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CHAPTER II. Significance of the Chinese Character Called Lî. Meaning of the Title Lî Kî. Value of the Work.

Lî is a symbol of religious import.

1. The Chinese character Lî admits of a great variety of terms in translating a work where it abounds into any of our western languages. In order fully to apprehend its significance, we must try to get bold of the fundamental ideas which it was intended to convey. And these are two. First, when we consult the Shwo Wan, the oldest Chinese dictionary, we find Lî defined as 'a step or act; that whereby we serve spiritual beings and obtain happiness.' The character was to the author, Hsü Shan, an ideagram of religious import; and we can see that he rightly interpreted the intention of its maker or makers. It consists of two elements, separately called khih and lî 1 . That on the left is the symbol, determining the category of meaning to which the compound belongs. It was the earliest figure employed to indicate spiritual beings, and enters into characters denoting spirits, sacrifices, and prayer 2. That on the right, called lî, is phonetic, but even it is the symbol for (a vessel used in performing rites;' and if, as the Khang-hsî dictionary seems to say, it was anciently used alone for the present compound, still the spiritual significance would attach to it, and the addition of the khih to complete the character, whensoever it was made, shows that the makers considered the rites in which the vessel was used to possess in the first place a religious import.

Lî is a symbol for the feeling of propriety.

Next, the character is used, in moral and philosophical disquisitions, to designate one of the primary constituents of human nature. Those, as set forth by Mencius, are four; 'not fused into us from without,' not produced, that is, by any force of circumstances, but 'belonging naturally to us, as our four limbs do.' They are benevolence (zan), righteousness (î), propriety (lî), and understanding (kîh). Our possession of the first is proved by the feeling of distress at the sight of suffering; of the second, by our feelings of shame and dislike; of the third, by our feelings of modesty and courtesy; of the fourth, by our consciousness of approving and disapproving 3.

Thus the character lî, in the concrete application of it, denotes the manifestations, and in its imperative use, the rules, of propriety. This twofold symbolism of it--the religious and the moral--must be kept in mind in the study of our classic. A life ordered in harmony with it would realise the highest Chinese ideal, and surely a very high ideal, of human character.

But never and, nowhere has it been possible for men to maintain this high standard of living. In China and elsewhere the lî have become, in the usages of society in. its various relationships, matters of course, forms without the spirit, and hence we cannot always translate the character by the same term. It would be easy to add to the number of words, more or less synonymous, in French or English or any other Aryan language, which Callery has heaped together in the following passage:--'Autant que possible, j'ai traduit Lî par le mot Rite, dont le sens est susceptible à une grande étendue; mais il faut convenir que, suivant les circonstances où il est employé, il peut signifier--Cérémonial, Cérémonies, Pratiques cérémoniales, L'étiquette, Politesse, Urbanité, Courtoisie, Honnêteté, Bonnes manières, Égards, Bonne éducation, Bienséance, Les formes, Les convenances, Savoir-vivre, Décorum, Décence, Dignité personnelle, Moralité de conduite, Ordre Social, Devoirs de Société, Lois Sociales, Devoirs, Droit, Morale, Lois hiérarchiques, Offrande, Usages, Coutumes 4.' I have made little use in my translation of the word Rite or Rites, which Callery says he had endeavoured to adhere to as much as possible, but I do not think I have allowed myself so much liberty in other terms in my English as he has done in his French. For the symbol in the title I have said 'Rules of Propriety or Ceremonial Usages.'

Translation of the title.

2. The meaning of the title--Lî Kî-need not take us so long. There is no occasion to say more on the significance of Lî; the other character, Kî, should have a plural force given to it. What unity belongs to the Books composing it arises from their being all, more or less, occupied with the subject of Lî. Each one, or at least each group, is complete in itself. Each is a Ki; taken together, they are so many Kîs. Only into the separate titles of seven of them, the 13th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 27th, and 29th, does the name of Kî enter. That character is the symbol for 'the recording of things one by one,' and is often exchanged for another Kî 5, in which the classifying element is sze, the symbol for 'a packet of cocoons,' the compound denoting the unwinding and arrangement of the threads' 6. Wylie's 'Book of Rites' and Callery's 'Mémorial des Rites' always failed to give me a definite idea of the nature of our classic. Sze-mâ Khien's work is called Sze Kî 7, or 'Historical Records,' and Lî Kî might in the same way be rendered 'Ceremonial Records,' but I have preferred to give for the title, 'A Collection of Treatises on the Rules of Propriety or Ceremonial Usages.'

The value of the Lî Kî.

