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All about the Rites

Anne Cheng
Stéphane Feuillas

The world of ritual

The Liji and a tragic theory of ritual

Michael D. K. Ing

Texte intégral

  • 1 This essay is an expansion of the “Concluding Reflections” in Ing 2012b, 204–218. For an explanatio (...)

1This article will draw from three parts of the Liji 《禮記》 in an attempt to construct an early Confucian theory of ritual. This theory, in short, depicts a tragic consciousness experienced in ritual performance where ritual agents cope with vulnerability, ambiguity, and rupture with the past. In constructing this theory, I will refer to and build on a larger project that I published as a book entitled The Dysfunction of Ritual in Early Confucianism.1 My purpose in this article is to demonstrate that ritual often involves the coordinated enactment of conflicting moral desires such that ritual is in part a performance of ambivalence. Ritual performers reaffirm their desire to model the past, but recognise the demands of the present. They also mobilise the resources of vulnerability to care for others and to turn ritual performance into an embodied confession of their hopes and limitations in confronting a threatening world.

  • 2 I would like to thank Colin Klein for encouraging me to clarify this.

2The latter half of this article will situate this tragic theory of ritual in the broader discourses of ritual studies and contrast this theory with non-tragic portrayals of Confucianism. This essay is more creative than historical; meaning that it aims to tease out the normative (and more often functional) claims of ritual performance as articulated in the Liji. It does not attempt to provide a historical account of specific ritual performances; neither is it exegetical in the sense of situating my claims within the complex of issues associated with interpreting early Chinese texts.2 In other words, this essay elaborates on the exegetical work done in The Dysfunction of Ritual and offers a constructive interpretation of the Liji for the purpose of bringing it into dialogue with contemporary theories of ritual.

The “Liyun” 禮運

  • 3 For a more in-depth look at the “Liyun”, see pages 105–128 in Ing 2012b.

3In the opening scene of the “Liyun” chapter, Confucius, after witnessing a ceremony performed in his home state, lets out a sigh. His disciple Ziyou 子游, hearing him sigh, asks what went wrong. Confucius responds with a lengthy description of two utopian periods in early human history; both of which, he explains, were preceded by a pre-civilised era when human beings lived in caves and ate the raw flesh of animals. Confucius laments that he hoped that the world might again attain the greatness of these two utopian periods, yet, as evident from the poor performance of the ritual just witnessed, such a desire will not be realised.3

4This opening scene, in general terms, provides a narrative for a tragic reading of early Confucian ritual. Confucius explains that in the earliest period of human history, humanity lived in uncivilised conditions. In this period, human beings did not know how to construct homes, cook food, or make clothing; and as such, human beings lived in caves, ate the raw flesh of animals, and wore the feathers of birds. Fortunately, profound people, or “sages”, appeared on the scene and taught people to build simple homes, to use fire in preparing food, and to spin hemp and silk. The sages also organised simple human relationships such as parents in relation to children. This act of civilisation, the “Liyun” explains, marked the beginning of the ritual tradition. Society –meaning interpersonal relationships, material implements and structures, and institutions such as government– is built by means of ritual practices. The “Liyun” also goes on to report that as society became more complex so did the ritual practices that supported it.

5Sometime after this period of savage conditions, the “Liyun” contends, a fundamental shift occurred in the development of human civilisation. While human beings originally lived in caves and drank the blood of animals, they came to live as one unit –treating everyone as family, living in simple homes, and cooking their food. In this era, which Confucius calls Grand Unity (datong 大同), human civilisation lived in accordance with the Great Way (dadao 大道). The text explains:


  • 4 Lau 1992, 9.1. All translations are my own, unless noted.

The Great Way moved [throughout the world]; and everything under the heavens was commonly shared. Those in positions of authority were chosen because of their abilities. Trust was emphasised, and solidarity was cultivated. As such, people did not only treat their parents as parents, nor only their children as children. The old were allowed to live their lives to the fullest. The able-bodied were employed, and the young were raised into adulthood. The widowed, the orphaned, the childless, and the sick were all cared for. Men had proper allotments of work, and women were married into good families. When crafting goods, people disdained not putting them to their full use; yet they did not need to store up [goods] for themselves. When working, people disdained not exerting themselves to the fullest; yet they did not [work] simply for themselves. As such, deceitful plans were curbed so that they did not arise; and thieves, robbers, and malcontents did not come about. Because of this, [people] did not [even] shut the outer gate to their homes. This is what is called Grand Unity.4

6In the era of Grand Unity, humanity thrived in simple conditions. Later, however, in the era Confucius calls Modest Prosperity (xiaokang 小康), human beings concerned themselves with more distinctions, such as distinctions between one’s parents and the parents of other people, as well as distinctions between the people of one’s hometown and the people from other towns. The world, due to these distinctions, was no longer seen as one family, but the virtuous leaders of the time cultivated these distinctions in the form of a ritual tradition so that society continued in accordance with the Great Way. In conjunction with these social distinctions, the “Liyun” explains, people in society were able to create more complex physical structures such as moats and city walls, as well as more complex institutions that fostered the distinction between rulers and ministers, among others. In this age, human civilisation thrived, and attained a level of sophistication and prosperity that could not be attained to in the previous age. Yet, in my reading of these passages, humanity also lost several things in this transition.

7For one, in the era of Grand Unity, ritual was simple and unadorned. It provided for basic needs such as food and shelter, and it fostered a minimal number of social relationships. It could not, however, bring about a prosperous world. Creating the conditions of prosperity entailed building on, and in some regards, deviating from, the foundational acts of the sages. Because of this, ritual performers in later times have been torn between a desire to maintain a strong connection with an ordered past and a desire to render ritual meaningful in a more complex present. This ambivalence, rooted in an awareness of the necessity of enacting ritual and the necessity of varying from earlier tradition, is a key component of the tragic consciousness associated with ritual.

  • 5 Oxford English Dictionary, online entry “complicate.”

