3.15)
  • “You love lamb. I love Li.”  (爾愛其羊,我愛其禮) (3.17)
  • The Master said, ‘The Li of Xia dynasty, I can talk about it. Regarding the principality of Hui, there isn’t enough evidence. The Li of Yin dynasty, I can talk about it. Regarding the principality of Song, there isn’t enough evidence. Lack of enough documents and learned people is the reason. Sufficient evidence would have enabled me to talk about the Li of those principalities.’ 子曰:「夏禮,吾能言之,杞不足徵也;殷禮,吾能言之,宋不足徵也。文獻不足故也,足則吾能徵之矣。」 (八佾, 3.9)
  • Someone asked the Master to explain the ti sacrifice. The Master said, ‘I don’t know. He who can explain it can explain the whole world just like this’ – showing his palm. 或問禘之說。子曰:「不知也。知其說者之於天下也,其如示諸斯乎!」指其掌。 (八佾, 3.11)

2. Li and money

  • Lin Fang asked about the root of Li. The Master said, ‘Great question! Regarding Li, you should rather be frugal than splashing out. Regarding funeral, you should rather have a genuine sentiment of mourning than nicely decorating the graves. 林放問禮之本。子曰:「大哉問!禮,與其奢也,寧儉;喪,與其易也,寧戚。」 (八佾, 3.4)
  • The Master said, “To follow the Li, ceremonial caps should be made of Hemp. Nowadays people use silk cap, which is economical. I follow the general trend…” 子曰:「麻冕,禮也;今也純,儉。吾從眾。(9.3)
  • Zi Gong said, “In poverty, yet not be abject; in affluence, yet not be arrogant. How’s that?” The Master said, “Possible. But still, it is not as good as being poor yet in delight; being rich yet fond of Li.” 子貢曰:「貧而無諂,富而無驕,何如?」子曰:「可也。未若貧而樂,富而好禮者也。」 (1.15)
  • Yan Yuan died. Yan Lu inquired whether the Master could sell his carriage to pay for the outer coffin. The Master said, ‘This is not about money. It is about one’s son. When Li(鯉) died, he was buried in a coffin without an outer coffin. I did not go on foot in order to have the outer coffin. As I am in the train of dignataries, I could not go on foot.’ (Lunyu, 11.8)
  • The Master said, “If the substance overshadows erudition, you become vulgar. If your erudition overshadows your substance, you become bookish. Only when substance and erudition complement each other, will you become a noble person. 「質勝文則野,文勝質則史。文質彬彬,然後君子。」(雍也 6.18)
  • Zhu Xi’s commentary on sophisticated culture (文): “When the way manifests itself, we call it sophisticated culture. The entirety of Li and Music are also called sophisticated culture.” 文 also means books. (道之顯者謂之文,蓋禮樂制度之謂)” 論語集注, 子罕 9.5
  • The Master said, ‘The Zhou dynasty modelled itself upon the two preceding ones. What a splendid civilisation! I follow Zhou.’ 子曰:「周監於二代,郁郁(욱)乎文哉!吾從周。」 (八佾, 3.14)
  • The Master said, “You may have superb talents like the Duke of Zhou. But if you are arrogant and stingy, the rest of you is not worth looking at.” 子曰:「如有周公之才之美,使驕且吝,其餘不足觀也已。」

3. Ceremonial protocols, diplomatic protocols

  • Summit meeting protocol (會遇之禮): The meeting between Duke Ding of Lu and Duke Jing of Qi (史記, 孔子世家 17)
  • The Master said, “Guan Zhong (管仲) was indeed a man of small calibre.” Someone said, “Guan Zhong was frugal, you mean?” The Master said, “Mr. Guan had three residences, each complete with a full array of domestic staff. How could he be frugal?” “Guan Zhong at least knew the Li, then?” The Master said, “Only the ruler can have the gate-screen; Mr. Guan also had a gate-screen. Only when a ruler entertains another ruler, can he have a cup stand. Mr. Guan also had a cup stand. If Mr. Guan knew the Li, who didn’t?” (3.22)
  • The Master said, “Zang Wen Zhong (臧文仲) had a gigantic tortoise in his house. He also had mountain patterns sculpted on the pillars, duckweed patterns sculpted on the horizontal beams of his house. Did he know anything?” (5.18)

