Sample Essay on the Relationship between Ritual & texts in Ancient China

Every human community has richness of culture and traditions. In each of this cultures and traditions they are rituals, that is, observance of some set public rites be it religious or political. For proper observance of the ritual certain guidelines and prescription are set and inscribed. Therefore there is an intimate relationship between use of texts in religious and political ritual in every human community. Texts describe the mood, express how people should conduct themselves in a given situation and state the wordings to be used in the celebration of a particular rite. China has a wide history full of abundant culture and traditions celebrated in forms of varied rituals participated in year after year. “Rituals are found in every human community and are primary means of social communication and cohesion.”(Livingston, 2005) Rituals aid us graduate from one stage to the other in human life. It also help us mark seasons and changes that accompanies human life and to bring to present a historical event. Written texts carry with them regulations which are more important than those who wrote them or those who are mandated to implement them, “written law codes, open to inspection by all citizens and hedged with Curses on any who damaged or altered them, was the clearest sign of the

Isonomia, “equality in the law,” that defined the polis. This publication of the laws marked their removal from the control of the king or despot, and it also both granted great powers and placed considerable restraints on the scribes responsible for their creation and maintenance” (Lewis, 1999). This is clear evidence that King and his subjects are all equal in the eyes of the written text and therefore rituals prescribed by them apply to all equally.

In Chinese culture and traditions rituals spreads from birth to after death. The implicit relationship between ritual and texts in ancient China is manifested in the Confucian classics and this essay seeks to demonstrate this intimate union as communicated in the classics.

Confucian classics include; Book of Odes, Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and the spring and Autumn Annals.

In the book of documents (Shujing) also known as book of history contains speeches and sermons of royal house and describe how to perform a ritual to succeed a king from power. It expounds on the qualities off an ideal leader. “It describes three dynasties, that is, Zhou, Xia and Shang dynasties and how these different dynasties communicated to the world of spirits. These spiritual rites facilitated availability of noble Men within the kingdom and therefore preservation of virtues within the community. This book illustrate an ideal leader must have some qualities which include; education, diligent in practice of ren and li. Ren is the special relationship between two people that results in the cultivation of benevolence, humility, and finally piety. Li is practice of ritual and good manners” (The analects). The grafting of ren and li gives out a noble man who is efficient and effective in political leadership. In this the behavior and acts of a leader are stipulated. The book of documents makes it explicit how a leader must be and how he should govern for the prosperity of the community. The qualities of leader determine the social-political development of the community. If a human community is led by noble Men. The development is integral, that is, is inclusive and not of only few surrounding the king.

The book of Odes (shijing) contains 311 poems which describe the different ritual which were performed at aristocratic courts, “includes history poems, satirical poems, narrative poems, love songs, odes, seasonal songs and work songs. It covers all aspects of the society of the Zhou Dynasty, such as work and love, war and   oppression and resistance, customs and marriage, sacrifices and feasts, astronomical phenomena and landforms, animals and plants.”  (Baohua, 1991). Poems and songs also manifest the artistic and the creativity of the people within the community a fact that is inscribed in ritual texts and is communicated from one generation to next. The cerebration of romantic love is key to poems and all this different rituals were performed in royal courts be it agricultural rituals, war rituals, initiation rituals, exorcism rituals and peace rituals this varied rites are expression of human emotions and are communicated in poems and songs which well organized in this book. Songs and Poems play a vital role in social, political and religious functions. They describe vividly what people fear to mention in words. They are inevitable means of perpetuating culture and traditions. A lot Chinese culture is communicated through poems, songs and literature and this is like a mystery to one who do not understand this culture.

“Book of rites is a very interesting work because of the detailed description of Chinese culture from ancient period, including funerary rites, birth, clothing, cosmological theories, astronomy, economy, geography, history, family structure, the Imperial court, music, crime and punishment, horticulture, and even some exotic recipes.” (Legge, 1885) In this book there is explicit elaboration of the funeral rite. “At the mourning rites for Kung-î Kung-dze, Than Kung  wearing the mourning cincture for the head, Kung-dze had passed over his grandson, and appointed one of his (younger) sons as his successor (and head of the family). Than Kung said (to himself), ‘How is this? I never heard of such a thing;’ and he hurried to Dze-fû Po-dze at the right of the door, and said, ‘ How is it that Kung-dze passed over his grandson, and made a (younger) son his successor?’ Po-dze replied, ‘Kung-dze perhaps has done in this, like others, according to the way of antiquity. Anciently, king Wan passed over his eldest son Yî-khâo, and appointed king Wû; and the count of Wei passed over his grandson Tun, and made Yen, his (own) younger brother, his successor. Kung-dze perhaps did also in this according to the way of antiquity.’ Dze-yû asked Confucius (about the matter), and he said, ‘Nay, (the rule is to) appoint the grandson” (Legge,1885)  The funeral rite is well elaborated, all that need to be done during mourning is well elaborate it also describe how position and properties are inherited after passing on of parents, the rightful heir is identified and succession done in harmony. This is a clear communication of how Chinese people longed for the continuation of life, respect of ancestors and reference to the soul. It’s manifest in china that funeral rite equalizes people, “” Watson identifies nine elements of standardized funeral rites: (1) the family gives public notification by wailing, pasting up banners, and other acts; (2) family members don mourning attire of white cloth and hemp; (3) they ritually bathe the corpse; (4) they make food offerings and transfer to the dead (by burning) spirit money and various goods (houses, furniture, and other items made of paper); (5) they prepare and install an ancestral tablet at the domestic altar; (6) they pay money to ritual specialists so that the corpse can be safely expelled from the community (and the spirit sent forth on its otherworldly journey); (7) they arrange for music to accompany movement of the corpse and to settle the spirit; (8) they have the corpse sealed in an airtight coffin; and (9) they expel the coffin from the community in a procession to the gravesite that marks the completion of the funeral rites and sets the stage for burial” (Watson, 1972)