8Secondly, the growing complexity of the world entailed an ever-growing and interdependent infrastructure to manage the process of development. In the time before the era of Modest Prosperity, rituals worked, but the social world they created was also a simple world. In later times, a more complex social world required more complex rituals. However, this growing complexity led to an increase in the number of participants required to successfully perform ritual. Each participant relied on the proper performance of the other. If anyone failed to properly perform his role, the ritual could fail. Ritual success, in this light, became complicated in the etymological sense of the term “complicate” –the agencies involved in the event are “entangled” or are “folded together.”5 The growing complexity of the social world, as such, led to more interdependent rituals where successful ritual performance was contingent upon a growing number of agencies; thereby obfuscating causality in ritual success and failure.

9Lastly, the formation of a ritual tradition also created ritual agents who saw themselves in more distinctive ways. People in the age of Modest Prosperity, according to the “Liyun,” became self-interested and became capable of constructing alternative traditions that could compete with the ritual tradition. The “Liyun” explains that with the emergence of more social distinctions came an awareness of those within one’s social group (such as a city) and those beyond one’s social group (those from another city). Defence fortifications arose in this early period, and weapons emerged in an attempt to overtake those from other social worlds. Ritual, as such, is always vulnerable to those agencies that affect the situation –be it competing state institutions or co-performers of the ritual. Because of this, ritual performances are anxious performances. The ritual agent is concerned with his performance of ritual, and anxious over the fact that agencies other than him can determine the success of his performance.

10What this reveals is the contingent nature of the ritual world. Ritual success, in other words, is vulnerable to incompetent ritual performers, people from other social worlds wielding military or other kinds of power, as well as natural disasters and death. These dysfunctional forces impinge themselves on the ritual world with a kind of brute force. In short, the world ritual is meant to construct is set against the backdrop of a dysfunctional world. Ritual performers project their hope onto the dysfunctional world while recognising that their hope will sometimes be in vain.

  • 6 I borrow the term “experiments in paradigmity” from Antonio Cua who uses it to describe the ways in (...)

11Thus, the “Liyun” chapter discusses at least three aspects of what I am calling a tragic consciousness of ritual performance. The first is the realisation among ritual performers that ritual cannot be done as it was done in antiquity; despite the fact that it worked in antiquity. The second is the ambiguity associated with interdependent rituals performed in a more complex world. And the third is the fragility of the ritual world in relation to the dysfunctional world. Summarised another way, the rituals of antiquity do not always work in the present, so living in an era of prosperity requires transforming the efficacious rituals of the past. Yet altering the rituals of antiquity does not guarantee ritual success. Ritual agents, in this light, perform “experiments in paradigmity” where their best efforts in altering ritual work in most cases; however, in this vulnerable and interdependent world, their alterations are never guaranteed to work.6 Part of the tragic nature of this narrative is the possibility that humanity might actually be able to return to the kind of world that existed in the era of Grand Unity; but rather than returning we choose to live in a prosperous, yet also a vulnerable, world.

  • 7 For more on anomy in the context of religious studies see Berger 1990, 23, 26, 49–50, and 90.

12The “Liyun” presents us with a view where ritual minimises dysfunction and projects a hope of order onto the dysfunctional world; yet ritual does not prevent all dysfunction. The work of ritual is to build an ordered world; and ritual performers enact ritual over and over again to construct this world, but they never fully eliminate the threat of failure. Ritual performance understood as world construction is therefore taken in a tensive sense. Said another way, the ritual world never fully becomes the only world human beings experience; rather, dysfunction continues to linger on the edges of society. Indeed, it seems that one of the messages that the “Liyun” teaches its readers is that we, human beings, inhabit a world occasioned by both order and anomy.7

The mourning rites

  • 8 Lau 1992, 3.69.

13The Liji contains many discussions of mourning rites. These rites, covered in nearly two thirds of the chapters in the Liji, also highlight the tragic consciousness associated with ritual performance. Some of these rites include the calling back ceremony (fu ) where shortly after someone has died, a mourner climbs up to the roof to call the deceased’s spirit back to the body; as well as the practice of putting objects into the tomb of the deceased that do not quite work –zithers, for instance, are placed in the grave but their strings are not properly tuned; and this, the Liji tell its readers, is because the dead are no longer alive, yet, in its view, neither are they fully gone.8 The portion of the rites I would like to focus on begins after the calling back ceremony and before the burial. In this section of the rites, we might call the funeral procession, mourners follow the carriage carrying the body of the deceased to the grave. The Liji explains that mourners should do this as if the deceased were still alive. The chapter entitled “Asking about Mourning” (“Wen sang” 問喪) describes this as follows:


  • 9 Lau 1992, 36.1.

In following [the funeral procession to the grave], mourners were expectant and anxious as if they sought to follow [the deceased] but could not quite catch up to him. When returning, they wailed; and were hesitant and uneasy as if they sought after [the deceased], but did not find him. As such, when mourners follow [the funeral procession to the grave] it is as if they long to see [the deceased]; and when they return, it is as if they are bewildered [in not being able to find him]. Regardless of where they sought him, he could not be found. They entered the door to his home, but did not find him there. They ascended into the main hall, but did not find him there. They entered his personal quarters, but did not find him there. Alas, he was gone; only to be mourned, and never to be seen again! This is why mourners wail, shed tears, beat their chests, and falter. They stop doing these things only after they fully exhaust their sorrow. Their hearts are despondent, morose, perplexed, and aggrieved to the point that they lose their focus and there is nothing but sorrow. 9

14This portion of the Liji maintains that mourners should follow the funeral procession to the grave as if they were travelling to catch up to a person who was still alive; and after not finding him, they are to return to his home and call for him, hoping to find him there. When failing to find him at home, mourners “exhaust their sorrow” by wailing and shedding tears. The sorrow of losing a loved one reaches a heightened pitch as mourners fully confront the absence of the person. They are despondent to the point that “they lose their focus and there is nothing but sorrow.” What is interesting here is that the Liji does not make the argument that these rites are effective in bringing the dead back to life; rather, the mourners should not fully expect the rite to alter the course of death.

