Li and Change

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Li and Change

ABSTRACT: In this paper I ask the question of how change is effected in the li practices of a fundamentally conservative society. I begin with a description of how li functions in society ideally and actually, arguing that they play a crucial role in society as the medium through which the Confucian objectives (the perfection of the self, the establishment of order within one’s family, and the restoration and preservation of social order) are realized. The character of li suggests that li practices be evaluated in terms of their efficacy in realizing the Confucian objectives, for which participation in li is both necessary and sufficient. Yet, these objectives transcend li practices, allowing individuals to evaluate li practices in terms of their efficacy in realizing Confucian objectives in the face of changing concerns and circumstances, and thereby affect the relevant changes in li practices. It is an adequate understanding of what the Confucian objectives entail and the structure of the situations one finds oneself in that inform evaluation of existing li practices. However, changes in li practices take place vis-a-vis a conservative attitude towards inherited social conventions, and it is this conservative attitude that provides stability and continuity despite flux. Changes in li practices are therefore gradual, and do not disrupt social order.

1. Introduction

This essay is an attempt to understand the concept of li (commonly translated by commentators as "rituals", "rites", "customs", or "conventions") — as elucidated in the Analects — within the context of social change. Particular attention will be paid to how the Confucian understands li practices to function in a society, and how changes in li practices are effected. Thus, in what follows, I shall take seriously the notion of Confucianism as a practicable way of life.

I take the concept of li (as it occurs in the Analects) to refer to the social conventions governing various aspects of human conduct (Analects, 1.12, 2.3, 2.5, 3.19, 4.13, 11.26, 12.1). As I understand it, li functions primarily as a social regulator in the realisation of the Confucian objectives — namely, the perfection of the self, the establishment of order within one’s family (which the Confucian understood as the basic unit of a society), and the restoration and preservation of social order.

Each li practice consists of a set of actions, with detailed descriptions regarding one’s attire, stance, and expressions (Book 10). Participation in li involves the skilful execution of the set of actions demanded by each li practice, accompanied by the appropriate dispositions and attitudes.

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