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Rebirth of ritual studies

By Zhao Manhai | 2013-07-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Han Dynasty Confucian scholar Zheng Xuan’s notes on the “Three Rites"


China’s national and cultural identity has long been bound to and emanated from its sense of propriety and reverence for ceremonial forms. This sense of propriety and the explicit instructions for these ceremonial forms have been codified and handed down through the "Three Rites", the Rites of Zhou, the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial, and the Book of Rites, all of which are Confucian classics. In imperial China, the academic study of ancient rituals belonged to a broader category of Classical Studies.


Traditional ritual studies: achievements and obstacles

In its history of over two millennia, the study of the classics in China has run the intellectual gamut, ranging from the growth of Neo-Confucianism in the Song Dynasties to the rise of the “evidential research” inspired “Han learning” in the Qing Dynasty. Even the subject of study has drifted, straying from the study of pre-Qin texts to the Confucian canon that became state orthodoxy in the Han Dynasty. Wherever the nucleus of scholarly thought has wandered though, the masters of ritual studies in every generation and dynasty have galvanized their sense of purpose in a unified understanding: the formulation and bequeathal of ancient rites is tied closely to the ancient sages themselves. 

Theirs was often a twofold endeavor. Certainly for these scholars, philology and intensive research and commentary on cultural relics were the mainstays of building and pruning a body of knowledge. In this role, they served dually as guides to and spokespersons for rituals, illuminating, summarizing and advocating them. In addition to being experts and curators though, they also occupied a conscientiously social role, channeling their knowledge of China’s inherited practices and ideals into critique of the societies in which they lived. For example, Confucians in the Han Dynasty referred to Ming Tangthe Hall of Distinction, where pre-Qin emperors met the princes and held ceremonies of the sacrificethe system of Jing Tian (Field of Nine-squares, which was a system of landownership adopted before the Spring and Autumn period) and Shan Rang (voluntary abdication, non-hereditary imperial succession) in launching severe attacks against the political situation of their time. While these two dimensions of Ritual Studies established a robust disciplinary tradition whose sheer fortitude speaks to its durability and versatility, it was not without intrinsic weaknesses that would later prove difficult to overcome.

Chiefly, explanation and interpretation of ritual was always a key aspect of ideology, and thus the study of ritual was always imbued with politico-ethical overtones. Rather than produce knowledge for knowledge’s sake, ancient scholars of ritual always had to be wary of the potential political significance of their research, to a large extent stunting their ability to be scientific and thorough. 

Second, traditional ritual studies was inherently limited by its methods. Scholars relied heavily on a narrow and incomplete body of literature and documents which could shed only so much light on the Chinese culture of rites and music in all of its rich and evolving manifestations. Even in the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–256 BCE), Confucius lamented the dearth of literature; textual resources were even more scarce after the burning of books and burying of scholars during the Qing Dynasty (221 -206 BCE). As rapt attention to and marshalling of detail was paramount to ritual studies, the dearth of materials to work with set an insurmountable hurdle for in-depth research. Consequently, for many problems there was simply no way to arrive at definitive conclusions.

In turn, the dearth of source texts for scholars to work with and corroborate suppositions with also ultimately constrained later generations’ understanding of ancient etiquette. In essence, ancient etiquette served a normative social function. When the culture of rites and music was at its pinnacle, the nobility were immersed in these norms from cradle to tomb—their mastery was tantamount to socialization. Therefore lack of primary source textual materials did not hamper the transmission of etiquette between generations. However, as the supporting culture disintegrated, later generations had little access to the social practice of or detailed literature on rites and music, and were thus restricted in the extent to which they could restore or even perceive the details and connotations of ancient etiquette.  

In short, research hit a brick wall. Since the beginning of the 20th century, scholars of ritual have been at a loss to further their discipline and exceed the achievements of their illustrious predecessors, such as Zheng Xuan, the mediator between the Old Text and New Text Schools at the end of the Han Dynasty, and the Qing Dynasty scholars of the classics Jiang Yong, Hu Peihui, Cheng Yaotian and Huang Yizhou. 

Cultural anthropology enters China  

Emerging in the 1870s, cultural anthropology, for much of its juvenescence, took non-Western tribal society as its object of study, delving into its material culture, social organization, customs and religious beliefs. With holistic thinking and comparative study as the hallmarks of its analytic ensemble, cultural anthropology was committed to strengthening cultural exchange and revealing the underlying universal norms of cultural and societal development. Key works and ideas of the discipline began seeping into China after the late Qing Dynasty, where they influenced, among others, some of the otherwise listless scholars of ritual. Realizing the deficiency of traditional ritual studies, some of these scholars saw great potential in applying concepts and practices from cultural anthropology to explain ritual. As this group worked the theories, methodology and materials of the Western discipline into a hybridized ritual studies, they fostered its transformation from a subgenre of classical studies to modern new historiography.  

From Cai Yuanpei’s “On Ethnologyto Professor Chang Jincang’ s “The Laws of Naming Objects in Zhou and Qin Culture”, eighty years have passed since Chinese scholars began to interpret ancient etiquette utilizing cultural anthropology. These pioneering works breathed new life into ritual studies, greatly bolstering its relevance and promise in a new era.  