15In the mourning rites, mourners come to recognise the vulnerability of their hoped-for world to forces beyond their control. Indeed, what we see in the mourning rites are a series of practices meant to confront this vulnerability. Mourners project their hope on to the dysfunctional world, knowing that it might not change things. They perform the rites to demonstrate their awareness of the fragility of their social world. The mourning rites, as such, become a means of navigating the tension between the desired world and the dysfunctional world. They become a kind of performative therapy for dealing with dissonance. Following this view, ritual is done to display one’s understanding that one’s best efforts are often frustrated by the dysfunctional world –that people do in fact die, but if it were up to us, they would remain.

  • 10 Parts of this were inspired by Cole 1985. On page 9 she comments: “Tragedy is an imaginative model (...)

16The mourning rites are particularly apt for demonstrating this point. The death of others presents a kind of ambivalence for many human beings.10 Our desire to accept the finality of death conflicts with our hope for continuing a meaningful relationship with the deceased. Mourning rites, as such, become an important means of coping with ambivalence –they allow us to live in a world of hope and fear. The intrusion of the dysfunctional world into the social world becomes an occasion for the creation and performance of ritual. Yet ritual does not dissolve the tension between these worlds; instead it provides a way of navigating the tension.

  • 11 For more on the relationship between ethics and vulnerability see Schofer 2010, 183–190.
  • 12 Schofer 2010, 183.

17Part of what makes the world created by ritual meaningful is the possibility of intrusion. The dysfunctional world is dangerous. It kills indiscriminately. It is savage. The vulnerability of the ritual world to dysfunction means that everyone living in the world of ritual lives with risk. Yet this risk itself partially renders life in the ritual world worthwhile. If relationships lasted forever, there are fewer reasons to cultivate relationships now. If ritual completely ordered the dysfunctional world, there are fewer reasons to transcend parochialism and the narrow confines of traditionalism. The threat of loss can lead to morbidity and depression, but it can also inspire the virtuous treatment of others.11 The possibility of impingement can lead to retrenchment and fundamentalism, but it can also prompt a healthy reappraisal of tradition. The uncertainty of the ritual world, in this sense, “mobilizes [the] energies” necessary for the appropriate treatment of others and for a reflective engagement with tradition.12

  • 13 Lau 1992, 43.1.
  • 14 Jennifer Wallace elaborates on this in the context of tragedy and Sigmund Freud’s theory of child d (...)

18Said more generally, the ritual world as a vulnerable world is a kind of evanescent domain where fragility serves as a motivating factor in the ongoing construction of society and as grounds for the seriousness with which human beings might live their lives and reflect on themselves as well as their relations with others. Zhu Xi famously substituted the character xin (renewing) for qin (drawing near) in the opening passage of the “Great Learning” (“Daxue” 大學). In a reversal of sorts, we might blur the distinction between qin and xin in a later passage of the “Great Learning” for the purpose of highlighting the role of reflecting on relationships in an evanescent world. The passage in question reads, “If one day [you] renew [it], renew [it] day after day; indeed, renew [it] daily” 茍日新,日日新,又日新.13 By substituting qin for xin we get, “If one day [you] draw near to [someone], draw near to [them] day after day; indeed, draw near to [them] daily” 茍日親,日日親,又日親. While this passage of the “Great Learning” does not require such a rereading, blurring the notions of qin and xin highlights the role of repetition and attachment in the context of renewal. Through repetition we fulfil our existing relationships, and through attachment in the context of renewal we confront the loss of current relationships as we form new ones. The ritual world, in this view, is built through the repetition of rites that foster closeness and cope with loss among human beings. Since relationships will not always endure, we are compelled to render them meaningful now. Relationships require not only daily renewal through repetition, but also total renewal through reattachment as one person is lost and a new relationship is formed. This process of closeness, loss, renewal, and reattachment seems central to many aspects of human experience ranging from games that infants play to rituals such as those described in the Liji.14 It does not seem too implausible to suggest that such a process is a central part of the Confucian notion of the continual generative and regenerative process of the world (sheng sheng bu xi 生生不息 or sheng sheng zhi wei yi 生生之謂易).

19In the mourning rites discussed throughout the Liji, the failure of the ritual world to fully transform the dysfunctional world such that death does not occur, is integral to the success of the mourning rites themselves. Proper performance is a vulnerable performance where the more genuine one’s hope of finding the deceased still alive when searching their home, the more genuine one’s sorrow when confronting their absence.

20These rituals, as mentioned in other portions of the Liji, must push the performer to the brink of madness. The “Jiyi” 祭義 chapter speaks of this in the context of sacrifices made for the deceased.


  • 15 Lau 1992, 25.9-11.

Before a filial son offers up sacrifices [to his deceased parents], he is concerned with preparing all the affairs [of the sacrifice]. If the time [for sacrifice] arrives, and all the implements are arrayed and everything is prepared, [he is able to] empty his heart and mind; and in the proper order, [he] performs the rite.15 Once the temple chamber is clean, the walls and roof are repainted, and all the ritual implements are ready, the son and his wife –having fasted and washed themselves– enter the chamber wearing the sacrificial attire and carrying the sacrifices. So engrossed and sincere, they move as if unable to bear [the weight of the sacrifices], and as if they are on the brink of dropping them. [As such], are their hearts not completely full of reverence and filial piety? The filial son displays his focus by ordering the sacrificial vessels, by arranging the rite and its accompanying music, by training the ritual participants, and by [appropriately] entering the chamber carrying the sacrifices. Because of his lost abstraction of mind [huanghu 慌惚] [when entering the chamber] he communes with the spirits, hoping that they might partake of the sacrifices. The aim of the filial son is to express his hope that the spirits partake of the sacrifices.

  • 16 I translated huanghu 慌惚 as “lost abstraction of mind” following Legge 1885, Part IV, 214.

21The filial son is at first concerned with preparing for the sacrifice. He ensures that all the necessary implements are available and that the area where the sacrifice is to take place is clean. When the ritual is performed, however, this concern is replaced by an attitude of huanghu 慌惚, translated above as “lost abstraction of mind.”16 The passage describes this attitude as “engrossed” and “sincere.” It seems that when the ritual agent is in a lost abstraction of mind he is pushed to the brink of failure –the participant brings in the sacrifices as if he cannot bear their weight and moves as if he is on the verge of dropping them. The ritual agent, this passage explains, must be in a lost abstraction of mind in order to commune with the spirits (shen ).

