“The Chinese concept of propriety (“li”) as the key to new ecological awareness”

Circles and Squares


“The Chinese concept of propriety (“li”)

as the key to new ecological awareness”

Emanuel Pastreich

January 13, 2019

The Chinese tradition of “li” 礼 has a broad significance as a set of rules that set standards in behavior that create harmony between individuals, and between the institutions of human society. Li, both in general sense of manners and propriety, and in the narrow sense of rituals of life (birth, marriage, funerals, ancestor worship and offerings to Heaven), was the foundation for society and defined family relationships and encouraged responsibility and accountability within the family, the community, the nation and the realm. Li was seen as foundations for governance, for international relations and for all family relations.

In the narrow sense, “li” refers to the offering up of food and other valued objects as sacrifices to the ancestors of a clan, the former emperor or king, or to heaven, or other deities. It served as periodic affirmation of the indebtedness of the individual, of the family and of humanity as a whole to the ecological cycles that produced the food that we consume and gave deeper significance to foodstuff, and the act of eating in a manner that encouraged an awareness of the centrality of agriculture and the importance of the ecosystem.   

“Li” in the sense of “propriety” defines a set of complex rules that governed conduct between people and created a healthy order in society through the reinforcement of moral imperatives in daily life. “Li” in the sense of greeting family member in accord with their position within the family (and thus making social relations explicit, and therefore acknowledged) had profound symbolic value and real ethical power as well. “Li” in the sense of propriety grew directly out of “li” as ritual in that periodic rituals defined relationships and assured that everyone, even the emperor, is neatly woven into a larger hierarchy of things human and natural so that no one can imagine himself or herself to be standing alone.

In this sense, “li” as propriety and ritual reinforced a sense of balance between humans that was intimately connected to the larger balance between the human realm and the natural realm. Chinese felt deeply liberated in the process of modernization in that they gained freedom from these ritual acts which seemed to restrict their actions so severely, but that meant that they no longer felt tied to each other or to the natural world. The result was the growing exploitation of fellow humans in an alienated society and the destruction of the natural environment. Although the socialist revolution in China tried to set right the radical exploitation of labor, it did so within a Marxist framework which did not affirm human relations with the natural environment. More recently, the gap between rich and poor in China, and the world, has gone far beyond what Confucians would have tolerated and the destruction of soil, water and mountains has become a tremendous tragedy precisely because the intimate connection constantly repeated in “li” has been destroyed.

Ritual is not limited to Confucianism. It has strong foundations in Buddhism, in Daoism and in shamanism in East Asia, and for that matter parallels in Christianity and Islam. Perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses in contemporary ideology is our loss of a language to describe ritual. That is to say that although we pretend that we have moved beyond the rituals of the past into a modern age of self-expression and directness, in fact ritual is deeply imbedded in human culture and cannot be overcome. Rather, modern society consists of many rituals that citizens are not aware of as rituals (like the rituals of shopping and of consuming). At the same time, citizens lack awareness of the power of ritual to connect citizens together and to increase their awareness of the environment and to create a political and spiritual commons.

The Confucian ritual tradition, especially after Zhu Xi’s (1130-1200) codification and standardization of ritual practice during the Southern Song Dynasty, and his linkage of ritual with a metaphysical totality, gave family, community and state rituals a new intellectual import. The importance of the relationship between the underlying metaphysical order of things, the ecosystem and the human realm the dates back to ancient times,[1] but it had never been put together in such a systematic manner. Suddenly man’s ties to nature in his every action were made explicit, and intellectually involved.

Zhu Xi unambiguously mapped out the significance of rituals and wedded them directly to an imbricated metaphysical order that lay behind every act in the family rituals.   

The tremendous potential of the Confucian rituals is the manner in which they affirm the relationship between the individual and nature, between the consumption of food and the awareness of its origins, between daily life for the citizen and the ecosystem as a whole. Those rituals, if they can be reinterpreted for our age, offer the potential of a solution to the most serious threat to our society, the growth of mindless consumption as the primary ritual of daily life.

Modernity, consumption and family rituals: The Korean case

When I married my Korean wife twenty two years ago, I discovered that her family practiced the most strict and carefully orchestrated Confucian rituals at the time of the Autumn Harvest and the traditional new year’s for the ancestors, and also on the days of the deaths of ancestors. The entire family would come from across Korea, or even from abroad to be at the parents’ house for the events without fail. They would cancel other engagements and sit through hours of heavy traffic to be present.  The elder boys spent considerable time laying out the meat, peeled chestnuts, persimmons, apples, wine and other foods in the appropriate places, and in the appropriate dish or bowl. All was done in accord with the careful diagrams in books the family treasured. Those diagrams were based directly on Zhu Xi’s instructions for the family rites (jiali 家礼) in Zhuzi Jiali (朱子家礼). At that time, I was attracted to the solidarity of the family and the commitment to tradition in her family, and I was honored to be included in the rituals as a new member of the family.

