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East Asian Ritual Theory and the Practice of Self-Cultivation

East Asian Ritual Theory and the Practice of Self-Cultivation

The unique nature of traditional East Asian culture originates from the national ceremonial. It comes from ancient ethical and ritual customs, manifested in rigidly fixed stereotypes of behavior and performance. Status relationships and norms define the structure of social order.

The Chinese ethical and ritual principles and corresponding rules of conduct have been immutable values for every member of society since the ancient times. Any behavior was subject to the transformation through national perception of the world and was fused with the religion and mythology. The demythologizing of ethics and ritual led to the unique socio-cultural genotype creation. For millennia, it has been the basis for the reproduction and self-regulation of society, the state and the entire culture of China (De Bary, 2008).

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The essay focuses on the analysis of East Asian ritual theory and the practice of self- cultivation, developed and maintained by Confucianism. China is one of the largest and most prosperous countries of the modern East Asian world and its cultural tradition allows having a close consideration of the topic.

The Roots of Chinese Ritual

The socio-cultural stereotypes in behavior appeared in the era of Zhou, at the beginning of 1000 BC. The concept of the heavenly predestination stipulated the principle of ethical framework in managing people. The Heaven could take away the right to rule China from a vicious ruler and pass it to the person with the highest virtue. It undermined the rule of faith in the sacred power of the existing authorization and created the moral principle guiding idea of the world (De Bary, 2008).

Wise rulers took the place of mythical heroes. They demonstrated greatness and wisdom which were closely related to their virtues. The cult of clan and family ancestors replaced the worship of the great gods. Family relationships played a crucial role for ceremonial standards. In other words, ethical and ritual norms substituted religion and mythology at many social levels. They became normative benchmark and for the past two millennia have remained almost unchanged (Yao, 2000).

Traditions reflect elements of social and cultural heritage, transmit knowledge from generation to generation and preserve it in a certain community for a long time. They include not legally regulated and established norms, supported by force of public opinion transmitted to new generations by implementation of class and ideological, moral or aesthetic relations (De Bary, 2008).

Ritual is an integral and important means of social organization. It reflects the effect of the leader’s calling to all present and draws attention to a phenomenon or fact. It expresses a certain emotional attitude and promotes the public mood. Some binding principles include the common convention of action, the social significance of the phenomenon or its special purpose (De Bary, 2008). The ritual is designed to create a single mental attitude in a group of people, make them feel active empathy or recognize the fact or phenomenon.

Every ritual has its purely defined significance and base on some primary concepts. Even the text, used in the ceremony, acquires the meaning that would be peculiar to this text only under definite customary conditions. Ritual behavior creates a certain universality of the individuals’ goals, and thus, without suppressing their freedom, provides the necessary degree of events predictability. If people are sure that their companions maintain certain standards of politeness, it greatly facilitates communication. The limits of guaranteed freedom and the desired degree of predictability of behavior appear and become available for regulation and manipulation (Yao, 2000).

The Meaning of Ritual in Confucianism

Confucianism appeared as the doctrine of the nobility. It reflected teaching about the standards of conduct of the ruler and officials. Therefore, politics and ethics are the integral part of Confucianism. In his treatise, Confucius underlined that the path of great ruler was to identify the bright virtues and fuse with the people. It defined a specific content of the ideals including “making sincere thoughts”, “straightening heart”, “improvement of the individual,” “ruling the family”, “ruling the state’, and ‘achieving harmony in Heavens”. The essence of Confucianism and its supreme goal was “to achieve harmony in China”. The other concepts could be seen as a means of implementation.

The teaching of Confucius was a collection of fragments of discourse about politics and morality. It did not form any system, though. Humanitarianism and ritual had a special value as human behavior norms and in particular as political and moral principles of the activities of scholars, nobles and large feudal lords. Humanity was a subjective criterion of morality while the ritual was its objective representation.

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In Confucianism, the concept of ethics ritual covers related concepts of rules of conduct, custom and decency. The supreme symbol of ritualized ethics has become the most common characteristic of correct and even idealized social structure and human behavior. The governor had to direct the subjects by personal virtue example and overcoming individual human evils.

