The role of ritual in Confucianism

Our modern, informal American culture greatly de-emphasizes the role of ritual.  Beyond handshakes or hugs, we have no greeting rituals, and we have few ceremonies in our daily lives.

In lecture 10 of Introduction to Political Theory, (website), Prof. Brian Walker discusses the role of ritual in Confucianism,  and he cites the following benefits of ritual:

  • Elimination of anxiety. When you go into a potentially difficult situation, you know exactly what you are supposed to do and supposed to say.
  • Introducing elements of the beautiful and the sacred into everyday life.  When you perform a ritual and are conscious of its beauty (an example might be the Japanese tea ceremony), you add elements of beauty and elements of sacredness into your life.
  • Reducing friction in society and thereby taking pressure off the legal system. As an example Walker cited the neighbor greeting ritual that used to be common in the United States in the 1950s.  When someone new moved into a neighborhood, it was common for the neighbors to bring over cookies or casseroles to welcome the new arrival to the area. If such a ritual were still in play, it would potentially increase neighborliness on all levels. For instance, if the new neighbor’s teenage son started practicing the drums at 2 AM, those living nearby might feel freer to call their new acquaintance and ask him to intervene with his son, rather than calling the police.

While listening to this lecture, I found somestriking similarities between Confucian thought and Judaism.

  • Both Judaism and Confucianism are text based cultures. They both emphasize great reverence for their foundation texts and believe that a person can learn wisdom and virtue from studying these texts.
  • Both cultures teach that people do not automatically develop into moral beings.  Instead, moral education is required. This is in opposition to the common, modern Western notion that people are naturally good, and that with enough love, they will develop their full potential.
  • There is also a very interesting similarity between the function of ritual in Confucianism and the function of commandment or mitzvah in Judaism.  In Confucianism, correct performance of rituals is educational, leading people into true understanding of the meaning of their roles in society– such as, how to be a good father, husband, teacher, or ruler.  Similarly, in Judaism, performance of the commandments is thought to be educational. Many of these commandments are rituals, such as observing holidays, eating certain foods and avoiding others, and even wearing certain clothing. In Jewish thought, performance of these rituals leads to reverence for God, and therefore leads to ethical behavior in society.

Related posts:
China: Traditions and Transformations
The return of Confucianism
Lectures to raise your China IQ
East Asian Thought from UCSD
More East Asian political thought from UCSD

This entry was posted in Academic podcasts, Asian Studies, Courses, Idea of the week, Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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