Over the years, however, the members of my wife’s family have taken far less interest in the rituals; often her brothers do not come at all, saying they are too busy with work. The children also go out to play with their friends, or show up just for a few minutes to show their respects and then rush out the door. So also the placement of the food and other objects on the table for the ceremonies has become far more sloppy since my wife’s father passed away. Often there are only a few people helping to set up the offerings—sometimes only me.

I fear that the Confucian rituals will not be carried out at all by the next generation, perhaps not after my wife’s mother’s generation passes away. It is hard to imagine my children, granted the seductive consumption culture that they have grown up in, carrying on such a tradition. The loss is considerable, but not much different from what we have seen in Vietnam, Japan and China.

Increasingly we hear tales of aged parents who are abandoned by their children, and also of children who are discarded, or neglected, by their parents. The decline of Confucian ritual is not the only cause of this transformation of Chinese and Korean society, nor are the changes entirely negative, but overall, the result has been the growth of a narcissistic culture focused on the immediate, on the self, on image (as opposed to values) and unconcerned with future consequences. Confucian rituals served as a constant affirmation of the common roots that tie people together, and a demonstration of our mutual ethical obligations. The rituals had significance far beyond any effect that pleasing the ancestors might have for the fortune of the family.

The greatest assault on ritual comes from commercial advertising. Rather than adversisements that encourage cooperation and concern for those who have had fewer advantages, current adversiings is vacuous and indulgent, the equivalent of pornography in terms of its ethical content. Selfishness is held up as an ideal and it makes a grotesque appeal to the appetite, to the unreasoning instincts of the brain stem. Such advertising is violation of the sacredness of food and of clothing, of everything in our daily lives. By contrast, Confucian rituals affirmed the relations between members of society and a spiritual aspect in daily life.

We should be encouraging people to value every grain of rice, every drop of water, and it is unethical to suggest to our citizens that they should treat binge eating as something to be emulated. Our climate has been turned into a desert, and our society has been turned into a desert by TV programs that deny what is the best in the Confucian tradition: the ethical imperative for personal frugality and a deep respect for agricultural production. 

The failure of citizens to wrap their minds around the threat of nuclear war, of climate change, of the rapid concentration of wealth and of other dangers is a direct result of a new anti-intellectual culture. We no longer employ rigorous scientific approaches to the analysis of contemporary society, or even to our private lives. But that anti-intellectual trend is a result of our failure to relate our actions to the larger society because we no longer have rituals that bind us together.

Training our citizens to control and moderate their desires was considered to be essential in traditional Korea and China. As I witness so many highly educated people lost in frivolous amusements today, I wonder whether we should see those past f rituals as representing not so much an oppressive ideology as an ethical imperative to affirm commitment to each other through practice.

Food, society and the environment

The affirmation of the value of food in a social and environmental sense was a critical part of ritual , from ancient times, and especially after Zhu Xi. Affirming the importance of food in our lives, and our ties to our ancestors and our ties to nature serves to increase our awareness of the importance of food, even adding a spiritual dimension to the daily eating and drinking of food and beverages. In the face of climate change, such a shift is absolutely necessary. We do not have to go the some advance Western country to find such awareness. We can find it in the Confucian past.

It is in this respect that ritual has so much potential power. Ritual in the Confucian tradition affirms a spiritual essence within the everyday objects, especially in food. In ancient times, this concept can be traced back to a belief that all objects, like food, have an essence which is spiritual (and which feeds the ancestors or nourishes heaven) and an essence with is material (and nourishes us in this material world). The implication for later generations of that view was that food offered up in ritual was a confirmation of the value of agriculture and the maintenance of the environment as a means of producing food, and an affirmation of a spiritual essence within food. The ritual act was also a sign of respect for the process, stretching over hundreds and thousands of years, by which humans and agriculture formed a whole.

In a traditional view of the world, man exists primarily as the farmer who tills the fields and then he consumes the food, and finally he lies, buried, beneath those fields. In the end, his body becoming part of that Earth again and contributed to the process. The food that nourishes us, and will nourish future generations, is literally the product of the ancestors.

Confucian ritual does not refer explicitly to such a process, but such an understanding of the link between the human and the natural realms is buried not far below the surface. After all, as the ancestors passed down to us the skills of farming, they also gave life to us and created our environment not only through their wisdom, but also by becoming a part of the soil.