After gaining powerful social and spiritual sanctions, Confucian ethical and ritual norms and values became indisputably binding for all society members, from the emperor to the commoner. It implied the adherence to rational, philosophical, emotional, psychological, religious, and moral values and principles for every society member without exception. Spiritually oriented theory of human action helped to establish Confucianism as purely philosophical teachings, and gradually master religious functions, effectively using sermon. (Rainey, 2010).

The Representation of Zhen and Lee Concepts

Zhen is the central category of the Confucius’ teachings. It is usually translated as “human element”, “charity” and “humanity”. It represents specific features of a man and the work program. It reflects the human in man and determines it as a duty. It is impossible to characterize a person without answering the question, what his/her moral is (Rainey, 2010). In other words, a person cannot exist outside socially meaningful activity. Confucius himself told that Zhen meant the ability to love people. The concept of Zhen includes the Golden Rule of Confucianism: “Do not do to others what you do not want to be done to you” (Rainey, 2010).

Zhen as humanity is the beginning of reciprocity and empathy in the relationship and the general principle of behavior. It is the specific embodiment of the ritual. Confucius said that personal restrain in order to comply with the requirements of the ritual meant decency and kindness. Zhen is the soul of human communication while Lee is the background and flesh of communication (Rainey, 2010).

Ritual, according to Confucius, connects people, but with respect to each type of relationships indicating optimal distance between the participants. It allows different individuals to communicate efficiently.

In the teachings of Confucius, philanthropy implies reciprocity and equality in the relationship. However, people are different in natural abilities and social status. There appears a problem of the principle of equality implementation between unequal people. Ritual is the answer because it provides and establishes public proportionality between individuals.

It is important to understand that the concepts of Zhen and Lee are mutually dependent. Zhen becomes evident only through Lee. At the same time, Lee loses its moral quality and relevance without Zhen. The ritual itself is a measure of moral behavior, since it is provided according to the existence of people and giving them common symbols. Ritual is mobile, changeable, but adheres to certain unbreakable moral norms (Rainey, 2010).

In terms of content, Confucian ritual has two grounds: filial piety Xiao, and rectification of names (Zhen min). According to Confucius, the antiquity is the source and the standard of conduct sets. Moral efforts of any human should aim at high spiritual level of an ideal past. It implies that the person looks back at the family roots and demonstrates piety and respect for elder brothers. According to Confucius, such behavior is the foundation of humanity. The principle of Xiao establishes a relationship between unequal people along the time axis. Honorable attitude to parents returns through the attitude of children in the future. Everyone should be relevant to his/her social status and behave in accordance with the rules of social and family tradition.

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A higher position in the human and social hierarchy also meant a higher level of moral responsibility. Sets of obligations and rules, materialized in the ritual, became a matter of upbringing, education and culture. However, Confucius did not separate those concepts. They all reflected the category of Wen. It revealed the cultural meaning of human existence, upbringing and education taken together. Confucius said people should exceed neither natural breeding nor scholarly education. Natural development and socially stipulated upbringing should be neglected at the expense of each other.

Social Ideal of Confucius and the Practice of Self-Cultivation

To possess all above-mentioned qualities was the duty of the honest, sincere, straightforward and fearless ruler. He had to be all-seeing and understanding, considerate in speech and careful in business. When a noble man was in doubt, he had to restrain anger, think about things in a good company and take care of honesty. In young years he had to avoid cravings and quarrels with mature people. True noble man was indifferent to food, wealth, comforts of life and material gain. He devoted himself to the service to people and search of truth (Yao, 2000).

According to Confucius, the speculative social ideal was a man with a complex of virtues. However, with the rising power of Confucius and his teachings, this abstract utopian ideal began to follow the benchmark approach which was a matter of honor and social prestige for everyone. The members of the upper class scholar officials, professional bureaucrats, administrators who began to manage the Chinese Confucian empire speculated on that ideal. By this time, much of the established Confucius Ideals had been changed.