4. Code of conduct; rules regulating the behaviour

  • The Master said, “Bowing must be done before going up to the hall. That is in line with the Li. These days, bowing is done after climbing on the hall, which is arrogant. Against the general trend, I bow before going up the hall.” 子曰:「拜下,禮也;今拜乎上,泰也。雖違眾,吾從下。」 (子罕, 9.3)
  • The Master said, ‘The progressive ones in matters of Li and music are those from the countryside. The less progressive ones in matters of Li and music are from the nobility. In using Li and music, I am in the train of the progressive ones.’
    子曰:「先進於禮樂,野人也;後進於禮樂,君子也。如用之,則吾從先進。」 (先進, 11.1)
  • The Master said, ‘Sayings of the proper law – can you ignore them? Reforming them, however, is more precious. Sayings offered by way of a praise – can you not feel happy? Sift through them, however, is more precious. To be happy without sifting through the praise, to conform without reforming – I don’t know how one can do that.’
    子曰:「法語之言,能無從乎?改之為貴。巽與之言,能無說乎?繹之為貴。說而不繹,從而不改,吾末如之何也已矣。」 (子罕, 9.24)
  • But I am different from them. Nothing is allowed, nothing is forbidden.「我則異於是,無可無不可。」 (微子, 18.8)
  • The Master said, ‘If you understand the new through accumulation of past experiences, you will make a good teacher.’ 子曰:「溫故而知新,可以為師矣。」(為政 2.11)
  • Li, Li! Do you think I am talking about jade or silk? Music, music! Do you think I am talking about bells and drums?
    子曰:「禮云禮云,玉帛云乎哉?樂云樂云,鐘鼓云乎哉?」 (陽貨, 17.11)

5. Genuine / Fake

  • If you do not have the ethical integrity, what will become of li? If you do not have the ethical integrity, what will become of music?
    子曰:「人而不仁,如禮何?人而不仁,如樂何?」 (八佾, 3.3)
  • The Master said, ‘He who occupies a high position and yet has no mercy; he who resorts to Li and yet has no reverence; he who faces the funeral and yet have no sentiment of mourning – How can I bear to see that sort of man?’
    子曰:「居上不寬,為禮不敬,臨喪不哀,吾何以觀之哉?」 (八佾, 3.26)
  • Zi Xia asked, ‘“Enchanting smile, revealing the dimples; Beautiful eyes, with a dark iris; Plain white, making patterns colourful.” What does that mean?’ The Master said, ‘Painting is to be done on white.’ Zi Xia said, ‘Li comes afterwards, you mean?’ The Master said, ‘You move me, Shang! Now we can talk poetry together.’ 子夏問曰:「『巧笑倩(천)兮,美目盼(반)兮,素以為絢(현)兮。』何謂也?」子曰:「繪事後素。」曰:「禮後乎?」子曰:「起予者商也!始可與言詩已矣。」 (八佾, 3.8)

6. Punishment (刑) v. Li (禮) , “rule of law”?

  • The Master said, ‘Govern people with politics and align them with punishments, they will evade and have no shame. Govern them with virtue and align them with Li they will have decency and things will be in the right place.’
    子曰:「道之以政,齊之以刑,民免而無恥;道之以德,齊之以禮,有恥且格。」 (為政, 2.3)
  • If names are not accurately used, your speech will not be effortless. If the speech is not effortless, you cannot accomplish your mission. If things are not accomplished, the Li and the Music will not flourish. If the Li and the Music does not flourish, punishments will be properly administered. If punishments are not properly administered, people would not know where to stand. 名不正,則言不順;言不順,則事不成;事不成,則禮樂不興;禮樂不興,則刑罰不中;刑罰不中,則民無所措手足。」 (子路, 13.3)
  • The Master said, ‘When a noble man learns broadly and refines himself, and when he constrains himself with Li, how can he be disrupting the order.
    子曰:「君子博學於文,約之以禮,亦可以弗畔矣夫!」 (雍也, 6.27) (顏淵, 12.15)
    군자가 널리 배워 세련된 교양을 갖추고, 禮로서 자신을 제어한다면 어찌 질서를 어지럽히는 짓을 할 수 있겠니?
  • Yan Yuan said (about Confucius), “He broadens me with learning, he restrains me with Li.”  顏淵: 博我以文,約我以禮 (子罕, 9.11)
  • When people in high positions are fond of Li, citizens dare not be irreverent. When people in high positions are fond of rightness, citizens dare not rebel. When people in high positions are fond of trust, citizens dare not be insincere. 上好禮,則民莫敢不敬;上好義,則民莫敢不服;上好信,則民莫敢不用情 (子路, 13.4)
  • The Master said, ‘If people in high positions are fond of Li, the rest of the population can be easily mobilised. 子曰:「上好禮,則民易使也。」 (憲問, 14.41)

7. Gradual phases towards perfection

  • The Master said, ‘Poetry should provide you with the motivation. Li should give you a standing. Music will make you complete.’
    子曰:「興於詩,立於禮。成於樂。」 (泰伯, 8.8)
  • The Master was speaking with the Music Director of Lu principality. The Master said, ‘I know something about music. You begin, then you move on to unison, you then phase into polyphony. The sound should be clear and distinct. Yet it should be unbroken and continuous. That’s how you play.’ 子語魯大師樂。曰:「樂其可知也:始作,翕(흡)如也;從之,純如也,皦如也,繹(역)如也,以成。」(八佾, 3.23)
  • If you do not know your destiny, you cannot be a noble man. If you do not know Li, you cannot establish yourself. If you do not know language, you cannot understand human-being. 子曰:「不知命,無以為君子也。不知禮,無以立也。不知言,無以知人也。」(堯曰, 20.3)