In the last hundred years, the process by which our world is formed by the events of the past, and our actions impact future generations has been completely lost, leading to profoundly self-destructive acts such as the consumption of plastic products and the use of food as a source of pleasure and distraction, rather than a means of nourishment. The separation of the human realm from the natural one, through sealed buildings with air conditioning, has created an absolute break with the natural world, and a mistaken belief that humans are somehow separate from other animals. That process has been forgotten by the present generation, leading to a radical cultural discontinuity with the past, and also to a glaring ignorance about where food comes from, how it is produced and what impact that process has on our lives. The destruction of the ecosystem and its long-term impact on food is a taboo topic which is never mentioned.  

From early times, and especially since the Song Dynasty, ritual became a metaphysical experience for the individual, for the family, and especially for the intellectual that reaffirmed the organic connection of humans with food, with the environment and with a larger historical and ecological order of being. Of course there were narrower interpretations within the popular culture wherein ritual events served as opportunities to bring good fortune, or to solve immediate worries of women of the household. Such understanding was no in conflict with the metaphysical significance.

The consumption of food after the offering to the ancestors, or to heaven, especially grains and other agricultural produce made ritual a celebration of the process by which human experience is linked to the food that provides nourishment, and thus confirmed the intimate interplay of earth and food, water and food

That critical space of ritual in the lives of Chinese that made clear how one’s daily life was tied to others, and to the earth was subject to a powerful intellectual assault from the late 19th century as the new ideology of modernization and industrialization took root in China. Confucian rituals were dismissed as a backwards superstition that impeded the radical transformation of China into a modern nation[2]. Two generations of Chinese intellectuals made it a top priority to stamp out the lingering traces of an oppressive feudal society. Those events ceased to be a means of affirming man’s connection to nature and to each other, or to agriculture, for them. Ritual was perceived as a barrier to the development of factories, trains and automobiles, financial institutions and a modern global culture. Modernity was something that was required and it could only be achieved by severing attachments to others, and to the natural world.

I remember when I first studied Chinese history at Yale University in 1983. In the course I heard at length about the tragic story of how backwards-looking bureaucrats failed to modernize China because they adhered to rigid Confucian concepts of government, and of technology, which hobbled them and rendered them incapable of embracing the obvious step forward into modernity of mass production, coal-fired trains and factories and the growth of massive cities. I was taught the tragic story of how China fell pathetically behind the West because of such backwards thinking. The implication was that was something essentially flawed about the Chinese cultural tradition, for all its glory, which demanded that essential principles from the West be imported in order to move on to the next, inevitable step of cultural evolution.

But now that we are witnessing  the catastrophe of climate change and see directly the horrible distortions in our economy and in our society that have resulted from the use of coal and petroleum to drive factories, trains and automobiles—not the mention a lethal new generation of weapons—can we continue to cling to that narrative?  It is a hard myth to abandon as it is linked to every aspect of our modern ideology, both ideologies of the right and the left. Yet we must ask whether or not a system in which the engagement with the environment, the focus on agriculture (and specifically food) and the demand for a human-centered economic system in which ethics outweighed profits or scale of production was not superior to the modern system we have imported in which the natural world, and humans as well, are subjects for constant exploitation.

The She and Ji rituals (社稷) performed by the Chinese emperor in Beijing (and the Korean kings of the Joseon Dynasty) served as a unique combination of the assertion of political authority at the highest level in the promotion of the well-being of ordinary citizens with the recognition of the critical importance of the ecosystem for human society. These rituals paralleled the rituals of the family at the highest level. The “She” ritual was intended for the god of the Earth, a spiritual presence who guards the soil so critical to nourishing the crops which nourish the people and undergirds the entire political economy. The “Ji” ritual was intended for the god of the crops, the spiritual presence who protects plants and assures that they mature so as to provide food without suffering from pestilences, insects or droughts.  

The emperor’s offerings were not mere superstition, but rather an explicitly political and spiritual representation of the essential ties between the earth, and the plants that grow in it, and the political and economic activities of humans. Such awareness in the political realm of ecology created a balance between human settlements and the natural world. But that balance has vanished from modern society. There are numerous rituals carried out in party meetings in China today, and the hosting of foreign dignitaries, but none of them affirm the importance of the biosphere or the centrality of agriculture.

The loss of an awareness of the importance of nature for human society in the modernization project has had extremely serious consequences for modern Chinese society. We no longer have any symbolic representations to remind the people of the importance of nature and domestic agriculture to their physical and spiritual wellbeing. We have no symbolic representations, or ritual expressions, of the ties between the earth, water plants and our civilization. People are concerned about the environment in an abstract sense, but give no thought to how every plastic object they throw away impacts the environment. We are bombarded by images of modernity defined in terms of highways, high-rise buildings, automobiles, computers and landscapes completely devoid of plants of any type. It is assumed in the commercial imagination that plants, and specifically crops, are interchangeable and that they can be bought and sold from around the world without any impact on our civilization. Farming is considered a backwards industry of the past.