Confucius quite sincerely sought to create an ideal knight of virtue, who fought for high morality and against injustice. However, as it often happens, the transformation of his teaching into the official dogma created an external form, which demonstrated only outward dedication, respect for elders, and virtue. As a result, medieval China gradually developed and was canonized by certain norms and patterns of behavior. Everyone had his place in the social hierarchy of the bureaucracy (Rainey, 2010).

Social functioning of those rules regained the cradle stereotype. The part in the ritual prescribed the social status and position and the ritual became the act of authority redistribution. According to Chinese ceremonies, everyone should dress and stand in a definite place, relevant to his social status.

In traditional Chinese culture, there is not a characteristic person connecting god and a person.  Asian people have a fundamentally different type of relationship. The Heaven is a symbol of the highest order, and the earthly society is based on the virtues of heavenly graceful and decent ruler. This direction amplified Confucianism and identified the development of China for thousands of years.

The main content of the teachings of Confucius proclaimed the ideal of social harmony and the search for the means to achieve this ideal. It had to be the standard, which he saw in the legendary sages of antiquity, the same ones that shone with virtues. Confucianism, with its ideal of highly moral man was one of the foundations on which a giant centralized empire with its powerful bureaucracy rested.

Nature and the Ritual

According to ancient Chinese concepts, the world splits into three components. They are Heaven, Earth and Man and they have equal ontological status. The highest functions of rituals were to establish human interaction with nature, to get closer to the world and self-revelation. Daily life of a Chinese man is full of various rituals and any activity seems to have some holy meaning. The art aesthetic principles and rituals were actively used in such areas as gardening art (Yao, 2000).

Traditional Chinese garden was a kind of cultural phenomenon. It reflected fundamental traditional outlook. It reflected the specificity of philosophical, religious, aesthetic and ethical relationship to reality. The features of Chinese garden included different quality approaches to the system of man’s relationship with the world. It was a kind of visual aid model of the relationship between people and nature, realized in Chinese cultural tradition.

Ethical and philosophical content of landscape art in China was so great that it is legitimate to put it on a par with such traditionally important species of Chinese art, as calligraphy and painting, which used similar means of expression and principles. One could even say that some ways of constructing spatial landscape compositions were taken from painting. Many famous artists, which incidentally achieved considerable success in calligraphy, created significant works in the field of designing gardens.

Chinese garden embodied the idea of the world and man unity. The historical roots of this visual ritual could be found in antiquity.

During the Zhou Dynasty, two distinct types of garden existed. The first were the imperial ritual hunting grounds, which occupied large areas. The animals caught or killed while hunting were sacrificed to ancestors, Heaven and Earth. The second type was typical for the kingdom of Chu, situated in the south of China. It was a special requisite infrastructure area, designed for immersion in the shamanic trance and had the characteristic component of spiritual culture of Chu. Those gardens were within temple areas. Later, with the rise of the empire, the park represented a model of the cosmos and could have been a prototype of China. For example, the emperor ruled the whole country without leaving the park as it was considered that the model had the same properties as the original.


In the Chinese philosophical tradition, the concepts of Nature and Heaven surrounding the human employ different meanings and attitudes. East Asian world is not divided into categories similar to philosophical tradition of Europe. People in the East adhere to the long-living traditions of preserving cults and rituals in their daily activities. Such approach allows to make life more meaningful and full. Europeans often define some special serenity and reserved manner in communication when dealing with people from China. They seem to have less wasted mind and their actions are full of some sacred dedication. It is the part of Chinese customary tradition to adhere to certain norms of behavior and strict social stratification at all levels of social hierarchy. Confucianism teaching helped to establish and promote the ideals of humanism and respect to old traditions. The most valuable possession of any East Asian man is his virtue and decency. High moral standards, the spirit of collectivism and trust in the force of ritual help to achieve of considerable results in the sphere of state regulation and social justice. They encourage the desire for self-cultivation among the representatives of East Asian cultural tradition.

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