What is Li?

One of the most important concepts in Ruism is called li (禮), which is often translated as ritual. As you read the word ritual, what comes to mind? A religious ceremony? Standing to sing the national anthem before a baseball game? The recitation of vows at a wedding?

In fact, all of these are examples of li, but the concept encompasses much more than just formal ceremonies like those mentioned above. To get a better understanding of li, let’s look at what some contemporary scholars of Ruism have to say on the topic:

Ritual, rites, decorum, propriety, codes of conduct…the full panoply of appropriate–and thus mutually satisfying–gestures built upon emotional insights, expressed in dress, countenance [facial expression], bodily posture, or verbal phrasing designed to strengthen communal bonds…

The Encyclopedia of Confucianism, Xinzhong Yao (Editor)

Best thought of as the form of civility between and among people.

Confucianism: A Short Introduction, John & Evelyn Berthrong

…ritual in a broad sense extending to propriety, decorum, and manners.

Confucianism in China: An Introduction, Tony Swain

Rituals, in their Activities including funerals, musical performances, traditional dances, and matters of etiquette. They are typically social expressions of one’s respect for others…[Li, in it’s] most fundamental sense, are religious activities such as offering food and wine to spirits of one’s ancestors or performing a funeral…but ritual also includes matters which we would describe as etiquette, such as how to greet or say farewell to a guest and what manner is appropriate when addressing a subordinate, a superior, or a person in mourning. Finally, Kongzi [Confucius] sometimes speaks as if ritulal encompasses all of ethics.

Mengzi: With Selections from Traditional Commentaries, Bryan Van Norden

The word li originally meant holy ritual or sacrificial ceremony, and it used by Confucius to mean behavioral patterns established and accepted as appropriate by a community and its tradition, including what we call manners, etiquette, ceremonies, customs, rules of propriety, and so on.

Understanding the Analects of Confucius: A New Translation of Lunyu with Annotations, Peimin Ni

protocols for optimally efficacious behaviors…the rules for felicitous human relations…

Confucius: Discussions/Conversations or The Analects (Lun-yu), David R. Schiller

A religious concept associated with the worship of gods and spirits prior to Confucius, Ritual was reconfigured by Confucius to mean the web of social responsibilities that bind a society together. These include the proprieties in virtually all social interactions, and are determined by the individual’s position within the structure of society. By calling these secular acts “Ritual,” Confucius makes everyday experience itself a sacred realm.

Analects, David Hinton

Li has been translated as “ritual,” “rites,” “customs,” “etiquette,” “propriety,” “morals,” “rules of proper behavior,” and “worship”…Li are those meaning-invested roles, relationships, and institutions which facilitate communication, and which foster a sense of community. The compass is broad: all formal conduct, from table manners to patterns of greeting and leave-taking, to graduations, weddings, funerals, from gestures of deference to ancestral sacrifices–all of these, and more, are li.

The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation, Roger Ames & Henry Rosemont

The scope of ritual is quite broad, encompassing not only sacrificial offerings to the spirits, but also aspects of one’s daily life that we might be tempted to label “etiquette,” such as the manner in which one dresses, take’s one’s meal, approaches one’s minister, etc.

Confucius Analects with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, Edward Slingerland

In the Analects ritual includes ceremonies of ancestor worship, the burial of parents, and the rules governing respectful and appropriate behavior between parents and children. Later the word came to cover a broad range of customs and practices that spelled out courteous and respectful behavior of many different kinds. Engaging in ritual, learning to perform it properly and with the right attitudes of respect while performing it, is to engage in a kind of cutting and carving and polishing and grinding of the self. 

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, David Wong

About the Author

Ben Butina, Ph.D.
Ben is the President and co-founder of the Ruist Association of America, Inc. and Friends from Afar, an English-speaking Ruist discussion group on Facebook. He's also the creator of StoneChimes.com, a modern English adaptation of the Analects of Confucius.