Agricultural rites is also well described in this book; “the fields of the husbandmen were in portions of a hundred acres. According to the different qualities of those acres, when they were of the highest quality, a farmer supported nine individuals; where they were of the next, eight; and so on, seven, six, and five. The pay of the common people, who were employed in government offices, was regulated in harmony with these distinctions among the husbandmen (Legge, 1885) a well explained palicture of social responsibility against the poor is evident in this chapter; the virtue of generosity is encouraged in this oracle. In this we see how well the text explains what should happen during the celebration of the agricultural festivities. This portrays the natural social responsibility endowed on each individual towards the poor and those in need.

In the book of rites there is also a well description of cerebration to usher in the succession of proceeding of government in different months. Different dynasties assumed power at different times of the year. “This ushering in spring marks the start of new Chinese year and this marks the life span of the ruling government. We are not told what the ceremonies in the inauguration of the spring were. The phrase li khun  is the name of the first of the twenty-four terms into which the Chinese year is divided, dating now from the sun’s being in the fifteenth degree of Aquarius. Kang Hsüan thought that the meeting of the spring in the eastern suburb was by a sacrifice to the first of ‘the five planetary gods,’ corresponding to Jupiter, ‘the Azure Tî, called Ling-wei-jang’ But where he found that name, and what is its significance, is a mystery; and the whole doctrine of five planetary Tîs is held to be heresy, and certainly does not come from the five King” (Li Ki book iv). Political succession should not be accompanied by social unrest and disharmony, but should be well anticipated and performed in a specific manner.

This book describes the kingship ritual and the relationship between the kins; “filial piety and fraternal duty, harmony and friendship, and kindly consideration; illustrating the righteousness that should prevail between father and son, and the order to be observed between elders and juniors” (Legge, 1885).This is well prescription of the relationship between the Familial members of the royal family and all the measures that guide their relationships. This help in preservation of self respect attributed to royal families. These families act as the model of the other families within the community. This self respect maintains the dignity of the royal family.

This book describes the ritual of controlling the monarch against his administrators, and the ritual to reckon the administrators. Such descriptions in ritual texts manifest a human community with self regulation and which promote individual accountability. This self regulation enables to fight social evils perpetuated especially by those in positions of power. Any community with such the pursuit of common good becomes the object of every leadership either political or religious.

Birth ritual is also considered important, because a series of the ceremonies culminated in giving the child a name and projecting the child destiny. Ritual texts elaborate the whole life cycle of a human being from birth, initiation, marriage to funeral and attempt to transcend life beyond the corporeal. Texts and rituals accords different people in different status the respect due to them, for example when a child dies he/she cannot be accorded respect by an elder. This because old people within this culture do not accord respect to young ones.

It is clear from the Confucius classics that texts and ritual have a clear relationship. Texts prescribe how rituals are to be performed according to the stipulated rules and what is accepted in a particular culture. Existence of texts prohibits expression of personal preference in the celebration of what is communal and regulated by traditions. This help in perpetuation of culture from one generation to the next. Texts help the modern generation to research and study the ancient culture and hence create acceptance and social stability. Rituals aid individuals and human community to grow, appreciate change and mature. Texts and rituals facilitate in self preservation of a community through informing people how they should conduct themselves, morally, politically and spiritually, hence peaceful coexistence. Existence of texts such as book of songs stimulates one to appreciate the wisdom of composer of the poems and lyrics and invite one to a contemplative life.

Texts and rituals help one to recognize and appreciate the social set up of a certain community. Like in Chinese community ritual texts describe rituals were performed by men and women played a very remote role in rituals. The place of children is also pronounced.  This position of women in this culture leads to a conclusion that this is a patriarchal society. From the texts and rituals one learns much of a particular culture.

Confucian classics are attributed to Confucius (551 B.C) and they have acted as moral force for centuries, the moral struggles elaborated in texts and put in practice in rituals helps in attainment of moral perfection. “Confucianism has had a profound effect on the people of China as well as the people of other nations. Confucian beliefs and values have served many as a guide to moral living. The teachings of Confucius have not only survived hundreds of years, but have thrived as a system of virtue as well.”(The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1996) Therefore texts and rituals propagate a certain belief in the culture and keep the society in check. Through the study of these ancient china texts the contemporary man learns the importance keeping moral norms. The objectivity of beliefs and values shapes the conscience of the society, texts and rituals act as the fuel of this conscience.










Kern, M. (2005). Text and ritual in early China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Lewis, M. (1999). Writing and authority in early China. Albany: State University of New York Press.

 Gennep, A. (1961). The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Schomp, V. (2004). The ancient Chinese. New York: Franklin Watts.

 Legge, J., Confucius. Mencius, Confucius, & Zuoqiu, M. (1893). The Chinese classics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Legge, J. (1885). The sacred books of China. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Reynolds, R., Cushing, K., & Gyug, R. (2004). Ritual, text, and law. Aldershot, Hants, England: Ashgate Pub.

Fairbank, J. (1992). China. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Miller, H. State versus gentry in early Qing dynasty China, 1644-1699.

Ebrey, P. (1991). Confucianism and family rituals in imperial China. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.