  • 17 Being deeply dedicated to his father employs “crazy” in the sense of “being crazy about something.”

22Another, more pedestrian, way of understanding the notion of huanghu 慌惚 is by translating it as “crazy.” The ritual agent, in this scenario, is so focused on the loss of his father that he goes crazy in the multifaceted sense of the term –he is both bewildered by the circumstances of the loss and deeply dedicated to his father.17

  • 18 Olberding 2011, 160.

23The notion of huanghu 慌惚 can be understood in terms of vulnerability –the death of someone meaningful is what precipitates the ritual agent to reach this state; and the ritual agent must focus on this person, and their relationship, during the rite to ensure its success. The ritual agent, as such, takes upon himself the risk of going beyond the brink. This kind of flirtation with failure enables the success of the rites. In performing the mourning rites, a state of vulnerability is preferred over a state of invulnerability. Stated more broadly, human beings, in this view, should not render themselves invulnerable to relationships that are contingent on the erratic nature of the dysfunctional world. These relationships, at least partially, constitute a meaningful life. As Amy Olberding suggests with regard to the Analects, “The ethical potency of grief resides… in the willingness to lead a life that courts certain species of pain in order to achieve higher order values, and these values reside in our relations with others.”18 The real possibility of the dysfunctional world impinging itself on the ritual world opens up opportunities for deep engagement with other human beings. It provides motivation to care for others, allows one to fully experience human sentiment (qing ), and creates space for continued reflection on the question of what constitutes a meaningful life.

The “mubeng” 墓崩 passage

  • 19 For a more in-depth discussion of this vignette see Ing 2012b, 152–174 and Ing 2012a.

24The sixth passage in the “Tan gong, shang” 檀弓上 chapter describes Confucius’ performance of the burial rites for his parents, as well as the collapse of his parents’ grave during the rites.19 I believe that this passage is particularly apt for demonstrating the tragic consciousness of ritual performance and in tying together the themes of the previous passages mentioned above. It reads:


Upon completing the joint burial [of his parents] in Fang, Confucius remarked, “I have heard it said that the ancients built graves but not burial mounds. But now there is me –one who [travels to] the north, south, east, and west. [And I] cannot afford to not recognise [the grave].”


Thereupon [Confucius] built a mound four feet high. Confucius then left [Fang], with his disciples to eventually follow. Heavy rains fell. [When his disciples] finally caught up, Confucius asked, “Why did you arrive so late?”


They replied, “The grave at Fang collapsed.”

  • 20 Lau 1992, 3.6.


Confucius did not respond. [They repeated this] three times. Tears welled up and fell freely [from Confucius’ eyes]. He [finally] responded, “I have heard that the ancients did not fix their graves.”

25There are several things worth noting in this passage. For one, Confucius, in contrast to the practices of antiquity, constructs a mound on the grave of his parents. He does this because he lives in a time different from antiquity. His age is perhaps more complex –requiring him to travel around the kingdom and to employ others (i.e., his disciples) in completing the mourning rites for his parents. He needs the mound to help him remember the grave. Confucius, we see in this passage, is spatially and temporally displaced from the past –he cannot remain in the location of his parents, nor does he live in the same conditions as the ancients. The mound, as such, serves to bridge the displacement. The complexity of building a mound also requires him to employ his disciples in maintaining the grave. Varying from the rites of antiquity, it turns out, increases the vulnerability of the rite. Rains fall, the mound gets saturated, and the grave collapses. It is not clear who is at fault for the collapse. It may be the fault of the heavens for causing it to rain, the fault of Confucius for deviating from antiquity, or the fault of his disciples for incompetently maintaining the grave.

  • 21 I developed the idea of a commiserating community in reference to David Hall and Roger Ames’ interp (...)

26For its readers, this passage serves to evoke their tragic sensibilities by presenting them with issues of ambiguity, rupture with the past, and vulnerability. Confucius is depicted as being concerned with the proper burial of his parents, and the text presumes that its readers are also concerned with the proper treatment of their parents. Confucius was concerned with deviating from tradition, and the presumed readers of the Liji are likewise concerned with deviating from tradition. Confucius sometimes confronted situations where the dysfunctional world overpowered the ritual world, and so do the readers of the text. Passages such as these connect the world of the text with the world of its readers. Confucius is shown as living in a world where one’s hope of what ritual might accomplish does not always cohere with the experience of ritual performance. The readers of the text inhabit the same world. As such, readers feel along with Confucius and he feels for us. At the same time, in texts such as the Liji, Confucius serves as more than a stand-in for what might happen to its readers. Additionally, the text sets out to establish a kind of commiserating community where we feel for others because we care for them.21 Passages such as these serve as reminders and comforts that the readers of the text are intimately connected with figures such as Confucius. Stated more broadly, once we, the readers, accept the proposition that our hope for what ritual might accomplish and our experience with what ritual actually brings about are not always reconcilable, we then find the world we live in a more frightening, but also a more familiar, place.

  • 22 I borrowed the notion of “honesty” from Wu 1991, 252.

27To draw a few larger conclusions, what we see in these parts of the Liji is that the kind of justification that ritual provides for its performance need not be about the eventual triumph of the ritual world. Rather it can sometimes justify itself by providing a kind of honesty about the world.22 It reframes the world such that we learn to accept that there are things we do not know, and powers that we cannot control. Ritual, as such, can be seen as an embodied confession of our own limitations. It is a way of enacting our vulnerability and coming to terms with uncertainty. Depicting the failure of paradigmatic figures such as Confucius to adequately construct an ordered world allows readers of the Liji to establish a peculiar continuity with the past. While Confucius’ failure is set in the context of breaking with the past, the readers of the text are connected with the past by means of Confucius’ rupture with antiquity. His vulnerability and his difficulty in navigating his ambiguous world serve as a model for those seeking to cope with similar circumstances.

Correspondence and subjunctive theories of ritual

  • 23 For the purposes of this article, I use single quotation marks to designate technical terms, and I (...)
  • 24 Eliade 1954, 21.