But a civilization cut free from all awareness of the production of food from the soil, all understanding of the effort required to feed people, is a civilization that is in danger of falling head first into a dangerous cult of consumption and complete disregard for our ecological future. It is a dangerous and destructive civilization indeed.

Song Confucianism, especially as embodied by the teachings of Zhu Xi, provided the basis for the She and Ji rituals and other affirmations of the importance of agriculture and the environment in the lives of all people. The focus of Zhu Xi on the metaphysical significance of man’s position in the natural world set the groundwork for an embrace of ecology in an intellectual and spiritual sense within the Confucian tradition, going further than Buddhism in the criticality assigned.[3]

Zhu Xi described a complex moral psychology, limned through ritual practice, wherein the relationship of the individual, and society, to the natural environment was identified as central to the search for enlightenment. The process of becoming aware of one’s environment was established as a significant goal in self-cultivation and in active practice.

Song Confucianism argued that if we connect to our inborn nature we will see no separation between ourselves and nature and therefore we must treat nature with appropriate reverence. Zhu Xi refers to a mental state of “maintaining reverence” (chi jing持敬) that was the central condition for self-cultivation. This mental state grew from the adherence to rules of propriety and a care for the human and natural world that was taught to young people, but also was meant to be developed to a higher degree in adulthood. Reverence required discipline, focused thinking and mindfulness that opened the mind to the way. The final stage of humaneness, or the final sagehood, required a full embrace of one’s inborn connection to nature and to the entire natural world.

Zhu Xi’s essay “A treatise on Humaneness” (Renshuo 仁说) assumed that there was no separation between the human and the animal world. He saw a commonality not only of experience, but of existence itself between the two realms.[4] Zhu Xi explained “the person of humaneness regards Heaven and Earth and all things as one body. To that person there is nothing that is not oneself.” The enlightened one feels a deep affinity for plants, grasses and trees as living things. For Zhu Xi it was human selfishness and hubris that blocks the awareness of this deep connection and therefore endless effort is required. Reverence was not only reverence for ancestors and Heaven, but also for nature itself and a deep awareness of one’s impact on the environment.


A landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convened by the United Nations entitled “Global Warming of 1.5 C” [5]was released recently that presents a far more shocking vision for the immediate future than the corporate media was willing to acknowledge before. The report suggests that humanity faces catastrophic consequences of its carbon-centered economy and makes a clear break with the previous assumption that carbon trading schemes are sufficient to address the problem.

The report avoids much of the far more pessimistic predictions of many experts, but goes further than any mainstream report so far. And yet the ultimate implications of the report have been swept under the rug by a modern society still in deep denial. The problem is not carbon emissions from factories and automobiles, nor it the problem the use of technologies. It is rather the full embrace of an ideology, a mentality, which holds that the consumption of goods defines the significance of one’s human experience.

That destructive ideology underlies most of the assumptions of our modern society and determines the priorities of our citizens to a remarkable degree. Yet the traditions of the past, and especially the close connection between humans and the environment represented by food as described in the rituals of the Confucian tradition, offer an alternative to us. We do not know yet how that Confucian tradition can be reinterpreted for the modern age, and for the entire world, but the potential is most certainly there. After all, Zhu Xi’s writings on ritual were successful in Korea precisely because they emphasized universality, not specificity. They made the ritual part of the process of enlightenment, something that anyone could participate in.

Or we could say that Zhu Xi brought the individual act together with universal principles in a powerful manner. Such a skill is most precisely what we need most desperately today. Every action by the individual, every choice by the individual, is critical to protecting our environment. We can find the inspiration for a new practice in our daily life to address the climate change crisis, and the food crisis, in the Confucian tradition.

[1] The critical terms are “tian” (heaven 天), “di” (earth 地), “ren” (man 人), better known as “sancai” (三才). But “tian” refers not simply to the heaven above, but to the underlying principles of the universe. “Di” is not simply the ground, but the entire ecosystem that humanity must live in harmony with. “Ren” refers to humans and the totality of human civilization.

[2] This intellectual revolution brought on by the work of various Westerners in China is detailed in Jonathan Spence’s study To Change China: Western Advisors in China (Penguin Books, 2002).   

[3] B.C. Keenan. “Reverence and Cheng-Zhu Ecology.” Dao, 2018, pp. 187-201.

[4] IBID, p. 199.

[5] The full report is available at http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: