Home > Chinese culture > Confucianism – and rites

Confucianism – and rites

Rites in Confucianism

One of the distinctive things about Confucianism is the focus on the rites (禮, li). In order to establish harmony throughout the land and cultivate virtuous men, Confucius taught that people should reach back into antiquity and devote themselves once again to the rites of the ancestors.

Confucius’ disciples outlined some of these in The Analects (論語, Lun Yu), but more elaborately in The Classic of Rites (禮記, Liji). This contained instructions on the manner of offering sacrifices, how one was to behave toward different classes of peoples – even down to what kind of clothing one should wear.

To the modern ear, it may not seem to make a lot of sense – but take a moment to consider how we have modern rites, and how they function in our society today.

Consider how we have the common custom of shaking hands: when two people meet for the first time, they both extend their right hands towards each other, grasp, squeeze and slightly shake for one second, and then let their hands drop. It’s quite a natural and smooth expression of social harmony. But not only that it reinforces a feeling of harmony.

And you particularly notice this when what you expect to happen in the hand-shaking ritual doesn’t happen. Imagine instead that as you reach out your hand, the other person doesn’t. Or if you shake but the other person doesn’t let go but continues to hold your hand throughout the conversation - well that is suddenly very awkward. There is a noticeable feeling of disharmony because the other person is not doing what is expected of them.

We don’t have many rituals in our modern world – but if you take that one simple ritual, and multiply that into every sphere of life, and every relationship, then you are coming close to the kind of society that Confucius sought to create through the rites. The rites become the means for society to go from inhumane behaviour (in the form of warfare during the Warring States period) to humane and dignified behaviour.

The rites was also the way for society to go from disordered relationships (in the form of rebellion) to ordered and reverential relationships. Because what some of the rites did was they gave expression to particular sets of relationships. You may recall that there were five key relationships in the Confucianism: ruler-subject, father-son, husband-wife, older-younger, and friend-friend. These relationships were largely hierarchical in nature, and the rites gave people a way to express and reinforce those relationships.

The following, for instance, shows how the sacrifices to the gods gave expression to a person’s reverence and submission to them:

“Sacrifice as if present” is taken to mean “sacrifice to the gods as if the gods were present.” The Master, however, said, “Unless I take part in a sacrifice, it is as if I did not sacrifice.”

Analects 3.12

A good example of this that still exists today is the wedding tea ceremony. As the bride-to-be kneels and serves tea to her parents, and later on to the groom’s parents and family, she is wordlessly giving expression to the nature of those relationships. But in Confucianism this was only one of many rites that was to govern and regulate civilised society.

This is what missiologist Paul Hiebert has to say about the importance of rituals,

“Modern people commonly regard rituals as harmless interludes or discount them as meaningless performances. But rituals play a central role in most societies. They are multilayered transactions in which speech and behaviour are socially prescribed. […] They give visible expression to the deep cultural norms that order the way people think, feel, and evaluate their worlds. […] Because rituals dramatise in visual form the deep beliefs, feelings, and values of a society, they are of particular importance in studying worldviews.”

Paul Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 82-83.

Rituals in Chinese Christianity

And so it should come as no surprise that Chinese Christianity will express itself in forms that contain rituals. And in particular rituals that express some kind of relationship. They may not be elaborate, but if you tinker with them you will discover that they are jealously guarded!

Consider the period of reverential silence before a service. Consider the call to worship, the rituals surrounding the offering, the threefold Amen. Consider the practice of holding the service on a Sunday morning. Consider also what is appropriate dress for a worship service.

All of these function to express and reinforce a humble and reverential relationship to God. But more than that, they are considered important: the feeling would be that something would be missing if the collection was done through electronic funds transfer, it would be wrong to wear untidy clothing to church – because of what that would mean for them about that relationship. Remember that the rituals give expression to the relationship!

Now in saying this it is quite legitimate for a particular culture to express it’s love for God in its own forms. And for a culture that prizes rituals, it is entirely appropriate for it to create Christian rituals to express Christian realities. As a result Christians from other cultures should be careful of demanding that they relinquish those rituals and becoming just like them.

However what is important to consider is the reality that is being expressed by those rituals. Is it expressing an awe-filled, grace-filled, gospel-shaped relationship with God? Or is it expressing a transactional Christianity and a distant God? Does it acknowledge God as glorious and sovereign? or as a deity easily fooled by our attendance at his shrine, whose favours are easily bought off with cheap offerings?

It would be terrible if our rituals more closely resembled and reinforced the Confucian reverence for the distant t’ien. Or if they promoted a transactional relationship that is at odds with the Bible. Our wordless rituals, just as much as our words in a sermon, must reinforce, and never undermine the gospel. They must uphold the truth of God, and not a lie.

But in the Gospels Jesus also warns of a second danger of rituals… Because when one conscientiously observes the outward ritual, that might mislead themselves and others to think  that they also have the inward affections – when this is not necessarily so.

In Mark 7 Jesus addresses a group of cranky Pharisees who challenge his disciples about ritual observance. Jesus says,

5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with`unclean’ hands?”
6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “`These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

Mark 7:5-8 (NIV)

Further on from there, Jesus points out that while they thought purity came from ritual observance (and impurity from ignoring rituals), that is not at all the case:

18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him`unclean’? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean”.)
20 He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him`unclean’. 21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and make a man`unclean’.”

Mark 7:18-23 (NIV)

Jesus points out that purity before God was not actually a matter of washing cups – but of the inner affections of the heart. The rituals are helpful in expressing something of the holiness of God – but how silly to mistake the ritual with the reality! To focus on the ritual and neglect the reality!

And so you can easily imagine a churchgoer who diligently observes a period of reverential silence before a service. Or who always wears covered shoes to church. If their heart actually treasures career advancement or face above all – then their rituals are worthless. In fact, worse than worthless – because it can fool them into thinking that they are pleasing to God…

And so you can see that while rituals may be helpful in giving expression to the realities of the gospel, we must be aware that the observance of rituals – even Christian ones – can easily distract us from the truly significant issues of what is going on with our hearts.

Categories: Chinese culture
  1. 31 January 2012 at 2:22 pm

    i wonder how many of the ‘rites/rituals’ are remnants of what the missionaries passed down from the past??

    i can see that these rites exist not because Chinese like having rites, but because (from my observation) Chinese pass down both the content of the truth as well as the ceremony from one generation from the next. This is not limited to Chinese churches only, as you can see that many non chinese churches also passes down rites (e.g. in some high anglican (and other denominations)) . Andrew – can you think further and elaborate on how Chinese would pass down rites/rituals different from these non chinese denominations and how does Chineseness/confucianism manifest itself differently in the expression of these rites?

  1. 29 February 2012 at 5:16 pm
  2. 15 March 2012 at 7:11 pm
  3. 21 February 2013 at 10:04 am

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