28In the next portion of this article, I will briefly situate this tragic theory of ritual with two alternative theories that some contemporary scholars of religion use to conceptualise ritual. The first theory is cast in terms of ‘correspondence.’23 Ritual, in this view, is meant to shape reality to correspond with a preexisting ideal. This ideal is often represented in a complex system of symbols (as argued by Clifford Geertz, for instance), or in myths of an “eternal return” to conditions of paradise (as argued by Mircea Eliade). Ritual, as such, is meant to create an ‘as is’ world. In other words, ritual acts on the world, to change the world into a new and better place. Paraphrasing Eliade, as was done by the gods, so is done by human beings in the performance of ritual; and as is done in ritual, so will be done in the world.24 Interestingly, after mentioning this idea, which he takes from a Vedic text, Eliade then notes, “This Indian adage summarizes all the theory underlying rituals in all countries.”

  • 25 Michaels 2008, 260–261.

29While more recent scholars have become increasingly sensitive to universal claims about ritual, many continue to advocate various correspondence theories of ritual and couple them with the assertion that ritual performers do not believe that their rituals change. Axel Michaels, a scholar of South Asian religions, for instance, explains, “[I]f people identify themselves in rituals with invariability and timelessness… they resist the uncertainty of past and future, life and death. In rituals they become ‘eternal,’ related to something that has always been there, never changed and detached from everyday life and profanity. Thus rituals are staged productions of timelessness, the effort to oppose change, which implies finality (and, ultimately, death)”.25

30When bound together, theories of correspondence and theories of change-lessness lead to a significant problem for ritual performers, especially when they are compelled to explain situations where their rituals do not function as claimed. These ritual performers must attribute failure to either their own incompetence, or to the impotence of their rites and ceremonies. Where ritual does not transform the world –creating an ‘as is’ world– there necessarily arises a crisis of meaning for the performers of ritual. In short, if they did things correctly, there can be no simple, or perhaps satisfying, answer as to why their rituals were ineffective.

31To briefly compare this theory of ritual with what I have described as a tragic theory of ritual, we see that in line with correspondence theories, this tragic theory does make an ‘as is’ claim –ritual performers hope to order the dysfunctional world. On the other hand, this tragic theory of ritual recognises that hope is not always reconcilable with experience and that the ritual world is still a vulnerable world. Ritual, instead of simply attempting to create an ‘as is’ world, also creates a kind of ‘as if’ space where performers enact a therapy of honesty in confronting a bewildering world.26

32In perhaps sharper contrast with notions of changelessness, we see that this tragic theory of ritual does not argue that ritual should not change. Rather, early Confucians believed that even an idealised antiquity was insufficient for creating a prosperous present. Ritual performers build on, but also deviate from, the foundational acts of the sages. Ritual change, in this view, must occur but it is always done ambivalently –with one eye on the past.

33The second theory of ritual that is worthy of attention comes from scholars such as J.Z. Smith and Adam Seligman. Both Smith and Seligman provide alternative accounts of ritual efficacy –Smith highlights the awareness among ritual performers of the disjuncture between the world of ritual and the ordinary world; Seligman explains how ritual creates a “subjunctive” reality.

  • 27 Smith 1980, 124–125. Italics removed. He also makes a similar argument in Smith 1987, 109–110.
  • 28 Smith 1980, 125.
  • 29 Idem.
  • 30 Smith 1980, 127.
  • 31 Idem.

34In his 1980 article, “The Bare Facts of Ritual,” Smith explains that “ritual represents the creation of a controlled environment where the variables (i.e., the accidents) of ordinary life have been displaced precisely because they are felt to be so overwhelmingly present and powerful. Ritual is a means of performing the way things ought to be in conscious tension to the way things are in such a way that this ritualized perfection is recollected in the ordinary, uncontrolled, course of things.”27 In Smith’s view, ritual is not meant to act on ordinary life; rather, ritual acts in opposition to ordinary life. Ritual agents perform ritual to demonstrate that they know “what ought to have been done.”28 The ritual agent, in other words, recognises that ordinary life will not necessarily be influenced by the performance of ritual. Indeed, one of the reasons, according to Smith, the ritual agent performs ritual is to demonstrate this very fact. The “gnostic” element of ritual performance is significant for Smith.29 In contrast to scholars whose theories lead to the crisis described previously, Smith posits that ritual performers are aware of the disconnection between a ritual performance and “ordinary life.” He explains, for instance, that dramatising the kill of the hunt in Siberian pre-hunting ceremonies is done to show that “the hunter knows full well what ought to transpire if he were in control; the fact that the ceremony is held is eloquent testimony that the hunter knows full well that it will not transpire, that he is not in control.”30 In Smith’s view, the ritual performer is aware of the tenuous relationship between the ritualised hunt and the ordinary hunt, and is able to explain why he performs the ritual despite the rupture. Ritual, in short, does not manipulate the world; rather, it “express[es] a realistic assessment of the fact that the world cannot be compelled”.31

  • 32 Smith 1980, 127. Smith restates this point in Smith 1987, 109. According to Smith ritual “provides (...)

35The strength of Smith’s account is that it provides a non-correspondence theory of ritual efficacy from an emic perspective. Instead of depicting primitive actors unaware of the constraints of changing the ordinary world, the performers are depicted as rational agents acting out because of the constraints of changing the ordinary world. In Smith’s view, ritual is done to demonstrate an awareness of these constraints and to serve as a “focusing lens” with which to view the ordinary world.32

  • 33 Seligman 2008, 7.
  • 34 The clearest explanation of sincerity comes from Seligman 2008, 103: “The alternatives that [sincer (...)
  • 35 Seligman 2008, 22.

36Adam Seligman, Robert Weller, Michael Puett, and Bennett Simon, in their book entitled Ritual and its Consequences, also put forth a similar theory of ritual efficacy. In their view, ritual creates an “as if” or a “could be” world rather than an “as is” world as argued for in correspondence theories of ritual.33 According to this group of scholars, ritual works to build a subjunctive social world instead of what they call a “sincere” world where “authentic” or “real” aspects of the self are sought and manifest in ritual.34 In other words, ritual creates a kind of illusory world where performers live “as if” they were living in a world of order, as opposed to actually creating a world rooted in some notion of an authentic self or an original tradition. Ritual, as such, frames the world for ritual performers so that the illusory world becomes a kind of reality, but the reality lasts only as long as performers adhere to the illusion.35

  • 36 Seligman 2008, 27.

