restricted access The Ancients Did Not Fix Their Graves: Failure in Early Confucian Ritual

The "Tangong Shang" chapter of the Liji provides a brief account of Confucius performing certain burial rites for his deceased parents. After finishing one portion of the rites, something awful occurs-heavy rains fall, causing the grave to collapse. Confucius' demonstration of reverence through the performance of these burial rites is thwarted; but whose fault is it that the grave collapsed? Could Confucius have prevented this failure? In this essay it is argued that contrary to most contemporary interpretations, unpreventable failures in ritual were causes of concern for the authors of early Confucian texts because they believed that meaningful aspects of life were vulnerable to these failures, and because they found themselves occasionally unable to recognize a clear distinction between preventable and unpreventable failures in ritual. This essay provides a persuasive reading of an early Confucian text that preserves rather than resolves the ambiguity between preventable and unpreventable failures in ritual. It argues for an openness to a tragic reading of early Confucian ritual theory. Contemporary interpreters, for the most part, have neglected such a reading; yet in the worldview of the Liji unpreventable failures in ritual were a real, yet uncertain, possibility.