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Understanding China Through Its Traditional Rites

2023-06-05 16:16:00 Source:China Today Author:staff reporter ZHOU LIN
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China, Land of Ceremony and Propriety 

Editor-in-Chief: Li Zhaoxing, Wang Jingyun 

Hardcover, 136 pages 

Published by Foreign Languages Press 


Li, the Chinese word for propriety, is a distinctive feature of Chinese civilization. The content of propriety is all-encompassing from the relationship between the heavens and humans and the state ritual system to the speech, deportment, and even the dress code of society. The meaning of Chinese propriety is a key that helps unlock the meaning of traditional Chinese values and ethical codes for people around the world, giving them a deeper insight into the Chinese nation’s concerns for their family and country and even its philosophical implications in diplomatic policy-making. 

The book China, Land of Ceremony and Propriety focuses on the formation process of China’s traditional ritual culture, in which “reverence” and “sincerity” serve as the main spiritual pillars. It also explores the historical context and moral tradition of Chinese rites from the perspective of self-cultivation, family ethics, and nation-building, revealing the historical and cultural roots that form the basis of the Chinese way of thinking and behaving. Moreover, this book explains traditional Chinese values, which underpin the Chinese diplomacy with “harmony” as an essential element. 

The two editors-in-chief, Li Zhaoxing and Wang Jingyun, are authoritative figures in the study of propriety. Li once served as permanent representative of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, Chinese ambassador to the United States, and minister of foreign affairs, and is now president of China Public Diplomacy Association. Wang serves as the director of Asian Etiquette Culture Research Center and senior research fellow at the Research Institute for Cultural Heritage and Museums of Chinese Cultural Exchange Association. 

There are five chapters in the book: A Land of Ceremony and Propriety; Self-Cultivation of the Chinese People; Regulation of Family: Chinese Family Life; State Governance: People’s Concern for a Nation; and Bring Peace to the World: Chinese Propriety in Foreign Relations. 

In the first chapter, the authors get straight to the point by stating that “a land of ceremony and propriety” can be interpreted at three levels: the individual level which includes integrity, morality, and self-discipline; the social level which involves order, ethics, and rules; and the external level of peace and inclusiveness. 

Then, the book looks back at history, pointing out that over the long course of time, rituals and ceremonies have become a way of life and a belief system, as well as an important tool for governing society. Proper ceremonies used by people to greet guests from afar also facilitate mutual trust, economic and cultural exchanges, as well as social stability. 

Furthermore, in the context of global cultural integration, the authors show how China, a land of ceremony and propriety, has kept abreast with the times while maintaining its traditional culture. China emphasizes fraternity, inclusiveness, openness, integration, fairness, and justice, thus forming a propriety with creative elements and historical inheritance. As the country is taking strides towards modernization, propriety has been playing a critical role in self-cultivation, family regulation, and state governance. 

The second chapter writes about the self-cultivation of the Chinese people, who believe that true great people must stick to their principles and maintain their moral character in all circumstances, whether they are rich or poor or even under the oppression of might and power. Actually, all schools of thought in ancient China took self-cultivation as a means to improve character. 

Modern industrial civilization, on the contrary, has dramatically expanded the productivity of society and created a great abundance of material wealth. People as a result of this have begun to focus more on extrinsic and material well-being instead of their body and mind, which has caused them to gradually neglect the cultivation of their relationship with nature. As the authors pointed out, the best way for Chinese to achieve harmony in body and soul nowadays is probably to draw from the fine traditional Chinese culture, consciously look within themselves, cultivate their minds and character, and resolve the external dilemma by re-establishing the order of their inner world. 

In the third chapter, the authors elaborate on various family values in China, for example, “Filial piety is the virtue to be prized above all others”; “a set precedence between old and young”; and “harmony in a family makes everything successful.” According to The Mencius – a collection of conversations, anecdotes, and a series of interviews by the Confucian philosopher Mencius (372-289 BC), “The root of the world is in the state. The root of the state is in the family. The root of the family is in cultivating oneself.” With the development of society and culture, Chinese family rituals have also been enriched and improved, profoundly influencing Chinese family life and the way family members get along within the family unit. 

The fourth chapter addresses the relationship between state governance and people’s responsibility for a nation. In The Spring and Autumn Annals – the first Chinese chronological history which records the principal political, social, and military events of the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 BC), the great ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius (551-479 BC) believed that in social communication, apart from the primary motive of seeking advantages and avoiding disadvantages, there is a more noble and natural motive that transcends the human instinct called ben fen (one’s duty or responsibility). For people as individuals, Confucius and the later scholars that taught and passed on his philosophy have formed a strong sense of responsibility for the family, the country, and the world. Gu Yanwu (1613-1682), one of the incisive political thinkers of the early decades of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), also claimed, “The survival of a nation is the responsibility of every individual.” 

The fifth chapter concludes with China’s foreign diplomacy which has been influenced by traditional Chinese thought, such as “pursuing harmonious coexistence.” The authors quoted from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech titled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind” delivered at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva in January 2017, “As modern history shows, to establish a fair and equitable international order is the goal humanity has always striven for.” As a major country with a well-established system of behavioral and musical rites, China is pursuing peaceful development and governance in its international relations. China’s wisdom and strong sense of responsibility are making significant contributions to the common development and prosperity of humanity.

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