37Similar to Smith, Seligman highlights the awareness that ritual performers have about the disjuncture between the subjunctive world and the “real world.”36 The subjunctive world, in the view of ritual performers, is the preferred world. It does not seek to transform the real world; rather it often functions in opposition to the real world.

  • 37 For more on the rise of these various competing worlds see Ing 2012b, 105–128.

38In line with Seligman and Smith, this Confucian theory of ritual I have described can cast ritual in a subjunctive sense. But unlike Seligman and Smith, the world ritual creates is not understood in terms of an “as if” world in opposition to the “real” world. Instead, the ritual world is contextualised among other competing worlds (perhaps all dysfunctional from the perspective of ritual performers), each impinging on the other.37 In other words, the ritual world is not taken as an illusionary world distinct from the real world; instead it is taken as one of many real worlds competing to define the human experience. Indeed, if we cast the ritual world as a kind of ‘as if’ space, it is because the business of ritual can be a risky business, where the odds are often in favour of the dysfunctional world. However, dysfunction, as such, is not understood as the true or genuine condition of the world. While early Confucians saw themselves frequently living in a dysfunctional world, they did not see dysfunction as any more authentic to human experience than the ritual world.

39Said somewhat differently, where Smith and Seligman employ the language of illusion rather than fragility in describing the ritual world, they mask the ambivalent nature of ritual performance. Ritual, at least in an early Confucian sense, is about an apprehensive hope. Ritual performers anticipate the transformative power of ritual, while realising that ritual is a trepidatious act. Put most directly, the performance of ritual is often the very performance of ambivalence.

Tragedy and ritual

  • 38 All of this is not to say that tragedy is the only way to understand ritual. Rather, this is to cha (...)
  • 39 Steiner 2008, 30; Schopenhauer 1969, 254. Regarding China, Steiner states, “Tragedy as a form of dr (...)
  • 40 As quoted in Huang 2003, 58.
  • 41 Hightower 1953, 120. Keightley has argued for instance, “The Chinese narratives, when compared with (...)
  • 42 Morreall 1999, 63, for instance, states, “Like all cultures, the Chinese face mistakes, sickness, h (...)
  • 43 See Perkins 2011; Huang 2003; Roetz 1993, 93–100. For others advocating tragedy in China see Luk 19 (...)

40The purpose of comparing and contrasting the tragic theory of ritual portrayed in the Liji with correspondence and subjunctive theories is to show how this tragic theory of ritual might contribute to broader discussions of ritual studies. 38The theory of Confucian ritual portrayed here highlights themes of ambiguity, vulnerability, and rupture with the past. While these tragic elements might not reach to the level of George Steiner’s tragedy as “ontological homelessness” or Arthur Schopenhauer’s tragedy as “guilt of existence,” they do challenge popular perceptions about the non-tragic nature of Chinese thought.39 Karl Jaspers, for instance, famously remarked with regard to China, “[Tragedy cannot occur] wherever man succeeds both in achieving a harmonious interpretation of the universe and in actually living in accord with it.”40 Scholars of China such as James Robert Hightower, and more recently, David Keightley, have reinforced the notion that China “lacks any concept of tragedy.”41 Scholars of religious studies, such as John Morreall, and scholars of literature, such as Richard Seawall, repeat these claims –with the latter authoring an entry in Encyclopedia Britannica entitled “Absence of Tragedy in Oriental Drama.”42 While other scholars of China such as Heiner Roetz, Alexander Huang, and Franklin Perkins argue for notions of tragedy in pre-modern China, their views are far from dominant.43

41In contrast to the claims that China lacks any concept of tragedy, the Liji often portrays a tragic world. Antiquity serves as a beacon for those in the present, but the demands of the present sometimes conflict with staying the course of antiquity. Rupture with the past is tragic in the sense that creating a prosperous present cannot be done without questioning the normativity of antiquity. Continually transforming the ritual tradition entails ambivalence: on the one hand, ritual performers desire to perpetuate the way of the ancients, but, on the other hand, they recognise the insufficiencies of antiquity in creating a flourishing present. The Liji, as such, reveals a conflict between the security of a simple past and the chance of a prosperous, but precarious, present.

  • 44 The language of blurring a distinction between agency and fate comes from Felski 2008, 6.

42The complexity of the present complicates the agencies involved in ritual success and failure –seeming to blur a distinction between agency and fate.44 Ritual performances are susceptible to forces that at least seem to be beyond the control of the ritual performers. In this context, the Liji portrays the ritual world as a vulnerable world, and human society as partially founded on a shared recognition of vulnerability. In the era of Modest Prosperity, people banded together to form cities so they could protect themselves from the threat of war; and in the mourning rites people band together to confront the gloom of death.

  • 45 The notion of an open window was inspired by Wu 1991, 252.

43The ambivalence of living in a vulnerable world at odds with the past and rife with ambiguity serves to highlight the tragic consciousness associated with ritual performance. This consciousness also recognises the value of ritual: as a trepidatious hope, it acts as an open window into which we question the things that count.45 Ritual is also an open window into the lives of human beings. It reveals that we are conflicted beings –we hope for constancy and happiness but we also realise the inevitability of suffering and failure. Ritual, as such, is an open window into the irreconcilable nature of happiness and failure. It is an aperture on the ambivalence of life.

  • 46 On the prevalent nature of these conflicts (in the context of a contingent world) I agree with Mart (...)

44Ritual provides a means of coping with ambivalences that arise when two or more moral desires conflict with each other. In many situations we are able to reconcile these desires, fulfilling them all and leaving no remainder. Other situations, however, pose a much more lasting conflict. These situations are tragic in the sense of a permanent contradiction. Choosing one desire over the others leaves behind feelings of grief or even regret. In these situations, ritual can serve to work through the grief or regret associated with unfulfilled desires. In other cases, ritual provides a means of performing the ambivalence associated with tragic conflicts.46 In this sense, ritual is therapeutic in that it provides an embodied opportunity for enacting conflicting desires –an opportunity to cope with (rather than resolve) dissonance.

45In the mourning rites, a desire to accept finality conflicts with a desire to continue a meaningful relationship with the deceased. To perform these desires mourners put implements into the grave that do not quite work, and they pretend that the person is still alive during the funeral procession. The wailing and tears shed at the deceased’s home are at least partially an expression of ambivalence; they are emblematic of the desire to accept a new and different world, but also emblematic of the desire to continue a relationship with the deceased. Later, when offerings are made, the living enter into a lost abstraction of mind that enables a kind of altered continuation of the relationship –the sacrificers encounter the spirits of the deceased, yet they encounter them in a state where things are not quite the same.

46The nature of ambivalence renders platitudes of comfort and joy largely ineffective in explaining death and grief. In consoling those in mourning (diao ), for instance, the Liji does not advocate that we comfort them with assurances of better times, but rather that we should comfort them by sharing in their sorrow. We demonstrate that the pain of loss, which feels so personal, might actually extend beyond the private seclusion of the self (du ) and into a kind of commiserating community. Ritual, in this sense, enables a shared hope in the possibilities of human beings to construct a desirable world, but it also enables a shared suffering in confronting the vulnerabilities of such a world. In visits of condolence, the sorrow of the condoler demonstrates that the loss is real, that the deceased is irreplaceable, and that we, the living, want the mourner to remain among us as long as he or she can.

  • 47 Olberding makes a similar point in 2008, 147: “However, where restorative therapy primarily is engi (...)

47The fact of vulnerability means that pain is inevitable. Living life, as such, is not a matter of eliminating pain, and it is less a matter of reducing pain as much as it is a matter of coming to appreciate pain as an indication of the recognition of value. When a loss hurts, it means that something was valued; and if that thing (or person) was worthy of being valued, then pain is not only a fitting sign of proper recognition, but a sign that one has lived one’s life in such a way as to bring into relation those things that are worthy of value.47 Mourning, as such, can become an expression of a life full of meaning, or even a life rightly lived. The rites (li ), to a certain degree, are about people being upright (zheng ). They not only produce ethical persons, but they enable an aesthetic expression of ethical commitments. The performance of ritual reflects the accumulated efforts of the agent in cultivating these commitments.

  • 48 This is building off of Cole’s notion of “embodied absence” in Cole 1985, 9.
  • 49 A more contemporary (and non-Chinese) example that stresses the notion of vulnerability would be a (...)

48The presence of the deceased’s body during the mourning rites (usually coffined but not buried before visits of condolence) captures a kind of embodied ambivalence.48 A mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a child, or a friend is there in the casket, but they are not there. The person we knew is no longer present. The body of the deceased becomes something that we simultaneously want to draw near to but also something that we want to push away. Mourning rites, in this sense, become a means of coping with the ambivalent feelings associated with the deceased; and the body of the deceased becomes a focal point for attending to these feelings.49

49Ritual entails vulnerability, ambiguity, and rupture with the past –elements that are both disturbing and empowering. The hope and trepidation associated with ritual, give way to an attitude of ambivalence. Ritual is the performance of ambivalence inasmuch as it allows for the coordinated enactment of conflicted feelings. In realising that ambivalence must be coped with, not eliminated, ritual agents gain a tragic consciousness of ritual performance.


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1 This essay is an expansion of the “Concluding Reflections” in Ing 2012b, 204–218. For an explanation of what I mean by “early Confucianism” see pages 16–17. For background on the Liji see pages 4–7 and 219–223. Throughout this article I discuss figures like Confucius as literary rather than historical figures.

2 I would like to thank Colin Klein for encouraging me to clarify this.

3 For a more in-depth look at the “Liyun”, see pages 105–128 in Ing 2012b.

4 Lau 1992, 9.1. All translations are my own, unless noted.

5 Oxford English Dictionary, online entry “complicate.”

6 I borrow the term “experiments in paradigmity” from Antonio Cua who uses it to describe the ways in which an ideal moral agent may break from rules in living a life of “moral creativity.” See Cua 1978, 18. For a more detailed explanation of the terms “ritual success” and “ritual failure” see Ing 2012b, 18–78.

7 For more on anomy in the context of religious studies see Berger 1990, 23, 26, 49–50, and 90.

8 Lau 1992, 3.69.

9 Lau 1992, 36.1.

10 Parts of this were inspired by Cole 1985. On page 9 she comments: “Tragedy is an imaginative model of the paradoxical demands made on human consciousness when confronted by death.”

11 For more on the relationship between ethics and vulnerability see Schofer 2010, 183–190.

12 Schofer 2010, 183.

13 Lau 1992, 43.1.

14 Jennifer Wallace elaborates on this in the context of tragedy and Sigmund Freud’s theory of child development in Wallace 2007, 176.

15 Lau 1992, 25.9-11.

16 I translated huanghu 慌惚 as “lost abstraction of mind” following Legge 1885, Part IV, 214.

17 Being deeply dedicated to his father employs “crazy” in the sense of “being crazy about something.”

18 Olberding 2011, 160.

19 For a more in-depth discussion of this vignette see Ing 2012b, 152–174 and Ing 2012a.

20 Lau 1992, 3.6.

21 I developed the idea of a commiserating community in reference to David Hall and Roger Ames’ interpretation of John Dewey’s “communicating community.” Discussed in Hall and Ames 2003, 139–147. See also Jürgen Habermas’ notion of “an unlimited communication community” in Habermas 1986–1989, Volume 1, 85 and 227.

22 I borrowed the notion of “honesty” from Wu 1991, 252.

23 For the purposes of this article, I use single quotation marks to designate technical terms, and I use double quotation marks in their standard grammatical sense –to designate the words or terms of others.