Reinventing ritual studies 

In particular, cultural anthropology reinvigorated ritual studies by releasing it from politico-ideological constraints and methodological tire-spinning, while also fortifying it against the societal winds of cultural chauvinism.

Given ritual’s intimate ties to ancient ideology, any particular volume on ritual would be questioned as soon as the interpretations it put forth were perceived as contradicting later authority’s politico-ethical thought. Although the researchers cannot be exempt from the influence of ideologies, cultural anthropology has gradually developed a repertoire of effective checks to filter the intrusion of the anthropologists’ bias into his observations, namely, keeping neutral values when doing research and examining theoretical hypotheses. Drawing inspiration from the objectivity channeled in this approach, modern ritual studies has reformulated its understanding of ancient etiquette. Rather than regarding it as the brainchild of the sages imbued with a sacred aura, modern ritual recognizes it as a creation and outgrowth of Chinese society at large, dispelling the mysterious veil which its traditional counterpart insisted on and revealing its true features. 

Where traditional ritual studies was naturally constrained by its methodology—much depending upon a partially preserved and handed-down body of literature—anthropology takes a holistic approach, emphasizing the discovery of intrinsic connections between different cultural elements through field research. The evidence gathered by anthropologists can actually bring them closer, in terms of social form, to the etiquette of the Zhou Dynasty or at least the ages that best represent that etiquette. In addition, anthropologists employ more information, in a more systematized fashion, in their analyses, building upon and channeling a vast reserve of accumulated theoretical knowledge. In sum, anthropology has provided an effective complement for ritual studies, deepening our perception of etiquette.

At a time of cultural chauvinism and ethnocentrism, scholars of ritual studies tended to overstate their own nation’s achievements. This skewed paradigm was ameliorated with the integration and application of techniques and views from cultural anthropology, in particular comparative study. As the discipline emerged in the West, decades of researching non-Western cultures helped its practitioners develop a relative perspective, realizing their own nation’s limitations and the strengths of others, and overall reversing innate tendencies toward Western-centrism.  

To some extent, this went too far though, resulting in an anemic understanding of China. Long after anthropology was introduced into China, scholars persisted in explaining Chinese culture with reference to other cultures, leading to a treatment of the former as a perennial source of theoretical fodder rather than an integrated whole with its own unique characteristics. Many scholars asserted that Chinese culture conforms to the universal law of societal development envisioned by the classical Evolutionists. As Classical Chinese learning became an increasingly heated topic of debate since the 1990s, it has received ever higher appraisals from both academia and the general public. Scholars such as Wang Ningsheng launched severe attacks against ethnocentric views by revealing areas of homogeneity between Chinese culture and primitive culture. Such open-mindedness is conducive to a nation’s sound and rational development.

 Sinicizing anthropology

While New History (used here to broadly to refer to the amalgam of mostly mid-20th-century movements to reframe history away from a focus on positivist narratives emphasizing geo-political changes and the role of individual agents) has made tremendous achievements by incorporating theories and approaches from the social sciences, there is still a fair amount of skepticism as to whether it is scientifically on par with the sources from which it is borrowing. Some charge that where other disciplines in the social sciences can propose clear, universal theories operating entirely within the confines of their own disciplinary domain, historiography can at most learn from social science theories rather than have such propositions in a similar way. 

This is not true. In the past, cultural anthropology’s purview was generally based on research into primitive society by Western scholars. Within Western academia, it helped fill out what would have been an otherwise limited sampling for the social sciences as a whole, which, not counting anthropology, drew their examples and conclusions entirely from analysis of Western society. Chinese civilization, having achieved a much higher level of civilization, remained out of these early anthropologists’ field of view. Within China itself though, scholars quickly adapted the discipline to their own needs and used it to address questions about Chinese society, a la their endeavors to improve traditional ritual studies. In so doing, they have in turn completed and revised the views of some prominent international anthropologists. For instance, Feng Hanji’s work has significantly supplemented Alfred Louis Kroeber’s classification criteria of kinship; Li Xuanbo propounded a different view against Fustel de Coulanges’s societal development model; Tian Rukang’s profound research on the use and meaning of colors in the Shang (17th Century BC-11th Century BC) and Zhou Dynasties calls into question some of Claude L�vi-Strauss and Edmund Leach’s structuralist views. 

Concurrently, some scholars have tried to reflect on modern Western anthropology from the paradigm of ritual studies. Classical Evolutionists once tried to establish a universal knowledge system, but they were criticized both for their simplistic epistemology and their methodological poverty. Modern anthropological schools have abandoned these attempts and turned to examining the structures, functions, meanings and symbols within different cultures and cultural systems, from which they interpret deeper connotations. These efforts help to foster mutual understanding between nations. It is worth noting that some Chinese scholars have long been committed to discovering greater societal laws through the study of ritual. Theirs was also an attempt to enhance the prestige and academic status of historiography, for which Chang Jincang’s abovementioned “The Laws of Naming Objects in Zhou and Qin Culture” is one such example. Quite familiar with modern Western anthropological theories, Chang had a profound understanding of the shortcomings of classical Evolutionism. His work has enriched the field. 


Zhao Manhai is from the School of History and Culture at Shandong University.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 443, Apr 24, 2013.


Translated by Jiang Hong

Revised by Charles Horne