3. The value of the work has been discussed fully by P. Callery in the sixth paragraph of the Introduction to his translation of an abbreviated edition of it, and with much of what he has said I am happy to feel myself in accord. I agree with him, for instance, that the book is 'the most exact and complete monography which the Chinese nation has been able to give of itself to the rest of the human race.' But this sentence occurs in a description of the Chinese spirit, which is little better than a caricature. 'Le cérémonial,' he says, 'résume l'esprit Chinois. . . . Ses affections, si elle en a, sont satisfaites par le cérémonial; ses devoirs, elle les remplit au moyen du cérémonial; la vertu et le vice, elle les reconnait au cérémonial; en un mot, pour elle le cérémonial c'est l'homme, l'homme moral, l'homme politique, l'homme religieux, Dans ses multiples rapports avec la famille, la société, l'état, la morale et la religion.'

To all this representation the first sentence of our classic is a sufficient reply:--'Always and in everything let there be reverence.' In hundreds of other passages the same thing is insisted on,--that ceremony without an inspiring reverence is nothing. I do not deny that there is much attention to forms in China with a forgetfulness of the spirit that should animate them. But where is the nation against whose people the same thing may not be charged? The treaties of western nations with China contain an article stipulating for the toleration of Chinese Christians on the ground that, 'The Christian religion, as professed by Protestants or Roman Catholics, inculcates the practice of virtue, and teaches man to do as he would be done by 8.' Scores of Chinese, officers, scholars, and others, have, in conversations with myself, asked if such were indeed the nature of Christianity, appealing at the same time to certain things which they alleged that made them doubt it. All that can be said in the matter is this, that as the creeds Of men elsewhere are often better than their practice, so it is in China. Whether it be more so there or here is a point on which different conclusions will be come to, according to the knowledge and prejudices of the speculators

More may be learned about the religion of the ancient Chinese from this classic than from all the others together. Where the writers got their information about the highest worship and sacrifices of the most ancient times, and about the schools of Shun, we do not know. They expressed the views, doubtless, that were current during the Han dynasty, derived partly from tradition, and partly from old books which were not gathered up, or, possibly, from both those sources. But let not readers expect to find in the Lî Kî anything like a theology. The want of dogmatic teaching of religion in the Confucian system may not be all a disadvantage and defect; but there is a certain amount of melancholy truth in the following observations of Callery:--'Le Lî Kî, celui de tous les King où les questions religieuses auraient dû être traitées tout naturellement, à propos des sacrifices au Ciel, aux Dieux tutélaires, et aux ancêtres, glisse légèment sur tout ce qui est de pure spéculation, et ne mentionne ces graves matières qu'avec une extrême indifférence. Selon moi ceci prouve deux choses: la première, que dans les temps anciens les plus grand génies de la Chine n'ont possédé sur le créateur, sur la nature et les destinées de l'âme, que des notions obscures, incertaines et souvent contradictoires; la seconde, que les Chinois possèdent à un trés faible degré le sentiment religieux, et qu'ils n'éprouvent pas, comme les races de l'occident, le besoin impérieux de sonder les mystères du monde invisible.'

The number of the Kî that are devoted to the subject of the mourning rites shows how great was the regard of the people for the departed members of their families. The solidarity of the family, and even the solidarity of the race, is a sentiment which has always been very strong among them. The doctrine of filial piety has also the prominence in several Books which we might expect.

As to the philosophical and moral ideas which abound in the work, they are, as Callery says, 'in general, sound and profound.' The way in which they are presented is not unfrequently eccentric, and hedged about with absurd speculations on the course of material nature, but a prolonged study of the most difficult passages will generally bring to light what Chinese scholars call a tâo-li, a ground of reason or analogy, which interests and satisfies the mind. The Lî Kî as one of the Five King.

4. The position that came gradually to be accorded to the Lî Kî as one of 'The Five King,' par excellence, was a tribute to its intrinsic merit. It did not, like the Kâu Lî, treat of matters peculiar to one dynasty, but of matters important in all time; nor like the Î Lî, of usages belonging to one or more of the official classes, but of those that concerned all men. The category of 'Five King' was formed early, but the 'Three Rituals' were comprehended in it as of equal value, and formed one subdivision of it. So it was early in the Thang dynasty when the collection of 'The Thirteen King' was issued; but ere the close of that dynasty our classic had made good its eminence over the other two Rituals. In the 29th chapter of the Monographs of Thang, page 17, it is said, 'To the charge of each of the Five King two Great Scholars were appointed. The Yî of Kâu, the Shang Shû, the Shih of Mâo, the Khun Khiû, and the Lî Kî are the Five King.'


1. 示 + 豊 = 禮.

2. E.g. 神 (shan), 祭 , (kî), 祈 (khi).

3. Mencius, II, i, 6; VI, i, 6. 7.

4. Introduction, p. 16.

5. The classifier of Kî in the title is 言 (yen), the symbol of words; that of this this Kî (紀) is 系 (sze).

6. Structure of Chinese Characters, p. 132.

7. 史記.

8. From the eighth article in the Treaty with Great Britan, 1858.

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IATHPublished by The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, © Copyright 2003 by Anne Kinney and the University of Virginia