24 Eliade 1954, 21.

25 Michaels 2008, 260–261.

26 Regarding ‘as if’ space, see Nicolas Standaert’s contribution in this volume.

27 Smith 1980, 124–125. Italics removed. He also makes a similar argument in Smith 1987, 109–110.

28 Smith 1980, 125.

29 Idem.

30 Smith 1980, 127.

31 Idem.

32 Smith 1980, 127. Smith restates this point in Smith 1987, 109. According to Smith ritual “provides an occasion for reflection on and rationalization of the fact that what ought to have been done was not, what ought to have taken place did not.” Smith, unfortunately, does not elaborate more. He does not explain “reflection” and “rationalisation,” nor how they contribute to (or comprise) ritual efficacy.

33 Seligman 2008, 7.

34 The clearest explanation of sincerity comes from Seligman 2008, 103: “The alternatives that [sincerity] often suggests are categories that grow out of individual soul-searching rather than the acceptance of social conventions. Sincerity thus grows out of abstract and generalized categories generated within individual consciousness. The sincere mode of behavior seeks to replace the ‘mere convention’ of ritual with a genuine and thoughtful state of internal conviction. Rather than becoming what we do in action through ritual, we do according to what we have become through self-examination.”

35 Seligman 2008, 22.

36 Seligman 2008, 27.

37 For more on the rise of these various competing worlds see Ing 2012b, 105–128.

38 All of this is not to say that tragedy is the only way to understand ritual. Rather, this is to challenge other perceptions of ritual that do not more fully take into account the nature of ambivalence. Seligman, for instance, stresses the performers’ desire to pretend, and Michaels stresses the performers’ desire to change the world. My point is that ritual can be about the performance of multiple (and even conflicting) desires.

39 Steiner 2008, 30; Schopenhauer 1969, 254. Regarding China, Steiner states, “Tragedy as a form of drama is not universal. Oriental art knows violence, grief and the stroke of natural or contrived disaster; the Japanese theatre is full of ferocity and ceremonial death. But that representation of personal suffering and heroism which we call tragic drama is distinctive of the Western tradition” (Steiner 1961, 3). In many regards, tragedy is seen as an essential characteristic of modern societies; although this view itself is a recent development. For a history of its development see Billings, 2014. Schopenhauer’s notion of tragedy becomes important in early 20th century discussions of tragedy in China. Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877–1927), in particular, argues that the Dream of the Red Chamber (Hongloumeng 紅樓夢) is a Schopenhauerian tragedy. See He 2013.

40 As quoted in Huang 2003, 58.

41 Hightower 1953, 120. Keightley has argued for instance, “The Chinese narratives, when compared with the Greek, are remarkable for the lack of dramatic complexity. They generally provide the essence of the action; they are parables, sermons, lacking the kind of existential irony and ambiguity that flows through critical scenes, such as the slaughter of the suitors in Book 22 of the Odyssey” (Keightley 2002, 141). See also Keightley 1990, 44: “Greek epics derive much of their complexity and dramatic tension from the frank recognition that unresolvable conflicts exist in the world, that choices are frequently made not between good and evil but between two goods. By contrast, no early Chinese writing –with, as is so frequently the case, the possible exception of the Zhuangzitake a similarly detached and complex view of the human condition.”

42 Morreall 1999, 63, for instance, states, “Like all cultures, the Chinese face mistakes, sickness, hunger, and death; but that does not prompt them to ask whether Heaven owes them something better. Without a philosophy of suffering, tragedy just does not get started in Chinese religions.” See also page 62: “In Chinese thought, too, the universe is a harmonious unity in which each part reproduces the whole. The human body is a microcosm of the universe –we know that our blood circulates, for example, because we know that rivers flow. The Chinese acknowledge that life has it[s] moments of need and pain, but those are just part of the harmonious whole, rather than something to be questioned, or, as in tragedy, something to be protested.” A more recent and nuanced account, which acknowledges the possibility of a cross-cultural category of tragedy but also repeats some of the same stereotypes, appears in Wallace 2013.

43 See Perkins 2011; Huang 2003; Roetz 1993, 93–100. For others advocating tragedy in China see Luk 1986, 24. Perkins, in short, argues that tragedy as a concept can be found in China in the sense of affirming a tension between human hopes about the world and human experience in the world. Perkins stresses the following difference: “If tragedy is absent in classical China, it is not due to a lack of pessimism but rather this missing valorization of the will, the celebration of… ‘the titanically striving individual’” (92). Huang develops a similar account of tragedy in pre-modern Chinese dramas, adding that what distinguishes Chinese tragedy is “isolation of the tragic character” in combination with “the necessity and tyranny of Time” (61).

44 The language of blurring a distinction between agency and fate comes from Felski 2008, 6.

45 The notion of an open window was inspired by Wu 1991, 252.

46 On the prevalent nature of these conflicts (in the context of a contingent world) I agree with Martha Nussbaum: “[T]hat much that I did not make goes toward making me whatever I shall be praised or blamed for being; that I must constantly choose among competing and apparently incommensurable goods and that circumstances may force me to a position in which I cannot help being false to something or doing some wrong; that an event that simply happens to me may, without my consent, alter my life; that is equally problematic to entrust one’s good to friends, lovers, or country and to try to have a good life without them –all these I take to be not just the material of tragedy, but everyday facts of lived practical reason.” As quoted in Felski 2008, 12.

47 Olberding makes a similar point in 2008, 147: “However, where restorative therapy primarily is engineered to alleviate immediate suffering, the aim of this more formidable version of mourning is to discover in the pain of loss a richly aesthetic vision of life.”

48 This is building off of Cole’s notion of “embodied absence” in Cole 1985, 9.

49 A more contemporary (and non-Chinese) example that stresses the notion of vulnerability would be a wedding. The bride and groom, one would imagine, have desires to protect themselves from emotional harm and at the same time have desires to care for each other. It might often be possible to fulfil both desires, but these desires can and do conflict (especially since death is likely to leave one person coping with the loss of the other, and we rarely know when and to whom death will occur at the moment of entering into the relationship). A wedding ritual creates the space for enacting both desires. In making the commitment of marriage, the bride and groom simultaneously promise to care for one another (a recognition of vulnerability and the desire to care) and to protect themselves emotionally (hence the contractual nature of the promise made in the ceremony). In this sense, ritual becomes an opportunity to perform ambivalent feelings; and a chance to construct a world that allows for simultaneous (yet conflicting) desires.


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